Can you hear the angels sing? Changing musical tastes in worship

The Rev. David Cobb Jr. understood what teenagers like Jazmine Blue faced when they invited their friends to church.

"Church is boring," she would hear from her peers, fans of hip-hop, R&B and rap music. "I don't want to listen to a lot of older people with their old boring songs."

So when Cobb took over a predominantly older congregation in 2007, the youthful pastor gently made some changes at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Cleveland. A Christian hip-hop singer performed at an outdoor party in the summer. A Christian contemporary band was featured at a Friday night program.

Like many contemporary pastors, he considered widening the church's musical offerings a necessity to reach younger generations.

"You don't have to just have one way to praise him," Cobb declared to his congregation at the fall youth day service. "We are just happy to see young people today, praise God."

Despite the potential for conflict, many congregations are expanding their musical offerings as a way to both meet the needs of different generations of congregants and to reach out to attract new members.

Traditional hymns are still No. 1 in worship. Ninety-five percent of congregations include traditional hymns in their largest worship service, according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey.

Fifty-six percent of worshipers in the 2008-2009 survey said traditional hymns were one of their top two musical preferences, a slight drop from 2001 when 61 percent listed traditional hymns. Praise music was the next most popular with 31 percent of worshipers including it in their top two preferences.

But other forms of music are increasingly making their way into sanctuaries.

The Faith Communities Today survey reported a surge in contemporary worship, with the percentage of congregations often or always using electric guitars or drums increasing from 29 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2010. Mainline Protestant churches in particular are catching up with the trend, jumping from 13 percent using electric guitars or drums in 2000 to 25 percent in 2010.

The changes appear to be meeting the needs of younger worshipers, who have dramatically different musical tastes.

Nearly half of worshipers ages 65 and over, but only 25 percent of worshipers ages 18 to 24 said a traditional style of worship or music was one of the three aspects they valued most about their congregation, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey found. Some 27 percent of younger worshipers, compared to 12 percent of those 65 and older, said they valued the contemporary style of worship or music.

The U.S. Congregational Life Survey and the Faith Communities Today study also provide evidence that strong churches in general offer more variety in worship and music styles.

For example, the Faith Communities Today study found just about half of congregations that always use electric guitars or bass in their worship services were growing.

In a study using USCLS data of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations, researcher Ida-Smith Williams found fast-growing churches were nearly twice as likely as other churches to offer contemporary music or songs. The fast-growing churches also were more likely to have Gospel music, contemplative chants and music from different cultures in services.

In spending six months speaking with worshipers at Emmanuel Baptist in 2008, I encountered several people who were uncomfortable with more informal styles of worship, and tended to see contemporary forms of music as more secular than spiritual.

But many others such as Janette Holland, who joined Emmanuel in 1926 at age 10 and still wears a hat and dress to Sunday worship, acknowledged the need “to learn to accept the change. That's the hardest part. We've got to quit looking back."

Each congregation will find its own musical balance, but what is becoming clearer to many houses of worship is that it is an issue that requires their attention.