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Song leaders weigh in on old vs. new, the future of church singing

For the second part of our series on singing in Churches of Christ, The Christian Chronicle surveyed those who lead us in song each week: worship directors, song leaders and worship ministers at congregations across the United States. The questions — and their answers — follow.
The interviewees:
• Stephen Bailey, associate minister for worship and benevolence, Lake Cities church, Trophy Club, Texas.
• Hal James, worship minister at the Kirkwood Avenue church in Iowa City, Iowa.
• Rick Johnson, worship and body life minister, Eastside church, Antioch, Calif.
• David Kite, song leader, Brentwood Oaks church, Austin, Texas.
• Wayne Newland, longtime song leader, now at the Greater Portland, Maine, church.
• Colin Webb, song leader, Edmond, Okla., church.
• Art Williams, song leader, University church, Montgomery, Ala.
Were you raised in a cappella Churches of Christ? If so, what are your earliest memories of singing in the church? If not, please describe your own experience.
• Bailey: “I was raised in the acappella Church of Christ and can remember picking up harmonies at an early age while listening to my mom sing alto. I remember learning how to direct 4/4 and 3/4 time and standing before the congregation on Sunday nights leading songs with other boys.
“I remember the first time I realized I was actually reading the tenor line of a song. We were singing ‘Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul’ and something just clicked.”
• Newland: “Yes. Was carried in a basket within a week of birth (so am told). Always enjoyed singing, especially the Stamps Baxter genre songs that first experienced in WV. Appreciate most other songs too, except the 7-11 ones (7 words sung 11 times). Sang melody as a child, moved to alto before voice changed, then bass as an early teen.”
• Johnson: “Yes. I remember singing some of the old country songs like ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ in a small church in a small town in Oklahoma back in the ‘50s.”

• Kite: “Yes. I started leading singing in ‘song practice’ every Sunday afternoon before the evening service as soon as I was old enough to hold the book. I figured out one time I’ve probably led for Sunday morning service about 1,000 times. Not nearly as many as some, but enough to know a few tricks and to have some well developed opinions.”

• Webb: “I was raised in a cappella churches of Christ. My father held sa M.A. in Music Theory and Composition and led singing and preached for many congregations. He taught me to lead singing at a young age. I first led singing in third grade at Mayfair church of Christ in Oklahoma City, and I’ve been leading singing for more than 35
• Williams: “Yes, I was raised in the church of Christ, singing a cappella. My earliest memories are sitting by my mother during worship and hearing her sing alto (Dad is a preacher, so I didn’t get to sit by him much during services). I attribute that experience, of hearing and trying to imitate my mother’s singing, largely to my being able to hear and sing harmony today – although today I sing tenor!”

Is it true that our congregations are singing fewer (and in some cases none) of the great Protestant four-part hymns and are moving quickly to praise songs? If so, what does this mean for the church as a whole?
• Bailey: I can’t speak for other congregations, but we try to include a mix of both old and new. Great songs are great songs whether written hundreds of years ago or last week. I’m more concerned that God is honored by our praise in song than I am who wrote what when. I hope it means a deeper worship experience for all participants. I’ve found that the new songs allow us to think in a new way about what we’re singing and when mixed with the more familiar songs, the old become fresh again. At any rate, the Kingdom of God will be fine. The church of Christ is going to have to decide where they stand not only on the question of old verses new songs, but on the acappella question as well. Because we are known as an acappella group and different churches will choose different paths, it will eventually lead to an identity problem.

