What Is It About Tradition?
What will shape the worship experience of the coming decades? Will jazz liturgy gain wide acceptance? Will praise bands be the norm, rocking every sanctuary with numbing sound? The fact of the matter is that the church has always dealt with different music styles. They were just divided by centuries and decades and now there are multiple choices in our diverse and connected society. So what is the future of liturgy?
Church music has a long tradition. The church is probably the only place outside of the folk repertoire where tunes and words of songs that date as far back as the triple digit years are still regularly played and sung.
We’ve lived through many eras—the early chants, the baroque, the theological treatises of the Reformation, the folk music tunes that found their way into hymnals, the marches of the 19th century, the acceptance of the gospel tradition, the awkward years of the twentieth century during which we clung to the past while stumbling into the future. Recently we seem to have returned to chanting. Praise bands tend to feature chant-like lyrics and phrasing.
Things seem to be a bit unsettled today. What lies ahead? We might be surprised!
Neil McCleery, assistant chaplain, New College, and a member of the Oxford committee of the Prayer Book Society remarked,
“Very hard working students say that it provides a time towards the end of the day when you can just sit in silence and tune out all of these influences [technological].”
He suggested that the 16th century language may seem less demanding or threatening and somehow more inclusive, perhaps because it is equally foreign to all.
Is it a condemnation of the previous generation or two?
“The era of jaded folk worship is coming to an end,” McCleery said. “Indeed I think the people who want that sort of thing are the older generation now and the young are coming back to traditional worship and the choral tradition.”
I come from the Lutheran tradition and love hymns. I value the words and the history. I love sharing stories of hymns. As worship leader noted members’ favorites just as a cook takes mental notes on what foods are best received. I’d make an effort to choose hymns that I knew would resonate despite the diversity. It wasn’t hard. We just used as many as eight or ten hymns on Sunday as opposed to the standard three or four. We had members from the Anglican tradition, who would call out during worship if I chose the nonAnglican tune to accompany the words. “Wrong tune!” One member was a Fannie Crosby groupie. I can recall one pastor asking if I knew the favorite hymn of a member who had recently died. “In the cross of Christ I glory” came quickly to mind. We’ve had members who leaned toward gospel music, loved adding dance moves, or wanted to sing trending the trending tunes on religious radio. I find value in all.
There is a cultural element that requires adjustment in sharing varying music traditions. I have the hardest time with praise bands. They seem performance-oriented. Despite the fact that the leaders stand before the assembly with mics in hand, encouraging the congregation, the participation is usually pretty spotting. People are usually really into it or totally passive. The decibel level of praise bands is sometimes so overpowering that it affects me physically. The loud bass thumping against my chest competes with my heartbeat. I am reminded of my insignificance when I can’t hear my own voice! I also get bored repeating the same dozen words for five minutes. But these worship styles seem to be attracting people. I’ll look deeper to find out why.
So are the collegians of Great Britain setting a trend? Is it a cultural fluke? Are others experiencing this? Where do we go from here? Is tradition poised to make a comeback?