Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Generational Differences in church - A Response to Affinity's 'Table Talk' Feb 2013

(David Green's 'Table Talk' paper can be read at http://www.affinity.org.uk/downloads/Table%20Talk/Table-Talk-2013.1-Generational-Differences-in-Church.pdf; I have sent David an earlier draft of this response for his comments and I have also sent this to Affinity to consider putting up on their website).

Having read David Green’s helpful and thought provoking ‘Affinity’ paper I initially filed it away. Then I thought a bit more about it and realised I wanted to ask it a few questions and clarify a few issues. After all some of the matters dealt with are not unimportant; how we worship God, for example.

I know David’s paper was not just about music, but music does feature largely in his application, it is where ‘the rubber hits the road’ for many churches in cultural issues, and it was also highlighted on the Affinity website’s publicity for the paper. So this response is focusing on this issue while acknowledging that the paper is wider in scope.

I then realised I am probably the worst person to be raising such issues. For example, I am in the latter half of my fifties. I am of a conservative mindset; despite being of Welsh blood, even good friends tell me I am very ‘English’ in temperament and disposition. I love classical music, tend to be traditional in my preferences, not to say nostalgic for old-fashioned values, and I prefer my worship to be quiet-ish, reverent in a conventional way and fairly cerebral, though like most people I enjoy preaching that has life, passion and practical application.

So I am probably irredeemably biased in looking at contemporary culture but I must press on. I have been in leadership of one sort or another in Baptist or evangelical churches for some 30 years. For at least 15 of those I was involved too often in struggles with varieties of charismatics who were trying to push through their agenda. A central plank of the charismatic agenda, as anyone in ministry in the 1980s and 1990s will know, was music. If they could capture the musical side of the worship of the church, they could capture the lot, and the young people too. These battles were often very bruising, and many people were hurt and churches damaged.

Now I understand that David is not saying that those battles were a waste of time. I mention them because they show that the ‘music in worship’ issue in churches is rarely as straightforward as discussing cultural preferences that are morally and spiritually neutral. It would have been quite unrealistic for example to say ‘OK, music is just a cultural matter, not a matter of biblical principle, so take the floor. We’ll do our Reformed theology and preaching, you sing and play what you like, and as much as you like – it is, after all, only a matter of culture’.

Behind the music there was theology, and theology usually of a damaging kind. Behind the arguments (so beguiling: ‘there’s nothing in the Bible about what musical instruments you can use – in fact the Old Testament has loads of musical instruments – we can use harps and lyres and timbrels – so why not a couple of electric guitars and a drum kit?’) there was a takeover bid, nothing less.

Am I exaggerating? No, I think not. What happened in many churches?
· Styles of worship changed – repetitive singing, short songs, usually superficial; a different theology.
· Musicians attained a position of quite unbiblical importance in the church, as did the technicians who amplified them.
· Singing came to be seen as the whole, or at least the most important part of worship.
· Musical performance was elevated over preaching as the centre of worship.
· The worship leader – usually not the minister or an elder, of course –attained undue prominence in the church’s life.
· Worship came perilously close to performance.
· The congregation became followers of the music group; singing lost its fully congregational quality.
· Worship became choreographed, focused on what was external, and emotional, rather than spiritual and rational.

I am not, please note, saying that all those who like modern music in worship have a ‘charismatic agenda’ or that there is always an ulterior motive in the desire to modernise worship styles and music. Nor am I saying that old is good, new is bad; or that there is only one style of worship or only one instrument that can safely be used.

My general point is: music does not come alone.

I take issue therefore with David who appears to be saying that musical preference in church is a matter of culture and not of biblical principle. If this is so, music is placed into a sealed container which cannot be influenced or challenged by the Bible.

The interesting thing is that David does appear to think that the Bible can speak to cultural issues, for in urging Christians to be counter-cultural, he writes, ‘The onus is on church leaders to ensure that the culture of the church is biblically determined without being quirky or anachronistic.’ He also says that in areas where Scripture is silent we should ‘develop culturally appropriate and relevant practices, whilst recognising that these are only how we seek to apply more fundamental principles such as worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23), the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:4-10) and everything being done in an orderly and edifying way (1 Cor 14:26,20)’.

