Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stop Complaining...

We all have done it! I’ve been a worship pastor for over 32 years and during that time I’ve heard my fair share of complaints about musical style, although the frequency has drastically dropped the older I have gotten (not sure what that means)! Some of my colleagues, however, are not enjoying that luxury. While people sometimes (though rarely) voice their displeasure in person, most often it is communicated through emails, phone calls, third party gossip or…my least favorite…the anonymous letter. The complaints have ranged from tyrannical rants about drums in the sanctuary to a sincere longing for a return to the ‘good old days’ of hymns (sung holding the hymnal) with piano and organ…only! Others on the modern worship side react just as aggressively when a hymn is used, and heaven help us if an organ or choir should appear in the worship time. 

Regardless of the perspective or mode of delivery, however, there has been one common theme: those complaining about musical style were never models of personal evangelism. In fact, over three decades of ministry I have never seen a single person who complained about worship approaches walk a person they have led to the Lord to the front of the church. I am sad to say this includes me. When my walk with the Lord is weak, my spirit becomes critical and my focus turns inward. Without exception, when this happens my personal evangelism is non-existent.

Before you go into cardiac arrest let me clarify one fact: we all have musical style preferences. I grew up in a Southern Gospel background where the preferred church music models were NOT Bach and Beethoven, but rather Bill Gaither and Vestal Goodman!
When our family would gather for reunions everyone would bring their guitars and spend hours singing songs by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, finished off by numerous selections from the latest Stamps-Baxter collection and the Broadman Hymnal. In my home church we sang from the Baptist Hymnal and even today I remember specific hymn numbers that were my favorites (i.e., #475 – “Victory in Jesus”; #448 – “Because He Lives”). My first exposure to “legitimate” music occurred in high school when I was introduced to a true choir and the emotional impact of a cappella choral music. While a student at Copiah-Lincoln Community College our concert choir presented Schubert’s Mass in G Major as our end of year concert. I still remember the emotion of that work and that experience subsequently influenced my musical development and preferences. While a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I studied musical masterpieces such as the Brahm’s Requiem and Haydn’s Creation…all of which added to my musical palette. Even then, however, the music we used in church was vastly different than what we studied in class. Composers such as Camp Kirkland and Tom Fettke provided much of the repertoire for my church choir. If Handel appeared it was at Christmas and only in a limited engagement of Messiah

With such a wide range of musical interests it is no wonder I found myself perplexed when planning worship. The need to connect with those seated in the pews each week, juxtaposed with strong pressure to protect the “integrity of church music" and fulfill my own musical preferences, created what the late Don Hustad termed as “Musical Schizophrenia”, a condition that impacted me much of my ministry.

I worked through this issue several years ago when God revealed this basic truth: music in the church is not an end in itself but rather a tool to accomplish a larger purpose. Christian music is not music for the sake of music. It is a functional art. It exists to achieve the larger purposes of worship, evangelism and discipleship. Once I grasped this truth my preferences became negotiable:
  • Hymns could be musically “reframed” using a more relevant musical style;
  • Projection was now important because it related to a visually stimulated culture;
  • Modern instruments became critical to connect with an ever-changing musical culture;
  • Methodologies became tools to utilize, not chains to enslave; and,
  • While heritage became something to be celebrated, the bondage of traditionalism was removed.
Once I understood the purpose of music in the church was not to meet my preferences, the focus shifted to using music to reach people for Christ. I still had preferences...they just were not that important! You see, in the end the question is not whether we have musical preferences…all of us certainly do! Instead, the question becomes, "Are we willing to lay aside these preferences for the sake of the Gospel?" Sadly, for many of us personal preference prevails.

Music in the church should never be focused on simply meeting our own preferences. Instead, we must focus on using music to facilitate discipleship and evangelism as outlined in Matthew 28:16-20:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

For Christians, the Great Commission must take priority over personal preference every day of our lives.

Missionaries understand this truth, which probably explains why I have never received a single complaint about musical style from anyone who has served on the mission field. When a missionary goes to serve in a foreign land they spend time learning the language of the people. How ludicrous would it be for a missionary to drop into a village in Africa and attempt to share Christ in English? In order to be effective mouthpieces for the gospel of Jesus Christ they must first speak the heart language of the people. In every church I have served retired missionaries have encouraged and supported using music as a tool to reach the masses. These Godly men and women, who have given their lives to sharing the Gospel, serve as examples for all of us when we are inclined to complain because we do not like certain musical approaches to worship. They get it!

While there are complainers on both sides of the worship debates, I believe more mature Christians are the greatest offenders. Why? Because we ought to know better. We live in a nation where the Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, comprise the largest generation in American history (nearly 80 million). The sobering fact is that over 90% of this demographic has no interest in organized religion and do not regularly attend church. The question is why? I believe it is in part because we have spent two decades fighting about methodologies and personal preferences to the point that we have lost our influence.

  • They hear us complain about modern worship music;
  • They hear us complain about which instruments are being utilized;
  • They even hear us complain about using hymns…because they are set to a modern musical language;
  • All they hear is us complain!
Is it any wonder we are a non-factor in their lives.

I propose a radical new standard when it comes to considering complaints about worship approaches: all complaints should be viewed through the person’s commitment to personal evangelism. If we are not committed to sharing Christ with those around us do we really have a “right” to complain about approaches designed to accomplish the very thing we are failing to do?

Paul summed this up in I Corinthians 9:19-23:
Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearins in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! (The Message)

I often have thought no complaint should be considered unless the person was willing to publish their giving record. (As a matter of record, I have never actually pushed that idea!) A better standard possibly would be using our commitment to personal evangelism as the standard for judging the validity of our complaints. If this were the case, few of us would have ground on which to stand!

Giving up our personal preferences and becoming a “servant” to those who speak a different musical language is not easy. In fact, it is incredibly difficult. Even so, we cannot sanctimoniously guard the ‘casket of tradition’ while an entire generation dies and goes to hell. Jesus Christ did not die on the cross of Calvary so that we can sing the songs we prefer. To make that the focus of our faith is a travesty to the very Gospel we are called to proclaim.

So, the next time we are inclined to voice a complaint about those “7/11” worship songs or ask the question “Why can’t they just sing the hymn, from the hymnal, without all those guitars?”, we might want to consider if we have shared Christ with anyone this week…just one person. If the answer is no, we might find it more appropriate to fall on our faces before God, confess our own failure as a Christian, and leave the complaining for someone else!

Pursuing the Call!



  1. "I have never seen a single person who complained about worship approaches walk a person they have led to the Lord to the front of the church" That's a pretty damning statement about a huge number of people, and I feel it is at least a little bit exaggerated. Exaggerated especially without the context of just how many others you have personally seen walk people down the aisle.

    The overriding theme I see here, and among many "new" music leaders, is a complete disdain for a huge number of people who have been instrumental in building your mega churches, a willingness to just cast those people aside for the sake of the "new", whether it's better, or not.

    I find that people are more accommodating to change when it is not forced down their throats.

  2. Hey Chuck - the statement is not exaggerated at all. Are there exceptions? I'm sure there are. Have I seen them? Not in my 32 years of local church ministry (which means I'm not a "new music leader)...and that includes my time of serving as your minister of music. I agree that balance and a controlled rate of change are critical for smooth transitions. My point was simply when we are inclined to complain we should stop and take a look at our own commitment to personal evangelism. I'm sorry if you were offended, but that doesn't change the reality of the situation.