The American Contemporary Music Controversy: Is it as Simple as We Make It?

Having been exposed to Southern Baptist “life” far more than I have ever desired by attending a Southern Baptist seminary for near countless years, I have become well-acquainted with the controversies that have plagued churches throughout the country. In that, the one controversy that seems to creep upon the stoop of every church at one time or another is the “contemporary” music controversy. To put it briefly for those who are fortunate enough to be unaware of it, it is the struggle between generations in a church over the type of music that is played in Sunday morning services, whether it be the type that is labeled “traditional” or that which is labeled “contemporary,” i.e. that which is more in tune with the types of music popular in the secular world.

And having attended a school and through it becoming familiar with it, I have to say that the presentation of the controversy has been typically one-sided, namely coming from those who are younger who have a general animosity toward those who are older. And though this is not always the case, it is typically the case. Those who are in the seminaries are usually those who are younger, and therefore they reside in a different generation and in a different understanding of the world around them. Therefore, when they hear that the “old folks” in the church do not like the new music, they immediately conclude that they are old fogies who are set in their ways and who are not as “spiritual” and spiritually discerning as they are.

While it is possible that this may be true (with hip speakers like Mark Driscoll inadvertently perpetuating the stereotype), it is possible that it is not true, and that the young in the church have misunderstood and have unfairly categorized those who are older.

The problem that we have now is that there has been a lack of godly conversation over the matter. Instead, both groups have come to the table armed with their presuppositions and callously ignore the sentiments and convictions of the other. Some do it through blunt and unChristlike speech and actions, and others do it through quiet and unmoving resolve, piously presuming that they are above it all. No matter the nature of the response or its appearance, both are wrong and both avoid getting to the heart of the matter.

Having been by Providence born into the younger generation of opinion, allow me to offer some food for thought for those who are younger that I came by through conversations with those are of the older generation. I will do it through the structure of possible “myths”:

Myth 1: Contemporary Music is Opposed Solely upon the Ground of Poor Lyrics:
While it can certainly be argued that a lot of that which we call “contemporary” is doctrinally lacking, some of it is not–perhaps even that which is played in Sunday morning services. We, in our generation, feel that doctrine is the only thing that matters in music, therefore proper lyrics can form in any genre of music. Therefore, to “compromise,” older hymns are ported to newer music upon the presumption that it will cure the ills of the controversy. This is not necessarily the case.

Myth 2: The Music Controversy is Based Solely on the Grounds of Music Preference
Many of us who are younger (and therefore have not seen very much) presume that the crux of the music controversy is a matter of preference of music types and nothing more. We presume that since the type of music does not by itself have an effect on us and our spirits that it does not have the same effect upon others.

One of the most striking observations that I have made when talking to others on the “other side of the fence” is the deep association that they have with certain types of music and godlessness. These, having lived through the sixties and seventies, hear an electric guitar and immediately have brought to their minds such things as drugs, fornication, etc., and when they hear these things in “worship,” their very souls are conflicted within them.

Myth 3:There is no Resolution to the Music Controversy
I have heard some pretty horrible things from the younger side when the music controversy is brought up, the apex of which is the sentiment, “The older folks will die off one day.” I’ve rarely heard this sentiment in those words, but the spirit of it is there in the hearts of some. I hear things like, “The church is dying,” and the blame has been cast solely upon the shoulders of those who have real convictions with regard to particular types of music.

Maybe the church is dying (by that meaning a particular congregation), and maybe it is because of the style of music. Often the blame for it is placed upon the older generation and their unwillingness to “get with the times,” but let me offer a different view of the same situation. Perhaps it’s the not the older generation who is causing the church to die, but maybe it is the younger generation abandoning the church because the style of “worship” does not suit their tastes. Maybe the American consumer mentality has infected a particular congregation to the the extent that they are willing to leave a body of believers because the style of music on Sunday mornings is not meeting their entertainment needs. For them, it is not a matter of conviction, but it is a matter of preference, and it is their preference that drives them not their convictions.

Concluding Thoughts
I know that what I have to offer here might seem to some to be a simplification of an issue in the church that has been oversimplified. I pray that it’s not. My point is simply to step back and view the controversy from a different set of eyes so as to bring up thoughtful discussion, resolution, and healing.

In this day and time and in this culture, there are many things to be divided over, but music is not one of them. And when it comes to such matters, I think the apostle Paul was quite clear on it in Romans 14. To put it briefly, when it comes to matters of congregational fellowship and activity, those who are stronger in certain areas are called to capitulate to those who are weaker by their conscience and convictions.

Not wanting to wrongly label certain groups, but, for argument’s sake, let’s say that in the music controversy the younger generation is the stronger and the older generation is the weaker because of their convictions regarding certain types of music. What if there is a God-fearing older woman whose soul is genuinely troubled at the sound of certain music to the point that she cannot bear to come to church services on Sunday any more. What should the response of the stronger be? Should it be, "Well, she’s probably not saved any way," "She’s stuck in her religion and legalism," or should it be, "Mrs. Jones–a dear saint, sister, and lover of God in Christ–is deeply troubled by this type of music. We love her, and so does Christ, therefore let’s engage in dialog with her so that we can know her heart"? Just a thought.

Categories: Just a Thought

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4 replies

  1. Hmmm. As I think about the differences in music opinion commonly known as "worship wars," a handful of different thoughts come to mind.

    1. How well has a congregation been taught about worship in general? Is their music minister a nice guy whose theological rigor is lacking?

    2. Never generalize, in this case about age and music preference. I'm thinking of someone who left a hyper-Willow Creek congregation for his first experience with a traditional SBC body. At the age of twenty-nine, he heard "Wonderful Grace of Jesus"

    for the first time and LOVED it.

    3. SBC culture is plagued by the "numbers" mentality. Often, success is viewed as a body count on Sunday mornings. Therefore, whatever seems to draw a crowd (and generates said success) is esteemed. This crowd-drawing may or may not correspond with actually giving people the whole counsel of our Holy God.

    4. On the other hand, the "contemporary" side isn't the only one guilty of bending for the sake of entertainment. The "traditional" crowd wants to be entertained, too. The "how" may be different, but it's a wash when the "why" is the same. I put "contemporary" in quotes because Fanny Crosby was once the latest thing. 🙂


  2. Well, hence the warning of possible oversimplification. 😉 There are a gazillion factors, and, unfortunately, they probably all need to be examined in each individual body.


  3. These are all very good thoughts. You do point out some real complexities to the issue that I had not thought of, in particular that the strong should bear with the weaknesses of the weak.

    Personally, I'm annoyed by the generalities (e.g. contemporary songs speak to modern man better than hymns) and even factual inaccuracies (e.g. hymns are musically more complex than contemporary songs) often used in the debate. I don't think it's worthwhile to bother categorizing songs this way. I find it sloppy, even irresponsible, to argue that one group is just plain better than the other. Each song should should be judged individually, not prejudged by some categorization. Do you see the same problem?


  4. I think you're right, and I knew going into to writing this that it would be oversimplified. It is a very complex issue, and there is no right side and wrong side.

    The best way I think to deal with the issue is to step back and look at it from a Scriptural standpoint. And perhaps (said while ducking) maybe if this is a present issue in a congregation, maybe all music should cease until the matter is properly dealt with.

    Thanks for the thought. It certainly is not a simple and each side oversimplifies the other.


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