When a congregation begins toying with the idea of contemporary worship, one of the usual driving factors is an attempt to be more “inclusive.” “The Church needs to appeal to more people than the gray-hairs that attend every Sunday. Get rid of that tired plodding organ and get some more lively instruments in there! Why force modern Americans to sing nothing but 16th century German hymns?” The impression that advocates often give is that contemporary worship is something that opens the church up and broadens it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than providing a breath of fresh air, contemporary worship is a narrow and constrictive force that can strangle a congregation.
First, the contention that traditional Lutheran hymnals are simply a collection of music that only old people could like is rather dubious. Consider: The commonly used Lutheran hymnal (LSB) includes songs dating back from almost two thousand years ago all the way to today. Most of its hymns were written centuries before any of our elderly were even born. If they enjoy it, it cannot possibly be because it was the music of their generation–something that only they would like. Generationally exclusive music is, however, precisely what contemporary worship seeks to impose. Rather than selecting the best from a broad ocean of church music that spans cultures, continents, & thousands of years of history, contemporary worship restricts music: first to the last few decades, then to America, then to a subset of the youth. Towards the end of his book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, James K. A. Smith describes a “radically orthodox” church service that he considers to more “catholic” than the services we may be used to. Nevertheless, the mishmash of eclectic chairs, jazz bands, and Anne Sexton poetry he advocates would only appeal to the neo-hipster, Whole Foods, communitarian demographic. That’s about as far from universal as you can get. In the name of being inclusive, contemporary worship excludes everyone but the young and hip by trading the rich heritage found in the liturgy for a handful of passing fads.
Second, Contemporary worship restricts music’s capacity to communicate. Every age has it’s own insights & blind-spots, and it’s preferred styles reflect these. One advantage to a broad hymnody is that the excesses of one age often cover the deficiencies of another. Contemporary worship lacks this safeguard. If you compare hymns written in the past 75 years or so to the hymns that preceded it, you’ll quickly notice some general differences in the lyrical structure. Older hymns tend to be built around sentences and make statements. Modern hymns, on the other hand tend to be built around phrases and are designed to give an impression. While the former style serves a variety of purposes (confession, catechesis, prayer, praise, etc), the latter style is suited almost exclusively toward praise and self-expression (it’s no accident they’re usually called ‘praise bands’). Now, while self-expression has very little place in the divine service, there’s certainly nothing wrong with singing praise songs in church. Beautiful Savior, for example, is a classic hymn that makes use of this kind of phrase-based songwriting for precisely this purpose. The problem arises when almost every hymn is like that. Practically speaking, restricting a congregation to contemporary songs restricts them to praise music. By neglecting the ability to make meaningful statements in music, the hymnody begins to forget why we’re responding to God with praise in the first place. When this goes on long enough, all that remains is a desperate attempt to use music to manipulate the emotions into producing what once flowed naturally from what God has done for us.
Finally, contemporary worship generally doesn’t make people feel more comfortable or welcome–at least not in Lutheran churches. In the movie Better of Dead, there’s a scene in which John Cusack’s family invites a French exchange student over for dinner. In order to make her feel more welcome, the hostess serves a meal consisting of French fries, French toast, and French bread. Needless to say, regardless of the hostess’ efforts, the student did not exactly feel comfortable. Frankly, this is pretty much how Lutherans come off when we pander to those young, hip Americans of whom we have only the most shallow understanding by attempting to adopt their musical styles in church. Those we pander to might (or might not) be too polite to say that such imitation looks more like a bad parody, but they’re often thinking it.
Perhaps there’s another thing we might learn from this analogy when we seek to invite unbelievers into the church. The Church is in the world, but not of it. No matter how we arrange our music, unbelievers who visit us are in a foreign land. The last thing an exchange student is looking for is a grossly inferior version of their own culture. The entire point of being an exchange student is to be immersed in something other. If the Church tries to make herself look like the world, not only will she do a poor job of it, but she will deny those who come to her the opportunity to find something more than what they already have. Our heritage is something any generation can be brought into. If we seek to be more inclusive and welcoming, we would do well to embrace it.