Worship Wars10: Hymns Alone (Solus Hymnus?)

Posted on January 23, 2008. Filed under: Bi-vocational Ministry, Worship Wars |

Wednesday, January 23, 2008–This blog is about my misadventures as a bi-vocational pastor of a small, elderly, traditional Southern Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. 1992-2007. The stories are all true, but I never mention my church’s name nor do I name any person except when I am praising them for a job well done. I am writing these stories to help myself overcome some issues and to avoid bitterness, but also to work through some practical church issues. I would hope that these stories will be of some benefit to those who are in or studying to go in to the ministry. I hope to interject a little bit of my humor which can be dry and sarcastic I suppose.

To finish up the music themeI have a couple of other stories to tell. I am totally convinced that one of the key issues that prevented our growth was the fact that we were still singing hymns from the hymnbook while virtually every church around us in our neighborhood had gone to singing a mixture of old hymns with new songs and choruses. The younger generation wanted a musical style that reflected their faith and would attend church where that need was met. Even though I am 49 I, too, wanted to update our worship without getting rid of the old hymns. Back in the 1970’s-80’s I enjoyed Maranatha Praise music and in the 90’s I listened to a lot of Hosanna Praise! music from Integrity. Granted, a lot of the praise music was pretty weak theologically and musically very simple and boring compared with the hymns, yet I find the music helpful in leading me to worship the Lord.

To demonstrate how strongly the congregation felt about this hymn vs. chorus issue here is one sad story. One of my music ministers who was very talented and dedicated, really wanted to introduce some new choruses to the congregational worship service. I advised him to go slow and not push to hard. Over the months he gradually brought in up to 3 choruses per worship service. Suddenly 3 older ladies left the choir. They would not sing for this music minister any more. Eventually the offerings on Sunday began to grow noticeably smaller, about 30% smaller. Towards the end of this ordeal one older lady talked to me about the music minister, “The only voice we have is to withhold our tithes”. An older gentleman also got with me toward the end and told me that people were not giving because of this music minister.

I counseled the young man and urged him to back off the choruses and he did somewhat, but the older members just did not care for him at all, even though they had voted him in. But that is where some of the problem was to begin with. When we brought this fine young minister on board, we had been without a music minister for almost a year, as was usual when we had a vacancy in that position. I had had so much difficulty in finding a music minister that the congregation was quite agitated with me about the situation and would not listen to me when I explained why young ministers at the seminary were reluctant to take the position even after we had increased the pay from $300 to $500 a month.

Finally it reached the point where I appointed the choir to be the search committee. This may have been a mistake on my part, I’m not sure. My goal in doing that was to not simply relieve myself of the burden (and blame) but to let them see just how hard it was. It was the right time to look as the school year was beginning, so the committee got several resumes in from the seminary and began to pick ministers to come “try out”. This is what the committee was doing: they would contact a minister and schedule him to come lead one service, then schedule another minister to lead the next week. That way they could sample several and choose the best one. The flaw in that system was that while they were sampling one, the minister from a couple of weeks ago had moved on to another church and taken a position so that when the committee called one back that they liked more than the current week’s tryout, he had already taken a position. We went through about 3 rounds of this game before I interfered and told them what they were doing wrong.

Finally we found a guy that had never actually served as a minister of music anywhere. There was a reason for that. Though he was a fine young man and had a lot of talent, his talent was in composing and arranging. He could not sing well at all. His voice was weak and a little bit squeaky. He was not the prototypical song leader. But he was a good man, the younger folk in the church immediately liked him as did I. He was available and wanted the job; he needed some time as a music minister for his resume, so I applied a little bit of pressure to the committee. They agreed, reluctantly, to issue an offer and present him to the church which subsequently voted him in.

But the church, that is the older folks, never warmed up to him. The younger folk really received his ministry well and were able to worship. This young man also was able to recruit a man from the congregation whom everyone respected, George, into the choir. This greatly benefited George and the choir for he had some singing skills and he loved to sing and this greatly assisted his participation in the whole life of the church.

Eventually though, the young music minister knew he had to leave, the church was not going to change. He, too, is now working on his Ph.D.

