The Case for Contemporary Worship

A few years ago I was speaking with a middle-aged youth leader (that I had never met before and have never seen since) who was in town to present at a conference. In a casual conversation he ranted about how “old people” selfishly didn’t care about reaching new people and went on to say (this is verbatim), “The worship in heaven is going to be contemporary.” 23-year-old-me died inside a little bit. I thought to myself, “Dear God I hope not.”

Many Christians of my generation and younger (I am 27 now) have been a part of a surge of energy that seeks to reclaim the historical hymnody of the church. We have grown up in churches that played contemporary worship songs because “young people” liked them while we, the young people, scratched our heads wondering why we don’t sing awesome songs like “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” anymore.

In recent years I have met many other young adults that share my opinion on worship. We love the old hymns. We love the responsive readings. We love to publicly affirm our faith by reciting the creeds. We desire to come to the communion table as often as possible so that we can take of the body and blood of Christ, just as Christians have been doing for 2,000 years.

The defenders of ancient liturgy begin by arguing, rightly, that what the church prays, the church believes (lex orandi, lex credendi). Therefore, they say, that the weak lyricism and bad theology of modern worship songs is inherently harmful to the body of Christ.

However, always the contrarian, I have become a bit perturbed by the way that many people talk about contemporary worship. This dismissive attitude becomes ultimately unhelpful because it assigns generalities to an entire genre of music. This is like the people who say that “country music is terrible” because they don’t like modern pop-country musicians like Taylor Swift or Rascal Flatts. To make this broad sweep leaves out classic music icons like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson. It also dismisses modern alternative country musicians like Lucero, Mount Moriah, or even country/folk revivalists like Iron & Wine or The Avett Brothers.

In holding up the problematic theological statements and poor lyrics of a few songs they often ignore the many wonderful modern worship artists that are reflecting upon our ancient faith in profound and beautiful ways.

I’d also like to point out that the mere fact that hymns are published in a hymnal does not make those songs any more sacred or theological than a song written two years ago by someone who likes to play the electric guitar. There are many hymns that are as poorly written and as theologically problematic as any contemporary worship song (might I remind you that “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are both in the United Methodist Hymnal).

At this point I would like to direct your attention to bands like Gungor, The Brilliance, The Welcome Wagon, and John Mark McMillan. They are all writing interesting and theologically rich worship music.

These artists may not self-identify as contemporary Christian musicians, but it can be reasoned that they would not have made the music they are making without the influence of their CCM predecessors. Michael Gungor got his start writing CCM songs (he co-wrote “Friend of God” with Israel Houghton). The Welcome Wagon has covered a David Crowder Band song. They may be separate from the contemporary worship music, but they are profoundly influenced by it.

I recently saw an interview with Stanley Hauerwas (condescendingly titled “Contemporary Worship vs. Worship”) where he argued that much contemporary worship is “ugly” and “superficial”. This may be true in a lot of respects. But is doesn’t have to be.

Modern people can write good songs influenced by genres that they like and sing them together without turning worship into a shallow, un-theological vanity show. Yes, this is what has frequently happened in the past, but it does not have to be this way.

At the end of the day, I do usually prefer worshipping with old hymns. It is my preference. But, it is just that. It is a preference. If I was to begin attending a new church this week I would choose one that sings hymns, but I would do it because I like it. We can try to make this a theological issue, but we have to ask ourselves what is at stake. Drawing lines between “contemporary” and “traditional” worship is to feed the destructive fire that has been dividing our churches for about 40 years now.

We need to honor art in our churches, and not just the art that we like.

I don’t have a solution here, just a challenge. Whatever music you prefer in worship, stop trying to assert that people who like the other types of music are somehow inherently wrong. We all live in a particular context that forms the way we worship. Let us speak humbly of humans (who are created in the image of God) and their work that is composed with the intention of giving honor and praise to the God we all worship. Let us encourage each other, regardless of our tradition, to stop singing problematic songs with questionable theology. Let us point out victories in lyricism, both ancient and modern.

