How a classically trained church musician and pastor changed his views on contemporary worship.

(Note: This was originally a personal letter written in response to an inquiry from a Northwest pastor about worship style; it has since been slightly revised and published. Many pastors, church musicians and even seminarians have reported it to be useful in their own journeys.)

by Rev. Michael Zehnder, pastor and church musician


I do not have any "prepared papers" available as you requested regarding the "classic vs. contemporary" questions you raise, but I am willing to make a few personal observations about your letter which will hopefully be helpful to you. I found your comments and your criteria for the music you’ve included in your service to be thoughtful, by the way, and appreciated your sensitive approach.

Your excellent, highly trained musician (among others) has challenged you that your contemporary music is not even "good rock music." He may or may not be right. I would have no way of knowing whether to defend you or him unless I could hear it for myself. If you want an outside opinion, send me an audio or videotape of a typical service and a few sample bulletins. The proof would be in the hearing. I agree that whatever is done in the service should be done with all the excellence that is possible. I don’t ask someone to read a lesson or give a children’s message in the service "because his heart is in the right place." I’d rather have someone with special talents in those areas use them to serve the Lord.

On the other hand, I suspect from your comments that you are at least striving toward excellence with your "fairly good band of 12 people." Reading between the lines I also wonder whether the "lack of excellence" is really the issue for your musician; the genre itself may be problematic. And maybe it’s not the genre, per se, but the value that is placed on one style versus the other. An artist may feel valued or devalued by the appreciation (or lack of it) others have for his art.

After being professionally trained for 27 years as a "classical musician," I personally found it very threatening when "contemporary" music seemed to be more esteemed by those I was serving than the "classic" style in which I had received training. It made me feel unappreciated, useless, devalued. I had literally pummelled my body and mind for many years to learn what I knew and to be able to perform and conduct as I did. The sacrifices to accomplish this level of musicality were enormous. How could I turn my back on everything that I had worked so hard to learn and held dear? My expertise in classic and baroque music was also connected to my very sense of self worth. Why would I want to start over again learning a genre that was ’obviously inferior’ when I was already an expert in a genre that was ’obviously superior’ and had stood the test of time?

As a classically trained organist and choral conductor I was furious when it was first suggested to me that I put together a contemporary service on a weekly basis. To me it was "trash" versus what I had been trained to deliver: a rich, spiritual and musical worship experience for the ears, mind and heart. I very reluctantly agreed to observe some services elsewhere that were of the style my pastor wanted me to produce. After experiencing them, I softened a bit on the "excellence" issue. Though the music was not of the baroque and classic genre that I knew intimately and loved, I had to admit the music was tuneful, catchy and certainly captured the hearts of the people. It was also performed well and with flair, and the texts of the music expressed portions of the Psalms that were often neglected in standard hymnody.

But what really captured my imagination had nothing to do with the music. I kept asking myself why thousands were attending these churches. Why would I see, for instance, 500 clean cut teenagers sitting in the gymnasium studying the Bible as thousands of other people, young and old streamed into the sanctuary with their Bibles, eager to learn about God? Musical style was hardly the whole answer but it was a big part. I’ve heard Rick Warren (Saddleback) and Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), pastors of two of the fastest growing churches in America, both say that the biggest mistake they made early in their ministries was undervaluing the importance of good worship music.

I had wanted everyone to change and learn to love the music that Mike Zehnder loves. Still to this day if you told me I would be stranded on an island and could choose only one CD to listen to for the rest of my life I wouldn’t have to give it a second thought: it would be Bach’s deeply profound Mass in B minor. But I began to realize that I had a higher loyalty than mere "music making." I truly wanted to reach souls for Jesus Christ. If my musical taste were getting in the way of salvation of souls for whom Jesus shed His precious blood then it would have to be Mike Zehnder who learned to change and not everybody else. I love music, but I love Jesus and His mission more!

