Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

6 Jan 2017

On “Conservative” Worship


When a person self-describes as “conservative,” the meaning of the adjective can be elusive. Conservatism can be noble in one context and ignoble in another. What gives the word meaning, ultimately, is the explanation of what one is conserving and what one is allowing to progress.

For a couple of decades now we have seen the growth of “conservative” evangelicalism as a buttress against “mainstream” evangelicalism. But what exactly are conservative evangelicals conserving? The answer is not as clear as we might want it to be.

  • Most would agree that conservative evangelicalism is conserving certain non-negotiable doctrinal fundamentals (though no one calls them that any more, for fear of receiving the dreaded fundamentalist label). They’re now called “gospel essentials,” or something like that. Some conservative evangelicals conserve, by way of subscription, comprehensive doctrinal standards, but this is not the norm. Still, most continue to resist, to a greater or lesser degree, whole philosophical systems like modernism, post-modernism, and other non-foundationalist systems of thought.
  • Many conservative evangelicals seek to conserve, too, a certain kind of worship. But rather than conserving any one worship style or liturgy, the conservative evangelical is concerned instead with protecting the content of worship. Content-laden hymnody has seen a marked uptick in the conservative evangelical approach, and some of the theologically vacuous worship tripe of previous decades has been mercifully suppressed.

The idea of conserving anything other than content in worship has lately fallen on very hard times, and for many reasons. One obvious reason is that there hasn’t been a whole lot worth conserving for quite some time: the idea of timeless or universal composition has disappeared from the popular mind, and few even try any more. Instead, the assumption has grown that worship styles have never been anything other than a reflection of the generational/cultural tastes of a given society. Populism has won. Nothing else exists. And so any “conservatism” of worship (other than the conservation of propositional content) is seen by the majority as a ridiculous attempt to freeze or at least delay the innocuous progress of culture.

Within this distinctly postmodern approach to worship, certain worship models languish and others flourish. Praise/worship, revivalist/gospel, and seeker models flourish, while liturgical and hymnic models worship languish (I borrow these categories with some adjustment from Paul Basden’s dated but still useful book, The Worship Maze). We might name other models (or blend two or more of these), but this pretty much covers the basic approaches to worship.

The three flourishing models do well because they take their main cues from the dominant culture/zeitgeist/demographics of either a given church (the praise/worship and revivalist/gospel models) or prevailing secular culture (the seeker model). These evolve rather rapidly, but that is to be expected. Tensions arise, however, when generational blocks in a given church tire of the frenetic pace of cultural evolution and settle down into their generational favorites. For instance, within the revivalist/gospel model one block prefers the 19th-century Victorian strands of P. P. Bliss (sometimes credited with inventing or at least naming the “Gospel Song”), Fanny Crosby, etc. Another likes the music of musicians who teamed up with the great revivalists of the late-19th and 20th centuries (e.g., Ira Sankey, Homer Rodeheaver, Alfred B. Smith,  George Beverly Shea, etc.). In the second half of the 20th century the number of blocks multiplied, now along not only generational but also geographic and sub-cultural lines. We have a southern-style block; a countercultural/Hippie block; a block of devotees of the powerful soloists of the 80s and 90s; a block that loves the curiously juvenile sounds of Patch the Pirate; an lilting Irish block; and so forth.

This rapid acceleration and multiplication of styles (mirroring the acceleration of cultural change generally) has left churches using the revivalist/gospel model facing a serious dilemma. With devotees of Gaither, Green, the other Green, Garlock, and Getty all in the selfsame church, which cultural expression should we use? Three basic options emerge: Some (1) weave several or all of these expressions together into a blended service (an approach designed to satisfy everyone but which usually satisfies none); others (2) remain vigilantly progressive, keeping up with cultural trends and marginalizing everyone over the age of 30 (but hey, at least we’re reaching the youth the millennials); finally, (3) another group (who often calls itself “conservative”) locks onto a particular cultural milieu and completely alienates all succeeding generations, but manages to captures enough adherents to hunker down and “hold the fort,” their numbers dwindling slowly until they age out.

I have little sympathy for this kind of conservatism. I do understand it, and count many conservatives of this ilk as my friends. But they’ve fallen under the wheels of the bus that they rode to their own apex a few decades ago: the “Inspiring Hymns” generation had their day in the sun, then they gave way to the “Great Hymns of the Faith” generation, followed in turn by the “Majesty Hymns” generation, and now the “Hymns Modern & Ancient” and “Rejoice!” generations. Bottom line: Every generation displaces earlier generations, only to be displaced by the next. That’s the way the system works.

As I search my own heart, I confess that if I am forced to choose, I favor older gospel music to contemporary gospel music, but I’ll admit freely that this is a matter of pure preference. The biggest reason for this preference, I’d hazard, is that the similarities and associations of the latter with distasteful aspects of secular culture are more vivid to me than the former ones that have been obscured by time. But here’s the thing: I really, really don’t want to be forced to choose—and I don’t think I have to.

