6 Things that Have Changed Since I Began Leading Contemporary Worship

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For the past five years I’ve often been asked to lecture on the “History of ‘Contemporary Worship.’” As oxymoronic as that sounds, I have college freshmen in my worship course who know nothing of the “worship wars” from the 1990’s, much less of the Jesus Movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The fact that there have been so many contemporary worship changes over the past twenty years is lost on many. Here are six things that have changed since I began leading contemporary worship in the 1990’s.

1. A Broader Corpus

During the summer of 1998 I traveled throughout the Southeast with a group of fellow college students leading worship in dozens of churches. I could safely assume that most contemporary-styled congregations would share a common repertoire. Not so anymore. An explosion in the popularity of contemporary worship songs, more numerous publishing companies, and a growing emphasis on songwriting, have all contributed to a burgeoning corpus of contemporary worship songs.

2. Mainline Embrace

Twenty years ago contemporary worship was a phenomenon within evangelical congregations. While this remains largely the case today, many mainline and even liberal congregations are gravitating toward contemporary worship services. Case in point: I have found it curious that many liberal mainline churches in New England now offer some form of contemporary worship service.

3. A Fragmented Expression

Lester Ruth once suggested that churches might someday end up with “traditional contemporary” worship services. This, in fact, is what has happened over the last decade. Because contemporary worship was birthed out of a youth movement that emphasized musical forms reflective of culture, they easily became dated. What was “contemporary” for a teenager in 1970 was no longer “contemporary” for a teenager in 2000. Around this time many high school and college students began using the term “modern worship” to differentiate a new sound of congregational song that was being crafted for their generation. This has led (along with other factors) to a fragmenting of contemporary worship—often along generational lines. Where once churches differentiated between “traditional” and “contemporary” services, now many offer “traditional,” “contemporary,” “emergent,” and (I’ve seen a lot of these lately) services geared toward high-school students with names like “Collide” and “Infuse.” The point should be clear: “contemporary worship” is not (and maybe never was) a monolithic entity.

4. Maturing Lyrics

Many of the artists who craft contemporary worship songs have responded to the call for a greater depth in lyrics. There is clearly greater lyrical sophistication in many of the songs that are being written today. One doesn’t have to look far to find songs that allow for the expression of lament, reference all three Persons of the Trinity, use a corporate perspective (“we”), and explore some of the deeper mysteries of what God has done for us in Christ—these are just a few examples. Simply put, “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High”—which was, for years, the punching bag for those miffed with contemporary worship music—is no longer an accurate exemplar of what current worship songs look like.

5. Returning to the Past

Similarly, contemporary worship is no longer dominated by a suspicion of tradition. The explosion of modern arrangements of hymns, for example, is a relatively new phenomenon within contemporary worship. The Jesus Movement adopted the suspicion toward authority that was a defining trait of the Hippie Movement. This often meant that many of the worship practices of the historic church were rejected (including hymnody) in favor of new practices. Since the late 1990’s contemporary worship has seen a remarkable turnaround in this aspect. Now many congregations are expressing a desire to be rooted in liturgical forms beyond their own moment. The singing of hymns, the celebration of weekly Eucharist, and even the observance of Lent, can often be found in contemporary-styled congregations.

6. Musical Complexity

Dust off that old Maranatha! CD from 1992 and give it a listen. Now put in The David Crowder Band’s “Give Us Rest (or a requiem mass in C)” and note the clear difference in the way the two albums sound. The “happy clappy” praise song is no longer the standard in contemporary worship music. Some of the change is certainly due to the ever-present influence of the broader culture—just consider how many worship teams are now anchored by the pounding kick-drum since Mumford and Sons’ debut cd. Much of the growing musical sophistication within contemporary worship came about as artists took seriously the charge that contemporary worship suffered from a lack of creativity and excellence. The change comes at a price, though. As congregational worship songs become increasingly more complex their accessibility decreases. The tension between excellence and congregational accessibility has always been an issue within the music of the Church.

Many still use the term “contemporary worship” as it was used in 1995. What should be clear is that several things have changed over the past two-decades. Parishioners, pastors, and scholars must navigate the pros and cons of these new developments in “contemporary worship.” In my next post I’ll look more closely at the changing sound of contemporary worship music.

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Matthew Sigler is Assistant Professor ofWesleyan Theology and United Methodist Liaison at Seattle Pacific University. He holds a PhD in liturgical studies from Boston University where his work focused on the history of Methodist worship as well as lyrical theology. Prior to coming to SPU, Matt served for twelve years as a music minister in the church. He

18 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Matt for your insight. It reminds me of how about 5 years ago I asked a group of college kids who were at my house for a Bible study, “What is your favorite old hymn?” Most said something along the lines of “O For A Thousand Tongues,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” etc. One replied, “All in All.” I had to laugh. Just a different perspective on what is old and what is a hymn.

  2. As always, great stuff, Matt. #3 is bigger than we might expect, particularly among the mainline churches. The church I began pastoring in 2008 was doing only one service which they called contemporary — but all the music was from the green Maranatha book. A lot of change (and a lot of heartache) followed as we tried to follow our calling to be genuinely reaching out to folks with music that made sense to them.

  3. Very helpful bullet points. Missing are the huge numbers and diverse forms in the African American songbook as well as the overwhelming growth of latino congregations. Your studies of Methodist worship surely include the blending of black and white worship in the early American revivals. Crowder’s music is so homogenously white that it will die in one generation.

    • James,
      You are absolutely right. I intentionally limit the
      discussion to a particular current of “contemporary worship.” Much, much, more
      could be said…good point!

  4. Matt, love the piece –
    Could you give some additional examples of artists whose music is complex? I have a friend who grew up on Bach and can’t stand worship music because of the repetition and lack of complexity – I would love to offer him some other stuff to listen to.
    Also, would SOO love to add you as a FB friend!

  5. Matt, great points and beautifully expressed. I love your writing style.
    Styles change, but people recognize quality when they hear it. We should never offer to the Lord a sacrifice that costs us nothing.

  6. Matt your brilliant point 6 deserved more words than you gave it. Many worship song writers ‘decorate’ their melodies to make them sound original instead of just writing stronger hooks. Sure it takes work to create a memorable, emotional song idea with the limited vocal range and predictable rhythm that makes a song congregation singable. But it’s worth it when you do – I discuss this at aboutcsd.com and I believe many of your readers will agree with me.

    My comments apply equally to lyrics – here’s what you get when you combine complex and detailed ideas with simple singable rhythm

    Was it a voice
    For my ears could not hear it
    Yet to my heart it was clear

    There on the wind
    Came a sweet inner calling
    Saying God’s Spirit was near

    Shining shining
    Just like a light in the dark
    Calling Calling
    Out of the depths of my heart

    Spirit of God
    Oh holy breath
    You reach to the heart of me

    Spirit of God
    Healing my heart
    And setting my Spirit free

    Spirit of God
    There at the dawning
    Over a world made new

    I am alive
    New ev’ry morning
    Now that I live in you:

    Thanks again Matt for your perceptiveness
    ..
    Kyle Jardeau
    churchsongdownloads.com

  7. Matt,
    Again, thanks for the dialogue. However, I can’t help but think – aren’t the points you are making somewhat simplistic and obvious? Have we fallen that far in our training of new leaders and understanding of the architecture of worship that these points need to be re-stated?

    Yes, Contemporary worship is framed by the simple defintion of the word “contemporary” – “Of the times” (Webster). A contemporary song has a brief shelf life, and was intended to pass away, with the rare exception of a song that passes into “timelessness” because of its lyrical content and extraordinary musical composition.

    And yes, we walk a fine line between musical sophistication and fulfilling the original goal of corporate musical worship songs, accessibility and sing-ability. However, these somewhat obvious statements avoid the 800 pound gorilla in the sanctuary – what is truly driving and shaping the worship artists of today? What forms their “theology”, what shapes their “Harvard Dictionary of (worship) Music” these days?

    To me, the great debate is how much the Christian Entertainment industry has influenced our current generation of artists, who in turn influence our up and coming generation of worshippers.

    Despite stated good intentions, the Christian Music is driven, mostly, by the $$ bottom line, if we are honest. It’s a business, and no shame in it. However, they will produce what sells, and what the people buy and listen to is often what they come to expect in corporate worship. However, they are not the same!!! Yes, they may overlap, but much of the admitedly high quality Christian music being created is NOT suitable for corporate worship, as it doesn’t facilitate many of the basic requirements of corporate worship. It is the job of the worship leader, pastor, or someone in authority to help make that discernment, and to disciples and lead people to understand the difference. However, I see evidence that would lead one to believe that the current generation of well-meaning worship leaders lack this basic training and discernment, and our church’s corporate worship is in peril.

    I realize that these issues are not the thrust of your blog post. However, I find it frustrating to engage in a conversation about “maturing worship music”, increasing difficulty among the body in grasping new content, a return to ancient/modern styles, etc. without acknowledging the issues and difficulties this and the forces that are truly driving the issues.

    Blessings, Brother

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