I listened in on a conversation recently on “the worship wars” in evangelical-style congregations and I heard some interesting observations. My main dissent, which I did not express, was that the discussants were treating the battles about worship as a relatively recent phenomenon—several references were made, for example, to “the last two decades.” If I had decided to chime in I would have recommended reading Ian Bradley’s fine book Abide With Me: The World of Victorian Hymns (1997), where he details the heated debates in 19th century England over whether to have choirs, and if so, if they should be kept at the rear of the sanctuary in order to “back up” the congregation in its worship rather than being a visual distraction in the front. I could even have pointed them further back in church history to Oscar Cullmann’s review in his little book Early Christian Worship of the arguments conducted by the Church Fathers about when the catechumens should be sent off from the worship service to engage in their own “youth” activities.
Or I could have taken a more autobiographical tack, relating some of my own teenage experiences as a preacher’s son in the 1950s. My dad always had some differences with those who were involved in planning the worship services. In one pastorate it was close to open warfare with Charlotte, the organist, who saw herself as in charge of all of the musical aspects of worship services. My dad would identify the hymns that would fit well with the themes appropriate to church year and sermon themes, and she would simply ignore him, following what she obviously considered was her superior aesthetic preferences. The tensions with Charlotte were a regular topic at the family dinner table, so much so that when I heard Isaiah 1:18 quoted, which was common in my evangelical youth, I would mentally edit it to read: “Though your sin be as Charlotte’s it shall be as white as snow.”
But the lack of “fit” between my dad’s theology and the choices of others who had a role in planning elements in the worship service were more often than not due to well-intended but theologically unfortunate inclinations. I have no doubt that John, our choir director at one of the congregations where my father served, sincerely believed that “Whispering Hope,” a number frequently chosen by him as the choir’s offertory piece, was a profoundly Christian hymn; but it was really an expression of vacuous hope without any substantive theological grounding: “Wait till the darkness is over/ wait till the tempest is done/ Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the darkness is gone/ Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice/ Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.”
But the worst theological transgression in that congregation’s musical life was the time when the organist, who on Saturday evenings performed on the same kind of Hammond organ at the local skating rink, chose to play during the communion service “Drink to me only with thine eyes and I’ll not ask for wine.”
I have some sympathies for the complaints folks of the generation my wife and I represent frequently express about “contemporary worship” in evangelical congregations. Like many other older members, I often find the “praise bands” too loud, and I wish there was less standing at length while we sing the same lines over and over again. But for the most part the actual content of those repeated lines are not bad theology—much of contemporary “praise music” is in fact a revival of psalmody. And if you object to repetition in worship you have to think about how many times monastic communities sing the word “Kyrie”! Furthermore, as someone who regularly serves as a guest preacher, I know that there is much intelligent coordinated planning that goes into worship services these days. And—thank the Lord—I have not heard “Whispering Hope” sung in a half-century!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.