Generational Differences in Church (and how to sing them out to God’s glory)

Affinity is a partnership of Gospel churches, evangelical agencies and individual Christians committed to working together to advance the work of the Gospel in the UK and Ireland and around the world. The regular resources that they publish include the Foundations journal and other sets of papers that can be of use to churches in various ways, including Table Talk, a series of occasional papers, published online, which consider contemporary theological issues relevant to churches and Christians.

The latest Table Talk, published earlier this year, is entitled Generational Differences in Church. It is written by David Green who is the Vice-Principal of the London Theological Seminary, and I found it a really good read. Here’s an extract:

Differences of outlook between generations can create tension in churches. This can manifest itself in disagreements over Bible versions, how we observe the ‘sabbath,’the style of our worship and, above all, the music we employ in our meetings. Sometimes, people leave churches over these issues; sometimes they cause church splits. Although biblical and theological questions may arise in these controversies, the differences are largely cultural. To recognise this, we need to understand the cultural shift in Western society over the past 50 years. We must then consider biblical attitudes to culture, and apply the Bible’s specific teaching on handling cultural differences in the church.Doing so should help us avoid futile, acrimonious and damaging arguments in which we try to argue biblically and theologically for what are essentially cultural preferences.

The paper traces through many of the cultural shifts that have taken place in Western society over the last 50 years or so (or rather highlights some cultural norms of today and compares them to the norms of 50 plus years ago). Green then shows how these shifts have become apparent in different ways in church life and addresses the complications of multi-generational churches trying to work out which cultural elements can transfer straightforwardly to church life while seeking to be governed by a Bible-centred perspective of culture. The chief application is direct towards the area of music and worship styles, with Bible versions, image, and participation getting a mention too.

You might not agree with everything he says. I, for one, feel that the discussion on music styles needs a bit of tightening up. But, all in all, it is a very stimulating read.

All of us need to grow as disciples in the area of loving our brothers and sisters who are culturally different to us (not to mention those who are from very similar backgrounds!) Whether that’s those who live the other side of the world that we actually need to show concern for, or those sitting in the next seat to us on a Sunday who are from a completely different cultural planet to us. As we show love and concern for those who are different from us, who prefer different styles and who have different preferences in church life and worship, we begin to demonstrate something profoundly counter-cultural about the church.

If I could take music style (hymns, songs etc) as an example, this means that those of us who think the early Townend & Getty catalogue is now a bit old-school need to be spending quality time with our (much) older brothers and sisters, hearing from them about some of the great old hymns that have stood the test of time over generations and have blessed many saints, and singing those hymns together with them as a gathered church. You might not get as much out of them as they do, but since when has coming to church been all about your playlist? So why not use your voice as an encouragement to those who love to hear these hymns belted out well, as you teach and admonish one another as part of the body?

And the same goes for those of us who are older and who remember actually holding a hymn book in our hands(!) and even remember the complete index of our favourite hymnal. We need to spending time with those who are younger and who seem to have access to a great swathe of new songs that seem that bit harder for us to sing than what we’ve been used to, and that maybe aren’t as tightly poetic and strophic as we would like them to be. Granted, some of these new songs might not be very good (after all, almost anyone can publish stuff nowadays), but some of them might be the How Firm a Foundation and the And Can It Be of a new generation. Again, you might not have the same immediate affection for these new songs as the youngsters do, but why not try your best to encourage those who want to express the truth of the gospel and heartfelt response in cultural clothes that resonate both with the message they declare and with their peers.

And both groups (and those in between), do yourself (remember you are one body) a favour and spend time on this. When you’re teaching new or old songs, take your time over it. Take the long view. Maintain a balance. Love your brother. Differ to your sister. And let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you sing the new and the old.

You can read the whole paper at the Affinity site here.

Andrew McKenna


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