• James: Yes. It means there is a lack of knowledge and appreciation for the music of our forefathers.  Part of the blame for this goes back to poor leading.  Most of our hymns have great depth and passion in their melodies and lyrics.  But if poorly led, they get lost.  Folks are turned off and don’t want to sing them.  Most of today’s ‘praise songs’ are admittedly easy to sing and use lyrics that are more modern.  This is one reason for their popularity. But when a trained song leaders leads hymns [properly] with passion and energy it makes a great difference in the congregation’s desire to keep singing them.
• Johnson: Many churches are adding more contemporary songs (“praise songs” and others) to their repertoires, but my experience is pretty anecdotal. Don’t know if any research has been undertaken.  Here at Eastside we sing a mix.  Not sure anyone can predict what that means for the church. Many of the “great Protestant four-part hymns” that were written during the reformation and years following were considered trendy and risky by some, and we seem to have survived that.  My guess is that the really good contemporary songs will survive because of the ways they speak to the heart and the others will fade away as thousands of other hymns have done.  I believe we are fortunate in that we have access to quality a cappella arrangements of more contemporary songs thanks to such groups as ZOE, True Lift, Ken Young and others.
• Kite:  Yes, we’re singing hymns less and praise songs more, and it’s a good thing. When I sing “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks” I cry. My uncle led that song at my Grandfather’s funeral. When I sing “I Walk With the King” I remember Mike Young, an old man who taught me the difference between a worship director and a song leader. When I sing “O Sacred Head”, or “No Tears In Heaven” (real soft and slow), or “Hold Thou My Hand”, by Fannie Crosby, or “God of Our Fathers” or any of hundreds of other “great Protestant four-part hymns”, memories well up in my mind that stir me to great emotion and meaningful worship.  They are the songs I grew up with.  I have memories intertwined in those songs.  But they mean very little to my own children and youth of the Church in general.  Their memories are of the praise songs they learned at camp.  Actually, I have some of those memories, too.  I remember the first time I ever heard “Kum Ba Yah”, the first praise song I ever heard.  It was at camp and we had a guest speaker from Nigeria, which made the song really meaningful.  I still think it’s one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, but my kids think it’s a joke.  They don’t have a memory tied into that song. 
We are all products of our youth.  We like the styles we grew up with.  I like penny loafer shoes with no socks.  Both my parents and my children think I’m nuts.  I like the songs I grew up with and I think many of the songs my kids like are drivel.  But if I force my kids to sing only the songs that I like every Sunday morning (after all I am the worship director) then it’ll just make their worship meaningless.  I will have turned from a worship director into a song leader.  
But you can’t cater only to the young.  Too many times we swing too far one way or the other to please the vocal few.  A healthy mix of old and young, of hymns and praise songs, is what we need to have in every service.  Sing lots of songs and don’t sing every verse.  That way you can sing something for everyone.
• Newland: Seems  that change is taking place. Here, we have a variety (blended as some say), depending on who is leading. One man is very traditional.  Another is more youthful in selection.
• Webb: It is true that our congregations sing fewer and fewer traditional hymns.  It is not surprising.  Musical tastes are a reflection of culture.  Beethoven was the rock star of his time but today is viewed as a classic composer. As a musician I mourn the passing of fine music, a cappella or instrumental, in worship and other settings.  I find most contemporary worship music to be of little musical value and spiritually shallow.  However, as we continue to seek those who are unchurched and know little of the Bible the use of this music is very important as it is more accessible and relevant to those we seek.

• Williams: I think there has to be a balance.  Much of the language of the older hymns is akin to the language found in the Old King James Bible, and concentrating on the text enough to figure out the meaning is more work than some are willing to put forth. At the same time, many of the newer songs seem to lack the depth of meaning found in the beautiful texts of the older hymns.  I think pushing a congregation toward singing one style to the exclusion, or limitation, of the other is a mistake.  For that reason, I work diligently to achieve a balance between the old and new during every service when at all possible. The younger worshippers want to sing songs of praise in their everyday language, while the older appreciate and long for the hymns of meaning they’ve grown up hearing and singing.

Are we losing the “common language” of the sacred song in Churches of Christ — meaning that grandchildren don’t know the music of grandparents? If so, are we experiencing a fragmentation of the main corporate activity in our common worship experience? Please elaborate on your response.
• Bailey: I believe we are losing that “common language of the sacred song” and it’s a difficult thing to go through because of the nature of music. We connect emotion and memories with music. However, when tradition and good feeling memories trump a passion for simply worshiping God, we’re in big trouble. We need to raise up worshipers, not people who can sing a good harmony part. I’m much more concerned that our “worship wars” are getting in the way of pure worship and bringing others to Jesus than I am about losing that “common language of the sacred song.”