The answer for your musician may not really be a musical one but a theological one. It was for me, at least. I had studied music formally since I was 4 1/2 years old. I had an advanced music degree and was president of a number of prestigious musical organizations. I hadn’t heard many organists in my church body who were my musical peers. As a choral and orchestral conductor, I knew even fewer folks who had accomplished themselves at the same level. I’m not saying this at all in a bragging spirit; this is just simply descriptive so you more fully understand where I’m coming from. I offer this self assessment in the same spirit that Paul speaks of himself in Philippians 3, "If anyone else thinks he has reason to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless."

He continues, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection..."

Now, I would like to put those truths into my own words, loosely based on Paul, "If anyone else thinks he has reason to think himself as an excellent church musician, I have more: trained under blah, blah, blah, studied under blah, blah, blah, hold degrees from the distinguished blah, blah university, selected for the prestigious blah, blah awards, experienced doing the following blah, blah things, trained in liturgical worship under blah, blah, blah at blah, blah, blah university, served as president of the esteemed blah, blah, blah musical organizations. As for zeal, few have worked as hard as I or produced a better blah, blah, blah in our entire church body and blah, blah, blah. Furthermore, few have as refined an understanding as I do of what constitutes excellent church music nor can I even share with the average person the intricacies of my knowledge and taste because of blah, blah, blah."

"But whatever was a credit to my musical prowess I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider all my musical degrees, knowledge, awards and experience as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing and sharing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I am willing to lose all earthly applause. I consider my degrees, experience, titles and knowledge RUBBISH in order that I might win some to Christ through whatever musical genre will touch a person’s soul and draw him close to the love of Jesus. I realize the only things that will not be burned up in fire on the last Day are people and the Word of God. I therefore humbly commit my life to reaching souls for Jesus Christ with all the abilities and faculties that God has given me. Though in human terms I have been given much musical talent and have had wonderful musical experiences, my foremost desire is to share "Christ and the power of his resurrection" with others that they may spend eternity in the presence of Jesus. I am therefore willing (not reluctantly, but joyfully), to reach people for Jesus by learning to speak to them through their musical tastes, not by trying to force them into mine."

To say it again, I love music, but I love Jesus Christ and His mission more!

I would like to make a few other theological observations that spoke to me as a musician. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that we can have all kinds of gifts, tongues, faith and knowledge but if we have not love we are "only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal." I wonder how many musicians like myself have been so puffed up in their musical knowledge that they forgot to LOVE the people they are called to serve. It is not love to speak a language they do not speak. If Paul can criticize someone for speaking in tongues of angels as being a loveless act, then I would ask you to consider that a musician could perform "lovelessly" in a musical language that is also foreign to his audience. For the average American, the sounds of "classical" or "liturgical" music in worship might be considered a foreign musical language, or "tongues of angels," if you will. Its use is not a loving thing to do. Musical art can touch or turn off like few other mediums. The purpose in worship is not "music" for music’s sake. The purpose is to serve as a vehicle for God’s Word. If the vehicle is a turn-off, where is the communication? "Tongues" may speak absolute truth, but if it’s not understood, Paul warns against its use in corporate worship. Ditto for music that doesn’t communicate. The Gospel should be as clearly proclaimed from the musicians’ area as from the pulpit. If style gets in the way of that communication we should find what does get across and the answer to this will be as individual as every church across America. As Luther said, "Music is the handmaiden of the Gospel." Let’s give the handmaiden a dress that is in keeping and style with the culture so that her beauty is obvious to all. We don’t want the beautiful girl to look like she has a bone through her nose, unless, of course, a bone in the nose is considered beautiful by the culture we’re trying to reach.

We must speak the heart language of the people. We laugh now to think that some early missionaries tried to get American Indians to speak German before they allowed them to come to worship. We chuckle to think that one denomination voted in the early 1900’s to "always remain a German speaking Synod" and then just a few years later, received the English Synod into its midst and produced its first English hymnal. Soon after, every congregation was worshipping in English in spite of the recent vote to remain "pure to the mother tongue." The shift from German (or Norwegian or Swedish or whatever your forefathers spoke) to English was a hard but necessary transition when these European churches reached American soil. One challenge for some of the more traditional denominations today is to gain the courage to make a similar switch from the "classic" musical sounds of their European forefathers to the musical heart language of average Americans.

