Catholicity and Intergenerational Worship

If anyone qualifies as the godfather, or better, the midwife of contemporary Christian music, it would be Chuck Fromm. From 1975 to 2000 Fromm was the head of Maranatha Music in Costa Mesa, California, the birthplace and source of the contemporary genre in the early 1970’s. He was in the middle of organizing and promoting the hugely popular Friday and Saturday night Christian concerts that were attracting thousands of young people in Southern California and Oregon, a number of which I attended while an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. In 1991 he founded and edited Worship Leader magazine, coining the phrase “worship leader” even as its subscription rate rose to 40,000.

His description of his conversion to contemporary music genre described in Fuller Focus magazine is fascinating.[2] A musically inclined young man, Fromm sang in his church youth choirs in the mid-1960’s, and even formed a traveling singing group called “The New Life Singers.” One evening while his group was singing what had been marketed as “youth music,” he experienced an epiphany. The Christian rock band, “Love Song,” performed a new song at the rapidly growing Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, “in a vernacular of music that I understood from my culture,” he said. “They were speaking of something that was really going on, not something baked in a different universe and imported. That music—even before I thought about the lyrics—made everything I was doing prior to that inauthentic.”[3]

One cannot hear this testimony without sympathy. His experience connects with many of the members of the “boomer” generation. The environment of Moody-Sankey gospel songs, of Peterson, Gaither, and of George Beverly Shea solos, was to us another universe. Granted, baby-boomer generational hubris tends to see pre-boomer and post-boomer cultural preferences in these sorts of overwrought categories (“a different universe”), but he has a point. I too belonged to a traveling singing group (we were the “Young Life Singers”) which performed Otis Skillings’ “Life!” We dressed up in our yellow polo shirts and navy slacks, synchronized our hand and body motions, and sang, “Life! Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” My buddies and I felt like dorks, but the trips were fun and the gospel was being presented, so we endured. But compared to what we were hearing on AM 93 KHJ every day, church music was from another planet.

Much as Fromm’s testimony resonates, it is also rich with irony. He seems not to recognize that the church music environment that was a “different universe” from what he calls “my culture,” was in fact a familiar and comfortable culture for many others. What he came to reject, many others continued to embrace and love. For some, their familiar and comfortable church culture had deep roots, reaching back through the Protestant Reformers to the early church. At the same time, the importation of his culture into the church was inevitably deeply alienating to those in the church for whom it was new and foreign. How many times have we heard older people say, “I do not recognize my church anymore”? After 40 years (or even 450 years) of relative sameness, they walked into their church service one Sunday, saw a “praise band” up front, heard strange music played with non-traditional instruments (electric guitars, drums, tambourines, etc.), and were profoundly disoriented and disturbed by the experience. If they dared to express concern, they were cautioned not to obstruct outreach to the young. The church, it was explained, was reaching the rising generation. They soon learned that the only people to which the church cared to minister the gospel were young people, or so it seemed. Apparently older people, who were put-off by the new, did not need gospel ministry. So, it was in with the youth culture, and out with whatever preceded it.

“Worship wars,” as they are called, are really culture wars. “Contemporary worship” is really a determination to prefer the taste preferences of a segment of the youth-oriented contemporary culture (typically anglo-contemporary, but sometimes Latino, African-American, Hip-Hop, Cowboy, skate-boarders, etc.) over an older church culture. Have the ecclesiastical ramifications of that determination been considered? Can the church avoid fragmentation and division according to cultural preference if “authenticity” requires that “my culture” be the dominant form in which Christian devotion is expressed? What happens to Fromm’s baby boomer culture of soft-rock when it proves alien to a new generation of young people who insist on music and instrumentation ,which, for them, is familiar and comfortable? What happens when Gen-X or Gen-I rejects contemporary Christian music as traditional, 1970’s stuff, and “inauthentic?” There are two options. The church can either reject the innovations of the new generation and establish Boomer-forms of contemporary Christian worship as the new orthodoxy; or, it can embrace each new wave of cultural change and commit the church to perpetual liturgical innovation, shaped, one should note, by the preferences and tastes generated by secular America’s popular culture and its profit-driven entertainment industry.