• James: Yes, if the younger generations don’t hear them sung fairly often or if they are led/sung poorly, the “common language” is lost. If some song/worship leaders lead only newer songs and exclude older hymns and if some song/worship leaders lead only older hymns and exclude newer songs, fragmentation is the result!  A trained/wise song/worship leader will make sure that he can lead both.

• Johnson: I believe this has always happened, but, as with most everything else in life in this digital age, it is just happening today at a much faster rate.  When I was a youth group kid in the 60’s, we learned many “new” songs that we sang at camp or youth events but did not sing “in church.”  It took a decade or more for some of those songs to filter into our repertoires.  At that same time (60’s-70’s) songs that were new to us like “How Great Thou Art,” many of the “Stamps-Baxter” songs, and others were often written and composed 15 or 20 years prior and had been sung in some protestant churches for several years.  We just need a cappella arrangements to filter down to us.  In the last 20 years the pace of exposure to new songs and adopting them for worship has simply increased dramatically.  I believe that the best of the older songs will always speak to us, unless (like the KJV) the vocabulary becomes so outdated the message gets lost.  Those songs will likely survive and join the best of the newer songs as the process continues.

• Kite: My thoughts on the previous topic apply to this topic as well, but I’ll rant a little more.  What is the “common language” of the sacred song? Is it only those songs written before 1970?  How about after 1970?  Is it only those songs that were in the old blue “Great Songs of the Church”?  (I know people who really believe the old blue book is the only authorized song book…the only scriptural one.  All the rest are heresy…including the 1986 revised version.)  When we take the stand that “the world is “goin’ to perdition because they’re not doing it the way my Daddy did”,…when we insist that they’re fragmentin’ the main corporate activity of the common worship with their newfangled way of singing (or old fogy way depending on your age) then we have truly become just like the Pharisees, unable to accept any new thing even if it is truthful and pertinent.  There is no common language of the sacred song.  There are psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, old and new, and all are in the language.  The only way you can fragment it is to leave some segment of it out.
• Newland: Main corporate activity?  Singing probably is, but haven’t we always said it  was gathering to “break bread.” Not that our interpretation of  that phrase is what was really meant.  I believe early (NT) gatherings  centered around the pot-luck meal. I’ll get off my soap box! The  answer is that probably that is true in many churches that have gone over completely to contemporary songs.  However, properly blending the songs  would go far to maintain the “common language.”

• Webb: Again, the music of our grandparents is inaccessible to our youth.  Most simply do not identify with its musical form, poetry, vocabulary or relevance to spirituality.  It causes fragmentation only to the extent we allow it.  As a song leader if I only lead songs that are reflection of my tastes and preferences then some segment of the congregation will be left out and unserved.  I believe most of our youth simply tolerate what we do in worship.  They are not engaged during traditional services.  They are moved when with their peers singing songs that appeal to their musical tastes and spiritual needs.
If we cannot find a way to accommodate both groups then we will segregate ourselves into traditional and contemporary singing congregations.  I fear this will happen and it saddens me.

• Williams: I fear we are losing the “common language.”  That’s why a balance seems important.  There can be growth on both sides – appreciation of the old and appreciation of the new.  Many of our older members comment about how much they enjoy learning the newer songs (even though by many church of Christ standards these days, our singing service is still quite traditional).  At the same time, the younger worshippers need to be mindful of the feelings of those who prefer the older hymns.  If the body of worshippers is varied, so should the style of songs and hymns selected.  A dividend is that it creates respect for those who may feel differently.
I also think many of the newer songs are especially important in reaching the lost/unchurched. People new to the experience of worship are going to find more meaning immediately through the singing of songs in their contemporary, everyday language.  At the same time, along the way, the older hymns can/should be included for deeper thought and reflection.
How would you describe the overall quality of singing in our churches? Better or worse than in the past?
• Bailey: Again, I don’t feel qualified to speak about all churches. My experience has been that with a good praise team, people are still singing parts. Personally, I think the quality of singing might be down a little, but the quality of worship is going up. People are finding new freedom to simply sing from the heart using words they understand. I’ll trade a loss of perfect harmony for a church full of worshipful hearts any day.
• James: This will depend on the amount of attention paid to the need of trained song/worship leaders by congregational leadership.  Quality of singing (to our human ears) varies widley across our brotherhood.
• Johnson: I think it varies a lot. I have worshipped with churches where the technical singing was good, but the “worship texture” felt cold; I’ve also had the reverse experience.  Of course I’ve also experienced worship singing that either lacked or embraced both. 
• Kite: It depends on where you go to Church.  If you go to a progressive one that has gotten the congregation’s noses out of the books and up in the air by getting rid of the hymnals, then the singing is probably better…more alive, louder, more of a community effort rather than a bunch of isolated individuals singing muffled words to a lifeless page.  On the other hand, if you’re still glued to that book, still reading the notes and the words to “Trust and Obey” and “Standing On the Promises”, then its probably just as bad as it ever was.

