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Bobby Neal Winters on Worshiping After the First Date
When my wife and I started attending our church in 1989, we only attended about once a month or so, but each Sunday I was there, I was faced with a variety of hymns I didn’t know. I made the mistake of voicing a desire to have some contemporary music added to the service, when I really meant I wanted to have some Fanny Crosby, Augustus Toplady, and Charles Wesley added to the mix. I was, unknown to myself, running into territory where angels fear to tread.
The Alternative Service
If you’d asked anyone who knew anything about music, you’d have been told that our church had the finest music in town. This is a result of being in the same town as a university with a department of music whose equal cannot be found for miles in any direction.
The music at my church was and is great. I would be less than truthful, however, if I said I profited fully from it. My tastes tend to Johnny Cash and Negro spirituals rather than Beethoven and Bach.
It was in this way that I became connected with what has come to be termed “the Alternative Service.” The Alternative Service has always been a political football in my church because many have opposed it, while its supporters, though numerous, have been divided.
The division among the supporters has been between those who desire it as an alternative to what they deem to be the overly staid, classical offerings of the church’s musical establishment and those who want it to be a means of evangelism. Those who desire it as an alternative are further divided because everyone’s tastes differ.
In the past, a new service was scheduled at times that were convenient to people already in the church and that wouldn’t disturb the established music program. When this service was successful, it only drew people who were already involved with the church.
But now, as I write this, my church is beginning a mid-morning praise service complete with a three-piece rock-and-roll band and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of audio-video equipment, projectors, computers, and PowerPoint presentations. It’s to be fast-paced. The lyrics of the songs will be projected onto screens at the front of the sanctuary, and, as a rule, they will be simple, repetitive, and easily sung.
It is exactly the sort of service I would have loved to attend ten years ago, when I first became convinced our church needed to evangelize more, yet now I find myself—and not without surprise—to be quite ambivalent about the development.
For me it comes down to my interpretation of what Jesus meant when he warned about putting new wine in old wineskins. Luke records this in his fifth chapter:
And no man putteth new wine into old wineskins; else the new wine will burst the wineskins, and be spilled, and the wineskins shall perish. But new wine must be put into new wineskins; and both are preserved. No man also, having drunk old wine, straightway desireth new: for he saith, “The old is better.”
The Old Wine
My hope has been that a praise service would be the new wine. Its sweeter taste would draw in those who have not been a part of a rich religious tradition or have been alienated from it, but eventually they would taste the old wine and no longer want the new.
That may be true, though it does not seem to happen often, but I now have mixed emotions because I have become a lover of the old wine, the ancient tradition going back not only to the time of Jesus but even before. It never sours but becomes subtler and more nuanced as it ages.
In the movie 50 First Dates, a young man falls in love with a woman who is suffering from short-term memory loss. Every day she wakes up in a new world, not remembering that she fell in love with the young man the previous day. Each date for them is like the first.
Those who attend only praise services are like the girl in 50 First Dates. The church for them is continually “now.” While the church should certainly be in conversation with this age, the conversation must take place from the point of view of eternity. The history and the tradition of the church are essential. We are surrounded by a large cloud of witnesses, and we are fools if we don’t heed them.
The young man in 50 First Dates eventually succeeds in marrying the girl and having a family with her, but the price of achieving this was for him to engage in an active, intentional, nonstop program to remind her of their history together. The same thing is necessary when anyone joins a church, and it is certainly true when one enters the gates through a praise service.
We lovers of old wine must keep that drink around and offer it to our new brothers because it does not matter how many people are in the building if they are not being offered Christ.
Bobby N. Winters is Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas.