Sunday, March 22, 2009

Problems with "Contemporary worship"

I have often complained about "contemporary-style" worship, by which I refer to worship styles which generally utilize a "praise band" and newer "choruses" with words projected on a screen or wall, as opposed to organs, choirs, and traditional hymnody (I'm obviously painting with broad strokes).

Some complaints:

1) "Contemporary worship" is not contemporary. It is better termed "Baby Boomer-style" worship, since the Baby Boomer generation (those born in roughly 1945-1967) is the generation which created it. Post-Baby Boomers are creating and recapturing other styles; in fact, "contemporary" worship is really just worship that was contemporary 30 years ago, as opposed to 500+ years ago (as with "traditional" worship). It's no more contemporary than Gregorian chant, and we ought to stop referring to it as such.

2) Baby Boomer worship is largely devoid of Christian symbols. By getting rid of stained glass windows (which tell the story of Jesus and his Church), robes and stoles (which help root the Church in a theological tradition), the liturgical year (which helps root us in Scripture and the salvific story of Jesus), and traditional hymnody (which connect us through music to those saints who have gone before as well as to others who share this hymnody in the Church Universal), as well as other symbols, we sanitize worship of some of its most Christian elements. We thus miss opportunities to teach who Jesus is and who we are in him. One of the most shocking aspects of seeing Joel Osteen on television (other than inadequate theology) is that the cross has been replaced with a rotating globe. Very telling.

3) Baby Boomer worship is extremely exclusive. If I don't know the latest praise band "hit", I simply can't sing it. No music is offered for my education; I simply see the words projected on a screen. I am therefore invited to stand and listen as others sing, while I cannot. That's more concert than worship. If I am not already immersed in the Baby Boomer worship subculture, I am excluded.

4) Many incorrectly believe Baby Boomer worship to be the answer to the decline of the mainline Church. I attended a meeting a few weeks ago at which a United Methodist bishop (gently) chastised those gathered for continuing to sing older songs, such as "How Great Thou Art" (odd, considering that particular song is relatively "contemporary" when compared to the works of, say, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, or Fanny Crosby). His point was that these songs, produced by earlier generations, simply did not speak to a 21st century population. He failed to show what was so dated about lyrics such as:

"O For A Thousand Tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!"

"Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood."

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was long but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see!"

"Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia! Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia! Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia! Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!"

"O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee."

"When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died; my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride."

"O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me! The Father's coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree. Th' immortal God for me hath died: My Lord, my Love, is crucified!"

"Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave; weep o'er the erring one, lift up the fallen, tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save. Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save."

"Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord; thou and thou only, first in my heart, great God of heaven, my treasure thou art."

It is not mainline music which has resulted in decline; it is theological uncertainty, missional lethargy, evangelistic malaise, and institutional compromise which is killing us. We need leadership in these areas, not in the remaking of our hymnody.

If we teach the gospel faithfully, as we pledged to do in our ordination vows, these songs can and will come alive for Christians of any century. Poor teaching is no excuse for replacing quality texts with choruses containing less challenging lyrics.

5) The quality of Baby Boomer worship songs is generally poor. I freely admit to being a music snob. I regularly listen to the songs of the greatest songwriters of the past hundred years - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Carole King, George Harrison, and others. The latest Baby Boomer worship hit pales by comparison. Let's be honest: much of what passes for "contemporary Christian music" doesn't stand up to these great writers. Every now and then, there's a good song. But, by and large, it's awfully bad.

This is to say nothing about the poor quality of most praise bands. Again, I plead snobbery. I have heard few (if any) praise bands which can compare to the instrumental mastery of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Who. If you're going to rock it up, do it well - or, please, don't do it.

Here is a link to a post by John Stackhouse entitled "Chris Tomlin’s Worship Songs: We Have Got to Do Better".

I am an advocate of "indigenous worship". Use the gifts and graces of the folks who are part of your congregational fellowship. But don't necessarily reject the practices of traditional worship, which have much to teach. Too often we confuse "traditional" with "traditionalism", two terms which are not synonomous; slavish devotion to things past is not the same as embracing the best of what has gone before. Surely we can be "current" while still recognizing the timeless power in a worship style and in music which has praised God powerfully and inspired the Church through the ages to be her best.

Worship done well that remains Biblical, Spirit-led and Christocentric is always, by definition, relevant. May we strive to do and be our best.


Anonymous said...

Contemporary, seeker, traditional... style is not so important as relevance and effectiveness. While I personally prefer a traditional style of worship, the reason contemporary worship is called contemporary is because so many find it resonates with them.

Symbols are a significant and meaningful aspect of worship. Contemporary worship services are not monolithic. While some use little or not traditional symbolism, that can not be said to be the uniform norm. The purpose of symbolism is to communicate. If stained glass, robes and stoles, the liturgical year and traditional hymns are not effective in communicating to a given audience, there is no fault in those worshipers choosing not to use these symbols. I would personally draw the line at removing the Cross from worship.