• Newland: Overall,  better.  Reason:  When projection is used, we look up and around,  rather than into a songbook.

• Webb: The quality of our singing has suffered greatly over the years.  Efforts to reverse that trend are futile.  The trend is intractable.
• Williams: Oh, I’m sure it’s generally worse.  People don’t sing as much anymore, and I see that constantly in my work teaching music to students in elementary and high school.  It’s a struggle, even when you point out God’s command that we sing.
Are we producing a generation that does not know how to read music or shaped notes? What are the ramifications to moving from hymnals to singing from a big screen?

• Bailey: Yes we are producing that. I’m nearly 40 and have never understood how to read shaped notes. I’m thankful that I learned to read music at church. I remember song leaders who would give instruction about the song before we sang it, sort of like a choir rehearsal. I grew up in a church that could really sing! But I don’t recall EVER talking about what it means to worship in song. The song leader simply hoisted his favorites and we tried to sing pretty. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, but it was about the sound not the One we were there to worship. I like fun. I like to sing. But I’m much more interested in worshiping God.

• James: Yes… Fewer and fewer public schools are offering choral courses and few congregations are making room in their educational programs to include music training. If congregations project lyrics only folks will make up their own harmony without the notes or just sing the melody – resulting in the loss of harmony.  I know projected songs with notes for projection systems cost $$$$.  But when you consider that you get over 100 songs for $100 from Paperless Hymnal it is a bargin.  PLUS you get songs from a wide variety of song books that include the grand ole hymns of our forefathers and the newer song of praise!   What a deal!

• Johnson: It seems to me that the cutbacks of music programs in schools is a major contributor.  Back in the 60’s I learned to read music in band and learned to sing tenor by sitting with others who had also learned music in school. In the 80’s our kids began piano lessons.  In the 90’s both of my kids were in excellent high school music programs.  These kinds of opportunities seem to be fewer these days.  Churches probably need to be creative in figuring out ways to teach music skills to a new generation – whether it be the “singing school” model or something else. In my grandfather’s generation many hymnals had only lyrics… no notation.  Adding notation was an innovation that seemed very helpful to some and unnecessary to others.  My guess is that notated hymnals (along with opportunities to learn notation in public schools or through church) helped improve the musical quality of our singing.  Don’t know how to evaluate the extent to which it improved our worship. There are good reasons to lay aside the hymnal and look at the screen – head up, graphics that help communicate the message, less individualistic, etc. – but there are also “tried and true” reasons for hymnals in some churches.  Perhaps groups like A View of Worship and the Paperless Hymnal can help us capture some of the best of both worlds.
• Kite: Yes, and it’s not just because we’re moving away from hymnals.  There used to be Singing Schools, traveling teachers who would come to town to teach solfege music reading.  In less than a week almost anyone with at least a little musical aptitude could learn passable sight reading of shape notes.  Then after the teacher left, the congregation would open their trusty blue “Great Songs of the Church” song books, which were filled with shape notes, and they could read the notes.  But now, beginning with the revised “Great Songs of the Church” song book, shape notes are vanishing. Now you have to take piano lessons to learn how to read a capella music in a Church that doesn’t allow pianos.  Go figure!
• Newland: Yes. But recent generations did not know how to read shaped notes either.  See  above for ramification.  Another is, what to do with your hands?
• Webb: I am a musician trained by professional musicians. I read music, sing and play 3 instruments.  My father, who could read shaped notes, did not find it necessary to teach me to read shapes.  Far fewer members of our fellowship can read music at all compared to 20 years ago.
As a song leader and a member of the congregation I prefer the use of big screens to hymnals as long as the music is projected with the lyrics.  Those of us that can read music will be hesitant to “wing it” on songs we don’t know if the notes aren’t displayed.  Refusal to project notes just hastens the demise of 4-part singing.

