Generations and Worship

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But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away. Ezra 3:12-13

I came across this passage today and it immediately brought my mind to one of the big issues in our churches today, and I’ll call it the issue of worship style. Now I’m speaking from a Southern Baptist perspective, for whatever that’s worth. Baptists embrace a wide variety of churches and worship styles. Most Baptist churches in larger communities have have moved towards contemporary or blended worship, from a worship tradition consisting of mainly hymns and gospel songs. The change has come with a lot of praise and a lot of weeping.

I never new the Bible had anything to say about that particular issue, but its here in Ezra! I can’t give you an exegeses the Hebrew text, but I think its clear here that when they started rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity, the old folks were weeping. I don’t know why they were weeping, maybe they shed tears of joy because their beloved temple was finally being rebuilt. Maybe, though, they were weeping because these new leaders weren’t going to be able to build it like the old one. Were these young guys doing it the wrong way? Were that making it to small? Too big? Were they just unable to do the old temple justice because they didn’t have the wealth and resources of old King Solomon? If they were like us, I’d have to vote for the latter possibility. It sounds too much like what goes on in churches today.

We have more generations in the church today than ever before. Our folks over 70, and there’s a lot of them, are more removed from the culture they grew up in than perhaps any culture in history. Their world has changed so much, and their church has changed, too. The modern church has taken away so many things that they were familiar with, so many things that they felt were important. Pulpits, organs, choirs, hymnals and bright lights have given way to stages, praise bands, praise teams, mood lighting and screens. Suits and Sunday dresses have given way to jeans, t-shirts and flip flops. Not to mentioned what has happened to their worship songs. Is it any wonder that there is weeping in our churches today? That weeping often takes on the form of a complaint or lament.

Yet I can see the other side, too. We have young leaders who are passionately committed to making our churches a place where worship is paramount. They use what they know to engage people in worship that is a wholehearted, passionate expression of their love for God. Our young leaders are passionately committed to doing whatever it takes to reach the culture they live in. They know rock music. They are engaged by cool, whether its media, lights or music. They are driven by experience. They are driven by come-as-you-are. They are driven by wholehearted, no holds barred, individual expressions of their passion and devotion to God. They are doing it, too. These contemporary services are being attended by millions of young Christians.

I sit in the middle. As a 50 plus-year-old who has been in the church his entire life, I believe I represent a big part of our congregations who like it all! I have been a part of what the older generations remember about worship. I like it. I also like the contemporary music. I want worship to be passionate, real, uninhibited worship and praise. I love the full crescendo of a pipe organ as much a the soulful wail of the electric guitar. I love the choirs and congregational singing as well as the powerful vocals of the praise team. I love the roar of the timpani and the rhythmic drive of the drums.

Well, back to Ezra. There is weeping in our churches today. If you are one of those weeping, I feel for you. It grieves me that younger leadership often seems to move without any regard for our older generations. I believe they do care about you. I just don’t think they have any idea what to do about it. And when the contemporary services are full, that makes it hard for them to justify spending any time and resources on the weepers. Also, there’s a lot of musicians leading worship who have never seen a hymnal. Even if they do one of the songs you know, its not going to sound like what you grew up with. I’m glad that we have a lot of churches now that are including a more traditional worship service for you. I just want to encourage you to look around and see that there is a lot of praising going on, and its good, even if its drowning out your weeping. We find it so easy to complain and lament when things are different and new. Sometimes its much better to keep it to ourselves. I guess its ok to weep, but don’t become negative. Don’t let your weeping keep you from seeing the work God is doing through the contemporary leadership in your church. Stay committed and do your best to find out how you can be a part of what God is doing. Find some way to be a worshiper and not a weeper.

