Missing My Native Language

This past weekend, I was in an upper room of a mountain cabin with about twenty-five teenagers. I was there to speak, but at the moment I was running a computer that displayed song lyrics while my sister Shari and brother-in-law Robin led in singing worship songs. Because the way of the room was set up, I was actually hunched over in a corner with my back to the group. But I could hear them loud and clear and as everyone soared into the chorus of Gungor's "Beautiful Things," a thought crossed my mind:

I miss this.

The church where we attend has a more traditional worship service. We have acolytes lighting candles, responsive readings, ministers in robes, choirs, and hymns. I love it. The music, though traditional, is great. Every Sunday when we sing the Doxology--perhaps the most old-school traditional church music can get outside of singing in Latin--is literally one of my favorite moments of the week.

Yet I still miss more modern modes of worship; particularly musically. It is not that I think that modern worship songs are better. Indeed, there are many hymns and choir anthems that are incredibly beautiful. Yet modern songs of praise are my native language of worship. I can sing hymn fluently, can appreciate their beauty, and experience the holy in those moments. It is just not how I first started connecting to God in worship.

I have wondered how this happened. You would think hymns would be my native language of worship because I heard those before anything else. Some of it has to do with the rhythm and cadence of modern music. We grow up today with music in a verse-chorus-verse-chorus pattern rather than hymn's stanzas. The repetition of choruses provide an opportunity for theological education, though that potential is often left unrealized.

Verses, choruses, and bridges also allow for more dynamics musically which I believe leads to a broader conveyance of emotions and catharsis. While many rightfully criticize "feelings" hijacking modern worship, it would be mistake to go in the opposite direction and ignore the importance of emotional connection.

Again, none of this is to say that hymns and anthems do not have any emotion or are boring. Far from it. It is simply that modern songs are the mode in which my understanding of worship and connection with God were originally grounded. A well-written modern worship song can hit me in a place that a hymn most often cannot. That does not make it better, it is just my personal context.

The trouble is most churches with which I would identify theologically and missionally shy away from modern praise and worship. The thinking is that today's worship music is too shallow or too crowd-pleasing or does not jibe with the other traditional elements of their services.

The critique that worship music lacks depth always frustrates me because it's a broad generalization. Is there a lot of shallowness in modern worship music? Absolutely. It's like a sea of kiddie pools out there sometimes. Yet that does not negate the fact that there is a great deal of beautiful and deep songs with a rich theology. To dismiss the whole modern mode of worship would be like someone from my generation dismissing all hymns as boring and woefully out-of-touch. Are there hymns like that? Verily, but that does not make such a sweeping criticism fair.

I think a lot of people fear that modern worship would turn a church service into a concert. While I love the sound of a full band and have played bass in one for numerous summers, this isn't necessarily the case. Robin and Shari led the entire weekend with an acoustic guitar and the occasional violin and it was powerful. Modern does not necessarily mean loud.

I do not want to see a church service that has all the lights, bells, and whistles of a big-time production mega-church. I think there are some theological problems with turning church into a concert. But I hope that more traditional churches find ways to organically implement modern styles into their services. Worship styles are languages and I am worried that the more we specialize our services, the more generationally segregated the church is going to become.

My hope then is that we see worship services that implement all types of worship styles: the traditional with the modern, the hymn with the praise song, the responsive reading with the dramatic monologue, and so on. I think that it would lead to a more rich, more diverse worship service in which we can all learn from each other. I know that I have learned a great deal from my church even as I miss my native language.

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