But what does he mean when he says that ‘From a biblical standpoint, no musical style or idiom is better or more appropriate for worship.’ He is nearer the mark in saying as he does in the next sentence, ‘At the same time, styles of music have cultural associations which are not neutral.’ Exactly. I am not quite sure what he means, however, when he goes on to say ‘We need to take account of the image we project by our choice of music in church’. Is ‘the image we project’ the only ‘cultural association’ that matters? What about the quality and theology of our worship? What about how music affects our offering to God? What about what music (if any) will best assist our worshipping in spirit and in truth?

Now of course all culture and all music must come under this scrutiny. But I am far from being ready to admit that the ethos of modern music is not different from what is regarded as ‘old-fashioned’. Apart from the matters mentioned above, which one could argue are tied to the charismatic theology issue (but that is a pretty big issue and has rather been absorbed into evangelicalism) one may think of the following:
· The sheer quantity of music in our culture, which is to some extent replicated in our churches. Never has a society or a generation been so swamped by music.
· The effect of music. In The Gagging of God (p 509) Don Carson quotes an author who says this: ‘…if the image has replaced the word, music has replaced the book. Young people watch and listen more than they read …music appeals primarily to the emotions and …carries words past the critical faculty into the affections where they may do either good or harm. Music and image then, the two most potent influences on young people today, conspire to bypass the reasoning powers of the mind and to encourage thinking by association rather than by analysis’. Now - that applies to all music, classical or rock or whatever, but when one considers the nature of contemporary music and its sheer omnipresence, the implications for worship where those features are replicated must be obvious.

So can it really be said, as David does, that ‘First, our musical preferences do not derive from biblical principles, but are culturally conditioned?’ If, as he has said, we are to apply biblical principles in church life, why should these not influence our musical preferences in worship? David almost seems to have second thoughts about his own assertion when he says immediately afterwards, ‘What we like or dislike is to some extent culturally conditioned?’ Well, yes, obviously. But which is it? Musical preferences ‘culturally determined’ or ‘to some extent culturally conditioned’? If the former, the Bible, it appears, can have nothing to say to the subject of worship music; if the latter, I assume it may have something to say.

There are some other important relevant factors:
· There is the importance of the Word in worship. All that can be done needs to be done to elevate the Word of God read and preached. An important question in our choice of hymns and accompaniment, is ‘ what will best prepare us for, and help us to respond to, the Word of God?’ I do not believe that all music is the same in this; I believe biblical principles apply here, even if indirectly.
· If our choice of church music is culturally conditioned, is it asked ‘what conditions the culture?’ David is a better historian than I, but there is surely a case for saying that the culture out of which what we call ‘traditional’ church music arose was itself deeply imbued with Christian values. This of course does not make it ‘Christian’ or ‘spiritual ‘ music in any special sense, but it means that we would expect to see some congruence between the music and what we are trying to do in Christian worship. It is doubtful if that could be said of music produced by the culture of the last 40+ years.
· How neutral are cultures anyway? Earlier in his article David lists a number of cultural emphases prior to, and after, the 1960s. Just to take a few of his comparisons and contrasts, pre -1960 we would have had stability, deference , reserve, seriousness, personal morality and church-going. Now of course these can all be qualities of the Pharisee. The other column, post 1960, includes change, questioning authority, emotional expression, humour, social morality and personal belief systems. David comments ‘Neither side of the table is inherently more biblical or religious…the cultural shift as I have defined it is morally neutral…this means that both generational perspectives have something to contribute to the life of the church and ought to complement one another’. One can see the point, and it is a helpful corrective to unreflective bias in either direction. But – is he not smuggling in here the idea of cultural relativism? If Christianity were to take hold of a society for a period – which column would you expect to see exemplified? Of course the first column can fossilise and become hypocritical and stale, but I detect a bit of generational snobbery here, or at least special pleading – the pre1960 list looks awfully like what is ‘old fashioned’, our parents’ generation, and the post 1960 looks like us, and in the end it is all relative. No; in Christian society there is a place for humour but seriousness is more important; deference can be made fun of but it is more Christian than questioning authority; and change is inevitable and good when needed but stability is more fundamental. It’s a question of degree.
· Also – are the two pictures even fairly drawn? Has personal morality given way to social morality, or to immorality? Has church-going been replaced by ‘personal belief systems’, or by post-modern rejection of all absolutes and meta-narratives? I question the fairness of David’s comparisons here. His choices are loaded in favour of ‘it’s all relative’.

Above all, what does the Bible say about culture anyway? It talks about the ’world’ which has a range of meanings but we must take seriously that we read that the world ‘lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 John 5:19). This does not mean that everything is evil of course (see e.g. 1 Tim 4:4,5) but it at least means we should be careful in our dealing with it and in what we take from it. The New Testament is more likely to instruct us to separate ourselves from the world rather than to embrace it; should this not make us think about what music we use (and that of course need not result in a wholesale endorsement of old over new)?

In the end – of course culture has a part to play in our choice of music in worship. I am far from convinced however that that choice is merely cultural which is what David seems to be suggesting, or that culture is as neutral as David seems to be saying it is; or that our choices in music in worship are as much a matter of indifference as he seems to suggest. His paper appears to be saying that because music is a ‘cultural’ phenomenon, the Bible cannot speak to the issue of music in worship, and that is an alarming assertion. The Bible stands over both church and culture.


  1. As a younger conservative christian I share many of the concerns you have raised here. I like the more traditional worship style. We have to acknowledge that many tunes used come from the cultural music of the time the hymns were written.As far as church music is concerned the most important things are
    Do the words truly reflect scripture? - (many traditional hymns also have problems in this respect).
    Are the words more important than the music?
    Does the way the spiritual song is presented lead me to worship God or admire the performer? - If I feel like clapping it has gone to far.
    What does what we do in church say to those who come in? What of our God, what of our enjoyment of God? Or do they think the "worship leader" has come here because they failed to make it in the pop world, or is practicing for an X factor audition?

    I had the alarming experience in one service, after an hour of singing, praying and the Lords supper, that now the worship was finished we could look at the bible. What is preaching if it is not worship?

    So thank you for this post. Could you post Dr Greens reply as i know it will be informative.

  2. Thank you very much Mostyn for this most helpful analysis.
    My husband and I have many concerns about what is happening in reformed evangelical circles,music being one of them. Having spent several years in charismatic churches, we discovered the doctrines of grace through the faithful preaching of a dear minister in a small reformed church in the South Wales Valleys. It was like discovering precious gems and we longed for more of this teaching.
    After a long period of searching we found a sound Reformed church committed to the Lord not too far from where we live.
    We thank God for that.
    Having followed a few reformed minister blogs etc for the past few years we have great concerns for the direction that many reformed churches seem to be taking.
    It seems to me that few are prepared to say 'Hang on, I love you as my brother or sister in Christ but I cannot agree with you on this particular issue.'
    I pray that more people will speak out against error. I have no theology degree but I truly love, with all my heart and soul, our dear Lord Jesus Christ and I am concerned that His name is being brought into disrepute.
    When our children were small, we read them the story of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' and we have always encouraged them to speak out, in love, against error.
    Perhaps the time has come for more people to challenge what is happening in our churches. Christ WILL build His Church but we are His labourers and so surely it is right to point out, like a good worker, when we see cracks beginning to form.
    We Press on IN HIM. Hallelujah.

  3. I am very grateful for the two comments made in response to my post. I have sent the article to Affinity who may or may not put it on their website - I am waiting to hear, as they are considering a number of responses to Dr Green's 'Table Talk'. With a heading like that one would have thought they would welcome dialogue!