If you are one of the young leaders, don’t forget your grandparents and great grandparents. They want to worship God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. They just don’t have any connection with what you are doing in contemporary worship. How would you feel if your church started using music that was basically oriental: wooden flutes, tinker bells and some bizarre twinging stringed instrument. I doubt you’d have any connection with that type of music. Yet I believe that’s what’s happened to our oldest generations. What we do now is a foreign language to them. If you’ve still got these folks in your church, don’t you have a responsibility to lead them in worship, too? I hope that just drowning them out is not your solution.

God wants all of us to worship Him. Church leadership has a responsibility to lead all generations in worship. On the flip side, all of us are products of our culture, and that culture is changing faster that ever before. We have a responsibility to get together, get along, and get on with God’s work!

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Contemporary Christian Music and the Piano

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Contemporary Christian music has re-defined the role of the church pianist.

Most music played in churches today falls into one of 2 categories. I’ll call them “rhythm driven” and “melody driven.” Most contemporary music is rhythm driven. In their original performance, rhythmic songs are performed without piano. The music is led and supported by a praise band (drums, guitar, electric bass & keyboard) and vocalists. The only reason we use piano in rhythm driven music is because we have pianos and pianists in our churches. If we didn’t have grand pianos on our platforms, we’d never get a piano to do rhythm driven music.

In traditional church music, before we had drums and guitars, the piano and organ were the lead instruments in worship. They were the only instruments, they played from hymnals and other printed music, they played all the notes on the page, and were even expected to embellish the music, adding to the notes on the page. Piano & organ worked very well together. The musical style was well suited to these instruments. However, today’s rhythmic music is a stylistic polar opposite to the melodic and harmonic sounds of our hymns and gospel songs. It might be well to point out that when guitars were first introduced into our churches, they found it difficult to play the traditional songs.

So your church has a grand piano, you’re the pianist and now you have to play these rhythmic songs with the praise band. What do you do? I’ve got a few suggestions.

I believe the first thing church pianists must do is realize they are now part of a team, the praise band. Being part of a band means that you need to play fewer notes. I’ve heard this analogy: if there are 5 band members, think of only playing a fifth of the notes.  The more instruments in the band, the less each instrument needs to play. So don’t give in to the tendency to play all of the notes. After all, most of these contemporary songs were played and performed before any notes were written on the page.

Second, learn to play chords and rhythms. Its very difficult to find piano parts for rhythmic music that are written well for the piano. If a written accompaniment does not sound good on the piano and is not relatively easy to play, don’t play it. Instead, learn the chords and play them. Start simple. Start out playing just the chords on whole notes and half notes. Let the guitar player add the rhythm. Learn to add your own simple rhythms. Learn what you can add to strengthen the accompaniment as you become more familiar with the song and the style. Eventually, you will be able to add strength, character, color, ambiance and variety to the sound of the band.

Third, don’t play the melody. The melody will be sung. Contemporary bands play chords and rhythms. The bass line is about as much melody as the bands ever play. Melody is sometimes used in instrumental intros and bridges. Melodic passages often connect the gaps between the sung phrases, or lead from a held note to the continuation of the melody. The electric lead guitar often plays this melodic material.

As the pianist, you can easily add melodic material. You can play those lead guitar rifs if you don’t have an electric guitar. You can play phrases that lead into a sung line. You can add music to held notes and lead into the next sung phrase. You are always an accompanist. You will almost never play the melody. Let the congregation sing the melody.

Fourth, if you have a bass player, don’t play the low bass notes. Both of you playing the bass notes will muddy up the sound. When I played a little (and I mean a very little) jazz in college, the director told me to sit on my left hand. That would be good advice. Keep your left hand right below your right thumb. For sure, don’t ever play low chords with the left hand. I wouldn’t chord anything below the F under middle C on the piano. However, if the bass player is gone, be prepared to add a good, low, strong bass line.

Finally, be versitile. Be creative. Be willing to learn new styles. Be willing to sit there and sing if there’s nothing the piano can add. Be joyful. Work on the skills needed to perform your instrument to the best of your ability for the glory of God.