Culture Topics

The Great Controversy Over Worship, Part I

February 26, 2015

Drums or no drums?  How “worldly” is too “worldly” when it comes to praise music?  Are there no boundaries when it comes to the way we worship God and if so, what are they?  All these questions are intimately related and make up a fragment of what we call, “The Great Controversy Over Worship.”

A constant “hot button topic” among Christians, this subject generates a lot of interest whenever it is discussed, and by no means is it a simple one to cover in one post. 

A few years ago I wrote this series based on a presentation I heard from a PhD student at Andrews University.  It was the first in-depth research paper that I did for fun and got me thinking, “Maybe I should start blogging.”  A few years have passed and I decided to revisit those early days by re-editing this series.  I figured, “Well, in 2014 I’ve written about other controversial topics like Ordination, Regional Conferences, and Christmas.  Why don’t I just go big in 2015?”

Here is a confession about this original series:

I originally began writing this series with a hidden agenda: to prove that there were certain musical instruments and styles that shouldn’t be used in worship because God found them detestable.

What I always found strange was how both sides on the music spectrum (conservative vs. contemporary) essentially had the same argument.  Just this week, I heard it again: “I don’t like the music at church,” spoken by a person who later stated, “Worship isn’t about what I like, it’s about what God likes.”

So who was I to believe?!

This series literally chronicled my journey to my current position.  What is my current view on music?  Stick around to the end.  Now, I’m splitting this series into smaller sizes instead of the original massive chunks.  This new version is going to include new content but still remain true to what I was trying to convey in each post.  Enjoy.

The Great Controversy Over Worship: How Did We Even Get Here?

Hippies… just smelly hipsters? They were the originals, though, so I guess they have that going for them.

Society in the 1960s

Contrary to what some religious circles may believe, the controversy over acceptable forms of music has been going on for centuries.  But its modern roots can be traced back to the 1960s when society began experiencing a paradigm shift.  The nation was in the midst of war overseas and unrest for social reform was taking root stateside.  In the midst of all this, young people unhappy with the way the system was being run began looking for ways to vent their frustrations and still get their message of change to the masses.

These are the seeds from which modern rock ‘n’ roll took hold of our nation as a whole.  Young people strongly identified with the music and the message.  The fact that their parents hated the music as “edgy and rebellious” was also a factor in the embrace of this form of musical expression.  You may ask yourself, “What does this have to do with the issue of worship in the church?”  The answer lies in the way different denominations responded to the musical change that was happening in society.

The Church’s Reaction

The backlash against new rock music was swift by Protestant Christianity.  Many of them believed that rock ‘n’ roll was immoral due to its musical content and lyrics (in other words, it’s the Devil).  They couldn’t see how Elvis and the Beatles could possibly edify the church and lead its members into a close walk with God, so they shut their doors to the outside.  However, the Catholic Church would soon drop a bomb in the way the church viewed music, and this would impact the way worship was treated for decades.

Vatican II

1963 brought to an end what was probably the single most important Ecumenical Council in 400 years.  Vatican II was an overhaul to the Catholic Church and set the pace for how it related to the modern world.  It took over 3 years to finish, but the results of this Council created the Catholic Church as we know it today.  One of the biggest changes in which the church was overhauled was the way they did their liturgy (their word for worship service).  A major document that came out of that was titled “SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM” (or, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” for us English-speakers) where Pope Paul VI proposed a few “changes” to the liturgy.  You can view the entire document here.

However, I’ve included two portions that specifically deal with our topic of worship at hand:

III. The Reform of the Sacred Liturgy

21. In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.(Emphasis added)

For hundreds, even thousands of years, the church had been used to worshiping in the “High Church” style of worship — that is to say, Gregorian chants and scripture reading in Latin with minimal participation from the congregation other than the Eucharist.  However, the church was now saying that although there were certain portions of the liturgy that should not change, there were other elements of the liturgy that could and should change with the passage of time.

Pay close attention to the wording of the underlined words in the previous paragraph.  This portion says that new texts should be drawn up to closer represent the holy things which they signify.  What does this mean?  I won’t spoil the surprise just yet, but what is being emphasized here is that what is more important is the content of the text.  Let’s keep reading a few paragraphs down:

D) Norms for adapting the Liturgy to the culture and traditions of peoples

37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

This passage, taken from the same overall section of the document, makes it clear that the Church could and would consider adopting certain practices that the surrounding culture observed, as long as it wasn’t filled with superstition and error.  Certain portions of culture would even be allowed to remain intact as a result of this change.  Up next, however, comes the bombshell I was mentioning earlier:

119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.

Therefore, when missionaries are being given training in music, every effort should be made to see that they become competent in promoting the traditional music of these peoples, both in schools and in sacred services, as far as may be practicable.

Take that, Protestantism!  While the other churches frowned upon the idea of this new form of music described as rock ‘n’ roll, the Catholic Church made an astronomical leap in this encyclical.  You might ask yourself at this point, “Wait, are you implying that the Catholic Church had something to do with the establishment of contemporary Christian music?”  The easiest answer is, “Yes.”  Now, let me be clear: I don’t shut myself in my room listening to the King’s Heralds all day long on my iPod.  However, it is important to learn your history so that you are aware of where things come from in order to not simply be swept by popular opinion.

As a case in point (totally unrelated to music), did you know that the Big Bang Theory, an idea which caused much debate over science and its relationship to the Bible, wasn’t introduced by “secular” science?  It was actually introduced by the Catholic Church in 1927 by Catholic monk Georges Lemaître.  Edwin Hubble published his article on the Big Bang in 1929, two years after Lemaître.  No conspiracy theory here; my two points are that science and the Bible aren’t incompatible, and it pays to know your history!

Back to our subject at hand, the Catholic Church was rocked (no pun intended) by this new development.  Some estimates in those days showed that over 9 million Catholics actually left the Church because, in their minds, the Church was no longer the one they knew and loved.  It had become something different.  Many of them went to the Orthodox Churches or elsewhere. This led to a huge fallout and an even sharper reaction from Protestants… but more on than next time.

Feel free to leave your initial thoughts below!

  • Denny

    The church has been under the influence that European classical music was invented by the angel Gabriel. You would not believe the church came from a Jewish tradition since Western European music dominates the scene (check you nearest hymnal). Considering the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ and Don Gionanni etc are both as classical as Handel’s Messiah I look forward to reggae and other so called devilish music being played at the General Conference one day….. But I won’t hold my breath. lol

  • Fred Burghardt

    look forward to finding the other parts