The Triumph of the Praise Songs

How guitars beat out the organ in the worship wars.
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It's Sunday morning at the 5,000-member Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church near Birmingham, Alabama. Early risers, mostly middle-aged and older, gather at 8:30 a.m. for a traditional worship service in the 700-seat sanctuary. The organ and one of the church's three smaller choirs are the musical heart of the service. Music director Mark Ridings (who moonlights as the director of the Alabama Symphony Chorus) usually selects standard hymns from the new United Methodist hymnal—something from Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, or Fanny Crosby.

An hour later the sanctuary empties and is immediately reoccupied with a younger, more casually dressed crowd. The organ sits silent in favor of a piano and sometimes a guitar. These accompany a somewhat introspective version of a praise and worship service, where the people sing Southern gospel standards ("I'll Fly Away") and traditional hymns ("Great Is Thy Faithfulness"), done in a contemporary style with projected lyrics.

At 11 o'clock the sanctuary again empties and re fills, this time with a mixed-age group for another traditional service with organ, hymns, and the large Sanctuary Choir. At the same time, in another part of the building, the 300-seat fellowship hall fills with young adults and young children. This is the "Son Shine" service, also known as "Rock & Roll Church." A worship team of singers and instrumentalists—piano, amplified guitar, drums, and tambourine—leads a lively, hand-clapping congregation in a potpourri of crowd pleasers. These range from Southern gospel, to old rock and roll songs like the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus Is Just Alright With Me," to repackaged hymns ("Amazing Grace" sung to the tune of the Eagles' "I Got a Peaceful Easy Feeling"), to ...

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