Defending (and [Re-]Defining) Contemporary Worship Music: Part III

Part III: Defending Contemporary Worship Music

This brings me to my defense of contemporary worship music. And that must begin with a definition. The word “contemporary” simply means, “happening, existing, living, or coming into being during the same period of time,” and “marked by characteristics of the present period” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/contemporary). So while “contemporary music” is currently associated with the popular musical styles of the late 20th and early 21st century, it is only loosely so and that will always be somewhat in flux. If by “contemporary music” we mean music that “necessitates a slavish allegiance to the new, the current, the hip, the cool, and the commercial” and “requires a thorough rejection of what is old” (according to Aigner), then we do have a problem. Contemporary music should not only be in decline, it should be escorted from the worship buildings as expediently as possible. Worship is always rooted in the past.

But if contemporary music is to remain “marked by the characteristics of the present period,” we have always had contemporary movements in worship music and we should continue to have them if the church is to remain connected to its context. But these styles should not become fixed forms and they cannot be dictated from commercial centers seeking solely to make money. They should be creative explorations of the styles of music that best facilitate worship among multiple generations of worshipers, especially the youngest, but including them all. Yes, I believe that we need to seriously consider emerging (or re-emerging) styles of music for worship among our youngest adult worshipers. I do not think they should be considered lightly and associations with musical styles are critical in these considerations. But this is not a new theme in worship music history; just a new chapter. An older generation has always held on to something that inevitably had to make room for a younger generation, but unfortunately often in another geographic location. What if the older generation supported the younger generation in the evaluation of its musical styles for worship? What if the older served the younger by aggressively making room for new contemporary musical styles of worship? And what if the younger could look to the older for wisdom, guidance, and delineation regarding what needs to be maintained from the past, trusting their elders’ motives? I know this sounds radical, but it should also sound biblical.

Agreeing with the Critics of Contemporary Worship Music

I want to state quite confidently that those who represent the ars antiqua (“old art”) desire the same thing those who represent the ars nova (“new art”). They both want to see God’s people worship authentically and they want God to be glorified with musical excellence. They just believe that an older way is better than the newer way. They feel that the church has lost its way when it comes to worship. I want to acknowledge that they make many valid points from the perspective of vast experience. They are correct to some degree about the general state of contemporary music, it is in decline. And there are some very bad examples of contemporary music that are exemplary of the very criticisms that they lay upon all of it. While generalizations and wholesale characterizations are unhelpful, I would like to acknowledge some concerns that I share with them before making my suggestions for [re-]defining contemporary music in worship.

·      The rush to throw everything out that is old disconnects the church from its worship heritage and timelessness. Hymnals are demonstrations of what was worth keeping from previous generations of songwriters and worshipers. The aspect of contemporary worship culture that has sought to throw out anything old has simultaneously promoted the practice of disposable music. We need to embrace our worship heritage more deliberately than rewriting an occasional hymn from the past in a new style. Millennials are very interested in returning to liturgy and tradition. This is a healthy acknowledgement of a church connected to its remarkable worship past and a gospel that has saved a universal church of the ages.
·      The simultaneous rush to have the newest music possible is shortsighted and often results in the use of songs that are shallow and regrettable. The Internet has made it possible to have a song uploaded from a far corner of the globe during the week and appear in worship at a church near you the following Sunday. This rush to have the latest song in one’s worship service leaves no time to properly consider the value (or lack thereof) of a given song in worship. It takes time to determine what is worth using in worship. Hearing a song once on YouTube is rarely enough time to consider its worth for congregational worship in your church. Additionally, the professionally produced video is not really the way it will look and sound with your congregation.
·      There are unhealthy examples of a fixation on stage performance in contemporary worship. Bright stage lights, darkened rooms, fog machines, overly produced music, and extremely loud decibel levels facilitate an environment of concertgoers rather than worshipers. The temptation for worship leaders to “perform” under the lights only exacerbates this unbiblical model. The main performers in worship are those in the congregation. God is the only true audience. Those on stage are facilitators of worship. Let’s get the model right!
·      While the songs of contemporary music are often more melodically accessible for the congregation, they are becoming rhythmically more complicated. The gravitational pull for gifted musicians of any genre has always been generally away from the basic toward the more complicated. It is the way they experienced musical training as they moved from “Mary Had a Little Lamb” to Beethoven. The mantra of “musical excellence for God’s glory” generally pushes for an increasingly more difficult music in the worship service. But congregations can rarely move much beyond some form of  “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Worship music history is replete with examples of this gradual progression from accessible congregational music to music that can only be performed by trained/professional musicians. Eventually, the congregation does less and less as the stage takes over in some misdirected priestly function. Among the greatest errors in worship history has been the professionalization of worship’s music to the point that the congregation was excluded from participation for the employment of professional musicians. Resist the urge to make music harder than the congregation can participate in. Consider a definition for “musical excellence” in worship that insists upon a high level of congregational participation with the best music possible.

Scott Connell is Assistant Professor of Music and Worship Leadership; Program Coordinator, Worship and Music Studies at Boyce College in Louisville, KY.