Sit in on a few worship services in today's churches, and you might just encounter something that wouldn't have been seen 30 or 40 years ago. The traditional hymnals might still be in the pew shelves, but some of the songs sung might not come from there. And folks might not have to pick up a book at all, as lyrics are likely to be projected onto screens or church walls.
Changes in musical styles in worship are to many simply a sign of the times, influenced by the growing genre of contemporary Christian music and a resurgence of the praise and worship movement. To others, the arrival of praise choruses and deviation from the traditional hymns of yore is a source of great irritation.
But as churches try to deal with the challenges of reaching a younger generation - many of whom grew up during the initial praise and worship movement and others who do not know the traditional hymns - ministers of music are working new arrangements and popular choruses into their worship services.
"In order to reach and involve people, you've got to appeal to all generations if at all possible," said John Burke, minister of music at Southcrest Baptist Church in Lubbock and a 1979 graduate of Wayland Baptist University. "The message doesn't change, but musical styles do change. I'm trying to use those styles but the text is primary."
Burke said though his education dealt with traditional worship styles, he was already seeing churches beginning to experiment with a blended worship service, and the praise and worship movement was in its early stages. After graduating, he served as music and education minister at First Baptist Church in Brownfield, where he introduced blended worship and began to add orchestration to the services. Later, at Bacon Heights Baptist in Lubbock, Burke said blended worship was in infancy and he was able to grow and expand it. After joining the staff at Southcrest 13 years ago, he introduced the same worship style and has even seen it evolve over the years.
Burke said he's now seeing more churches moving away from the model of single song leader, pianist/organist and traditional choir. Some are employing a praise team - typically an ensemble of six to ten individual vocalists - as worship leaders, with accompaniment by keyboards and an orchestra or instrumental ensemble and choir.
The style really isn't the issue, Burke argues, as long as the text is scriptural and the service is geared toward leading congregations to worship.
"The first thing I consider is the text, then the chord structure and ease in singing," Burke said. "Part of my call is to help lead people to worship God, because they sang a certain song and the pastor preached the Word and it all touched them."
Burke said he has seen at Southcrest the coming together of generations to worship. The older members appreciate that traditional hymns are still sung, though Burke said sometimes they may be in a new arrangement or rhythm. The younger generations enjoy the newer choruses but have a new appreciation for the older hymns as they are presented in a new light.
The key to it all is striking a balance between relevance and focus on true worship of an awesome God, according to Robert Black, assistant professor of music at Wayland Baptist University and director of church music studies.
"The issue is not so much the style of music but our attitude toward God," Black said. "You can use good materials, but if it's for the wrong reason, God doesn't honor that."
Black said the change in musical styles in churches goes deeper than the notes on the page. As churches try to assert their relevance to a society that is interested in God and spiritual things but not so much organized churches, "we've become more market driven," he said. "The worship service is one of those things where we've tried to find out what people want and give them more of it."
Instead, Black said, the focus of worship should not be on appeasing congregations but designing services in true worship of the creator and engaging church members and others to join in. Genuine worship, he argues, will attract the unchurched more than glitzy shows and productions in the church.
"Are our services for God or to reach people?" Black asked. "I think there must be a God-centered service; it's a mistake to try and only appeal to people. Blended worship is the easiest solution because it allows both."
Black said relevance in worship is vital when it comes to music. Some of the older hymns, he argues, are losing their appeal to young people because of archaic language that doesn't have relevance in the present day. In contrast, classic hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and "Because He Lives" are timeless and remain relevant across the generations because of their message.
"I don't think we need to throw away our heritage, nor should we reinvent the wheel in every generation. We just need to choose what is still relevant," Black said. "Everything we do should point people to God. Our attitude should be on God, and it shouldn't matter about the music. The service should be a dialogue with God - featuring praise, repentance and restoration."
Black said he sees a parallel between the current challenges and early U.S. history, when two styles emerged with different worship structures. First Baptist Church of Charleston, among the leading "regular" Baptist churches, was known for worship that was centered on God. Black said there was a small amount of structure, much warmth and serious Bible preaching.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Sandy Creek, N.C. Baptist Church, in the "separate" Baptists tradition, were less planned services with loud music and more of a fun atmosphere aimed at reaching the lost. Services at Sandy Creek, Black explained, were more "horizontal - aimed at building relationships between people - rather than vertical like the FBC Charleston services, where the focus was on building relationships with God."
Burke said he is encouraged by services where congregations are engaging in true worship and feels the changes are just helping to encourage that."I think we're on the threshold of some great times of worship," Burke said. "People are hungry for real worship and they want to participate. And it all leads up to the invitation, which is the most important part of the service. The music often leads up to the question: 'What are you going to do with Jesus?'"