After another interval without a music minister the Lord led us to another man, who was closer in age to the dominant group within the congregation. I basically was tired of hiring young men who would have to struggle and fight in this church. This new music minister was the best I had ever had in several respects. Because of his age, he was automatically more acceptable to the congregation. He had an abundance of experience in churches like ours so he knew what to expect and he had the wisdom that comes with that experience. This man also had the best voice of any of my music ministers and I think he likely had the most talent. He had never finished seminary but really new his stuff. Probably because of his not finishing school, he had remained bi-vocational most of his career and worked at local major employer in a good job. He was a major blessing to the church, brining maturity and stability to this essential position. With his leadership the older ladies returned to the choir and some of the youth also sang in the choir at times. The younger folk missed the former worship leader but readily accepted the new leadership even though he would not ever sing the choruses they loved.

After several good years with this man leading our worship there did arise some trouble. In my final couple of years at this church the decline in numbers due to death was taking its toll and the church desperately needed some younger folk. We had been without a youth minister for a couple of years and the church was eager to get a new one in. But we faced some of the same difficulties obtaining a youth minister as we did a music minister. In a previous post I have told how we finally obtained Billy as Minister of Youth and Music. But here was where a problem came in.

The older music minister was very professional and respectful of Billy, but somewhat resentful or cautious maybe? And I can understand that professionally speaking. You bring in a younger guy with a totally different musical style not to really work under you as an understudy but laterally. All of us were in a difficult situation which reflected the difficulties of the church as a whole.

But one Wednesday night in church or maybe it was a Sunday night, I was teaching on worship from Nehemiah I think, and I was open to questions or comments from the congregation. The music minister spoke up and said, and I am quoting, “Well I think that the Hymnal is every bit as inspired as the Bible.” The youth were all sitting in front as usual, along with Billy, and there was all of a sudden a bunch of wide eyed youth staring at me. I did not address the issue right then, perhaps I should have. After church the youth minister sent an e-mail to me because they had been very carefully taught the doctrine of the inspiration and authority and inerrancy of the Scriptures and were quite upset at what they had heard. Our young people knew more sound doctrine than most, for the entire time of my pastorate that was a non-negotiable with me. I then had to e-mail the music minister with the question to seek clarification. He retreated from his strong statement somewhat but still left me with the feeling that perhaps his reverence for the hymnal was excessive. Nonetheless I assured the youth that he did not mean it the way it sounded.

I do not think this music minister gives equal authority to the hymnal and Bible, but with that generation, there is a practical equivalence I believe that is problematic and that was at the root of one of our problems in the church. The church was absolutely culture bound in the area of the hymnal and church music. It did not want to change and it could not change. There was a deep reverent, emotional link to the hymns of the faith that led the congregation to the point where they could not separate their culture from their faith. The expression of their faith became their faith. Perhaps that is too strong and I mean that as a descriptive not a pejorative. We all do that over time I suppose.

But there are certainly consequences.

Today I am attending a church that includes some of the older hymns and includes newer songs as well. The newer songs are all beautifully full of sound doctrine and are different from the choruses I have heard in the past. I am enjoying learning the new songs but I have to admit, I miss the old hymns. We only sing 1-3 hymns per Sunday and the rest are the new songs, so I am really going through withdrawals. Please do not misinterpret this as a criticism of our current mode of worship. My wife and kids and I are feeling like we are in heaven in our new church and our Music Minister, Gary is absolutely the best I have ever seen, anywhere. But times have changed, and now I am in a place where I can change. The old hymns helped lead me for 48 years in my faith and they will forever be a part of me. So I miss them like I miss an old friend or even like I miss my mother, now at home with the Lord.

In conclusion, I really believe that the churches of the 1950’s that failed to change and adapt to the music of the 1960’s-70’s failed because that generation could not separate their preferences from their essential faith. The became culture bound and stopped growing. Deep seated distrust of the clergy amongst the membership, pride and rebellion all played a role in this decline over the issue of music.

Next week I will turn to a new topic in our worship wars: Prayers and Offerings. What could possibly go wrong with those two subjects? Oh boy…..


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One Response to “Worship Wars10: Hymns Alone (Solus Hymnus?)”

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I quite agree with the change in music. The church I am attending now sings about 6 songs a service (3 of which are traditional and 3 of which I will call “new age”) It is really a good mixture, it give me a chance to learn the new songs of praise (which several I really do love) and at the same time lets me still sing the traditional songs that I loved so much.

We have tried very hard to give a good mixture within our church in order to give everyone what they want, and our music director, Gerard, is one of the most talent people I have ever meet and his passion is tremendous. I think the splitting of the music is one reason our church is still growing.

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