In his book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, author James Emery White addresses to issue of music in the worship service. His perspective might surprise you.
There is no such thing as traditional music. All music was, at one time, newfangled, contemporary, cutting-edge, and probably too loud. The great hymns of Martin Luther are considered traditional and sacred to our ears, but they were anything but traditional and sacred to the people of Luther’s day. Many of the great hymns written during the Protestant Reformation, such as “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” were based on barroom tunes that were popular during that period. Luther simply changed the lyrics and then put the song into the life of the church. The result? People were able to meaningfully express themselves in worship—or at least connect with it stylistically.
Charles Wesley also borrowed from the secular music of his day, and John Calvin hired secular songwriters to put his theology to music, leading the Queen of England to call them “Geneva Jigs.” Bach provides a similar pattern, as he used a popular form of music known as the cantata for weekly worship music. He was also known to seize tunes from “rather questionable sources and rework them for the church.” Even Handel’s Messiah was condemned as “vulgar theater” by the churchmen of his day for having too much repetition and not enough content.
The last line is worth rereading. The point? Throughout history you’ll find a connection between church growth and contemporary music. Sorry if that’s too crass for you, but it’s true. Don’t ever downplay music—remember, there’s an entire book of the Bible that is almost nothing but lyrics you can work from so here are two words that will serve you well: music matters.
Just as the deeper issue with friendliness is an atmosphere of acceptance, the deeper issue with music is cultural translation. Let’s retire such words as relevant and contemporary, shall we? The heart of it all is a missionary enterprise: learn the language of the people, the music, the dress, the customs—and then translate the gospel for them.
Chase this with me for a moment. If we were dropped into the deepest reaches of the Amazon basin as missionaries of the gospel to reach a specific unreached tribe of people, we would attempt to learn the language, dress in a way that is appropriate, craft a worship experience that uses indigenous instruments and styles, and work tirelessly to translate the Scriptures into their language. No one would argue with that approach. It’s Missiology 101. Now realize that your mission field is the West. Are you doing the work of a missionary?