The problem in today’s worship wars is that the “what’s new” game has been played now for several generations. Much of the gospel song genre of the turn-of-the-twentieth-century sounds like carnival or ballpark music to young ears because it was generationally-targeted when it was introduced. Moody-Sankey & Co. swept away the metrical psalms and evangelical hymns (Watts, Wesley, Toplady, Newton, Doddridge, etc.) and the traditional music that preceded them. Gospel songs then gave-way to Peterson and Gaither, who then gave way to Maranatha Music and CCM. Multiple generations of Evangelicals, from around the turn of the century to the present, have lost touch with that older Protestant tradition.[4]

It is to this older tradition, captured in the traditional hymnal, Psalter, and historic orders of service, which we must return if we are to unify the generations at the hour of worship. This older tradition, reaching back to the Reformers, and behind them to the ancient church to which they appealed for their reforms, is the church’s own liturgical culture.[5] This older tradition belongs to no single age, ethnic, or interest group. It does not involve the imposition of the culture of one group over another, whether young or old, white or black, European or non-European, because it is its own culture. The hymnal, Psalter, traditional orders, and, we would add, traditional instrumentation, constitute the historic worship culture of the church as it has slowly and organically evolved. It is the church’s “canon,” to which additions and alterations are made over time as worthy contributions (e.g., compositions) gain recognition. Embracing this older tradition can save us from the “liturgical Trotskeyism” of continuous revolution to which our default-drive now commits us. Who knows what eccentricities shall unfold before our eyes in the years ahead if we do not consciously draw back from the philosophy that pegs worship practices to the rapidly mutating American popular culture, and instead anchor the church’s public praise to Scripture and our historic ecclesiastical culture.

What is needed, more broadly, is a restored biblical ecclesiology, a constant theme in all of David Wells’s work.[6] Undergirding his call to truth and virtue has been a subordinate call to a biblical doctrine of the church. “It is time to become Protestant once again,” he insists.[7] Among the greatest strengths of traditional Protestant worship and ministry is that it is historically rooted. The whole catholic (small “c”) tradition has influenced the shape of the ministry and worship of Reformed Protestantism. Another way of saying this is to say that the worship and ministry of Reformed Protestantism has taken ecclesiology seriously. Because it has, it can provide a pattern for the present and the future. This is of no small importance given that very little in the way of a doctrine of the church remains among evangelical Christians. Evangelicalism is parachurch, Wells says, “to the point where the local church, in biblical terms (has become) increasingly irrelevant . . . or, at best, a luxury. It has become more of an optional extra, less of a necessity.”[8]

Historic Reformed Protestantism takes seriously the history and doctrine of the church. It honors the church local and universal, visible and invisible. It esteems the historic form of public ministry. It values catholicity. It respects the “communion of the saints,” past, present, and future. Decisions regarding worship practices typically have not been made in isolation from other churches or from the Christian tradition of worship. Adaptations normally have not been made quickly or idiosyncratically, but have been gradual, and made in consultation with the whole church across the ages. Those who are interested in liberating the church from unwarranted cultural influences should be particularly interested in historic Reformed ministry and worship. Traditional Reformed Protestantism resists the incursions of western pop-culture with its hyper-individualism, rootlessness, love of novelty, superficiality, and the cult of youth that have been so prominent in the shaping of contemporary worship.

What I hope to show in the following pages is that the principle of catholicity requires that we establish a single universal or common public service, that the principle of the communion of the saints requires that such a service gather together all the saints without regard for race, ethnicity, sex, culture, and especially for our purposes, age and generational differences. These, I hope to show, are the principles of the apostles, and should remain the ideals for us today.