• Williams: Having music in the schools is helpful in this regard.  I see no disadvantage in moving from hymnals to the big screen, as long as the notes are on the screen.  But at the same time, I’ve visited congregations where the notes weren’t there (only words), and found myself more likely to concentrate on the meaning of the text without them!  I’ve often wondered if there were “parts” in New Testament worship singing. The desire to hear them may be more of our personal preferences than God’s.
Any other comments or thoughts?

• Bailey: For those of us who grew up in the acappella tradition, this is a difficult subject. It’s my tribe. It’s my tradition. I have wonderful memories connected with it. I’m not always comfortable with new ways of doing things. However, no tribe, tradition, good memory or uncomfortable feeling will come between me and my God! Until we worry less about form and concern ourselves more with who we are in relationship to the One we worship, it’s a mute point. We can sing beautiful songs, new or old, with books or not, but if our hearts aren’t right, none of it matters.
Each congregation is going to have to decide where they stand on the acappella question. Open your heart, seek God and see where He leads you. Just make sure whatever decision you make is made in His honor whether it means doing things differently or staying the same. Seek God and honor Him. 
• Johnson: For me, the advent of the newer songs (and praise teams) has helped me worship more deeply and fully than I did before those trends, allowing God to change me in ways I did not see earlier in my life. Might that have happened anyway?  Good question.
• Webb: We can wring our collective hands all we want but the demise of the singing of traditional hymns will continue until it becomes a specialty.  We must remember that what matters to God is not the style of our music but the praise of our hearts.
• Williams: My background is from a conservative Christian standpoint.  I have great respect for the old (whether it be members, viewpoints, or hymns), but at the same time, I try to be realistic concerning what is practical, musically speaking, in today’s worship.

  • Feedback
    The gentlemen have made some very good observations and I agree w/ most of what was said. I was raised in the church and I love singing and songs both old and new. I believe that our singing needs to come from the heart first and foremost. Change can be good in that it can stimulate growth, but all change should be in view of what God desires and not what we think He will be ok with (i.e., praise teams, instruments, choirs, and other inovations not scripturally authorized). It does not matter what I want – God is the audience and altho we do teach & admonish thru song our main goal should be to worship God in both spirit and truth.
    Lynn Alan Heath
    N Hamilton church of Christ
    Hixson, TN
    July, 12 2011

    My preference leans to the simple beautiful melodies liken to the Stephen Foster style melody rather than a song that runs the gamut all over the scale and off the page. A repetitive praise chant puts me to mind of monks in a monestary and leaves my spirit and worship lacking. In short I like the old songs with my nose stuck between the pages of the book.
    Doc Phariss Jr
    Crescent Park
    Littlefield, Texas
    November, 3 2009

    It’s such a human thing to get hung up on the style of music; How many of us sing the Psalms of David or Asaph, the way they were intended? In every generation God raises up worship leaders, and writers who speak His name in Song to inspire and encourage their generation. God didn’t stop raising up Psalmists in the 19th century. I appreciated the concluding remarks of these worship leaders and pray that they will spark thought and consideration for those who serve in church leadership everywhere.
    God has always been more interested in the heart of a worshipper than in their activity.
    “I desire obedience (heart) rather than sacrifice (activity)” “They worship me with their lips (activity) but their hearts are far from me.”
    Daren Mitchell
    New Hope Christian Church
    Marshalltown , IA
    September, 18 2009