And that’s because as I understand conservatism, I don’t advocate for the preservation of any generational/cultural expression of the revivalist/gospel or praise/worship models. I don’t buy into these models at all. Instead, I yearn for a model that resists the evolutionary cycles of culture. A model that doesn’t borrow music from any culture, but instead creates transcendent music suitable to the full range of more-or-less constant affections reflected in the worship liturgies of the whole Bible; a model that produces music not to please any given worshipper or group of worshippers, but music that inclines all worshippers timelessly and uniformly toward the God who is.

Perhaps my dream is too idealistic to achieve; still I’d like to think that there is a solution that improves on the pattern of 21st-century American worship segregation.

6 Responses

  1. Mark, I have questions about your penultimate paragraph, the place where you move from a critique I agree with to a construction that left me wanting more. Is there music out there that doesn’t borrow from any culture, that is (is this what you’re saying?) a-cultural? I’m not aware of any. Does any human artifact transcend culture? Those that reach highest may come close, but in all the arts it seems to me that all you can do is build on the cultural tradition handed to you. I’ve been influenced by Andy Crouch here, who likens John Cage’s “4′ 33″ of Silence” to building a small hallway off the Western tradition and then placing a brick wall at its end. He is undermining and even trying to destroy, or at least deny, the tradition.

    But if Genesis 1:28 is a *cultural* mandate, then as Crouch argues we have an obligation to cultivate the cultural garden given to us and create anew within it. He says we may copy culture (CCM), critique it (Schaeffer), consume it (mainstream evangelicalism), or condemn it (you-know-who) at various times, but that our overarching goal should be to cultivate and create it.

    What I’m saying is what makes Scott Aniol’s appeal to draw from the Western tradition so congenial to me. It also makes preaching to the people in my church who are not called to ministry easier: I can tell them that what they’re doing in their 9-to-5 was what they were mandated to do from the beginning.

    The Western tradition is not the only one available to create transcendent music, but it’s the one you and I were handed. We ought to go on a search for the truth, goodness, and beauty within it, and both use and build on what we find.

    1. Mark Snoeberger


      In many ways I think we’re saying something similar here (though probably not in every detail). What I’m criticizing here (to use your categories) is the bent to “consuming” and “copying” culture. I’m calling instead for a paradoxical relationship (Niebuhr) with culture or even an antithetical one (Bahnsen). We can’t condemn culture because we’re part of it, but we don’t submit to it either: we create culture within culture. Or to put it another way, we’re in the world but not of it.

      Sometimes the culture around us borrows heavily from the biblical worldview and we can borrow it right back; often it doesn’t. And when the latter happens, more “creating” takes place, and any selective borrowing we can still do will seem out of touch. That’s when the Christian culture-consumer/copiers go ballistic, because it cuts to the heart of their whole approach to worldview and mission.

      The goal isn’t anti-culture (and, no, that’s definitely not what I’m saying), but an approach that asks, “What does our worship music music need to say, based on the regulating guidance of biblical worship, and what forms (whether borrowed or created) intrinsically communicate the content and sentiments of that message the best, irrespective of the rapidly shifting expectations of popular culture?

      There was a day, I think, when that was the norm. It’s been a good 150 years since it was the norm, but it was once the norm. Let me stress that this does NOT mean that we need to go back 150 years to get our music (though if I’m right, one will find more timeless music from songwriters who composed using this model); rather, I’m saying we should reclaim the model.

      If I may bring this from the abstract to the practical, let me point to the genre of biblical lament. This is easily the most abundant genre of worship music in the Scriptures–and one of the rarest in evangelical worship. There are few good answers today to Carl Trueman’s question a few years back, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” The question resonated with many, and some even determined afterward to include lament in their repertoires. But since contemporary culture isn’t into lament, the “copy/consume” evangelicals are flummoxed. They can add a few lamenty words to a modern tune, but the sad fact is that there is no modern lament genre from which to borrow! And so if we want laments in our worship (and we should), then we either have to borrow something that’s not trendy or else create our own (preferably in a minor key).

      Hope this makes sense. Thanks for the pushback.

  2. I like what Mark Ward says above, but would like to step out of the framework of music style to make some observations and ask some bigger questions. It’s common knowledge that many of the upheavals in recent decades in American churches have been about changes in musical style, whether to accomodate or resist the rock/pop music idiom in church music. There is, moreover, a pervasive tendency in ordinary churchgoers to judge the spiritual quality of their church’s Sunday gathering on how appealing they found the “worship music,” often even more than the quality of the preaching/teaching.

    Given that, it’s curious how little Scripture says about music used in church services, compared, for example, to how much Scripture says about the Spirit gifts and their necessity for building Christ’s body. What would happen if we gave ourselves to exercising our gifts with the same attention and zeal that is currently spent on music? Put another way, isn’t the weight given to music in church really a case of the tail wagging the dog?

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Yes, Stephen, I think you’re right. But I’m not sure it CAN go away until our fundamental approach to worship/culture/mission is fixed..