Over the last few weeks, we have talked a little bit about how we all might prepare to engage in worship, to receive the preaching of God’s Word, and to serve our Lord. This week, I want us to return to the issue of worship. As long-time readers of this blog know, I have been a tenacious advocate for contemporary worship throughout my career as a minister and scholar. Nevertheless, I am seeing some trends in how contemporary worship is sometimes conducted that trouble me, and I want to use this blog post to speak about these concerns directly to those who lead contemporary worship.
You might be asking yourself, “What right does this guy have to tell me how to lead my church’s worship?” It is a fair question. After all, I am just a Bible nerd, right? Well, that is not quite right. Yes, I am a Bible nerd, and we Bible nerds tend to care deeply about how worship is done in the church. Moreover, I have done a little worship leading in my time, both in contemporary and traditional settings. And, as a minister, I know how important it is for the worship life of a congregation to contribute to its overall life of devotion and discipleship. So, I hope that you will hear me out as I point out some troubling trends in contemporary worship and as I propose some solutions. I also hope that you will share your own insights in the “Comments” section below.
Celebrate Musical and Spiritual Heritage
One of the great things about contemporary worship is that it introduces the church to new musical styles and new ways of expressing just how wonderful God is. This strength, however, can be turned into a weakness when we do not balance it with an affection for that which is tried and true. Too often, worship ministries accidentally forget—or intentionally discard—songs that have meant so much to their congregation or the church as a whole in favor of what is “new” and “hot.”
Obviously, those who lead us in worship need to always be on the lookout for new songs that fit the culture and values of their congregation, and some songs simply do not age well and should be discarded. That does not mean, however, that we cannot do what traditional worship leaders do—that is, value songs that really speak to us and make them part of the musical language of our congregations. Many congregations actually incorporate hymns into their contemporary services, and this is a really good thing to do. We can also retrofit older praise music into new songs, breathing new life into them and preserving them for new generations. That is what Travis Cottrell did when he incorporated Michael W. Smith’s classic tune “Agnus Dei” into his version of “What a Beautiful Name.”
But some songs are fine just the way they are (with, perhaps, the exception of a little refreshing of the instrumentation) We should use these songs without shame and without worrying that we are not being “contemporary enough.” Indeed, I think it would be really helpful for each congregation that does contemporary worship to make a list of songs that are so important to its identity and so meaningful to its people that they will never drop out of use. It would be a shame if we lost great songs like “Knowing You” and “At the Cross” simply because we did not work to preserve them in the minds and hearts of our people.
Keep God at the Center
There are many benefits of having a canon of tried and true songs that we depend upon to shape the identity of our congregation and minister to the hearts of our people. One of the most important is that such a collection helps us to spot unhealthy trends in the music that is being written for the church today. This is so important because it is all too tempting for songwriters to mimic the thinking, as well as the style of the culture to which their music is targeted.
I fear that we are seeing such a trend today with the emphasis that contemporary Christian music seems to be placing on boosting the self-esteem of its listeners. I am not saying that the psychological needs of congregants are unimportant and should play no role in how music is written and performed. Music is a powerful tool for pastoral care, and we (and I mean “we”) all need that kind of care on occasion.
Nevertheless, it is always important to remember 1) that the Triune God is the reason we worship and thus should be the primary focus of our worship and 2) that the solution to all that ails us does not lie within us but rather lies in the finished work of Christ on the cross, the love that motivated the Father to send him into the world, and the Spirit that mediates Christ’s presence to the church. So, the music that we write and the songs that we select for our congregations should draw people into a dynamic interaction with God, one in which we bring our praise and pain to the foot of the cross and hear again the healing and the challenging message of the gospel.
To be continued…
As you can see, the issues we are discussing can be a bit weighty. We will need to continue our discussion the next time that we gather together. We will pick up our exploration of how we might do contemporary worship better right where we left off.