It is estimated that only 2% of Americans listen to classical (I use the term "classical" in the generic sense) music. I happen to be one of them. In fact, I own over 2,000 classical records, CD’s and tapes. Give me Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. Let me hear a solo violin soar its intricate melody over the top of the other violins, violas, cellos and basses. If I’m in the mood to rock my soul I’d rather bring myself to tears with Joseph Szigeti playing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1 than listen to the Rolling Stones or Eminem, thank you. However, I’m in a fast declining minority. In Los Angeles a few years ago, the most populous city in the United States, there were two classical stations. One had to close down. The stated reason was there "wasn’t enough demand" and, therefore, enough advertising dollars to support two classical stations. Can you believe that?!!! In L.A.? But it’s true! I hear that the same thing has happened in Chicago and they’ve gone from 2 classical stations to one. Denver completely lost its one classical FM radio station!

I say this to underscore the needs of churches (and denominations) to embrace the "musical heart language" of the vast majority of people. It is a lesson that historically we have learned very slowly. It was a lesson I personally learned slowly and was originally against my will. But now I willingly look to see how I can speak in the musical language of my culture and am also unafraid to blend the best of the past with the best of the present. Each congregation, each pastor, each musician likewise has to discover the best mix on their own for their place and people. There can be no ’cookie cutter worship style’ as much as we might like that for ease. Church worship needn’t be McDonald’s where a Big Mac tastes the same in Moscow as it does in Iowa. Church music and style should be excellent and beautiful but not everywhere the same because the musicians are different, people are different, pastors are different. Differences can be delightful. Rembrandt doesn’t have to be Renoir in order to be beautiful or evoke an emotional response.

Another theological observation:

Paul said that he had "become all things to all men in order that he might win some." He lived as a Jew among Jews and as a Gentile among Gentiles. I think the worship application is obvious. Because of this, many churches have legitimately gone to "two-track worship styles." The liturgical service appeals to the "Jews;" the contemporary service may appeal to the "Gentiles," those unrehearsed in the niceties of historic worship. But even this is too simplistic. In churches I’ve served in the past, many folks "crossed over" from one service style to the next. They loved the Lord and they loved to worship Him in many styles. But perhaps when we are reaching "Gentiles" we first have to learn to speak "Gentile music." Many churches also find "blended worship" seems to be the best communication vehicle. Who cares what’s the style? Christ is interested in content and intent. Jesus said in John 4 that worship is a matter of the heart and that true worshippers will worship him in "spirit and in truth."

Another passage that spoke to my musician heart during my transition to appreciating and using many forms was Gal. 1:10, "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." How I wished to be spoken well of by other church musicians of equal stature and accomplishment! I had desired that leaders in my denomination would be appreciative and say, "Well done, Mike. You’re doing a fine job as a minister of music and you set a good example." Yet I discovered that if I varied from the standard path not all would speak so kindly. But more important than the approval of others, Galatians 1:10 reminded me that I really had one person to please: Jesus. And it was He who said we should be "as shrewd as serpents and as harmless as doves" (Matthew 10:16) as we reach out to the lost. I don’t believe it is merely shrewd to speak the musical language of the people. It is common sense. And Biblical. And love for neighbor.

When missionaries of even traditional churches go into foreign lands they do not hesitate to use the musical language of the indigenous people in the service of the Gospel. Why do we hesitate to do this in America where there is also much cultural diversity? America is now the new mission field and many other countries are sending their missionaries to our lost society whose "god" IS made of wood and stone: material things! None of these missionaries to America, to my knowledge, have decided the best way to design worship for the American mission field is to use chant and a solitary diet of sturdy hymns from the past.

