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FIRST-PERSON: Today’s worship styles remind us of something

GRACEVILLE, Fla. (BP)–I have been fascinated by the discussions of worship styles and the impact the various styles have had on the fellowship between churches and the people attending churches. Years ago I served as minister of music/education in Arkansas churches and was constantly besieged with requests to change the worship service, or not change it, to use only the piano and organ or allow a number of other instruments into the service. About the only common thread I could find throughout these requests was personal taste in style and music. There was very little said about the worship experience.

I have continued to monitor the progress of “worship” discussions. I have read with interest what people are saying and how various churches have handled the “Worship Wars” question. I have visited a variety of churches and worship events to see for myself what is happening. And, yes, I have taken seminary courses expounding on the “theology of worship.” I have listened to those who believe that good worship must use the “traditional” church hymnals. I have heard from those who believe the “contemporary chorus” approach is the only way. And many of my friends espouse the “blended” approach to worship.

Frankly, I find myself a little in doubt about the validity of any of these discussions. Let me explain. I taught for six years at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While I had nothing but appreciation for the school of church music, I couldn’t get away from the feeling that our chapels were “performances” called worship. I loved the music. I invited my friends to hear it. But there was always something missing that left me wondering where God was.

To be fair to my seminary, the administration recognized that something was wrong. Among other changes to re-establish a worship focus, the name of the music school was changed to the school of church music and worship. Chapel leaders began to make an attempt to incorporate a variety of styles.

In 1999, I was called to become a professor at The Baptist College of Florida. You can imagine my cultural shock when I began to attend chapel. These were different students. Not only were they young, they had a very different approach to worship. At first, I rejected much of the music I was being exposed to. It was loud, it was active and it was spontaneous. To an old fogy like myself, the repetition of phrases was boring. But I began to notice something else. The focus was not on the leader or on the front of the auditorium. The focus was on God. Let me put that another way. When these students came to worship, God was the audience, not the congregation. The entire congregation was involved in the worship experience.

I have been forced to compare what I observe in the worship of these wonderful young people with the worship practices of my church and the experiences I have had in the past. Surprisingly, there is a part of my past that connects with what is happening in today’s youth worship movement. I was raised in small, rural West Virginia churches. We had no paid music ministers. Often we had no choir. The worship was amazingly similar to that of today’s youth. Yes, the music was different (Stamps Baxter, etc.) but God was the audience for the worship. If there was to be a performance, it had to be a quartette or other visiting group.

I probably will never be entirely comfortable with today’s music style or the spontaneous worship methods. I am too traditional it seems. However, I have come to appreciate what these young people are doing for us. They are reminding us of something that we may have forgotten in our debates about style. We are to worship God, not perform for each other. The intended audience is not the congregation! The small West Virginia church knew the difference.

Can we improve the worship of the younger generation? Certainly. We must teach them to take their best effort to God when they worship. Spontaneity does not excuse poor performance. We can teach them to be tolerant of other forms of worship. We should remind them that their choruses must be based on sound biblical theology. I admire the music division here at BCF for doing these things.

But, I have come to conclude that we must acknowledge what this generation is contributing to the church. They are reminding us of something we once knew. It is God to whom we address our worship. There is no other reason for the church to assemble.

So, while I still do not understand their music, I certainly have been reminded of what true worship is all about. After all, isn’t that the real discussion?
Cunningham is director of distance learning and professor of Christian education at The Baptist College of Florida in Graceville.

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  • Jack Cunningham