I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine recently. He has accepted the pastorate of a congregation in a local retirement community where the age range in his church runs from 65 to 85. The part of our conversation that took me back was his request on how to introduce contemporary worship to his new congregation. “They are not opposed to new music”, he said, “I’m just not sure how to go about introducing it to them.” My question and thoughts were on a totally different level. “What is contemporary to his congregation?” His church primarily sings from the hymnal and the people who attend have a high expectation that things won’t change too much, even though they are ready for a challenge. As I pondered his situation, I came up with a few practical helps that I want to share with you this month.
The more I think about this, the more my head hurts, but also the more frustrated I become. Why are musical styles such a big issue in the church? Why does this divide so many people? What’s even odder to me is seeing how music, in general, unites very diverse people all over the world. I remember, back when I was a teenager living near Saratoga Springs, NY, every summer the Grateful Dead would come do a concert at the local Performing Arts Center. For days before the concert, the town was filled with VW buses, campers, bright colors, flowers, tie-dyed shirts and more peace signs than you’ve ever seen in one place in your life. The people who “followed the band” (known to many as “Dead Heads”) traveled in a fairly large group across the nation. People took their vacations from work to “follow the band”. College students spent their summers “following the band”. Although there were a lot of people in town and it drastically affected traffic, the band followers all seemed to really get along with each other. They had a united purpose and interest. They were “followers of the band”. They stood for world peace and generally loved other people. Does this bother any of you?
I am really hoping at this point that you see the parallel. When I met Jesus, I answered a call to follow him. I didn’t sign on to obey a list of rules or follow traditions, much like the Pharisees taught in Jesus’ day, but I entered into a relationship with God. The God of the universe, the King of kings, the same God who, in human form, prayed for “us” as recorded in John 17. He prayed that over the years his followers would be known by the fact that they were “ONE”. Unity! Not having the same opinion, but being united in spirit and in cause. I look at the secular music scene and I see music uniting people. I see scores of hands in the air clutching cigarette lighters and singing in unity. At the same time, I am watching people in the church creating vast divisions over music. “Houston, we have a problem!”
So, how do you bring change to a traditional church, or even to a church that is just stuck in a rut without dividing the church? Change is always hard; however, without it we don’t grow or move forward in our walk with Jesus. I have learned a few things over the years that hopefully will bring some clarity to the matter. Let me offer you four keys to bringing change to your church’s music.
1. Build a relationship with the people in your church long before you bring changes. This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not easy. Building relationships takes time. It means getting to know the people to whom you minister. A friend of mine has a great saying. He says; “Remember, Jesus died for people, He didn’t die for music.” Let’s remember that this is truth. And trust is still truth even if you chose to not believe it. It’s the relationships that you build with you congregation that will last. I am one of the champions in my area for making sure that the church is relevant to the culture in which it ministers, however every culture needs relationships and this is where it all begins. Over the years I have had to endure a certain amount of criticism, but it never was too bad because I had taken the time to build relationships with the congregation. The church trusted me and that’s priceless when it comes to bringing change. It might not be easy, but when people know your heart, they know you have their best interests in mind and that of the church as a whole.
2. Define what is “contemporary” for your church: When my friend and I were talking I suggested that since his church was basically singing songs that are 50 years old, introducing a new David Crowder tune would probably be a little much. Perhaps he could start with simple choruses such as “I Love You, Lord” that were new about 30 years ago. Jumping more than 20 years is probably a lot to ask, unless the song is really simple and easy to sing. Choruses that his congregation has probably heard when visiting the churches of their sons and daughters would be a good place to start. Remember, in the case of my friend, the culture of his community is not 19-25 years olds, it’s 65-85 year olds. No matter what the date is on your calendar, culture has more to do with generations, geography, history and lifestyle than it does with the year in which we live. You would apply this same concept to the age group and musical styles of your church.
3. Do not change anything else during the time that you are introducing new musical styles. Whoever said that it’s easier to change a church’s doctrine than its music was 100% right. I remember years ago I made some drastic changes in the musical style at our church. I believe that one of the main reasons I survived the change was because I didn’t change too much all at once. One example I can share is the time that we stopped singing out of the hymnal and began projecting all the songs with PowerPoint. We met in a multi-purpose facility that was set up and taken down for different events. The setup crew was a little upset with me because I wouldn’t remove placing of the hymnals from the setup process. Although this caused them more work during set up, I told them that we just might need them at some point and asked them to continue setting them out. Eventually as people adjusted to the musical and stylistic changes, I was able to remove the hymnals without one complaint.
4. Remember that the people who are resisting change are people whom Jesus died for. I remember a time, several years ago, when we were guiding our church through a fairly major worship transition. We were moving from a piano and a couple of singers, to a full rhythm section with guitars, bass and drums. Even though I made sure that we didn’t change the way we sang the old songs, I definitely spiced them up quite a bit.
It was during this period that one of our elders pulled me aside to share his thoughts about the music in our church. He had a very stern look on his face and I braced myself for incoming criticism. I will never forget his words, nor his tone. He told me in a very straightforward manner that he didn’t like the music in our church. It was not was he had grown up with and that it made him very uncomfortable. Then he stopped and said, “…but I see all the people who are coming to this church worshiping the Lord and enjoying the music, I have to tell you that although I may not like it, it’s one of the best things that has happened around here. John, keep up the good work!” His words brought tears to my eyes. The maturity of this man of God still impresses me to this day. It’s not really about what WE like; it’s about touching people with the love and message of Jesus. It’s not about your popularity as a worship leader or church musician; it’s about getting the message out to a dying world.
Change is hard. It threatens our stability and even our church’s identity. Music is a cultural statement and changing cultures is not an easy adjustment to make. For many people, new music is like learning a foreign language and the older you are; the harder it is to learn. Let’s keep this in mind as we bring new tunes to the people with whom we worship. Know your congregation and what they enjoy. Build those relationships with them. Take changes one at a time, and always remember that Jesus, died for people, he didn’t die for music. Keeping these things in mind will help you navigate the troubled waters of changing your church’s music. It will turn what normally seems like a race down the whitewater rapids into a trip down a quiet flowing stream.