Many are worried we will lose the heritage and appreciation of our traditional liturgy and hymns. That is a very highbrow and noble sounding argument. But we should be more concerned about the thousands of back door losses among our churches than the loss of our liturgical heritage. These thousands of people who no longer worship in our churches are souls for whom Christ died! Christ did not die for the liturgy! He didn’t give his life’s blood to validate tradition (rather, he came "not to bring peace but a sword"). He died to save lost souls, not for lost historical forms. How can we equate the loss of heritage to the loss of one soul? What a mockery of the high cost to the Lord of heaven and earth who shed his blood and gave up his life, not for a worship style but for people! What blasphemy against the express command of Christ to "go and make disciples"! The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents. Angels don’t rejoice over churches that hang on to their worship heritage at the expense of outreach. They rejoice when a lost person gets saved. Whether that’s happening in the context of traditional or contemporary worship is immaterial. What’s important is that the lost sheep get found. The color of the rope and the materials of the corral matter not.

Jesus never recommended a particular worship style. On Maundy Thursday, Scripture records, "And when they had sung a hymn..." The composer’s name and the style weren’t significant enough to be recorded or the Holy Spirit would have listed it. If anything, Scripture seems to say, ’Use every possible style for worship known to mankind’ when we read, "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19). The Psalms mention the use of instruments as diverse as the reflective "harp" and the roudy "loud, clanging cymbals." When the woman at the well tried to get him into an argument about worship decorum adiaphora (in this case, location) Jesus didn’t bite and told her, "True worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4). I think Jesus would have said the same thing to her if she had brought up a ’style question’ instead of a ’location question.’ Location, style, instrumental preferences and many other factors in our worship are far less important than we think. God is interested in the worshipper, not in the worship rubrics. "Man looks at the outside, but God looks at the heart."

I recently went to India on a mission trip. The churches and pastors are dirt poor (average pastor makes $30 US a month and sleeps in the back of the "church"). I participated in a worship service where the only instruments available were bongos, tambourines and other loud percussive instruments. There was no melodic leadership other than from the pastor who sang a cappella through a battery-powered bullhorn (!) placed on the altar, which he used as a microphone and P.A. system - pretty humble stuff. The people sang their hearts out with the pastor over the top of these loud and noisy percussive instruments. It was quite a din of sound - but I was determined not to get trapped looking merely at the outside of things. I observed that their faces were radiant with praise to the One who loved them. I reflected briefly that some American pastors and musicians might recoil in horror at this worship service. And then I full-heartedly joined in what surely reached out God as genuine, heartfelt praise. They sang in a language called Telagu and I made up English phrases as best I could to spontaneously and loudly join their praise the Lord. It was pretty "messy" worship for my musically trained (American) ear. But I know in my heart it was for the Lord as the old praise song requests, "Let it be a sweet, sweet sound in your ears."

Now, you mentioned that your contemporary service has "become your most popular service." That should surely say something to both you and your musician. Yet he is "totally critical" of it. I know that hurts. You want to reach people for Christ and it is hard to withstand the criticism of others, particularly when they are very knowledgeable. How you would also love to have him on your side so that you might work effectively together! But I encourage you to stay with your heart if winning him over is not possible. Don’t let others dissuade you from the evangelistic potential of contemporary worship. We don’t need to "win the approval of men" but only to be servants of Christ. Philippians 3:10 and Colossians 1:24 say we can expect suffering as we reach out to others with the Word of life. Somehow suffering "criticism" doesn’t seem like a manly enough experience to be labelled a part of the sharing of the "sufferings" of Christ, but I believe it is. For sensitive pastor-souls who love their Lord and have a heart for the lost, that sensitivity makes us vulnerable and makes criticism painful. But we can rejoice that we have been considered "worthy to suffer for the name of Christ." And if we’re ever going to aspire to the lofty title of "theologian" we must also go through the tentatio of Luther’s dictum, "Oratio, meditatio, tentatio...(prayer, meditation, suffering) makes the theologian."

Having made these few theological observations, I would like to turn now to a few musical ones. Actually, they are more in the line of suggestions.