Boomer worship is not more exclusive than any other style of worship. Exactly the same difficulties of understanding and participating are experienced by anyone without a "church" background who enters into any worship service, traditional, contemporary or otherwise.

It is debatable that contemporary worship is the cure for decline in mainline churches. However the statements referenced are not unjustified. Simple changes in vocabulary and frame of reference are two of many reasons why older hymns may not effectively speak to the hearts of 21st century worshipers. Ours in an era where musical forms are not determined by the Church or academia but the market place. It is not possible that hymns can be insulated from this reality.

Quality does not always equate with effectiveness. If much of contemporary worship music is not of outstanding quality, the same can be said of many hymns that have been used by churches and denominations. Over the years the market place (churches and denominations) judged the relative worthy of hymns, continuing to use those which were found effective with the others falling out of use. Exactly the same process will apply to contemporary worship music.

Again if praise bands are not uniformly excellent, the exact same is true of many children, youth, adult and senior adult church choirs. It would be elitist and exclusive to permit in such choirs only those persons capable of outstanding musical excellence. To expect such of praise bands is no more reasonable.

Mainline decline is not the result of poor inadequate hymns. Revamping or replacing hymns will not cure mainline decline. But hymns are not eternal. They come and go according to the taste and needs of those who worship. If a sermon is preached that fails to connect with a congregation, the wise preacher ask why that sermon failed and then prayerfully seeks to fix it. In the same way if a hymn is not effective, if it must be explained so that a congregation may grasp it, if it is obscure or simply fails to connect, the fault is not with the congregation but the hymn. It needs to be prayerfully fixed so that it will be effective.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Thanks for the response, Anonymous.

I have a problem with calling Baby Boomer style worship contemporary for the reason you give - "because so many find it resonates with them" - because other styles of worship, including very "high church" traditional worship also resonate with many people (tens of millions, in fact), and are therefore as "contemporary" as the Baby Boomer style.

Relevance, also, is more dependent upon quality Biblical exegesis and doctrinal faithfulness than in any particular style of worship.

My reference to the exclusivity of Baby Boomer style worship has to do with the fact that there are words to follow but no music, therefore making it virtually impossible to participate unless one already knows the tune. With a hymnal in hand, one may be able to read the music as well as the text, thus making participation more likely.

If some of the theological phrases or words in traditional hymns aren't known by a congregation, then those of us in leadership have a responsiblity to teach. There's no excuse for failing to teach about justification, regeneration, sanctification, perfection, etc. These are Biblical concepts, not 19th century concepts. It's our job to teach these (and related) ideas and phrases.

Finally, regarding your claim that to prevent "less than excellent" praise bands from performing is "elitist", I plead guilty. Again, it's because I listen to the best of the pop-rock style; that has made me a snob when someone writes a pop song or picks up a guitar, etc. I admit to having extremely high standards in the music to which I listen. But it still makes Baby Boomer style worship difficult for me!

Brett Probert said...

Keith...thanks for your thoughtful insights. I'm going to jump off a bridge now, and I'm taking Cornerstone Church with me.

GZimmy said...

I think you said it very well, Keith. As a boomer myself, I am always frustrated by those who tell me it can't be real worship if it isn't "contemporary". I, too, think the deep, profound theology of the old hymns is something we must not lose!

Dayton D. Mix said...

I think the "contemporary" label is a made-up stumbling block. If contemporary means NOW then worshipping NOW with Gregorian chant is contemporary, likewise singing choruses now is contemporary if you do it now... same with hymns. So let's get off it and focus on something a tad more important... like all those who don't worship at all... let alone whether it fits with someone's claims to put their standard as God's standard.

Dayton D. Mix said...

Couple more thoughts...
--If excellence in music is a prerequisite for playing in worship then I need to have help in understanding why the Bible proclaims "Make a joyful NOISE unto the Lord." And I have heard more nasty sounding organists than praise bands. Based on Keith's standard then they too should be excluded.
--As a Methodist, be careful that we don't argue too much against using the NEW in worship. How is it that we have hundreds of NEW hymns from Charles Wesley that were used quite often in Methodist worship? We are the inheritors of using the new to bring people to the truths of the unchanging and ancient faith. That's actually my understanding of evangelism. Come "Just As You Are" then learn about the ways that are so different from their old lifestyle.
Folks, we need to at least catch up to the Methodists of the 1700's.

Anonymous said...

One idea I dont see presented here is that our Praise and Worship is intended to Bless the Lord. If our songs be hymns or choruses I would have to believe God cares much more about the heart lifting the offering then the vehicle used to carry it. Each one in a position of leadership or music ministry most learn to first be sensitive the call of God and then to the best approach to building a bridge between God and those seeking him. The life of the Church most grow in Seasons or be doomed to the same fate as a daisy blossom in the midst of winter.

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