Gunfight at the Samaritan Well
Seven Ways to Have Both Innovation and Tradition in Worship Music
The Gunfight at the OK Corral
It is the story that won’t go away—the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Great film makers have told the story every decade or so:
- Alan Dwan, “Frontier Marshal,” (1939);
- John Ford, “My Darling Clementine,” (1946);
- John Sturges, “The Gunfight at the OK Corral,” (1957) and “Hour of the Gun,” (1967);
- George P. Cosmatos, “Tombstone,” (1993);
- Lawrence Kasdan, “Wyatt Earp,” (1994)
The story’s hero, Wyatt Earp, was featured in one of the many TV westerns of the 1950’s. It is the classic tale of a power struggle: Wyatt Earp, his friends and brothers aiding the good people of Tombstone, Arizona in their struggle against the bad guys in the Ike Clanton gang. It was a street battle for the safety of the streets. Every good western builds toward the inevitable showdown where the good guys and the bad guys shoot it out. It is a part of our American character to “stick to your guns” and “shoot it out,” to “face down the bad guys” and be “quicker on the draw.” In Tombstone, the good guys won, of course. If they had lost, the story would not be so often told and retold.
Power struggles in the church sometimes lead to showdowns. When the verbal bullets fly through the sanctuary, people get hurt. When a pastor or staff member is ambushed behind closed doors in an office or boardroom, the violence doesn’t stop there; it reaches into the victim’s home, wounding spouse and offspring for life. Instead of a peaceful town on the frontier of the Kingdom of God, the church becomes a dangerous or even deadly place. We are always the good guys, of course.
The Gunfight at the Samaritan Well
This brings us to what I call the Gunfight at the Samaritan Well. Like the well-worn Western tale of the Earps and Clantons at the OK Corral, this shoot-‘em-up-story gets re-made all too often—in too many local churches!
No matter who wins the fight, the church loses. The Samaritans were the innovators—they made their own worship center on a mountain nearby. The Jews were the traditionalists and demanded that worship could only take place at the Temple in Jerusalem. The thirsty woman at the well posed this clash of worship traditions as an implicit question to Jesus,
“What do you say we should do?”
Jesus’ answer to her is his answer to us and it is one we can live with and thrive on in our artistic lives all year—
”Worship God in Spirit and Truth!”
But what does that mean?
I love to explore this incredible statement with the use of synonyms. I substitute other words that mean spirit and truth. This time, let’s hear Jesus say, “The Father is the Creator. Those who worship him must worship him creatively in tradition (truth) and innovation (spirit) for such the Father seeks to worship Him.”
Worship leaders should have a year-round license to present the timeless songs of the church in fresh new ways. One of the ways faith is transferred from generation to generation is through the traditional songs of the church. But they shouldn’t always be done the same way. Worship leaders should also be expected to find and present new songs for us to sing or to listen to. One of the ways “The Spirit speaks to the churches” is through new songs. Take Christmastime for example:
At Christmastime, Tradition and Innovation Are both Welcomed!
How many different ways do we hear the classic Christmas songs performed? Traditional songs are handed over to creative arrangers and performers to be delightfully turned every which way but loose. Sometimes the recordings are as straight as an arrow and at other times they are bent into all kinds of musical shapes, but Christmas is still Christmas.
- “Joy to the World” is still joyous.
- The town of Bethlehem is still little.
- Santa Claus is still on his way to town and
- there was still only one color we want our Christmas to be.
The artistic freedom allowed these recording musicians is inspiring.
Shouldn’t we have that kind of freedom all year? If we maintain the essence of a great song, why shouldn’t we be able to explore the possibilities we find in the music of the song?
At Christmastime, there is also “room at the Inn” for the new song. Publishers and artists are always looking for fresh expressions of the old truths or unique vantage points from which to view the old, old story. At concerts people want their old and familiar tunes and they also enjoy a fresh creative touch on them. At the same time they also welcome the new Christmas song as long as it stirs familiar heartstrings. Wise producers of these events carefully balance the new and the old so that the story is told in familiar, expected terms but also in novel and meaningful terms.
Scrooges and Grinches
Different people respond to Christmastime in different ways:
- For Christian musicians, the truth and meaning of the Christmas story is a deep, deep well from which we draw inspiration to create or present new arrangements of the old songs as well as new compositions born in this moment for this season.
- Of course there are those people who hate innovation even at Christmastime. The good thing is, we have names for them—Scrooge and The Grinch—so we can let them rant while we go about our creative business.
But, some people who aren’t Scrooges and Grinches at Christmas can take up that moldy mantel the rest of the year.
- They want the music they know already and they wanted it done “right.”
- They do not want to work at worship, learning to sing a new song or listening to a piece that isn’t so “on the nose” that you’re not quite sure what to think about it.
- They are happy to be “at ease in Zion.” (Amos 6:1)
To them worship is about comfort not celebration, a re-hash not a fresh look at old truth, or an autopilot reading instead of a new chapter in the old story. As advocates for unconditional tradition they stifle creativity the rest of the year.
At the same time, there are others who see themselves as graduates of the school of tradition never to be subject to its boring lectures again.
- If a song isn’t new or a setting of an old song so dense the tune can scarcely be found in it, they aren’t interested.
- The opposite of being “at ease in Zion” these folks are fidgety in Zion, addicted to novelty and determined to be the first kid on their block to have the latest thing the marketplace serves up.
- The quality of artistry is not as important to them as the newness of the material.
- They deal in hits even though most hits are temporary, short-lived, and short-sighted.
We need more than a ceasefire in this shootout! We need to put down our guns and drink from the well!
As we do at Christmas, let us worship all through the year with a dynamic that includes both innovation and tradition. The great themes of worship never change:
- The mighty power of God can still be sung
- My Jesus still deserves my love
- There really are 10,000 reasons to keep us busy and
- Grace is still amazing
The wise worship leader can link tradition and innovation by combining old songs with new songs on the same theme. Some writers today take the convergence approach of composing a contemporary refrain to go with a traditional hymn. “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)” is a ready example. All-in-all it can be done: traditional and innovation can coexist and it can be fun. Here are seven tactics I have found to be helpful.
Seven Ways to Have Both Innovation and Tradition
in Worship Music All Year
1. Present the congregation with the liberating truth about traditional and new worship music: Traditional music carries the doctrines and testimony of the church forward into a new generation. New Music captures the voice of the Spirit as He speaks to the church today and leads us into the future. This will require the leadership of the pastors/elders, etc. to help you with the Grinch/Scrooge factor.
2. Use this principle: “Common ground to higher ground.” Meet the people on the common ground of the familiar before going with them to the higher ground of innovation.
3. Link old songs and new songs with similar themes together, usually moving from the old to the new.
4. Keep all songs for congregational worship congregational in key and character. That is with sing-able tunes, memorable words and friendly vocal ranges.
5. Sometimes present an old song in new arrangement by first presenting it “straight” for one stanza before presenting the altered version.
6. Set up new songs with scripture readings. Songs springing from scripture have a friendly common ground with the congregation.
7. Be sure that all altered hymn arrangements retain the essential character and message of the original composition. This is a constant challenge to your creativity. (I heard a pianist do a very loud jazz version of “Silent Night.” It should have been renamed “Noisy Night.”)
© 2014 Creator Magazine 2016 Revision © Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved