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

Part IV: Redefining Contemporary Worship Music

I am a musical pluralist. I am not a proponent of the separate traditional and contemporary worship services that divide congregations every Sunday. (Too many churches have unintentionally become divided congregations with no clear understanding of how to put things back together again.) I love the look in my students eyes when I tell then that the deeply spiritually-minded Puritans refused to use the organ in worship, referring to it as the “devil’s bagpipes” because of its use in the Anglican services. I love even more the look in their eyes when they hear our glorious 100+ rank pipe organ accompany congregational singing in our chapel. What I love most about our students is that they are as excited about singing with the organ as they are with a worship band. And their passion does not waiver with either because they worship for theological reasons rather than musical ones. But something very authentic happens when they can use a musical style they identify most closely with in worship—a musical heart language is employed for their theological heart language.

We need to make room in our local expressions of contemporary worship for what is happening now in the musical lives of the worshipers in our local churches—the musical heart language of our people. What do they listen to in their cars and on their iPods? It is not the same in every church and we certainly can’t let Nashville or Australia dictate what that should be. Who has God brought to your worship ministry? What types of talent are represented in your congregation? I had a friend tell me recently about a clarinet player that God brought to his church. He led a worship band style service, but determined to make a place for his new clarinet player. He said the challenge was not easy, but the experience was extraordinarily rewarding. What if more worship leaders determined to build from their churches rather than upon them? The worship wars were primarily the result of shortsighted people forcing someone else’s style upon a local church for a pragmatic end rather than a pastoral one. Authentic worship is worship derived from and planned for a local congregation, from the heart of a shepherd.

“Blended” Worship

I think the solution for this season must be found in a radical use of the word “blended.” I mean this in a more aggressive form than having half of the traditional service and half of the contemporary service merged into one service that meets between the other two (thus creating three subsections of the congregation). Our worship should be “blended” at least as much as the congregation is blended (a needed subject for another article).  Why can’t we sing, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Man of Sorrows” in the same service? Why can’t we use the organ and the worship band during the same hour of worship? What about a black gospel song, bluegrass hymn, southern gospel number, string quartet arrangement, and Indie-folk hymn rewrite? Can a jazz trio play the offertory after the orchestra plays the prelude? For that matter, shouldn’t we explore a little bit of “world” worship music at times, just to remind our congregants that one day “every tribe and tongue and nation” will one day worship together (Revelation 7:9)?

My point is not that every service should look like a presentation of all of iTunes subgenres of music, or a gathering of the United Nations. But one day worship will in some miraculous way reveal the gospel’s power to gather in unity the peoples of vast diversity. Until that day, our worship should look more like a true depiction of our diverse congregations, with all of their colors, accents, styles, and talents reflected. Understandably, a broad approach to musical style has to be adopted that reflects best the whole. This will likely be something that looks “contemporary” (with its core musical ensemble of the rhythm section) in most settings. But room needs to be made for the unique talents found in our congregations to define what “contemporary” means to our local expression of the universal church.

Making it All, His!

What the best examples of contemporary music have successfully done is to enthusiastically involve the congregation with theologically rich texts to a very high degree. The congregation is the primary musical group in worship! Contemporary music has resonated with them and they can more enthusiastically join in and sing with authenticity and delight. But the movement’s subsequent losses of the musical riches of the past, associated with the traditional style, are unacceptable. And the marginalization of some of the most gifted musicians in our church, who don’t happen to play a keyboard, guitar, or bass, is a travesty. It’s time to seek out those musicians and rebuild the diversity of instrumental sounds in worship. Choirs need to be reemployed for support of congregational singing if nothing else (and there is much else that they can and should do). The main reason they existed was to aid the congregation’s worship, not supplant it.

So keep looking for your next guitar players and drummers. Develop training programs and teach your children how to read and play music. If you don’t like the current state of your contemporary worship, do something to improve it. But don’t be surprised when you encounter a harpist or opera singer in your church. Don’t despise the tuba player or accordionist. And if a teenaged trombone player appears in your congregation, ask the Lord to help you figure out how to employ that God-given gift in worship like my worship pastor did. (After all, God is the one who put him there and one day he may be a worship professor.) Expand your musical horizons and demonstrate to your congregation that God is a God of remarkable creative diversity. Make contemporary music in your church what is going on now among your people. And make what is going on now as timeless and diverse as can support the widest degree of congregational participation. This is truly being musically relevant!

Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote—“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!—has musical style implications. It is a call for dominion, creativity, and requires an appropriate sense of novelty. We worship in a much different manner today than a century ago. And that generation worshiped differently than a century before them. Even those who call for a return to a more traditional approach are referencing a style that was at one time novel. Organs, pianos, choirs, praise teams, guitars, synthesizers, and drums each had their time at the worship battlefront. One generation advocated their inclusion while another decried their intrusion. Eventually, all have been used to facilitate the worship of Christ. What approach to musical style can we employ to become more musically relevant? In doing so, we may join the cry of Christ in some aspect of worship in the present, with the view that one day we will declare it all, His!

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