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Maybe We Can Save the Sound of All Worship Languages

Change creeps through the Forest of Dean, a rural corner of England about 120 miles west of London. Satellite television, compact discs and digital video have brought pop music, movies and an onrush of “Americanisms” to the forest. They are choking off the local dialect, refined and bequeathed from one generation to the next.

“It is going away,” Derek Yemm, a teacher who learned the dialect from his parents, told the Dallas Morning News. “It is getting lost over time. This has happened with most dialects in England. I think it is a very sad thing if you end up with a sterile language and we all talk the same.” Ironically, Yemm has not taught the forest’s dialect to his own children, because they do not care to learn it.

The death of dialects is not confined to the Forest of Dean, the Morning News reported. About 3,000 of the world’s 6,000 dialects may be lost soon, according to a United Nations study. In England alone, 25 dialects have dwindled to only four or five.

In the Forest of Dean, octogenarian Elsie Olivey and a few others who love their language are interviewing oldtimers on tape, compiling oral histories to preserve the unique character of the dialect–the words and phrases, of course, but also the culture and substance of the foresters themselves. They labor with a sense of sadness but also inevitability.

The story of the foresters and their dying dialect struck a chord. It sounded somewhat familiar. A similar lamentation has been sounded in these parts. What is it? Of course, it is the cry of Baptists who fear they are losing their form of worship. They, of all people, can relate to the older generations in the Forest of Dean.

For many Baptists and other Christians, worship music is our distinctive dialect. Think about worship this way: Rarely do we Baptists recite litanies or responsive readings. Seldom do laypeople read Scripture or deliver devotionals, much less preach. The only time most of us “speak” in worship is when we sing. So, naturally, we’re passionate about how we express ourselves–to others and to God–when we worship.

In recent years, much of this passion has been expressed as anger. Many churches have experienced profound disharmony because of music. If you don’t believe it, talk to almost any minister of music. In response, some people have suggested “it’s only music,” as if we all should count to 10 and get over it. But that response oversimplifies the issue and does little to advance reconciliation or practical solutions.

Passion–whether it’s expressed as anger and anxiety or bliss and blessing–is understandable because worship matters. Sure, some people go to church for other reasons, but each Sunday, multiplied thousands of Texas Baptists get up for worship because we need to gather with other believers and praise and magnify God, hear a word from the Lord and receive power from the Spirit so we can make it through another week. When the mode of worship–typified by music–hinders that experience, people are bound to get upset. It’s as if they are losing their language for communicating with God.

Unfortunately, in their passion, advocates for both musical languages, traditional hymns and choruses, often treat the other unfairly. The pro-hymn group often criticizes what they see as shallow lyrics in the choruses. In some cases, they have a point. (You may have heard of the 7/11 chorus: The same seven words sung 11 consecutive times.) But many choruses are Scripture texts set to music. You can’t get much more biblical than the Psalms. Conversely, some pro-chorusers lambaste hymns as old-fashioned. And while some are dated, many are transcendent musically and theologically and will minister to congregations for hundreds more years.

Two noted church musicians have prescribed virtually the same solution. Bruce Greer is a composer/arranger who lives in North Texas, and Kyle Matthews is a performer/lecturer from Nashville. Combined, they worship with literally hundreds of churches each year. They say churches should focus particularly on two aspects of worship music–intention and excellence.

When we come to worship, God is the audience, and we should strive to present to God the very best we have. Of course, expertise and talent vary from church to church, but worship should be planned intentionally and engaged as best we can. Whatever the genre, it should be planned and presented as a gift to the Lord. That speaks both to best use of ability and pure intention. We are not consumers of a worship experience but rather givers of gifts–our worship–to God. When we come to worship, it is God who matters, not us.

And speaking of coming to worship, Jesus taught us to seek reconciliation with each other before proceeding–or presuming–to worship God (Matthew 5:23-24). How can we pretend to worship when we fume and backbite over the style of music?

We must seek win-win solutions to the “worship wars.” Perhaps it is multiple services, well-prepared and faithfully presented, for various styles of worship. Perhaps it is a blended single service that systematically provides elements that help all participants to worship. This is possible if we remember the purpose of worship is to praise and glorify God, not consume our favorite music, and if we recognize each member of the congregation is equally valuable to God.

The loss of our various worship “languages” would be a tragedy not unlike the loss of dialect in the Forest of Dean. But potential for another loss–loss of community within the fellowship of faith–is greater still.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.