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FIRST-PERSON – Praise choruses vs. Baptist Hymnals: How’s a back-row Baptist to choose?

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–There’s a battle being waged in the choir lofts of America’s churches. Troops adorned in flowing robes are mounting a vocal assault on contemporary praise and worship music armed with only a pitch pipe and the revered Baptist Hymnal.

It’s being billed as this century’s “worship war” and it usually involves a frazzled minister of music who’s trying to please those who enjoy traditional hymns as well as those who do not.

I’m not too sure who coined the phrase, but it sadly represents both sides in this ongoing struggle of man versus organ. In my best guess, it comes down to a fairly simple question:

Should our Sunday morning worship experience be filled with great songs of the faith or should we orchestrate elaborate stage shows that employ musicians who use Backstreet Boy theatrics to bring honor to God?

I’m not quite sure where I stand on the issue of worship style. As a Generation Xer, I feel a certain urge to slap a guitar rif or drum solo in the middle of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” But as a lifelong Southern Baptist, my heart also finds comfort in the traditional songs of my childhood, songs like “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend we have in Jesus” and “It is Well.”

Yet modern worship songs, unlike some hymns, are filled with passionate lyrics that breathe reality into church services. Like the lyrics to this song: “I’m forgiven, because you were forsaken. I’m accepted. You were condemned. I’m alive and well, your spirit is within because you died and rose again.”

On the other hand, I never understood what a sheave was or where I was supposed to bring it. I only knew that I should rejoice wherever it was brought.

Of course with traditional worship, there’s not that much spontaneity. The service starts with an organ prelude, followed by the call to worship, deacon prayer, welcome by the preacher, a few hymns, the offertory prayer and that moment of a lifetime for choir members — the offertory solo.

But those types of services are headed the way of the dinosaurs in this new church age of television lighting, pulsating video shows, professionally choreographed worship teams and other high-tech gadgetry.

Honestly, there are some days I miss those moments when the soloist cleared her throat, asked us to intercede on her behalf, and you just knew that your ears were in for three minutes of joyful noise — with emphasis on the noise. But no matter how terribly awful the singing was, you somehow knew that she was wailing from the top of her lungs and the bottom of her heart.

The true victims in this battle over worship styles, however, aren’t in the choir loft or behind a set of drums. They’re in our homes — our children.

One summer at Ridgecrest, I came across a group of about 75 folks sitting around in rocking chairs heartily singing some of the great hymns of the faith.

“In my heart there rings a melody

There rings a melody of love!”

A student walked up beside me and was genuinely impressed with the lyrics and tune to the song. “Is that a new chorus?” he asked. “I’ve never heard it before.”

Suddenly, I realized that we have produced a generation of believers who’ve never heard the hymns that have sustained generations of Christians through sorrow and heartache, through happiness and joy.

Say what you will about hymns, but a good number of them have been around for more than 50 years. That’s not the case with some of our modern choruses.

One day I was writing a list of worship songs to sing when a student politely informed me that one of the so-called popular choruses was no longer cool. In this case, the average shelf life of a contemporary praise chorus was two years.

“My Jesus, my Saviour.

Lord, there is none like you.

All of my days, I want to praise

The wonders of your mighty hands.”

No longer cool? Wow.

So with both sides laying claim to the title of “My way of worship is better,” what’s a back-row Baptist to do?

For starters, we could have a little give and take. To be honest, trying something new in the worship service every now and then sure couldn’t hurt. Even “Jesus Loves Me” started out as a contemporary tune.

Maybe, just maybe, God is more interested in why we worship rather than how we worship.

As for those of you who still desire a worship service on the cutting edge, check out this Christian tune:

“So I’ll cherish the old, rugged cross.

‘Til my trophies at last I lay down.

I will cling to the old rugged cross,

And exchange it someday for a crown.”

You want cutting edge? Now, that’s cutting edge.
Starnes is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes