The Future of Contemporary Worship

I think it’s time we consider abandoning the idea of Contemporary Worship in the modern church. This is probably the last thing you ever thought would come from me, especially seeing as I’ve been serving on worship teams and ministry teams to do contemporary worship since 1997 when I was but a freshman in high school. So why this change of thought and what does it mean for the future of worship?

First, a little history and vocabulary lesson.

To begin with, the title of Contemporary Worship has always bothered me. The term contemporary means current, of the present time. Contemporary worship is meant for the people of the time and place in which it’s happening. Isn’t all worship supposed to be contemporary in that it’s meant to edify the people who are present?

First, we need to remember that church worship styles have changed greatly over the centuries. From the ancient songs of the first century church to the chants and motets of the middle ages to the hymns and organs that became standard in the 1800s, church music has not been static over the years.

The idea of contemporary worship music had been around for decades but it really took off in the 1990s with the advent of the praise and worship movement. The Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) genera exploded with concerts, radio stations, music festivals and more. This bled over into the worship music that was being written at the time and churches everywhere started to hold Contemporary Services. Some abandoned their typical worship styles while others kept both going separately.

By the early 2000s, contemporary worship was everywhere. While it was usually a little different at every church you checked out, contemporary worship services usually had a few things in common:

  • The music was mostly written after 1990. Occasionally a late 1980s song would sneak in or they might include a hymn that was of a more gospel style.
  • The instrumentation was typically piano or guitar led with drums, bass, and in the 1990s you didn’t have real contemporary worship music without a saxophone! Organs were shunned for being stodgy and out of touch, setting church organists everywhere at odds with the new worship teams.

    “Not one of these organ stops say Electric Guitar. Throw it out.”

  • This was also the era of having massive numbers of singers, each with their own microphone. After all, those poor abandoned choir folks had to go somewhere, right?
  • There was usually little to the order of service in regards to the liturgy. Typical contemporary services would include prayers, reading scripture and the sermon, but they were less formal and weren’t rigid in their placement in the lineup.
  • Overall, the big prevailing idea was that the old was bad and the new was good. Anything “traditional” didn’t belong in the “contemporary” worship service. Traditional hymns were shelved. Organs were sold. The liturgy was relegated to the “old folk’s service” and the church forged ahead into the fresh new realm of contemporary worship.

What’s Wrong With That?

First of all, I want to be very clear: there is no one right style of worship. As long as the focus is on Jesus and it helps people grow through Word, Sacraments and teaching, it’s the right way to worship. God gave us the ability to make music and be creative and we should continue to use those gifts to glorify Him in worship.

Throwing out the hymns of the past and our traditional worship elements is to throw away the resources the church has amassed throughout the years. Throughout church history, countless individuals have produced nearly innumerable resources. Looking at music alone, there have been millions of Christian worship songs written in the last 2,000 years – songs of every genre and style from chant to rock and roll. Now, of those millions of songs, certainly not all of them are still with us today. Some have been lost to history entirely while others have been replaced by stronger, more widely used and beloved songs.

The songs from the church’s history that are still with us today represent the absolute cream-of-the-crop of sacred worship music. They have remained popular and in wide use because they are theologically rich and musically solid. The same thing is continuing to happen today: there are current songwriters who are extremely prolific, but as time goes by some of their songs will stand out as more lasting than others.  The church today is in a state of renewal as far as worship is concerned, but that renewal has often come at the cost of the history passed down.

The Future

To look at the future of worship in the church, you need to look to the past. Throughout the musical history of the church, as new styles and genres were introduced, they were often incorporated into the musical body of the church. Melodies of old Gregorian chants and motets were adapted into hymns. Musical texts were updated with fresh tunes. Liturgies were given more current language. But that musical amalgamation seemed to stop in the mid to late 20th century. There had been little change in the previous hundred years or so and when change stops, it can be hard to get it going again.

As someone who has been a part of “contemporary worship” for many years, I think it’s time to shed the notion that to be contemporary means to have nothing traditional. To throw away the hymns and elements of worship that have been passed down through the generations is to throw away a tremendous resource that our forefathers have preserved for us.

The challenge with that is in bringing those elements from the past into a worship team-led style. Incorporating elements of liturgy, hymns, creeds and songs of worship from all of the church’s history can seem like mixing oil and water – they’re just not compatible! But it doesn’t have to be that way!

I’ve been working to slowly reintroduce some of those elements into our worship services at Journey – a style I’m now referring to as “Modern Worship.” One thing is abundantly clear: it’s forced me to spend more time planning and being strategic with the elements we include in a given service. Hymns need to be rearranged so that they are not in stark contrast to the more current worship songs. Sometimes new tunes need to be added to existing lyrics, while other times a simple chorus or refrain needs to be added to break the hymn up a bit. There are creative ways to incorporate those elements from the past that pays homage to the history of the Christian church while embracing the styles of the present.

Where to start

I’ve decided to start with the past. I’ve been revisiting hymnals from our church body’s history and looking for hymns that share elements of theology that are lacking from our current song library and that can be reworked into a modern, band-led style and arranging them for the worship team. It’s a slow process but one that has also been a wonderful trip through the great hymns of faith. I will try to share as many of them on my blog as I can, so watch for those resources. I’m also launching a series of posts to follow this one with specific resources for all of the various elements of worship, so watch for those resources as well and I hope they are helpful to you!

Your thoughts

So what are your thoughts about contemporary worship? Is it’s time up? Or did your church avoid the contemporary issue and jump straight to where ours is just now reaching? I’d love to hear your thoughts and input!

 

This post first appeared on MatthewStarner.com on June 19, 2012

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

8 Comments

  1. Matthew, great to hear your perspective and the journey you guys are moving forward in. I think some of the best worship experiences are those that build on the past while incorporating the future/present. As I’ve learned more about our worship roots, I’ve tried to incorporate various elements and practices. Some are better received at times than others, and it takes time. You might want to check out some of the ancient/future writings of Robert Webber along the journey. Looking forward to hearing more about how it goes.

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  4. A great and thought provoking article. Traditional hymns should be preserve. The organ though,I think is a lost cause. It has been pushed to far aside in the last 20 years. It is also the butt of jokes at worship leading conferences I have been to. That’s how you know it’s over.

    • I agree with the hymns, but I think there is still a place for organs in modern worship – especially if you’re in a church that has a pipe organ. Organists need to re-learn how to play along with a worship band, but it can be done very well if they think like a synth keyboard player – using soft flute or celeste stops as pads and playing more as a background instrument (something the pipe organ usually isn’t!).

      They may get a bad wrap in the contemporary circles, but they’ve been part of worship for far too long to just throw them out, especially considering that they’re not cheap. The church I was previously at had a decent-sized pipe organ installed in the 1960’s for $60,000 (in 1960s money). That’s too great an investment by our forefathers to just cast aside.

      But I will agree that the expense associated with installing a new pipe organ is far too great if you’re just going to use it as a keyboard. From that standpoint, they’re impractical to incorporate if you don’t already have one.

    • For an example of how we used a pipe organ with our worship team, check out this post: http://matthewstarner.com/pipe-organ-electric-guitar-drums-epic-awesomeness/

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