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As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, many people are traumatized by the changing of music in church. I am one of those people. I must confess that I am bugged when I’m singing a familiar hymn, one I memorized in my youth, and all of a sudden everybody else is singing different lyrics. I look down at the hymnal – or up at the screen – and realize that the words i know are not what we’re supposed to sing. I feel awkward and embarrassed.
More often than not, however, the problem I face in worship is not altered hymns and songs, but altogether new ones. In my role at Laity Lodge, I get around to quite a few different churches. For the most part, I know the hymns, usually by heart. But often I’ll have to sing three or four praise songs that are unfamiliar to me . . . and I know most of the CCLI top 100.
What I’ve just described is true for virtually every church I’ve ever attended. It’s not just traditional churches that struggle with unfamiliar songs. Even new churches, churches on the “cutting edge,” quickly get settled in their patterns. If their leaders dare to change those familiar patters, they inevitably confront the ire of some worshipers.
I learned about this in 1992, shortly after I became the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Southern California. One Sunday afternoon, my wife and I decided to attend the Anaheim Vineyard. That’s where John Wimber was the pastor. The Vineyard, as you may know, had been extremely influential in the praise and worship music movement. Many of the most popular worship songs of that time had been written by Vineyard worship leaders (or those influenced by them). (Photo: worship in the Anaheim Vineyard.)
The form of worship at the Anaheim Vineyard in those days quite simple. It began with about 30-40 minutes of singing. The songs were almost always of the praise and worship variety, led by a fine band. Sometimes the leader would intersperse short prayers. But otherwise worship meant singing contemporary songs.
This is exactly what happened the night my wife and I attended the Vineyard’s evening service, except for the beginning. Instead of opening with music, the leader that night made a short speech. It went something like this:
“We’re going to do something really different tonight. I know it’s going to feel new and different to many of you. But it’s something we really believe God wants us to do. We’re going to sing a song that will be unfamiliar to most of you. Some of the words will seem strange. You may find it hard to sing at first. But this is an important song, and one we really want you to know . . . .”
As the worship leader went on, I wondered what in the world we were about to sing. Rap? Reggae? Acid rock? What in the world could be so novel in the Vineyard, of all places?
” . . . please be open to this new song tonight. Give it some time, and I think you’ll be able to worship with it. So, let’s stand together and sing a new song to the Lord . . . Crown Him with Many Crowns.”
And so we sang this classic hymn, or at least the four most familiar verses of it. I thought to myself how ironic it was that the worship leader almost had to implore us to be open to this “new song,” when down the street, a more traditional church would have had to implore its congregation to be open to singing a Vineyard praise song.
Moreover, I was encouraged that the Vineyard seemed to be “discovering” some of the great hymns of the church, even as this movement had so generously shared their worship music with so many more traditional churches. (In the almost two decades since that time, the lines between hymn-singing churches and praise-singing churches, as well as the lines between music genres, have been substantially blurred. Now, it’s not unusual for a rock-band led worship service to employ several hymns, or for a choir-led traditional service to use several newer praise songs.)
When I am challenged by an unfamiliar song, or when words of a formerly familiar hymn have been changed, I need to remind myself that worship is not primarily for my delight, but for God’s delight. If I let my feelings about the music get in the way of worship, then I am completely missing the point and God is missing what he deserves from me. Furthermore, it just may be that if I sing a song I don’t particularly like to the Lord and for his glory alone, somehow that act of worship is even more of a gift to God than when I sing a song I love.