Why I Like Contemporary Worship

Posted on June 7th, 2011

I know the so-called "worship wars" are so 1990s, and I'm not even sure how they turned out. (Maybe the emergent church threw a wrench in all of it as a surprise third-party candidate?) In any case, I still find myself debating the issue of musical styles for worship. I often say how I enjoy both extremes of worship music: Give me rock and roll praise music OR grand, reverent, high-church, classical hymnody--anything but the humdrum, ho-hum middle, in which people plod half-heartedly through late-19th century hymns with barely a discernable melody.

I still hold to that "either extreme" position as far as my personal tastes, and I can definitely feel genuinely worshipful through a majestic rendition of "Holy, Holy, Holy" in four-part harmony as well as when belting out the names of God in "You Are Holy," but I recently realized something that I think gives contemporary worship a slight edge, theologically. Contemporary worship (and yes, I know "contemporary" is a loaded and imprecise term, since that style began in the 1970s, but you know what I mean) is driven by the premise that church should reflect the styles and technology of the day. If microphones, amplifiers, guitars, etc. have been invented and are in widespread use outside the church, then there is no reason not to use them in church.

Why do I think this has theological significance? Because intentionally avoiding something just because it is modern or secular while preserving a decades-old way of doing things sends the message that the church is supposed to be behind the times--that church is just a feel-good way of escaping modernity and recapturing the "good old days"--or that worship services are supposed to be totally different and separate from the rest of life as we know it. Everyone is entitled to their own musical preferences, and some people just prefer quieter, more contemplative music in church. That's fine, and I'm not saying loud, upbeat praise choruses are inherently better. It's just a matter of taste. And there can definitely be good and bad theology in lyrics of any genre! My point is about the mindset that guides the choice of worship style: is church about preserving the past, or about helping people in every age connect with God?

Traditional worship is valuable for its continuity with the historic faith and for its meaningful symbolism and liturgy, but I think it can also inadvertently suggest that there is something about our current culture that is incompatible with holiness. That to be righteous or close to God, we must keep our religion distinct from culture. Contemporary worship, on the other hand, wants to seem familiar, so that the experience of God can blend seamlessly with other areas of one's life, integrating faith with everyday reality.

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