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A South African perspective on the challenge of modern worship in the conservative church

By Rev. Cedric John


As I write this article, I bring to mind the disputation experienced in many traditional churches where the preservation of traditional worship is fading against the propensity towards contemporary praise and worship.

Contemporary music is gaining increased impetus in conservative assemblies where once hymnals gave unprecedented dominance. The relevance of contemporary praise and worship is fast becoming an attraction amongst many conservative evangelicals. Conservative Christianity diligently resists the popularity of contemporary worship and describes it to be irreconcilable to conservative church experience. In its quest to preserve such conservatism, traditional churches are propagating the belief that conservative Christianity is largely biblical Christianity where the Word is absolutely fundamental. The centrality of the Word is undisputed but the associated supposition that conservative Christianity is purer Christianity is in my opinion a grave misnomer.

This further leads to a behaviour of separatism were these conservative churches practice a form of isolation were inter church engagements are strictly limited to like minded churches only. The expressions of modern worship are often sidelined as charismatic jargon and as such supposedly justify the behaviour for its resistance. Historically the earlier basis for church separation was largely doctrinal differences but recently the basis for separation was extended to the worship experience of a given church. Churches that worship conservatively isolate themselves from churches that worship contemporarily albeit they represent the same denomination. This is evidenced in some of the Baptist churches were conservative Baptists are largely the rigid hymn singers who will avoid association with the other Baptist churches who has braved the resistance and embraced the experience of modern praise and worship.

At this junction if I had given the impression that I undervalue the singing of hymns then I must correct this notion. I grew up in a Baptist Church where the singing of hymns often awakened the soul to an amazing awareness of the nearness of God. As a young man I recall stretching my vocal chords as if I intended to reach heaven and the incredible satisfaction that brought. Often my heart would be awakened to a profound biblical truth engraved in the sweetness of melody and words of a hymn. Once, on a Sunday morning in the middle of the Christmas season the congregation was led with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. When I got to the line “Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth”, my heart was overwhelmed with the awareness of the incredible grace that secured my salvation. I concluded the hymn hastily wiping running tears of my face. Twenty years later, I still cherish this hymn will all my heart each time I sing it. The sweetness of worshipping a merciful God through hymn singing becomes a fulfilling experience. Hymns are profoundly insightful and should not be avoided but I think that an assortment of musical genres is becoming a compatible need of the 21st century.

The modern church is bombarded with musical sorts of all types and church leaders must develop a clear perspective on this issue. For example the combination of traditional church music with the modern sound could create a magnificent sublime harmony conducive to the changing environment. Music has always been in the center of a worshipping community. It will be crucial therefore to analyze the makeup of such a community and to accommodate it accordingly. Cultural accommodation or genre innovation must not be misunderstood as traditional compromise. Cultural needs are deep needs and musical genres are intrinsically linked to cultures. Consider a particular community where a specific culture is prevalent. If the church is driven by the biblical mandate for evangelism and outreach then how could you attract such a culture if you  fail to accommodate its need?

Of recent this tension was an experiential reality in the church I co-pastored. The church was started by conservative missionaries who embedded the value of restrained, conservative worship. Many of the older White folks were conditioned to believe that this was the accepted biblical norm. However of recent, the church began to attract members of the black community who came with a different expectation and experience in church worship – not devoid of biblical values. Strategically the church undertook to reshape its worship programme to accommodate the changing membership.
From my observation, there is very little about style and content of corporate worship in the New Testament. I believe this matter has been left to our spiritual discernment, judgment and wisdom and not to tradition. Worship must be approached prayerfully, thoughtfully, God centered, Word centered and culturally sensitive and in the process the context of the local church can be defined. When this is done consistently worship ideas and experiences gradually converge forming a marvelous balance which I venture to describe as the equilibrium of worship. There are significant values in traditional worship, namely order, reverence and the hymnody.
The challenge is to appropriately collaborate this with the exhilaration of modern praise and worship in which a unique creativity is carved out. This worship creativity can be an extraordinary expression of worship to our Creator King. Worship must strive to preserve theology and not anthropology. I mean it is about God and not man. Someone once said – “The externals are not the main concern; worship is a heart issue”. This thought is further
highlighted by another “Worship without passion is like stacked wood without fire; orderly but cold and lifeless” {Galli, in Mastering Worship, 147}. True worshipers worship in spirit and in truth. Mark 7: 6-8 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.” I see worship as the means through which the desolate encounters God. I see it as the means through which the fragility of our humanness finds secure permanence in a compassionate God.
I see worship as the privileged opportunity through which I can express gratitude for the securing of my salvation. Ultimately it is a privilege through which my total being can express appreciation to an awe-inspiring God who loves me deeply. And let not the rigidity of traditionalism deny me this contentment!


Cedric John lives in Reservoir Hills, Durban South Africa. He is married with two children. Cedric is a graduate of the University of the North West where he completed his Honors degree in Theology. He is currently studying for the Master of Theology at the South African Theological Seminary. His areas of interest are contemporary theology and apologetics. Cedric is a bi-vocational pastor of the Reservoir Hills Bible Baptist Church in Durban. He is also employed by a national healthcare company where he serves as a Relationship Manager.