The rEvolution Of Contemporary Worship
Featuring Ryan Dahl Posted on October 19, 2010
In the last thirty years, we have seen a revolution invading our modern, evangelical
churches through the ministry of worship and music. A spark ignited in the mid
1970’ s that turned into a flame, that flame turned into a fire, and that fire has
become a force of change that has fueled both revival and dissention – all at the
same time. Nowadays, the style of your church is largely defined by the kind of
music you sing. More often than not, music is the first impression that a newcomer
will encounter when he or she walks through the doors of your sanctuary. That is a
big responsibility, not to be taken lightly. Not long ago, it was quite uncommon to
find a music pastor on staff in a mid-sized church. Today, worship pastors abound
within a highly developed industry that merges music and technology with the
ministry of worship.
In the past, many well-meaning ‘ traditionalists’ put up warning signs about this
trendy new movement in contemporary worship, labeling it as charismatic fluff,
lacking theological depth, and having an unbalanced focus on experience and
emotionalism. As the contemporary worship movement gained strength and
momentum, one of the hottest topics of debate in ministry was over worship style.
Aside from preaching, there is no ministry that has such a wide reaching impact
across all the generations in a local church. In most cases, the worship pastor is
given as much (or more) stage time as the preaching pastor.
Looking back over the last thirty years, you may ask yourself the question: are we
going in the right direction? After all the debates and dissention that many have
endured, has it all been worth it?
One thing is certain, the “ worship style debate” has been beaten to death! The
shelves are full of books and tapes on how to navigate through worship wars and
transition to a more contemporary worship style. Many have landed in the Blended
Worship camp, hoping that would satisfy everyone on both sides of the fence.
Unfortunately, some have experienced that blended worship is about as satisfying
as having a well cooked steak-and-potatoes meal thrown into a blender! Others
have gone to more of a McDonald’ s approach, where you can pick exactly what
style you prefer. But again, more often than not, the contemporary service ends up
thriving and the tradition service ends up waning. Please don’ t be offended – these
are all merely generalizations that may or may not reflect your local church.
Everything aside, statistics demonstrate that churches that are embracing
contemporary worship are the ones that are growing, and churches that are
rejecting contemporary worship are not growing (see John C. Larue, Jr., Your
Church, November/December 1999, Vol. 45, No. 6, Page 80, as quote in A
Practical Guide To Contemporary Worship by Bruce Kunkle, 2002, available from
However, that alone does not justify or validate contemporary worship. What is
more important is to know that contemporary worship is in fact Biblical. Not to
say that everything in contemporary worship is Biblical, but the impulse behind
contemporary worship music has a Biblical foundation.
Contemporary is quite the buzz word in Christian circles. Simply stated,
contemporary means “ something fresh, reflecting the trends of our day.” Trends
affect us in all areas of life? Colors, clothes, hairstyles and houses all reflect the
trends of our day and our culture. Look through your old photo albums and you
will be able to date your pictures simply by what people are wearing and the style
of their hair.
Indeed, they were contemporary in their day. Now, times have changed and what
is contemporary today looks much different than what was contemporary then.
All that to say, contemporary is a moving target. Why do trends change? Because
somewhere, someone is spending their time being creative, thinking of something
fresh and new to introduce into this world. At first, these new ideas may seem
very odd. Then, they are accepted by society. And no sooner, they are out of date,
making way for the next new trend.
Is all of this Biblical? What does this have to do with worship styles? The same
force behind trends is behind the constantly changing sounds of contemporary
worship. Someone’ s creative inspiration produced an idea that caught on with
others and produced a trend. That creative inspiration is a product of the creative
nature of God, implanted into mankind. You don’ t have to be a Christian to be
creative. You don’ t have to be a Christian to be made in the image of God.
God created us to be creative beings, and he wants us to flourish with our
imaginations. That truth is the Biblical foundation to accepting what is
contemporary in our culture, even as it affects our churches. But remember: what
is contemporary today will be out of date tomorrow, and that is O.K. That is the
creative cycle; that is the contemporary revolution!
We see this specifically related to the ministry of worship and music in the Psalms
when David says, “ Sing a new song unto the Lord” (see Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 96:1;
98:1; 144:9; 149:1) David is saying, don’ t get too settled and comfortable with the
old songs of yesterday, because God has something fresh and new for you today.
Someone needs to say it: there is nothing sacred about the hymns that were written
400 years ago. And if they are sacred, they are certainly no more sacred than the
new songs being written today. We have the same God today that they had 400
years ago. The fact is, there are a lot of churches today that are not singing any
hymns at all in their services, and they are not lacking anything for it. That is not to
say there is no value in the hymns. There is for some, and not for others. The value
of the songs and hymns we sing does not come from the time they were written or
the person who wrote them, but the Biblical truth that they reveal as they lead us to
There was a day in the early years of this “ contemporary worship movement” when
the level of theological depth in our praise choruses was limited. All we had were
songs like “ In my life Lord, be glorified, be glorified ...” and “ I love you Lord,
and I lift my voice …” Those are great songs, for sure, but not enough to sustain
a theological diet for worship. However, times have changed, and contemporary
worship has matured. We have hymn writers today that are just as anointed as the
hymn writers of yesterday. There once was a day when “ A Mighty Fortress Is Our
God” was a new song – believe it or not – and the church balked at it. “ What is
with these modern songs and modern melodies written in modern language” they
would say. Yet through the fresh wave of creative impulse, men like Martin Luther
and Charles Wesley transformed the church culture of their day through music.
Today, the anointing and heart is the same, but the names are different. Now,
instead of Martin Luther, we have Martin Smith, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Paul
Baloche, Stuart Townend – just to name a few. These are the world class worship
leaders made famous by the publishing companies. There are others sitting next to
you in the pews of your church.
The point is not to say that old hymns have no value. There are many great songs
that have stood the test of time for hundreds of years. But, there are also great
songs being written today that will stand the test of time tomorrow. Some will,
and some will not. Needless to say, all great songs are new when they are first
introduced, inspired by the creative nature God planted within us, and the Biblical
mandate to sing a new song unto the Lord.
It is time we leave the stereotype behind that says contemporary and modern
worship represents passion and emotion, and traditional worship represents
theological depth. Based on a narrow selection of songs, that may have been true
at one time. The fact is, the contemporary worship movement that spawned in the
late 70’ s has now blossomed and matured. What Martin Luther attempted to do
for his day, Martin Smith, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin and Paul Baloche and many
others are attempting to do for our generation. These are the hymn writers of our
day. Writing a new song for a new generation, yet tapping into the same source of
eternal truth. The church is moving forward, and there is no holding it back. God
is present in our time. He has something fresh for us to tap into today, even as we
lay hold of our firm foundation in the Word of God. Fortunately, that is the one
thing that will never change.
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