Contemporary v Traditional: 8 reasons it’s hard to choose

Having just returned from 2 refreshing weeks of holiday, I found a message from a friend asking me about the pros and cons of traditional versus contemporary music in church.  I couldn’t resist putting a few ideas down, and thought I’d share them with you.

I’ll be upfront: I write contemporary music, I listen to mostly contemporary music, my church does mostly contemporary music (although we have a couple of congregations that do traditional, or a blend of traditional and contemporary).  But here’s the funny thing for me:  As I think back to my favourite musical moments in church, there are as many traditional moments as contemporary… perhaps even slightly more.

What about you?  I don’t think there should be a war between history and the present day.  I think the challenge for us is to connect.  But think carefully about that.  We need to be connected to our history, otherwise we have nothing.  We also need to be connected to our congregations today, as well as to those who might join our congregations tomorrow.

Call be boring, but I’m not going to come down on one side or the other.  Here are my conciliatory, complementary, and perhaps not particularly concise 8 points:

  1. There is good contemporary music and good traditional music for us to sing, but there’s also bad contemporary music and bad traditional music – I don’t think the issue is how old the music is.
  2. One of the benefits of traditional music is that you remind the listeners that we are connected historically. One of the benefits of contemporary music is that you are using sounds that connect with contemporary ears, so there’s an evangelistic benefit.
  3. One of the difficulties of doing traditional stuff is that it can sound irrelevant and archaic because it’s from a bygone era. I have a few thoughts about making it sound more relevant (see link). One of the difficulties of doing contemporary is that it can feed a desire to be fashionable, which is irrelevant to being followers of Christ.
  4. Different churches have different repertoires, with a different ratio of traditional to contemporary, which is their choice – this choice is probably something that should be discussed from time to time with a range of people from the ministers through to the parishioners.
  5. You can’t please everyone ever, and you can’t please anyone all the time. In fact, singing a style of music that we don’t like but we know that others in our congregation do like is good, because it requires love, and that’s a good thing for the church. It’s something we should all be willing to do.
  6. There’s a difference between the origin of the song and the style in which it is performed: eg contemporary songs are sometimes played on the organ or with a small classical ensemble; traditional songs can be performed by a contemporary band. We need to take account of the musical preferences and also the musical gifting of the congregation. If the musos would pull it off better in a manner in which they are skilled, it may work better to let them do this.
  7. Although the musical elements are important, lyrics are more important, because the cost of getting them wrong is greater than the cost of getting the music wrong.  Though I still think the cost of getting the music wrong is high, in particular, a massive lost opportunity to connect with people.
  8. Hymn lyrics are often more poetic and colourful (though not always); But contemporary lyrics are often more concise and simple (and not always!). People need a balance in this, because clear communication and rich expression are both essential to maintain. Try to find songs that do both.


What do you think?  Are there other things we can say?  Is anyone willing to say that one is better than the other?





One thought on “Contemporary v Traditional: 8 reasons it’s hard to choose

  1. Pingback: Eight Observations About Older And Newer Songs For Churches (via Mark Peterson) | mgpcpastor's blog

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