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.
The ambiance created by the urban rock sound at Calvary in Texas is geared to appeal to people who Wead said would normally not consider church as a place where they can get closer to God.
"The lyrics are strong about the Lord and exalting Jesus, but the music is guitar-driven with lots of strong percussion," Wead said. "It’s loud, and the kind of music (young nonchurchgoers) can get into. They feel that they can relate to the Lord from their hearts because the music fits what they are used to."
'Medicine for the soul'
Given music's ability to elicit powerful emotions, it should be expected that strong feelings can surface among believers who either do or don't want to change the way they worship through the songs they sing or listen to at church.
Changing the music was the toughest task for church planter Jim Armpriester when he revived a declining Assemblies of God congregation in Niagara Falls in 2008.
"Before my first Sunday, some seniors sneaked in and moved the organ to the platform," he recalled. Armpriester eventually sold the organ and installed a new digital sound system for a band that played more contemporary music.
"But truthfully, the seniors never did face the changes. Newer people came and (the seniors) learned to tolerate them but they never liked it," he said.
That's not an uncommon scenario, but Willmington said the contention is often unnecessary.
"One of the missing links in churches is that the younger people and the older people aren’t even talking to each other about these things," he said. "I think there are some legitimate issues that need to be addressed. But I am concerned about the lack of conversation and preferring one another as the scriptures talk about."
At another church named Calvary, this one in Salt Lake City and aligned with the Baptist faith, the Rev. France Davis takes all of this into account when he signs off on the week's worship music. It usually includes a traditional hymn for the senior members, an upbeat gospel number for the baby boomers and a contemporary number for the youths.
"The styles continue to change, so whatever is the most popular thing for the younger people, we try to include some of that," says Davis. In addition to talking out differences to understand each other's spiritual needs, Willmington said an understanding of the role music can play in a worship service can help smooth over differences.
"Music is powerful in affecting memory and behavior," Willington said. "If you connect the power of music, regardless of style, with your faith, you could really have a great powerful connection that I think people are missing on both sides of the spectrum."
Without understanding that connection, everything from traditional hymns to contemporary songs are nothing more than a set list with no connection to the theme of the service, Willmington said.
"The best of both worlds is to have a vision for how the arts can connect with faith. The style can come later," he said. "There are dancers, guitars, choirs and an organ that all can express that, and a unified people of God can appreciate the person next to them and their expression. That way we are not focused on the style but on our faith in God."
African-American churches have long been at the forefront of incorporating music into their worship in a way that involves the congregations and moves the services forward, Willmington said.
Davis said that the service at Calvary Baptist is "packed with music" that employs a call-and-response pattern designed to encourage participation and communicate a message.
"We believe that music prepares people’s hearts emotionally to receive the word of God, which is the highlight of the whole worship service," Davis said. "It also helps them to unload their own burdens. It’s medicine for the soul."
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