I wrote a post a while ago about some of the chips on my shoulder regarding criticism of contemporary worship. I’d like to revisit it here, but this time to look at some things I think we could do better. And I’d love your feedback and other suggestions in the comments.
Why Do We Do Contemporary Worship?
Some background first, because misunderstanding this one point will lead us down all the wrong paths. Contemporary Worship (or any worship, really) is not about evangelism. It is not about drawing a crowd, or “reaching the young/lost.” Contemporary Worship is about worshiping God in the language people speak. It is about using music and language that people can relate to, and can connect with God through. Because worship (traditional, contemporary, and everything in between) is for believers. It should never have been used as an evangelism tool.
Now certainly, many people do make their first connection to God at a worship service. But that is a happy byproduct. We should not be making decisions about the worship service based on drawing those outside the church; we should be making decisions based on what helps believers best worship God.
The Worship Wars of the 80s, 90s & 00s Were About Instruments
There is a lot of chatter about Millennials leaving contemporary worship in favor of something more liturgical. Aside from the fact that I haven’t seen anything beyond anecdotes backing this up (everything I’ve read shows Millennials leaving the Church, period), it misstates what the core of the fight of the “worship wars” was all about: namely, the kick drum.
We weren’t fighting over the Lord’s Prayers or the Apostles Creed so much as the format of the music. (This contributes to a large part of the music = worship error.) That contemporary worship settled into it’s common “worship set” form is mostly an accident born from most liturgically minded people being on the “no drums” side of the wars, and the most established “contemporary” model being the Pentecostal/Charismatic worship set. If more liturgically minded people had embraced contemporary instrumentation, our church services would probably look very different today.
On that note…
We Should Explore Alternatives to the “Worship Set”
But while I’m not convinced that people are “leaving x for y,” I do think that what we are doing right now isn’t connecting with a lot of people.
Listen, I love a tight flow where one song leads seamless into the next, and we sing for 20 or 30 minutes. It has its roots in the Revivalism (I think), I just love it. In fact, I wish we sang more. But I’ve come to realize that I’m the exception. Lots of people tend to zone out after a certain point. I’ve seen it from the platform too many times.
So I’m beginning to think that music should be interspersed throughout the service, woven among the prayers and Scripture and sermon, so that the worship service becomes one entity. Now, some of you traditional people might say: Hey! That almost sounds like liturgy! To which I say: Huh. It kinda does. How ’bout that? But then, like I said, the original fight wasn’t over liturgy.
In addition to having a more participatory worship service, another happy byproduct of this would be taking a step toward correcting the “worship = music” misconception. Which is a much needed course correction.
We Need a Renewed Focus on Singability
Several years ago, I was at a song writing conference where Chris Tomlin spoke. And one of the things he said is that when he is leading, he likes to bump the key up a few step so people really have to sing out. As someone who has a bass/baritone voice, I hated this advice then, and I still hate it now.
The point of worship shouldn’t be tricking people into shouting. Especially since, in an average church service where you aren’t singing among a stadium full of people, what people are more likely to do is not sing at all. No, the point should to get the maximum number of people to engage. Slotting something into a bad key just because you think it sounds better, or asking non-musicians to sing overly complicated rhythms, is not good worship leading.
We Need Sharper Theology in Our Songs
As a lifelong Methodist, I know that we have a long history with hymnody, dating back to Charles Wesley. So it’s kinda sad to me that in my Methodist Church, we sing so much Passion and Hillsong. And my church isn’t alone; everybody who does contemporary worship does a lot of Passion and Hillsong.
And it’s not that I dislike their music, but there is no denying a certain Reformed Baptist/New Calvinist theological bend to a lot it. Even the off beat stuff we sing (we also sing quite a bit of Rend Collective, which I adore) can skew in same direction. It would be great if the mainline denominations were more engaged in creating, supporting, and promoting songs birthed in their own churches, with lyrics that better reflected their denomination’s particular rich theological history. We would be able to get a much bigger, more multi-dimensional picture of God, and the Church would be so much better for it.