We’ve seen this before. Just as church leaders do today, 1st century Christians wrestled over what true ‘orthodox’ (that is, ‘right-way’) worship means. Biblical authors describe and discuss what is fitting and proper for worship in the temple. To that end, determining what instruments, voices, styles, and forms were appropriate for worship has been debated throughout every generation. Similar to fields such as church architecture, art, iconography, and leadership structure, we’ve seen ebb and flow in the church’s theology of music.
The early church was born from a variety of political (Roman), cultural (Greek), and religious (Jewish) influences that helped shape the worship practices. In the 4th century, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the state and prohibited congregational singing and the use of instruments. In the 5th century, Pope Celestine I developed antiphonal singing and the Christian hymn, and in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory codified plainsong (now known as Gregorian chant) as the official song of the church.
Some argued for a stripping of overly lavish decoration (Council of Trent, Calvinism, Methodism), others for greater accessibility through worship in the vernacular (Luther’s Protestant Reformation, Pope John Paul and the Second Vatican Council), and others still for the abolition of music altogether (Zwingli). It is through this understanding of the genesis of worship music that we can properly evaluate it; as one paradigm shift inside the larger context of sacred music’s history.
It’s no surprise that we got here; music is full of emotion. Therefore, any affirmation of what ‘orthodox’ worship is, will indirectly define what ‘orthodox’ worship isn’t. This will undoubtedly stir up tensions. Tradition, likewise, is drenched in emotional bias. Though not entirely documented, the aforementioned reforms in church music likely involved much debate over the future of worship in the church.
Equally important are the tangible justifications for seeking proper worship today. In a result-oriented culture, it is hard to extract immediate analysis based on church attendance from the debate. The fact of the matter is, the use of contemporary music in churches is increasing, and more and more churches are setting aside hymnals for video projectors, organs and choirs for guitars and drum sets. I hope to evaluate the meaning and implications behind the use of contemporary worship music and traditional hymnody, and, to some extent, argue that both are important and necessary for the health of the church. In multi-generational and multi-cultural churches, there are inherent biases toward certain worship styles, and furthermore musical tastes are simply diverse. In order to reconcile disparate tastes and empower all generations of worshippers to worship God at full-stretch, we must not only access the depth and breadth of the musical ‘canon’ through psalms and hymns, but sing music that resonates with the culture of our current generation. Unlike current literature on the subject, this amalgamation ought not be considered a ‘compromise,’ which implies a negative outlook on either side. Balance is essential. Church worship leaders must continue to pastorally reflect on the life of their congregation, and evaluate the use of any particular hymn or worship song on a case-by-case basis. There is no simple answer or quick solution to the debate. It is, in fact, through this very process of debate and reform that the church maintains devotion to God and relevance to society.