Nostalgic Worship Disorder and Getting Worship My Way

Zac HicksWorship Style, Worship Theology & Thought13 Comments

The Curious Case of Two Worshipers…

Ethyl, the “Old Timey Hymns” Lady 

Ethyl is now an old woman who just wants to get back to that “old time religion.”  She tears up every time she hears the swell of that honky oohm-pah-pah organ rhythm that accompanies her favorite hymn, “In the Garden.”  She remembers when she first heard the song back when she became a believer in the 1940s.  She remembers the good ol’ days when she and the other young men and women would sing that song with all their might in that country church (and that church was a country church whether it was in the country or the city).  “In the Garden” is so much more than the song itself.  It’s a stamp, a marker, a gateway.  Perhaps it’s a kind of “sacrament” to the past, a sign that points to a much better time…when America was undivided, when we weren’t wrapped up in materialism, when we weren’t tarnished by the 60s, when people cared about being moral, before Elvis provocatively girated his hips on national TV.  “In the Garden” reminds Ethyl of that time and that world.  Pause.  Hold that thought.

Sean, the Modern Worship Dude

Sean is in his early thirties and just settling down into his adult life as a mature young (maybe even restless) evangelical.  Just a few years ago, he was hitting up every Tomlin and Hillsong concert that came to town, and he’s now really digging on Jesus Culture…they’re all up in his iPhone playlist.  Sean remembers being one of the early followers of the Passion movement when he’d make his pilgrimage to Atlanta in the early 2000s where he truly encountered Jesus in the power of His Spirit amidst thousands of other like-minded twenty-somethings.  He remembers singing “How Great is Our God” and “Better is One Day” for the first time (before the rest of the world heard them).  And any time his home church band leads the latest, freshest modern arena worship song, it almost doesn’t matter what the song is about…he’s in euphoria, because he’s remembering those mountaintop experiences and he’s sucking from their marrow once again. It’s that modern worship sound–the swelly keys, the delayed, verby electrics, and tom-work…lots and lots of tom-work–that takes him back to the arena, where he met with God. All those modern worship songs and sounds help him re-create those highs. Pause again.

The Diagnosis

One of the ironies here is that the Seans of the world don’t get the Ethyls and the Ethyls don’t get the Seans. They don’t get each other so much that they actually think it’s impossible to worship together.  They’re on two different wavelengths.  So Ethyl worships at Second Baptist with 72 other gray-hairs and Sean worships at Mega Community Church with 2,000 other thirty-somethings with young kids.  Ethyl scowls whenever she thinks of Sean and that “loud, repetitive, mind-numbing rock music,” and Sean rolls his eyes when he thinks of that “cheesy, dated, boring organ music.”  The irony is that, in all their differences, they share the same diagnosis–Nostalgic Worship Disorder (NWD).  (I actually double-checked that it was in the DSM IV-TR…it’s there.)  They suffer from that same disorder, only they’ve fixated their nostalgia on different things.  

The Cure

The cure is blended worship.  Period.  Selah.

Just kidding.  It’s actually not.  The cure for NWD is nothing short of the gospel of Christ’s kingship.  You see, NWD, at its root, is mis-placed affection.  Ethyl and Sean share a love of and for those times, those memories.  And it’s okay to love and remember God’s faithful actions in the past.  In fact, the people of God are to be a people of anamnesis, “remembrance.”  But the problem arises when we allow those past events to be come the ends in and of themselves.  We start to desire “that feeling” or “that time” more than we desire God Himself.  We begin to enthrone a king other than Christ on our hearts, and the funny thing about lesser kings is that they can never live up to the kind of kingship our hearts need, even though we desperately want them to.  The result is that we’re always dissatisfied, always clamoring for the reign and rule of our king.  And we’re divided.

What would worship look like for Sean and Ethyl if Jesus were more fully the King of their lives?  Maybe, for one, Sean and Ethyl could both more objectively analyze the blind spots of their era’s songbook.  (Maybe Ethyl could see that “In the Garden” promotes a kind of partial, wistful, me-and-God spirituality that needs some tempering, and maybe Sean could see that constantly singing about what we will do for God apart from the explicit work of Christ can have a gospel-numbing effect on the soul.) Perhaps they’d see the value in singing songs from different eras and cultures of the church, too.

Secondly, maybe Sean and Ethyl could worship together in the same room on a Sunday morning, because, they might say, “If Jesus truly is King, then I become less concerned about getting my injection of nostalgia and more concerned with encountering, honoring, praising, and receiving the Father through Christ by the power of the Spirit.”  Ethyl’s heart-songs may not float Sean’s boat.  Sean’s songs may make Ethyl cringe.  But because Jesus is King, and because He died for His glorious Bride that she may be one even as He and the Father are one, they’re both game for a little cringing and boat-sinking.  In fact, they get to the point where they so delight in the pleasure of the Father that they almost see their mutual self-giving and mutual self-dying as a sign of health, maturity, and growth in discipleship.

