Gunfight at the Samaritan Well

Seven Ways to Have Both Innovation and Tradition in Worship Music

I have heard people say things that make other people smile and cause me to cringe. One is: “In Heaven every day will be Sunday!”

Really? The thought of my kind of Sunday being every day of eternity is enough to make me consider trading my theology of eternal life for one of soul annihilation. It reminds me of the phrase from a timeless hymn, “Life shall not end the strain.” I was kind of hoping the strain would ease up a little!

Here’s another one: “I wish it could just Christmas all year!” If a minister of music was heard saying that, he or she would be ready for a rubberized room, generous chemical assistance, and a 24 hour guard. I love Christmas and one of things I like about it is it comes and it goes!

I recently reported in this space my experiment with a USB drive filled with all kinds of Christmas music. I let this thing play constantly leading up to the big day and all the way to January 6 just to get the orthodox, 12-days-of-Christmas effect of it. It really was fun but I also learned something about Christmas music and the public taste that—are you ready?—really should last all year.

At Christmas Time, Tradition and Innovation Are both Welcomed by the Public

How many different ways did I hear the classic Christmas songs performed? Traditional songs were handed over to creative arrangers and performers to be delightfully turned every which way but loose. Sometimes the recordings were as straight as an arrow and at other times they were bent into all kinds of musical shapes, but Christmas was still Christmas.

  • “Joy to the World” was still joyous
  • The town of Bethlehem was still little
  • Santa Claus was still on his way to town and
  • there was still only one color we wanted our Christmas to be.

The artistic freedom allowed these recording musicians was inspiring. Shouldn’t we have that kind of freedom all year? If we maintain the essence of a great song, why shouldn’t we be able to explore the possibilities we find in the music of the song?

At Christmas, there is also room in Inn for the new song. Publishers and artists are always looking for fresh expressions of the old truths or unique vantage points from which to view the old, old story. At concerts people want their old and familiar tunes and they also enjoy a fresh creative touch on them. At the same time they also welcome the new Christmas song as long as it stirs familiar heartstrings. Wise producers of these events carefully balance the new and the old so that the story is told in familiar, expected terms but also in novel and meaningful terms.

Scrooges and Grinches

For Christian musicians, the truth and meaning of the Christmas story is a deep, deep well from which we draw inspiration to create or present new arrangements of the old songs as well as new compositions born in this moment for this season.

Of course there are those people who hate innovation even at Christmas time. The good thing is, we have names for them—Scrooge and The Grinch—so we can let them rant while we go about our creative business.

But, some people who aren’t Scrooges and Grinches at Christmas can take up that moldy mantel the rest of the year. They want the music they know already and they wanted it done “right.” They do not want to work at worship, learning to sing a new song or listening to a piece that isn’t so “on the nose” that you’re not quite sure what to think about it. They are happy to be “at ease in Zion.” (Amos 6:1)

To them worship is about comfort not celebration, a re-hash not a fresh look at old truth, or an autopilot reading instead of a new chapter in the old story. As advocates for unconditional tradition they stifle creativity the rest of the year.

And, there are others who see themselves as graduates of the school of tradition never to be subject to its boring lectures again. If a song isn’t new or a setting of an old song so dense the tune can scarcely be found in it, they aren’t interested. The opposite of being “at ease in Zion” these folks are fidgety in Zion, addicted to novelty and determined to be the first kid on their block to have the latest thing the marketplace serves up. The quality of artistry is not as important to them as the newness of the material. They deal in hits even though most hits are temporary, short-lived, and short-sighted.

The Gunfight at the Samaritan Well

So, we have what I call the Gunfight at the Samaritan Well. Like the well-worn Western tale of the Earps and Clantons at the OK Corral, this shoot-‘em-up-story gets re-made all too often—in too many local churches!

No matter who wins the fight, the church loses. The Samaritans were the innovators—they made their own worship center on a mountain nearby. The Jews were the traditionalists and demanded that worship could only take place at the Temple in Jerusalem. The thirsty woman at the well posed this clash of worship traditions as an implicit question to Jesus,

“What do you say we should do?”

Jesus’ answer to her is his answer to us and it is one we can live with and thrive on in our artistic lives all year—”Worship God in Spirit and Truth!” But what does that mean?

I love to explore this incredible statement with the use of synonyms. I substitute other words that mean spirit and truth. This time, let’s hear Jesus say, “The Father is the Creator. Those who worship him must worship him creatively in tradition (truth) and innovation (spirit) for such the Father seeks to worship Him.”

Worship leaders should have a year-round license to present the timeless songs of the church in fresh new ways. One of the ways faith is transferred from generation to generation is through the traditional songs of the church. But they shouldn’t always be done the same way. Worship leaders should also be expected to find and present new songs for us to sing or to listen to. One of the ways “The Spirit speaks to the churches” is through new songs.

As we do at Christmas, let us worship all through the year with a dynamic that includes both innovation and tradition. The great themes of worship never change:

  • The mighty power of God can still be sung
  • My Jesus still deserves my love
  • There really are 10,000 Reasons to keep us busy and
  • Grace is still amazing

The wise worship leader can link tradition and innovation by combining old songs with new songs on the same theme. Some writers today take the convergence approach of composing a contemporary refrain to go with a traditional hymn. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” is a ready example. All-in-all it can be done: traditional and innovation can coexist and it can be fun. Here are seven tactics I have found to be helpful.

Seven Ways to Have Both Innovation and Tradition in Worship Music All Year

1. Present the congregation with the liberating truth about traditional and new worship music: Traditional music carries the doctrines and testimony of the church forward into a new generation. New Music captures the voice of the Spirit as He speaks to the church today and leads us into the future. This will require the leadership of the pastors/elders, etc. to help you with the Grinch/Scrooge factor.

2. Use this principle: “Common ground to higher ground.” Meet the people on the common ground of the familiar before going with them to the higher ground of innovation.

3. Link old songs and new songs with similar themes together, usually moving from the old to the new.

4. Keep all songs for congregational worship congregational in key and character. That is with sing-able tunes, memorable words and friendly vocal ranges.

5. Sometimes present an old song in new arrangement by first presenting it “straight” for one stanza before presenting the altered version.

6. Set up new songs with scripture readings. Songs springing from scripture have a friendly common ground with the congregation.

7. Be sure that all altered hymn arrangements retain the essential character and message of the original composition. This is a constant challenge to your creativity. (I heard a pianist do a very loud jazz version of “Silent Night.” It should have been renamed “Noisy Night.”)

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2 Responses

  1. Glenn Harrell
    Glenn Harrell January 23, 2014 at 8:22 am |

    Matt Dillon here. My side-kick Festus and I want to thank you for this article from someone who brings a history of experience (for 39-this is a lot of wisdom) .
    Your advise and suggestions can go a long way to keeping the case load down for the circuit judge when he comes to town.

  2. BartlettUnitedMethodist
    BartlettUnitedMethodist January 23, 2014 at 9:24 am |

    Point # 1 maintains a line in the sand. Trad = Doctrine New = Spirit. One seems easy breezy while the other dusty with age. This approach seems more like ammo than salve. Certainly one of the difficulties of combining or blending ideas. Conversation may be created but I’m convinced the bulk of this conversation is earthly.