The contemporary/traditional dichotomy that came to exist in the last few decades of the 20th century has caused discomfort and even emotional pain among many worshipers, church musicians, and pastors alike. The effects of these “worship wars”—as they came to be known—will likely last for decades to come. Much has been written about this topic, but perhaps examining it under the lens of social capital—the shared values that enable groups to trust each other—can provide some insight into how to move beyond the dichotomy.
Before we pull out that lens, we should first ask how we define contemporary and traditional worship. Do the criteria for placing something in the contemporary box deal with issues of style or the date of composition? Is tradition defined by the broader church, or is it contextual, referring to the tradition of one’s own congregation? To take it a step further, who within the congregation gets to define tradition? That definition could vary even from person to person. The point is, these terms are very ambiguous and mean lots of different things to different people. They have not served the church well.
Our tendency to cling to those terms, however, is natural and speaks to our human need for identity. We long to be associated with people who share our identity, and part of that is naming our preferences. But whenever we define ourselves, we also either implicitly or explicitly define who we are not. How do we bridge that gap and build up the community that has been splintered by the stylistic divide?
Let’s start with a shared value: We are Christians and we love to sing! Perhaps we highlight that by learning a new song that is from a paperless music resource so that our focus is not on style, but on communal song. Maybe we work to blur the lines by taking an old song and making it new by updating the accompaniment or by pairing it with a similarly themed new song. Maybe we take a heart song—a song with a simple text that speaks to our emotions—and place it near an emotional moment in worship like communion. Or, we can take a head song—a song that uses beautiful poetry and metaphor—and provide a bulletin blurb about its history that allows singers to connect to it in a new, meaningful way.
Another shared value must have something to do with relationships, or else we wouldn’t be in community with one another. We can lift up community and move beyond the dichotomy by staying away from preference language. Rather than, “I like/dislike this song,” we can try, “Singing this hymn brings meaning to my worship experience because . . .” This subtle difference leads to understanding and even empathy. If Sally loves this song that I do not care for, I might be more willing to sing it because I love Sally and understand why it’s meaningful to her.
Let’s work together to encourage relationship over preference and lift up shared values in the hope that the future church will experience restored unity and balance in worship.