The Payoff

Then, all of a sudden, in worship Sean and Ethyl start to receive all of the blessings and by-products of God’s rich presence in greater and greater abundance. Then, oddly enough, Ethyl is experiencing the same God she encountered in the 1940s, and Sean is experiencing the same God he felt at those Passion conferences.  Even more, they’re experiencing God in a deeper, richer way.  

Amazing things happen when you let the main thing be the main thing.

13 Comments on “Nostalgic Worship Disorder and Getting Worship My Way”

  1. Good diagnosis. The music used in worship does either carry or detract from the gospel message, and I do not believe that all musical forms are created equal. They project different moods, and some moods are more appropriate for worship than others. Also, some musical forms are lasting, projecting a sense of the abiding and eternal, while others are here today, gone tomorrow. With all this in mind, I agree with your analysis. Christ is King. Worship is ultimately for Him, not for us. Both older and younger generations suffer from a misplaced nostalgia which keeps them from seeing how dated and distracting their favorite tunes sometimes are, not to mention sappy lyrics.

  2. If we have a hard time worshiping together on earth (due to musical preferences) then how will we ever worship together in heaven or the earth-made-new?

  3. It will be easy to stay on the same page in heaven because God will tell us what to sing, and provide accompaniment. Seriously, it should be no surprise that it's difficult for us to come together on music when we disagree on so many points of the theology which it is based on.

  4. Well said Zac.

    "Blended worship is the fruit of unity and not the source"… well said Gary.

    Our gathering and our corporate worship is about loving one another. Loving one another means forbearing one another. We cannot tolerate something unless we first struggle with intolerance. Interestingly, Paul links the act of "singing spiritual songs one to another" in Ephesians 5 with following Christ's example of sacrificial love.

    As I said to my congregation during our worship set this past Sunday, the very act we do in singing is part of the fellowship that Christ came to restore. When we divide on musical preference, we divide Christ.

    The corporate gathering is all about laying down our preference for God's purpose, following Christ's example of sacrificial love. This is why blended worship is necessary. Otherwise, no one is being challenged to lay down their preference and we are guaranteed to have a group of people who are like-minded in a way that is not beneficial… everyone is just like us and what does the world see except people who should like each other.

    The world sees that we are Christians by our love for one another and there is nothing noteworthy about love unless it is forbearing and sacrificial… the world does not understand love that does not seek its own. We should strive for unity with tools like blended worship. Community without tension is at best a clique or at worse, a cult.

    I am "Sean the modern worship dude" working in an Ethyl-minded traditional congregation hired for the purpose of challenging the congregation's musical preference. We use organ, hymnals and a full modern band every Sunday (separately). Needless to say, it's a smorgasbord of sanctification for all.

  5. David L. would be very correct if music used in worship were merely a matter of personal taste or preference. However, there is theology undergirded and expressed by the various musical styles. The musical medium can easily detract from the message if there is dissonance between the theology of the music and the theology of the preaching and teaching. We are used to paying attention to the lyrics most of all, and this is correct. But the music itself is not just a matter of taste. Usually what happens in a church with blended worship is that over time one theology wins out over the other. Either the contemporary worship takes over the ethos of the congregation and eventually leads to light and superficial preaching, or else the congregation eventually reaffirms its sound theology and ditches the contemporary worship.

  6. Riley, these are important thoughts. We must delve into the "medium is message" issues. We've had dialogues about this on other posts, and I believe your thinking (like T. David Gordon's) is too broad-brushed and not nuanced enough. It almost sounds like you think preference is not at play at all (or shouldn't be at play), and I think it's definitely at play. And you and I disagree about pop/rock music. I don't think it's all bathwater, but from my interaction with you, it sounds like you (and T. David Gordon) do. Again, all I can do is refer back to my critique of Gordon's book: https://zachicks.com/blog/2010/11/29/review-of-why-johnny-cant-sing-hymns-by-t-david-gordon-17.html

  7. Zac. Loved what you said. And I really think we need to put the main thing as the main thing. I have a thought I'd like to throw into the middle of the discussion and would love your feedback on it. Here goes…

    …The thing that makes worship of singing and instrumental music different from worship as just vocal prayer is the musicality of it. In otherwords, "In the Garden" is a prayer facilitated or empowered by the music. So we take on the words of the song and sing them to God as our own. And the music style / instruments add to this. The music both communicates something to us and is a conduit for our own prayer. It speaks a language that we either resonate with or don't. Even without the music, "In the Garden" (for example) might feel quite alien to Sean as a way to express his own worship to God. In my own time frame, Christian music worship felt quite alien and (I admit) cheesy, until the Vineyard hit a style of music and simple verse that felt like "me," that I could more easily express my worship through.

    I'm not really saying that we shouldn't worship to things we don't resonate with. The main thing (Jesus) IS the main thing. But I do think that worship style is more than about nostalgia.

    Did I get that wrong? Love to hear your insight.

