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

Part II: The Needed Correction Contemporary Worship Music has Provided

There are some important reasons for considering contemporary music as more than the lowest common denominator often targeted in the more antagonistic articles being circulated. The correction that contemporary music has most effectively enabled is the involvement of the congregation in worship once again. I recall attending worship services in the 20th century where I sat through preludes, postludes, multiple choir specials, vocal solos, and instrumental offertories, waiting to actually sing in worship as part of the congregation. More and more worship service time was being devoted to those on stage and less to the true worshipers. The changes precipitated by the transition to contemporary instruments have been accompanied by an approach to worship that is congregationally centered. And the primary reason this has occurred is because a “contemporary” approach to music is really about utilizing the musical product of the current period of time. Contemporary music involves using the styles of music that resonate most broadly with the generation of people living right now.

We have now gone through a season of dwindling choirs, disappearing orchestra sections, unmanned organs, and the physical relocation of the rhythm section from far stage left or right, to center stage in our sanctuaries. Even the electric guitar amp has been brought in from the gas station down the street and in some cases is even pointed toward the congregation. The migration is complete but the adjustments are not. The worship band is the primary ensemble used in worship today. That is not going to change for the foreseeable future. The musicians are plentiful, the equipment costs are manageable, and the improvisational skills necessary to participate are relatively easily acquired. However, the pendulum has swung too far, and possibly too fast for some, resulting in the establishment of an artificial dichotomy—traditional vs. contemporary worship.

Calling a Truce to the Worship Wars

I teach for an institution that has made the difficult transition from a worship training program primarily devoted to classic sacred art music to one that encompasses what we consider “relevant musical styles,” which would be characterized by many as contemporary. We teach today’s diverse musical styles as established upon the foundation of historic western art music. Where we stand today as one of the fastest growing worship programs in the country, amidst a climate of pervasive numerical decline in Christian higher education, is a story much bigger than musical style. But it includes a determined attempt to serve the church of today with the best-trained musicians possible. These musicians are trained with primary application of their skills to contemporary music. But this word means more to us than simply the use of drums, bass, guitar and a sound system.

We live in an era of unparalleled diversity. Part of this is due to the actual human diversity we experience first hand in a given week. Part is due to what technology’s access has granted us. If the world has not literally come to our doorstep where we live, it certainly has virtually come to our iPhones and laptops. We live in an age of phenomenal musical diversity, even among our own American music genres. But the current musical landscape in our culture is fixed around a core musical ensemble—that of the rhythm section—and it has been for almost a century (since the Big Band Era). The variety of ways that this ensemble is used in America is far greater than the mainstream of Christian worship represents. What we at our institution consider being “musically relevant” has more to do with building upon this core ensemble in as many different ways as possible than playing the top 20 worship music downloads from last week. It is about building stylistically toward the congregation being served.

The problem that my students face is that they are going out to lead worship in a worship culture that seems to insist upon a traditional vs. contemporary dichotomy. It should not require a “Democrat vs. Republican” type of declaration. I am concerned that the sabre rattling with these recent articles declaring the demise of contemporary worship is doing our churches no more good than the same type of declarations thirty years ago when proponents of contemporary music were declaring “traditional” worship dead. The best examples of worship have always used the riches of the musical past to point worshipers toward the future. And this can only occur in the present. But the most effective means of engaging worshipers is by making worship accessible by referencing it to the present. The fact that we do something in the present does not deem it necessarily contemporary. What makes it contemporary is that it is relevant to the worshipers of the present. This has been done throughout church history either by using instruments or not using them; singing in unison or singing in parts; and even using a particular instrument such as the organ, piano, or guitar. Tunes have been imported from the world around and specific timbres incorporated to connect worshipers with a relevant form of musical worship. There are obvious pitfalls and biblical wisdom is required, but the reward is congregational engagement that is enthusiastic and authentic.

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

This is the second part of a 4 part series.  Click below to read Part I.