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Music menu: Churches offer a smorgasbord of music styles to meet needs of worshippers

Published: Saturday, Nov. 24 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The band preforms at Redemption World Outreach Center, Oct. 7, 2007, in Greenville, S.C.

Associated Press

For many Protestant worship leaders like Richard Wead, preparing music for the weekend services is like planning a buffet at a church picnic: make sure there is plenty of everything for everyone.

At the Assemblies of God megachurch where he serves in Irving, Texas, a band of guitars, drums and keyboards performs urban rock for the 3,000 worshippers meeting in the main sanctuary. In a chapel down the hall, a more traditional form of worship music is offered to about 400 people who prefer an organ accompanying hymns sung by the congregation.

"Folks who want the tradition and heritage can come and feel they have been at church and leave satisfied," says Wead, who oversees the traditional service at Calvary Church. "And the other is true for those who will come to church because the loud, upbeat music is appealing to them."

Offering a smorgasbord of worship music has become a necessity for churches seeking to attract new followers while retaining the faithful. A 2010 study of more than 11,000 Christian congregations across the United States showed that 56 percent of those reporting attendance growth from 2005 to 2010 incorporate guitars, drums, visual projection and other innovations in their worship services. Nearly half of the growing congregations always use electric guitars in their music, the Hartford Seminary survey found.

There are exceptions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which experienced growth in that five-year period while sticking to a traditional organ-hymnal model of music worship. But for the majority of Protestant churches, music has become an essential evangelical tool to attract new adherents and meet the needs of increasingly diverse congregations, which include some traditionalists who struggle to feel at home in a church with modern music.

"You can’t argue with the numbers; however, you have to be cautious and understand that numbers (like those from the Hartford survey) aren’t everything when it comes to faith expression," said Ed Willmington, director of the Fred Bock Institute of Music at the Fuller Theological Seminary. "Some (traditionalists) would say the numbers are a mile wide and a thimble deep. On other hand, you can’t stick your head in the sand and say drums and guitars don’t exist."

Controversy and catalyst

Incorporating contemporary sounds and secular music styles into worship has occurred throughout the history of Christianity, from the introduction of the organ and congregational singing to adopting Christian rock and gospel hip-hop.

The changes have often had two things in common: They have created controversy within congregations and sometimes entire denominations, and they have become a catalyst for growth, as each musical innovation has attracted a demographic that was otherwise unchurched.

The latest evolution of worship music had its beginnings in the 1960s when black gospel music was popularized through rhythm and blues artists and the youthful Jesus Movement began to develop Christian rock. Technological innovations in the recording and broadcast industries introduced these forms of music to a broader audience, and as more artists emerged, a whole new genre of Christian music was born.

"Almost every denomination saw this new wave of music being created and realized the core of what was used before the mid-1960s didn’t incorporate into the new music that was being written," Willmington said.

Churches scrambled to create appendices to their hymnals. But the hymn books became obsolete when churches started projecting lyrics onto big screens.

In many of today's evangelical churches, the organ has been replaced by a platform that accommodates a band with drums, guitar and an electronic keyboard that can play and accompany a range of traditional and contemporary church music.

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