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The History of Congregational Worship: Who Cares?

  • Bob Kauflin Director of Worship Development, PDI Ministries
  • Published Oct 26, 2001
The History of Congregational Worship: Who Cares?
Before we begin to take a brief look at the history of Christian congregational song, we should answer the question, "Why bother?" After all, doesn't God give each new generation its own song to sing? In many churches, the face of corporate worship has been revolutionized in recent years. The organ has been replaced by the worship band, hymnbooks have been traded for PowerPoint presentations, and the "hymn sandwich" has given way to extended times of worship. What could we possibly learn from exploring how the church of Jesus Christ has worshiped God throughout the centuries? Here are four responses to that question.

First, studying the development of congregational song helps us appreciate God's sovereign hand working throughout history. While certain worship traditions have remained unchanged for centuries, many of our present traditions came about as Christians sought to improve the worship formats and styles they had inherited from previous generations. Many time-honored practices are the result of extremely controversial attempts to establish a more biblical form of worship. We'll see how God has always been faithful to guide His people into worship that is truly in spirit and truth. Studying the history of congregational song will also help us avoid the imbalances and overreactions of the past. If we're all wrapped up in reacting to the problems of our day, we can lose perspective on how well our proposed solutions conform to Scripture. A knowledge of the past helps put things in proper context. We can examine the long-term fruit of changes that were made. We can detect patterns and tendencies, and see how they line up with Scripture. Most of all, we can avoid the mistakes others have made when they allowed the pendulum to swing too far when seeking to address then-current excesses or abuses.

Another benefit of a long-term perspective is the humility it produces. Many of us are prone to what one writer has labeled "temporal narcissism" -- thinking that anything more than 30 years old is irrelevant or boring. It shouldn't take us long to see that many who have gone before us were smarter, holier, more zealous for biblical truth, and more humble than we are. The hallowed halls of history are a powerful antidote to our usually narrow, self-focused viewpoint.

Finally, studying the history of congregational song can inspire us for the future. Most, if not all, of the writers of much-loved hymns from the past had no clue that the church would be benefiting from their labors hundreds of years after they were gone. They simply tried to be faithful to Scripture and their own generation. On the other hand, countless thousands of hymns which once seemed so relevant have drifted into obscurity. What makes a hymn timeless? How much of what we're doing will last beyond our own lifetime and truly serve generations to come?

I believe the answers to these and other questions will be revealed as we take a look at how congregational song has changed and developed over the years. Most of all, we'll be seeking to discover how congregational worship today can be more biblical, effective, and glorifying to God. I hope you'll stay with us.

Copyright 2001 Bob Kauflin. All rights reserved.