1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could "win" your musician as an ally and partner in reaching folks with the Gospel of Jesus through music? It’s worth trying. On the other hand if he is obstinate and unspiritual then his musical knowledge is ultimately not worth much (1 Cor. 13).

2. Take his criticism seriously. It may be totally legitimate. Perhaps he has struck a raw nerve of truth. Are what your contemporary musicians doing trite or sloppy? Is the chosen music worthy of performance? My offer of critiquing a tape still holds...

3. Personally, I shy away from contemporary music that is too "sweet." I like songs rich in theology like those in The Best of the Best in Contemporary Praise & Worship. It sounds great even with a simple combo like a piano synthesiser, guitar, drums and saxophone on the melody. We can even blend in these songs with others from our tradition (but if written in the 1500 or 1600’s, be careful; the jolt is sometimes too severe from one style to the next). I was struck just today as I was writing my Christmas Day sermon at the profundity of even "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." I was comparing its lines about the nature of Christ to the revelation of Him in John 1:1-14 and marvelled at the theological correspondence. Not all contemporary songs take us as deep so we need to choose contemporary songs that also have something to say. The Best of the Best in Contemporary Praise & Worship was carefully developed to contain many such "deeper" contemporary songs and serves as a usable collection fine contemporary song, musically and textually.

4. On the other hand, the simple American mind sometimes needs to hear repeated truth over and over again in order for it to sink in. Case in point: "God is so good, God is so good, God is so good, He’s so good to me." God forbid if every song said as little. But God also forbid if there is never room for such a simple, lovely expression of faith. Luther said hymns should be didactic but must they teach the entire catechism in each verse? We give children "Dick and Jane" to read before we introduce them to Shakespeare. If we are reaching out to "Gentiles" then we need music geared to Gentile understanding. We do this in education, why not in music? Sometimes also the more simple the music and lyrics, the more profound. Einstein once said, "If the answer is simple, God is knocking." I have found tears welling up in my eyes singing such "simple" songs, as "I love you, Lord." I am reminded when this happens that I have more than "just" a brain. God says that when we love the Lord every part of our being is to be engaged in this worship, "…All your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength." (Mark 12:30) And sometimes you have to get through to the heart before you can get through to the head. That is why the Lord disciplines us in ways other than mental, so the mind will finally get the point. Get the point?

5. Give your musicians (and yourself) a few Sundays off to visit some other churches where contemporary music is being done well and don’t just stick to observing others in your own denomination. If you schedule yourselves carefully you can take in two or three different churches on one Sunday morning and also take in an evening service somewhere. This is how l learned best and fastest: by observation. Perhaps such excellence in contemporary music isn’t available in your community’s churches. Then order some musical tapes from Saddleback in Irvine or Willow Creek in Barrington. Compare yourself to them but don’t despair because they set a high musical standard for contemporary church music. Better yet, go to the Willow Creek Church Leadership conference and take your musician with you. I was there this fall and was FLOORED at the excellence of musicianship and musical creativity. If your musician doesn’t agree with me on this, then what you have is not a musical difference of opinion, but musical snobbery and rigidity.

6. Beware of the argument that only music that has stood the test of time has any value. John Wesley and Isaac Watts wrote thousands and thousands of hymns. How many of them do we still sing today? A handful at best. There is no truth to the argument that "disposable music" has no place in the church. I would argue the opposite. "Disposable music" has always had its place in the church. The question has never been whether we should adapt to the times, only how to do it.

7. Why does the church continue to use a musical style that is foreign to 98% of the population? "We’ve always done it that way" or "it’s our tradition" should not be excuses among thoughtful people, much less among believers who want to honor and fulfill the Great Commission.

If you want some dialogue, please call me. Keep up the good work and don’t let your zeal for building up the found and reaching out to the lost grow cold in anyway. Those on the cutting edge in the church must always suffer for it.

Sincerely in the love and fellowship of Jesus Christ, Rev. Mike Zehnder


© 2003 by Mike Zehnder and Godbepraised.com Used by permission.

Autor: Michael Zehnder

Jahr: 2000

Update: 22.11.2000

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