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

Recently a number of articles and posts have been circulating on social media and worship blogs about the seeming decline and potential demise of contemporary worship music. The articles are written by very intelligent people who provide some good insights on the current state of worship. Unfortunately, they inevitably reveal an inherent bias against all forms of what is perceived as “contemporary music.” Both T. David Gordon’s “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship: Eight Reasons” and Jonathan Aigner’s “3 Reasons Contemporary Worship IS Declining, and What We Can Do to Help the Church Move On” are worthy examples. These articles are unfortunately often reposted by others in what appears to be a long pent up “I told you so” tone. The comments added to these forwarded articles can range from a somewhat bemused, even condescending air, to something equivalent to the proverbial “get off my lawn” gripe. However, both Gordon and Aigner make some good points that should be considered, and provide the opportunity for response.

The challenge with many of these types of articles is that they often do not define specifically what types of music they are referring to. They simply attack a lump sum they characterize as contemporary music in a manner that sounds like, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” They use descriptors such as “non-theological,” “a novelty worn off,” “fixated on performance and experience,” and “unstable.” They follow with recommendations such as “Resist the temptation to ‘contemporize’ old or new songs,” and “Stop attending contemporary services.” I will be the first to agree that there are examples of these and many other faults in the broad scope that can be characterized as “contemporary music.” But reckless generalizations such as these fail to recognize other aspects of the movement that have brought needed corrections to corporate worship of the past four decades.

While the articles attack the movement as a whole with global degradations, their solution seems to be to run away from it—but to what? What is the better way? Most simply decry what they believe is the worst way—anything that involves a contemporary worship band. Some hint at their solution by resigning, “everything is cyclical and we will just continue with what we have been doing (historic hymnody and ‘traditional’ instrumentation) until things come back around.” I cannot think of one place in church music history where something “came back around” from the past as it originally appeared. But I do believe that corrections come through the balancing of extreme positions of the present by recovering some things from the past in order to move forward. I believe these articles are just one indication among many that we are in a season of adjusting an “over correction” that the contemporary worship movement has been responsible for, both good and bad.

The Worship Renewal

When the “Worship Renewal” began to emerge in the latter part of the 20th century, the church had been worshiping essentially to the accompaniment of piano, organ, and a choir for several generations (since the 19th century, in some city churches even earlier). The church orchestra became a common component in larger churches in the 20th century, while smaller churches often added some form of an instrumental ensemble that approximated an orchestra. As a teenager and young trombone player, I grew up playing in such an ensemble and was jazzed to learn that my local church had a place for me to use my musical gift. I witnessed firsthand the appearance of rhythm section instruments around me. The synthesizer and acoustic guitar were easiest to add. Their volume could be easily controlled (which was the prevalent fear) and became permanent residents in the “orchestra.”

The synthesizer generally stayed set to the strings sound so that it could compensate for the lack of string players in most church instrumental groups. The acoustic guitar was rarely heard, but its visual presence was a major step for those seeking to employ more contemporary instruments. The next step beyond that was a bass guitar, run through the sound system of course (again the volume was easily controlled). Once the bass was safely in place, an electric guitar could eventually be added as long as its amp was placed at the gas station down the street. Most people could not visually tell the difference between the bass and the electric guitar, so it created little more stir than had already been created as long as the volume was imperceptible.

The big adjustment, and controversy, came when adding the drums. This has facilitated the abrupt end to the tenure of many a worship leader. Many churchgoers were convinced that these instruments at best came from pagan tribes in Africa, if not hell itself. Their visual presence alone, let alone any sound created by them, was a major jolt to the worship status quo (ironically the sound of the drums had been being heard in churches for years through the use of accompaniment tracks). Some churches would simply bring them into the room and just allow them to be seen without being played for weeks or even months until church members began to ask if they were going to be used. And when they were finally played it was often more of a visual effect than aural. I could be persuaded that much of the hearing damage that occurred during the last two decades of the 20th Century among our church drummers was not the result of 80’s rock band concerts, but due to the remarkably sound proof rooms that were constructed for these drums to be played in church sanctuaries. It seems that NASA technology was employed for these instruments to essentially be kept muted. But the sight of them was a major change for the direction of worship and the rest is worship music history.

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