  8. Good stuff Zac. We love to be reminded of the times in our lives when our hearts burned with passion for God. Very few things can compare to the emotional resonance of music. It is a truly powerful medium. Interestingly, I find no support from the new testament for music in corporate worship. Music itself is almost entirely a product of cultural influences. 12 distinct tones rearranged over and over for thousands of years to reflect different times and cultures. Even this discussion is centered around the questions that flow out of our American culture. I mean, c'mon, we're not discussing the validity of Chinese pentatonic tunes played on bamboo pipes or Spanish flamenco played on classical guitars in our worship services. What is truly amazing is how much time and energy most churches put into the music of the church considering how little emphasis the scripture puts on it. And for clarification, I'm no anti music Pharisee. I am an EPC worship leader with a decent band and praise team. I just think one of the most dangerous attitudes in modern evangelicalism is that "my opinions are better than yours." We need to esteem each other better than ourselves. Many of us worship leaders denigrate our parishioners who seem to demand the music they like and yet often we are guilty of the same thing. We want to lead the music WE like. Some of us justify this by claiming that our preferences are more well thought out and not just based on emotional attachments. One of the things I appreciate about your approach, Zac, is that you consistently challenge all of our presumptions. Keep it up, bro!

  9. Gordon, great thoughts. Musical style and our sense of connection or disconnection with varying genres of musical sound hit on greater levels than nostalgia. I am not saying in this post that when people resonate with certain styles (or texts) that it's pure nostalgia and therefore purely wrong. I am saying that IF people are seeking to engage songs in order to conjure nostalgic feelings, they're in danger of, as some have put it, "worshiping worship rather than worshiping God." However, I am also saying that it's a mark of maturity (and gospel-borne fruit) when people can sing with and even struggle to engage in songs/styles that they do not personally resonate with.

    Dirk, I find tons of support in the New Testament and Old Testament for music in worship. Eph 5:19 (which, because of the specific Greek terms used ("psalms," "hymns"), is most certainly speaking of the corporate worship experience. Phil 2 perhaps contains one of the earliest Christian hymns. The book of Revelation is full of corporate singing to God. Turn to the Old Testament, and you've got even more. Psalms is God's inspired hymn book…for corporate worship. The admonitions WITHIN the Psalms encourage music-making in the context of worship. So, I'm not sure, unless you're interpreting Scripture through a radically different lens, how one can find no support for it. Seems like we're on a different page, there.

  10. If the style is truly blended, it may not be so bad. However, most "blended" worship involves a heavy dose of the Contemporary and a token juiced up version of a Traditional hymn thrown in like a bone to pacify us old dogs.

    The beauty of most (not all) traditional hymns is that it is easy to follow along. Most Contemporary music with its high soprano and falsettos will cause you to commit vocal "harakiri". Maybe I'm just too old and my larynx is too rusty for them, but even "The Lord's Prayer" is easier to sing than most of these new ones.

    Now I have to admit, there are a few I kind of like, like "Lead Me to the Cross". And songs from every generation will produce a few Gems. Perhaps that is the problem for us old dogs. We forget that the Hymnal is a collection of the best songs from the past generations. These songs stood the test of time and still remains. John Newton wrote a hymn for every sermon he preached. Anyone know any besides "Amazing Grace"? There is no doubt that a few of the songs of today will probably be with the Church 50 years from now. On the other hand, most will be long forgotten by then — just like the other few hundred hymns written by John Newton.

    So, I'll try to get used to the new songs of praise and worship, but don't expect to me to forget the Gems of past ages. They are still with us for a reason. I will be surprised if more than a handful of today's song is still remembered and cherished 50 years from now.

  11. Stanley: (Might I know you? I'm from Hawaii and know several Oshiros.) Thank you for taking the time to comment and dialogue. I've heard several times the helpful analogy of "blended": blended like a smoothie vs. blended like a salad bowl. I am a fan of the latter, and it sounds like you are, too. I don't think the contemporary-plus-jazzed-up-hymn scheme you mentioned is the best of what thinkers and proponents of blended worship encourage, so it sounds like we're in agreement there. I hope Newton's hymns won't all be forgotten. I'm on a quest, in fact, to help with that, in my small sphere of influence ("Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder" is one of my favorite hymns of all time, of any author). I also believe you're right about the fact that not much that is "hot" now will last. I hope that will change. I'm seeing some new things coming out that are more hymn-like in their theological depth and biblical breadth. If enough of them have transferrable tunes, they could stand a chance. But only time will tell.

    I'm sad that you've had such bad singing experiences in more contemporary contexts. I'd like to encourage you that it might be more about an undiscerning leader (probably leads things in recorded keys, probably doesn't standardize and simplify pop syncopations and inflections) than something inherent in the music. However, I have found that folks used to singing very straight block-chorded hymns have a terrible time trying adjust to even mild syncopations. I think, just as the contemporary folks need to grow in seeing and singing the beauty of those "straight" hymns, hymn-loving folks need to branch out musically and flex to allow for more syncopation in their singing arsenal (how could you truly sing an African American spiritual without such an ability?). And yes, even "old folks" who are set in their ways need to be summoned to grow. That's my opinion on the matter.

    Again, thanks for the dialogue and the honesty.

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