William Willimon, the new Bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference, is finding his new leadership role somewhat different from his old role at Duke. Though he has never withdrawn solely into the world of the theoretical – like some who work in seminaries – he is now in a frontline leadership position. He wants to see growth in the churches of his annual conference – he’s going to challenge them to grow their average worship attendance by at least 5% in the next year. Adding contemporary worship services is clearly one way to do this, but
Willimon is concerned contemporary services will bring an end to Christian traditions, such as the hymns of Methodist co-founder Charles Wesley, that have enriched the lives of Methodists for more than 250 years.
First, though much contemporary worship uses only recently written songs, there is also a resurgence of hymn singing, though the accompaniment and style of singing has been “contemporized.”
Second, for me – and I’d guess for many others – what matters isn’t the musical style but the spirit of the worship. The memorial service Monday at Annual Conference was a great worship experience. All the music was traditional – And Can It Be, I Stand Amazed in the Presence, and For All the Saints. It was awesome to have thousands of people singing with gusto – as if they actually understood and meant what they were saying. For that very reason, hymn singing is always one of the highlights of Annual Conference for me. What would happen if in our local churches we recovered the vigor of old-time Methodist singing – whatever the style?