Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership

Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity

Worship Word and Song across cultures and generations

Worship is a fundamental expression of what it means to be a Christian Church. Because worship is expressed through the music, language, and community culture of a particular group, as well as being a reflection of the theology of the wider Christian church, it is usually a challenge to hold together different ideas about what is appropriate. Musical taste, language and culture in most congregations are quite diverse and generation gaps add to the fun.

If the Reformers great concern was truth (right preaching of the Word, and right administration of the Sacraments), and the vision in revivals since has often been for what looks right, sounds right, or feels right, perhaps all those dimensions matter today. Relevance is about connecting what God is wanting to say to us with what we need to say to God, using the media of who we are and how we communicate.

Of course it is never static. What seems heaven on earth today may not point in that direction tomorrow. Although a consistency of quality is important in preaching, prayer and music, so is regular innovation: getting worship right is not a one-time project but a continuous one. Those responsible for worship have to manage change, be sensitive to the needs and tastes of different generations and cultures, and engage themselves and others in the task of being able to discuss and decide what is true, and what is acceptable in Christian worship. Leaders and people alike need skills of discernment that rise above knowing what they like and what they don't like. Thought needs to be given to "what happens to a community when its symbol system is disrupted”(1) and yet courage taken to allow new words, symbols and actions point us to God.

The distinction between matters of taste and matters of truth is important. Leaders have to minister to and provide for people whose musical tastes and spiritual needs may be quite different from their own. They also have a prophetic responsibility which is about challenge not just comfort.

Music in worship has ample precedent in the Bible, though you would not always think so from a reading of Reformed history. The use of hymns and songs is found in the early church, and then through Ambrose and Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great. During the medieval period music developed around the daily worship pattern in monasteries, the mass, and popular hymns. The Reformers had a range of attitudes to music and to musical instruments. Luther's hymns, particularly Ein feste Burg became part of the universal church hymnody. Calvin encouraged congregational singing of the Psalms but was less positive about hymns (the one attributed to Calvin is probably by someone else). Zwingli, a competent musician was hostile - at best it might be said that his sensitivity to the emotional power of music made him feel it was dangerous in its ability to generate ambiguous religious sentiment.

Reformed anxiety about what was or was not acceptable to God, nervousness about association with Roman Catholic faith and practice, and the idea that the only safe thing to do in church was what Scripture expressly commanded, led to increasing distrust rather than confidence about music in Reformed worship. These sensitivities later extended to uncertainty about Creeds and the Lord's Prayer, and a distaste for responsive prayers which is still found in some congregations. It was long forgotten that Calvin and Knox both wrote prayers and liturgies.

Despite Calvinist and Puritan sensitivities the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century was however associated with an enthusiastic rediscovery of Christian song, particularly through Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John and Charles Wesley, John Newton and William Cowper. Yet Scotland was hard to convince, evangelicals included, and the Church of Scotland well into the 19th century even made it difficult for other churches to have organs in church. What was sung in Scottish churches was the Psalms set to meter led and lined out unaccompanied by a precentor aided by tuning fork. The Free Church of Scotland and smaller Presbyterian bodies retain these sensitivities and in the 1980s their youth had to argue for the value even of "Scripture in Song." Arguments in New Zealand congregations about music have been real enough, but generally pale by comparison with the musical culture wars in some other parts of the Reformed family. All of us have to learn that God may be pleased with some worship that is not to our taste.

The mid-19th century "Anglo-Catholic" revival in liturgy and architecture eventually had an impact in Scotland, but it was a long battle to allow responsive prayers, the use of instrumental music and pipe organs, and the singing of hymns. It wasn't just Presbyterians that argued over what may seem trivial, in the late Victorian Church of England there were court cases over candles on the altar. Some debates were exacerbated by Scots antipathy to things English and by deep-seated fears about "Romanism and Ritualism". Zwinglian and more recently Barthian theology has carried a suspicion of the idea of sacrament and of "natural theology" which made it difficult for people to look for or trust personal experience as a window into God. The Ecumenical Movement of the 20th century and the Charismatic Renewal from the 1960s broke down some of this prejudice. Many discovered a common openness to the Holy Spirit and appreciation that God's speaking in symbol, sign, and sense was about confirming God's word in the Bible not replacing it with something else.

It is not just in weddings that you can have "something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue." People need the familiar as well as the innovative. We are ministered to by music that touches feelings as well as our understanding, and we connect with the world and the wider church through music that is borrowed from our cultures and from other Christian traditions.

It is helpful to talk about what is going on in all this. People have opinions about music in church that need to be heard and to be understood. Folk may need help to be able to say why they like and dislike different music. They can be encouraged to acknowledge the sincerity and value to others of stuff that is not appealing to them personally.

Every generation needs its Larry Norman, Scripture in Song, Hymn Book Trust, and Hill Song. It is easy to confuse questions of taste with issues of quality, but both are important. Having a care for worship that opens doors to spiritual experience more than it raises barriers may not be able to please all of the people all of the time, but it can go a long way. It can be helpful to know that the church in every generation has had to deal with this, even though Presbyterians often battled over what music was appropriate for the worship of a holy God.

We may also need to acknowledge that contemporary hymns in traditional form (eg Iona, Shirley Murray, Colin Gibson) do not necessarily communicate with younger generations, though their appreciation may grow with encouragement. Renewing music for older generations is not the same as creating space for the music of younger generations. The very word "hymn" is a turn-off or at best a curiosity for some people now in their 30s or 40s. People approaching middle age may have music tastes which connect neither with those younger than them, nor those older. Yet there are hymns which still speak across the generations, even if the words need checking not just the music.

Cultural differences in churches parallel generational, though we may be more understanding of the music of ethnic groups especially when they have conservative tastes and a conspicuous ability to sing better that most European congregations.

Ministers of the Presbyterian Church have authority to determine what happens in worship. That is actually one of the principal responsibilities to which they are called. It is one where the delicate and positive task of involving others is important, but also one where abdication is sometimes confused with delegation. Whatever one's personal musical gifts, or lack of them, it is a leadership task which properly exercised can take a community of people where they did not know they could go.

A consistent teaching ministry can give confidence to a group of mixed ages, cultures and tastes to grow their gifts of discernment and to handle change and variety as well as the familiar. It is also a core responsibility of leadership to develop the ministry skills of others, an increasingly important task for which not all are equipped. The patience involved in cultivating the gifts of a team may have greater value for building the community of the church than we realise.

Like mission, worship not only reflects our deepest beliefs about what it is to be a Christian in community, it also tests and grows that faith.

1. Cardinal Francis George
quoted by John Allen in "Word from Rome" National Catholic Reporter, 5 December 2003.

Directory for Worship, PCANZ

Festival Singers

Royal School of Church Music (New Zealand)

Graham Redding, Scottish Seeds in Antipodean Soil: The Development of Presbyterian Worship in Aotearoa New Zealand