Church music can be controversial. So much so that disagreements over church music have been referred to as “worship wars.” The dialogue can easily become heated or carried out in a disrespectful tone.
But the internet is built for controversy. So let’s dive right in. Here, I present to you ten reasons to oppose new music in church.
- New church music is too new and unknown, like a foreign language.
- It’s not very melodious or pleasant compared to the songs we have been singing for years.
- It includes so many new songs to learn that you can never learn them all.
- It stirs people up, which creates disturbances, making people act indecently and disorderly.
- It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on Godly lyrics.
- It is often worldly, even blasphemous.
- The preceding generation did so much for church without it.
- The people involved in it are just out to make money.
- It forces people to spend time learning music, which leads them to neglect the more important matters of faith.
- It is led by young musicians who are inexperienced, immature, and often engage in lewd and loose behaviour.
So? What do you think of that list? You’ve probably heard these arguments before. Maybe you’ve read them somewhere, or thought about them, or maybe you were the one to raise these issues in a heated discussion.
Here’s the thing about this list; it’s from 1723.
Different adaptations of this list can be found in a number of books (Worship by Leslie B. Flynn; Exploring Worship by Bob Sorge; Tim Hughes’ forward in Now To Him by Neil Bennetts and Simon Ponsonby; Journey Of A Worshiper by Kenneth J. Spiller).¹ The list is a powerful illustration of how we have been arguing about new music in the church since the early 1700s. The arguments haven’t even changed all that much since then.
After some digging, I discovered that the 1723 publication in question is Ulite Dulci or A Joco-Serious Dialogue Concerning Regular Singing by Thomas Symmes.² All of the authors above claim that the pastor who originally published the list was arguing against the use of hymns written by guys like Isaac Watts (Joy To The World; When I Survey The Wondrous Cross; Our God, Our Help In Ages Past). But they’ve all got it wrong. To the contrary, Symmes is actually a supporter of introducing new hymns and styles of music in church and argues his case in this short publication. So yes, this list does illustrate that disagreements over new church music are nothing new, but there is so much more to it than that.
In the early 1700s churches used what was called “lining out” where the pastor would sing a line from the Psalms and the congregation would then repeat that line in unison. The new style of music against which many were arguing was called “regular singing” where music was written out and everyone sang songs together from a songbook. This new style was an attempt to improve the somewhat wretched quality of singing in churches.
This change was not without controversy and discussion. Thomas Symmes engaged in this discussion. His book is an adaption from a sermon he gave the previous year, and in its preface it receives endorsements from a number of other pastors. He contrives a joco-serious dialogue (one mixed with humour and seriousness) between a neighbour and a minister. The neighbour presents each of the arguments from the above list, voicing the opposition that people had against “regular singing.” The minister then responds to each of these arguments, one at a time. He is very persuasive, fully convincing the fictional neighbour with each response.
300 years later, we are still having similar disagreements about new music in church. On the one hand it is comforting to know that hymns were once as controversial as the latest Hillsong Young & Free album. But I think there is more to learn from the way Symmes responds to the controversy. After reading through his book, I see three ways in which he responds to arguments against new music in church. Each of these approaches are important for us today.
- New Is Not New. Recognize that there is nothing new under the sun and actively find connections between the new and the past. Symmes dispels the illusion that something is completely new by showing its connection and development from past musical styles. He searches historic church practices and teaching, as well as relying on Biblical support, for changes that are being questioned. When discussing new music in church, we can work to show a connection with the music and practices of the church throughout the centuries.
- Understand The Unfamiliar. Dispel the fear of what is unfamiliar by taking the time to thoroughly discover and explore the new. What is unknown and unfamiliar to us can cause discomfort and fear. The antidote is to learn about what we don’t understand. Symmes addresses these kinds of concerns by taking the time to thoroughly explain what is foreign and uncomfortable. What is new to us becomes understandable and familiar. When leading changes in church music, we can work to bring understanding to what is unfamiliar and dispel fear and uncertainty around these changes by taking the time to help people learn the new style or music.
- Grow What Is Good. Instead of complaining about the new, use your energy to point to the good. Symmes spends his time highlighting and celebrating the spiritual growth that is happening in people and churches as a result of the new music. This is not to condone unbiblical behaviour and character, but it recognizes that there will always be issues of character that need to be addressed. It is better to encourage and build up the church by growing what is good than to shut everything down by ripping out a healthy, growing plant that needs some pruning. When we have younger musicians getting involved and bringing ideas and changes to worship, we can work to encourage and build them up by highlighting and celebrating their spiritual growth.
People will continue to disagree about changes in church music and the introduction of new songs, just as they have for centuries. The arguments will largely remain the same. It’s important that we be better equipped to engage in these conversations by learning the lessons presented in this short book published in 1723.