Sixteen years ago, when some who now read and write blogs were in junior high school, the College Church in Searcy, Arkansas had apparently noticed a manifestation of the so-called “worship wars,” which had been breaking out in skirmishes here and there. The congregation’s preacher, Bruce McLarty, was tasked with comparing older and newer songs—with a view toward bringing the congregation together. The message was titled “Same Heart, Different Music.” In the rhetorical process, comparisons were made—and sung.
At that church, things have changed a little in 13 years, but perhaps not a lot. Some very strong, service-oriented ministry programs have begun. The main hall’s decor hasn’t really changed, both before and after smoke and fire damage shut down the building for a while, but it’s freshly painted, and the entry areas are spiffier. At least one man has been actively involved in leading and scheduling other leaders since 2003, but quite a few leaders have stopped leading, and others have begun. College students have come and gone (mostly the latter). Elders have come and gone (at least as many new ones as exiting or deceased ones, I think, but I could be wrong). A longstanding “auditorium Bible class” is no longer taught by a former elder, now deceased, but it is now taught by another whom I happen to think has much more apt, thoughtful insights and is also a good communicator.
On Sunday, July 24, 2016, again at the request of the congregation’s elders, now-university-president McLarty reprised the message he had given 13 years ago while he was employed by the church. This time, different songs were used as comparisons. Here is a sampling:
|Older song||Newer Song|
|“Faith Is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light)||More Than Conquerors|
|In Heav’nly Love Abiding||Whom Shall I Fear?|
|Love Lifted Me (I Was Sinking Deep in Sin)||Never Gonna Let Me Go|
In my particular heart-book, there is a page for a couple of those songs (one from one column; one from the next). I think better songs in both categories could have been chosen by the committee or whoever, but the point would be the same.
I believe Bruce McLarty has the same heart (a very good one) as he had then. Based on somewhat spotty but educated observations at arm’s-length (this church is not “my” church, although I am attached to it through an important Bible class and by relatives), I wonder whether the College Church has the same aggregate heart as it had in 2003. I would hazard a guess that it generally does, but that its mindset on church music is significantly different now. I don’t think those who currently have active leadership roles are showing the depth that McLarty shows. (This is not a comment on anyone’s “heart.”) A prominent, current leader wrote of the congregation’s “commitment to blended worship,” and that man may have something of a non-musician’s handle on what “blended” implies to a worship leader, but he has shown me so little discernment in comments about songs and worship leaders that I frankly doubt he fully knows whereof he speaks.
The writers of the (1) traditional and (2) contemporary songs McLarty compared may or may not have as similar a heart or mind as has been supposed. If there are any assessments of quality to be made, then they should be based on content and music that matches that content, not style in and of itself. (Not that McLarty was doing anything other than emphasizing content, but I still imagine that the focus is lost on pure traditionalists or pure advocates of contemporary music.) I’m persuaded that the writers of the better older songs—hymns by musical and poetic content, none of which were represented on July 24—often had deeper conceptions of God, of faith, of living . . . but probably had no better “hearts” than many writers of the better contemporary songs.
A Facebook group of CofC “hymnists,” as they call themselves, has a very different congregational worship mindset, and probably mostly the same heart as their pro-institutional siblings on another face of the Restoration Movement mountain. Many members of this group love and produce high-quality hymns (speaking in musical and poetic terms, but not necessarily in content terms) that would not get more than a glance in the College Church now. (Not to mention congregations with more progressive styles and modes, which wouldn’t have thought to glance in the first place.) Those same songs, if produced and presented 30, 40, or 50 years ago, could have enjoyed full-bore participation. Personally, I wish this group had existed about five lives ago, because there’s no foreseeable outlet for this type of activity in the types of Christian gatherings I’m now pursuing.
Fellowship Bible Church, meeting a couple miles away from the College Church, is indicative of many contemporary, nondenominational churches in that it uses no hymns (speaking strictly in musical or poetic terms), but the content is more frequently hymnic than at the College Church. Its main worship leader seems to be one who understands God and worship (if not congregational participation) better and more deeply than most RM leaders.
I could go on. Northland Mission Church in N. Kansas City and a home group in Leavenworth. A tiny church in the southeastern Philadelphia suburbs and a couple in New Jersey. Congregations in the West and in the South. (None of these sang as well, or had as much potential, as the College Church has had.) The Sojourners Mennonite Fellowship and the Alfred Assembly of Christians, both in the Southern Tier of New York State, sang better, and better-quality material, than any church in which I’ve had an active role in years. My personal experience with all of these church groups has been varied, and other people’s assessments would also vary, but I believe I’ve been fair-minded in sharing opinions.
Isn’t it all interesting?
P.S. The middle section from my book The Christian Assembly provides detailed guidance about how to note and deal with certain contemporary music issues, as well as offering many other musical principles. This section is also available separately here.