    For some singers to stand before the “audience” with microphones, music and lyrics shows they are primarily there to entertain. No one has explained how what we do on Sunday Morning is worship the above verifies it is not. Those who participate are fooling themselves and deceiving others. The blind leading the blind.
    John Jenkins
    Pigeon Forge
    Gatlinburg, TN
    September, 14 2009

    I enjoy a mixture of older hymns, black gospel favorites and contemporary praise and worship. I really enjoy a worship experience that every aspect of worship flows like a beautiful thread to the throne of God.
    How does a church connect with potential worship leaders that can help to continue our a cappella heritage? Are our Christian universites developing worship leaders to meet this need?
    We are a urban Church with a diverse membership. We have been trying to find a worship leader with these qualities without any success.
    Beverly Harbin
    Raleigh Community Church of Christ
    Memphis, Tennessee
    September, 8 2009

    I believe a capella singing offers something so unique in Christendom! I have had denominational friends tell me they have never worshiped anywhere before where they have paid as much attention to the lyrics. They also point out that “we” have more worshipers actively singing than the “rock band” style worship services. We have a great treasure that should be improved and expanded on!
    Keith Fussell
    Sycamore View
    Memphis, TN
    September, 5 2009

    We are not singing for our pleasure that can be done at home what we are doing is worship to God. and that MUST be what he wants. He told us to sing with the Spirit and with the understanding also. and how many times do tears come to our eyes when we sing. When all of God’s singers get home it will be wonderful.
    Weirton Hghts. Church of Christ
    Weirton, WV
    August, 19 2009

    Great job on this series, Tamie. I didn’t see my answer as an option on the poll question, so I’m typing it here. The songs that really stir my soul … are sung in Africa.
    Erik Tryggestad
    Memorial Road Church of Christ
    Edmond, OK
    August, 19 2009

    Although I enjoy the mix of songs I encounter in the worship service I am saddened by the fact that my children may not receive the soul stirring benefit of so many of the songs I grew up singing in a cappella Churches of Christ during the 70’s and 80’s. We kept a song book in the car and as a family learned to sing harmony. To this day a good portion of my individual communion time with God is spent in the car singing those old hymns. Just because they are old does not mean they are not beneficial for teaching and glorifying God. I hope that we will not begin to lose them from lack of use in a corporate worship setting.
    Holly Sparkman
    Antioch Church of Christ
    Nashville, TN
    August, 15 2009

    Music styles have changed much in the last 2,000 years! The Gregorian Chants that were so new in the 1500’s are today considered ancient. As I understand it, what does remain the same is that God still wants us to sing and make music in our hearts.
    As much it sounds like heresy, and as much as I love the four-part harmony in both the old and the new songs, that’s really not what the Bible says that God requires.
    Sometimes, I fear that it is Satan who is using our own music style preferences as leverage to divide us and distract us from our main purpose in worship.
    Perhaps, though, He is simultaneously giving us an opportunity to practice patience, kindness, perseverance, forgiveness, and putting others’ wishes above our own.
    Cynthia Phagan Bittick
    Legacy Church of Christ
    Colleyville, Texas
    August, 14 2009

    It’s all about the heart. I lead mostly a blended service. I get the criticism from both sides. I say they are both wrong. All of this singing is for God. He is who we are honoring. Our opinions are just that. Honor him with your lips old lyrics or new. If we focus on God, it all works out in the end. God is good! All da time! Amen!
    Terry Davis
    East Cobb church of christ
    Norcross, Ga
    August, 14 2009

    “Until we worry less about form and concern ourselves more with who we are in relationship to the One we worship, it’s a mute point.”
    I’m certain Mr. Bailey said and/or meant it’s a “moot” point.
    Scott Simpson
    at Saturn Road (Garland, TX)
    Plano, TX
    August, 14 2009

    I love all the hyms and i,m 62 yrs of age.. I must say the praise songs manytimes are right from scripture and touch my soul a great deal especially after i,ve left the assembly..it really stays with me..the words are so very powerful. One song esp. that comes to mind is a Jerome wWilliams song “After its all been said and done”
    Sunset Church of Christ
    Taylor, MI.
    August, 14 2009

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