Let us be at peace with one another as we differently express the unending song:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might

Heaven and earth are full of your glory

Hosanna in the highest

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,

Hosanna in the highest

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Thomas Irby is a student at Duke Divinity School and on the ordination track in the United Methodist Church. He's been married for six years to his wife, Leah, who is also a student at Duke. Thomas is interested in teaching media literacy to a specifically Christian audience, theologically reflecting on Christian music, and learning to make disciples while emphasizing historic Christian theology.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Great post. A couple thoughts. At one time every hymn was “contemporary.” What I think we need to come to is a point of regular integration of the old with the new (didn’t Jesus say something about the good scribe who brings out things both old and new?). There is some great stuff being written and some of it reworking of the old. Matt Maher recently took “I Need Thee Every Hour” and honored it. Saw his presentation at the Roman Catholic Youth gathering. It was beautiful. For my part, I wish we had more of Charles Wesley’s hymns matched with tunes.

  2. My sentiment and preference, too, Thomas. I enjoy contemporary worship sometimes, but I feel I have truly worshipped in the holiness of a well ordered traditional service and not just because I’m nearly 60.

  3. Amen to that. I’m a 21 year old Episcopalian and right there with you as someone who values traditional hymnody and liturgy and often feels out of place in more hands-in-the-air, lyrics-on-the-wall settings. But as I’ve come into dialogue with other Christians at my school, I’ve discovered how liberating it is to free oneself from the bigoted mindset that only the kind of worship I *like* is legitimate. I could sit here and profess my love for the BCP and the Hymnal 1982 till sunset, but I have to remind myself that “ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est,” whether or not “The Church’s One Foundation” appears in the leaflet (or, Heaven forfend, on the projector screen).

  4. This post completely denigrates the power of the music itself to make a statement and to contribute to the sound world of the public worship of the church. The words are important but it is the music that people remember the most, and music in continuity with the ancient tradition and submissive to it, even if it were written yesterday, is a big part of what shapes and molds people at church, in the way the church always has shaped and molded people, through her liturgy. That Church Sound is a very important part of that, one that many Protestants dropped out of a desire to appear, well, very sincere with their feelings and dropped other styles of music into the liturgy without first carefully and intentionally subsuming them to that ancient sound and sound world.

    • This is a really interesting point. I agree, I did ignore the sonic aspect of music and that was an oversight for the larger discussion. The primary argument that I was trying to address here is one about the specifically lyrical theological content of “contemporary” worship. It would be quite interesting to reflect on the theological statements made by the sounds of echoing voices or the tones of specific instruments… especially as they were used throughout the history of Christian liturgy.

      This could lead to all kinds of interesting questions… like “What does a group singing in unison say differently about God than a group singing in harmony?” Or “Do we need words in our musical worship at all?” Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

      • Thomas,
        I think the lyrical elements of both poetry, revelation, and biblical truth are evident in today’s worship music. When we look at music about God… Does it have to be grounded in a deep theological discussion? If that is the case we need to stop playing in our Children’s moment…”yes Jesus loves me” It is apparent that Jesus loves me and I am told that over and over, but the artist didn’t take the time to think about that, but how he reads scriptures and decides to weave the lyrics. Contemporary only means modern. So if this were 1910 and a new song were to be written, would examine it’s content. I think when we spend time, wasted, then we are missing out on a bigger picture that music is only one part of the equation of our worship. It is about relationship.

  5. I think passion is important and the zealous young man wasn’t wrong, but so your insight like of academic Divinity students refers in error that worship is heading back towards hymnals and that is not backed up by things called facts. In fact it is quite the opposite. What was once only a small vehicle in worship music is now a rocket ship (well building one anyways) No one is talking about the rise of hymnal music. The “worship wars” of the 90’s led to a revolution in the approach and appeal of worship music. What will the worship at Church look like 15 years from now?

  6. I’m 56 and counting & I’m a rocker at heart; you fill in the rest. In my experience & the scriptures, it comes down to your heart: that’s what God looks at, and what works for you.

    Also: complicated = legalistic = sanctimonious. I run from them as fast as I can.

    Blessing

    • What saddens me most about the churches that worship in a contemporary style is that they won’t sing any hymns in a traditional style. I attend a church that has sings both traditional hymns (with a wonderful pipe organ accompaniment) and contemporary songs (with a praise band – but instead of a keyboard we have a grand piano). Admittedly our contemporary music may not be very “contemporary” (a lot of the contemporary style songs are “old” from the 1990’s and even the 1980’s) and the volume is not “ear splitting”. Also, no 7-11 or other insipid, banal songs (may I say “simple” songs that don’t really say much). I think it is a mistake to throw out 500 years of hymnody and sing only “modern” songs. It’s refreshing to hear that at least some of the younger believers are in agreement.

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