The churches I have been part of are each a blend of old and young folks—as every family should be. The gathering of believers should in fact reflect a demographic of passionate twenty-somethings, loving grandfatherly types, playful toddlers, young newlyweds, empty-nesters… We all need each other! I’ve spent considerable time thinking about and studying church revitalization (resurrecting dying churches), and I would argue that if Church A has only one age group represented over a period of a year or longer, something is wrong.
So if your church has a range of ages represented, this is a wonderful blessing! Let me say it again: if there is a 70-year-old, a 40-year-old, and a 21-year old in your church—praise God!
Now, I wanted to write about how to lead a wide group of ages in musical worship. If you’ve been a worship leader for any length of time, you have probably experienced the challenge of choosing songs for your context. You’ve heard this before:
Hymns vs. Contemporary Worship?
Stereotypically, old folks love hymns and young folks love Spotify’s Top 10—so how does one go about choosing songs that are appropriate and helpful? Some will recommend doing contemporary hymns (“In Christ Alone”) or revamped hymns (think Kristene DiMarco’s “It is Well”), and others suggest doing a 50/50 split (half of the time spent singing hymns, the rest spent singing so-called contemporary songs). Perhaps… But perhaps the best solution has very little to do with music at all.
In fact, I think that if your dilemma is wading through a balance of hymns and contemporary worship, you may be asking the wrong questions.
Here are some thoughts.
1. PASTOR YOUR PEOPLE.
People will follow a loving, loyal pastor. It’s the way God designed it. Whether you have “pastor” in your title or you don’t even have a title, God has obviously placed you in a role where you are to shepherd people. Your role is so much bigger than singing songs while stroking your guitar and thinking about Jesus. You are not called to lead songs; you are called to lead people. And that’s a humongous distinction.
Be friendly and intentionally interact with your church before and after services. Our church has a small office that doubles as a green room of sorts, and I do use it to collect myself sometimes, but it’s important to never camp out in your church’s green room. Shake people’s hands. Remember their names. Offer to pray with people.
Take it a step farther. If someone in your church is under the weather, send them a greeting card in the mail. Go to the high school football game and invite some of your church to join you. Ask people how their prayer requests turned out. Invite a family over to your home for dinner. Do life with the people of your church!
And when they open up their most personal selves to you, be aware that you are entering onto holy ground. Offer counsel, remind them of relevant Scriptures, prophesy life over them, and lay your hands on them in prayer. Pastor your people!
Your relationship with the people of your church should be less about musical preferences and more about trust.
As they grow in their trust of you and learn to follow you, keeping a balance of hymns versus contemporary songs will become more and more irrelevant, freeing you up to follow the Holy Spirit and give people songs they actually need for their journey.
2. CREATE YOUR CULTURE.
What is the worship culture of your church right now? Stiff? Loud? Boring? Reflective? Disorderly? Hymnals? Projector screens? Choir robes?
Now, where does the Holy Spirit want you to be?
Whatever the case, creating your culture is going to take loads of intentionality and prayer. A great, healthy culture absolutely never “just happens.”
Each individual church is going to look different. Our church New Hope is known for being pioneers, for not shying away from the new and the risky. In correlation with our overall church’s DNA, I prayerfully decided early on that our worship ministry would embrace the new. We would present new arrangements of beloved songs. We would write original songs. We would reinvent the classics. We would experiment with our sound. For us, “new” doesn’t equate “cool”—we would not chase the cool, we would chase the Holy Spirit in all we do.
So before introducing a new song or a trying a new style in our church, I would set it up well and reiterate our culture. I would communicate to our congregation something like, “We’re about to learn a new song together. Here at New Hope, we don’t shrink back from the new; in fact, we dive into the new wholeheartedly if we sense that God is in it. My team and I have prayed about this, and we do feel like God is in it. So, I invite you to dive into worship with us. Here we go!” It’s amazing how a simple introduction like that builds the kind of culture God wants for our church. And I kept driving home that statement over and over again until jumping into a new song was the norm for us.
Now, maybe your culture should include lots of hymns. Or maybe your culture should include a lot of 90s Hillsong music. If that’s where the Holy Spirit is leading your worship ministry, great!! Again, though, as in my first point, the argument becomes less and less about ‘satisfying’ the old and young; it is about keeping in step with the Spirit.
A word of pastoral wisdom, if I may. If where your worship culture is presently and where you want to go are two different cultures, then move ahead prayerfully and wisely. You may build your new culture excruciatingly slowly, and that’s okay. The appropriate speed of the change is directly correlated with how well you pastor your people (refer back to Point #1). If the relationship you have with the people of your church is built more on trust than it is musical preferences, the speed of your change may be faster and will certainly be healthier.
3. OFFER HONOR.
Each and every time I get up to facilitate worship, I must remember that I am only a servant. When I choose songs and arrange sets, I am bowing low to serve Jesus, my pastor, and my church. My intention and motivation in song selection must be pure and humble.
If you ever find that you are selecting a song—whether a hymn or the latest Chris Tomlin—to “stick it” to someone, it will catch up with you and you will be sobered. At the end of our lives, what will matter is not the style of songs we did, but rather that we loved and lead the people God trusted to us.
So when you are deciding whether to do “Come Thou Fount” or Hillsong Y&F’s latest hit, factor in your church’s vision, the culture God wants for you, and then consider honor. What will honor the white-haired grandmotherly figure in the third row? What will honor the newlywed couple? What will place honor on the college freshman who is new to town? A little honor goes a long, long way.
So! There you have it. That’s my take on the so-called worship war: whether or not to do hymns or contemporary songs, and perhaps my answers surprised you. Then again, maybe not. I tend to champion “leading people” over “leading songs” all day, every day. Leading songs is merely the avenue that we get to lead the precious faces and families in our churches. In my experience, I have found that if I compassionately pastor my people, intentionally create culture, and always offer honor, the style of songs never really matters. People will follow a loving and involved leader. My prayer is that you will find the same to be true in your worship leadership.