WEST LAFAYETTE — On a recent Wednesday evening, the band began to play. Dean Brusnighan sat at a table in the back of the room at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in West Lafayette. At times he clapped. During other moments, he mouthed the lyrics intently. His eyes closed tightly as he sung the words quietly to God.
Although Brusnighan values both traditional and contemporary styles of worship music, he has a preference.
“There are aspects of the traditional service I like, but I have become more accustomed to the contemporary service,” the 53-year-old Lafayette man told the Journal & Courier. “It’s more interactive. With contemporary worship music, we have a praise band and it feels like there’s more energy.
For several decades, Protestant churches have had to figure out what worship music should sound like. Some churches still stick to the traditional spirituals, while others have completely forgone tradition in favor of more culturally relevant worship bands.
Are traditional hymns and organs still at odds with contemporary worship music, which typically features guitars and drums?
John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich., said some churches have resolved the issue, while others are still negotiating it.
“Still others that once resolved them have a new round of tensions,” said Witvliet, who is also professor of worship, theology and congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. “Music is such a dynamic part of congregational life, and there are always negotiations going on about what is best.”
St. Andrew United Methodist Church is somewhere in the middle, offering both traditional and contemporary worship services.
Witvliet said that the tension has always existed in the church but that it became particularly intense in the 1990s, with the explosion of popular musical forms, web-based musical sharing and the growth of the music industry.
The Rev. Tim Burchill said St. Andrew began offering contemporary worship about 13 years ago.
“We felt in order to try to reach the next generation for Jesus Christ, we needed to learn the language of the next generation, which is often associated with a style of music,” he said.
He said the church has not had any “worship wars” because it sees value in both traditions.
“But I really know that there are some people who have a preference,” he said.
At his church, traditional worship music features an adult or children’s choir supported by an organ or piano. The ministers leading the traditional service wear robes or stoles and the service is more liturgical.
In comparison, contemporary music, or praise and worship, uses different instrumentation such as electric guitar, drums, bass — similar to instrumentation in popular music.
“Many traditional hymns have a proclamation; praise and worship is much more intimate and personal,” he said. “You are singing your song with God as the object of your worship. It tends to be more informal and less liturgical.”
He said that typically the preference divides along age lines: Older people like more traditional worship and younger people prefer the contemporary style. However, there are always exceptions.
“The thing that is different is we are finding more and more young people. ... They are looking for a more deeply rooted experience; many of those folks are coming back to traditional music,” she said.
Music style matters because, from generation to generation, people have struggled with change in the church because belief in God is about permanence and stability, Burchill said.
“The church is essentially a conservative institution,” he said. “We are transmitting the teachings Jesus Christ that was put down 2,000 years ago. So things change slowly.”
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com