When I was a young child, my grandparents has an old electric organ in their basement, which I would periodically play when I visited. I remember one day turning on one of the organ’s beat tracks and playing “Beautiful Savior” with the electronic accompaniment. At one point, my grandfather objected to my playing, saying that the hymn shouldn’t be played with a bunch of inappropriate bumping and clicking polluting the music. My grandmother, on the other hand, admonished him for disparaging my playful experiment. Of course, despite their disagreement, both of my grandparents were ultimately right. My rendition indeed took a beautiful hymn and made it objectively ugly. At the same time, a child needs room to play, and anyone with an interest in music needs room to be creative and experiment. It is merely the nature of experiments that they sometimes fail.
Although it is complicated by politics, administrative issues, and misguided attempts to market Christianity like a product, the same conflict is playing itself out on a large scale in many American congregations. For a variety of reasons—some good, some bad—many congregations have grown dissatisfied with traditional hymns & liturgies and want to embrace “contemporary worship.” Organs are replaced with guitars, hymns are replaced with praise songs, new rituals are added to the service and so forth. On the other side are those with an eye to tradition who object to a casual discarding of theologically rich and time-tested liturgy and hymnody in favor of music and ceremony that is often vapid, ugly, or both.
The accusations from both sides are familiar, so I’ll just skirt them. My point here is that there is at least one respect in which each side of the worship wars is right. Laying aside crass attempts at marketing or relevancy (at least as the word is commonly misunderstood), there needs to be room for experimentation in our church services. Why a need? The same reason we need different building architectures, various paintings of Jesus, multiple hymns, a variety of stained glass windows, and the like. God serves us through Word and Sacrament in a variety of times, places, and circumstances. We shouldn’t be surprised that this service will become enfleshed in different forms of ritual and ceremony. It must always be Word and Sacrament ministry provided by these forms, or Sunday mornings will become about something other than God serving us (a common pitfall for contemporary worship). Nevertheless, there are an infinite number of ways to paint a picture of flowers even allowing for the important fact that not every picture is a painting of flowers.
But we must also have room to recognize failures. We cannot simply lump all forms together into one gray mass of subjective style preferences. “Different strokes for different folks” obscures the fact that style is communicative. If we pretend it is somehow neutral to the message it enfleshes, then we impoverish ourselves. Some styles are simply better than others—both subjectively in particular contexts and objectively across contexts. We also need to remember that the forms which have been handed down to us will always have an advantage in that they are at least good enough to have passed the test of time. We should never expect anything close to an even mix of old and new. Likewise, there is no need to repeat failed experiments. If members of the congregation want a contemporary service like that other church across town, there is not necessarily any need to try it on for size. It can already be seen and judged.
We should not be afraid of experimentation—unlike Aaron’s sons, the overall form of the liturgy we have received did not issue directly from the mouth of God (though many of its particulars did and should). However, the goal of creative experimentation needs to be the provision of the Divine Service through good, true, and beautiful means. Success in this is not immune from judgment and therefore cannot be set aside for the sake of raw pragmatism.