Losing its roots: the dilemma of “contemporary worship”
A couple of months ago I was engaged in a great discussion with a good friend of mine in which we attempted to figure out what exactly is the state of “contemporary worship music” in our churches. He comes out of the Reformed tradition but currently attends a nondenominational congregation that focuses on exegetical preaching and has a mixture of contemporary and traditional music in worship. I am an Evangelical Anglican music pastor who places a high value on liturgy and sacrament, all while also attempting a similar balance of traditional and contemporary music in worship. My friend (who plays guitar in his congregation’s worship band) has some serious doubts about the musical and lyrical validity of many of the new songs being spit out of the worship music industrial complex, and he also is seriously put off by the “Big Show” we have made of our times of worship. He does not see the lights, the noisiness, and the spectacle as edifying.
Whenever I find myself embroiled in a conversation like this I immediately get defensive of contemporary worship music—not because I think the “Big Show” is a good thing, but because I believe contemporary worship has strayed from its roots. Whatever pure thing it once was has been co-opted by record executives with dollar signs in their eyes. In these conversations I always tell a story:
“That’s not how things were in my church growing up. The megachurches have taken the spontaneous, energetic, and genuine music of Pentecostal churches and turned it into a formula. In my church growing up, everybody sang. Really, people would sing their hearts out! There would be people dancing, people waving banners, people on their knees pouring their hearts out to God. Yes, people nowadays stand there looking dead holding their coffee in the strobe-light darkness, but when I was a kid we came to church every Sunday expecting God to move in a new way and feeling as if anything could happen.”
As you might be able to tell, I grew up in a distinctively Pentecostal congregation. My friend and I both sense something is not right with modern worship music, and in order to come up with a solution his natural tendency is to point to the intellectual hymns of old, those four- or six-verse strophic poems of theological depth and poetic beauty. My instinct, though, is to look back to a time when people passionately sang to God with all their might and when it was possible for God to break in and do a mighty work among us. What we are both doing is looking back with bittersweet longing to a “golden age” of worship and music in the hopes of restoring “true worship” in the church. We are longing for the good old days, for a purer, simpler time when things were “done right.”
Caught in the middle: Pentecostal or Liturgical?
I grew up in the Assemblies of God, but now as an Anglican I have morphed into some kind of mutant hybrid who has assimilated the DNA of every church background of influence into a cohesive whole. I am an Evangelical Anglo-Catholic who still wants to worship like a Pentecostal. I am a card-carrying Ancient-Future, Convergence Worship proponent who wants both the gifts of the Spirit and liturgy and sacrament. I want to worship by submitting to and immersing myself in the ancient prayers and structures of the church while also leaving plenty of room for God to move among us in the present. And yet, even though there is no way I could ever go back to the simpler liturgy of my childhood church, I still long for the “good old days.”
That means I think the worship in my current congregation is too stolid and controlled. The people often seem dead to me as I try to lead them in song. From my vantage point there is a lack of expectation for God to move in their hearts and in our midst, a lack of passion and uninhibited emotion. “Where is the hunger?!” I think. “How can I get these people back to the kinds of life-changing moments we had in God’s presence when I was young?”
There were dozens of times over a span of nearly twenty years when I was part of a worship service where God moved powerfully. Of those dozens of times, there were a few experiences of the entire Sunday morning worship being blown open. There was no plan. There was no orchestration or manufacturing of overly-hyped emotion. It just happened, spontaneously and communally. The songs went on and on. People prophesied and spoke in tongues and interpreted those tongues. People “sang in the Spirit,” singing freely the song of their hearts. People sang in their “prayer language.” Some women would skillfully dance in the aisles as an offering to the Lord. Some of these moments were loud, and some of these moments were quiet and tender, filled with many moments of expectant waiting. These were moments where time seemed to pause, and we all simply dwelled in the presence of God, sometimes with prayerful listening and sometimes with exuberant celebration.
These moments were not coerced; they simply . . . happened. For some reason we were open, God’s presence was thick, and our worship went to a new place. These were moments of sweetness, healing, and transformation. Lives were changed in those times, and people drew close to God as the name of Jesus was lifted up. Sins were confessed, prophecies were received, and words of knowledge were spoken. We were refreshed in spirit, mind, and body.
You can’t have it both ways: Revival church vs. the megachurch
But this era did not last forever, at least not in the congregations I attended. Eventually two disturbing and frustrating trends started to occur both within my church and others like it, representing opposite reactions to our “traditional” Pentecostal worship: continual, unending calls for “revival,” or adapting into a safer, more formulaic way of worshiping.
To the first trend, revival:
We were pleaded with. We were yelled at. Spittle flew at us from the pulpit. We were being revved up like a muscle car ready for a street race. We were expected to burn spiritual rubber. Revival must come and it must come now: “We need God to bring revival!” “You need a revival in your heart!” “Revival! Revival! Revival!”
Growing up, I had no real idea what was meant by “revival,” although I knew the basic expectations were that masses of people would either be convicted of their sin or be converted to Christ. I later realized calls for revival hark back to the Great Awakening, to the influence of Charles Finney and Oral Roberts, to the Welsh and English revivals, to the initial Pentecostal revivals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to more recent revivals such as those in Pensacola, Florida.
What made me begin to feel uncomfortable was how forced the revival talk became. All the yelling turned me off to worship, and it smacked of works-righteousness, as though if we would only pray hard enough we could bring down God and change our world. This assault of revival talk created a different atmosphere altogether from those times when we were open and God moved as he willed. In my subconscious I knew all the yelling was a desperate grasping for control, a need for power over people, and I knew it would not bear any lasting fruit.
To the second trend, the movement toward “seeker-sensitive” church models:
It took a while, but the influence of the Church Growth Movement made it to my local Pentecostal church. Growing self-conscious of our zealous “holy roller” ways, we started to tone down our embarrassing craziness. We became “seeker-sensitive,” not wanting to make anyone uncomfortable. People were not coming to church as much anymore, and we had to provide them with a more “comfortable” antidote. Soon, song leaders began timing the length of the music sets and choreographing the smiles and the hand-raising of their backup singers. They began adding lights, then even more lights, and then choreographing those lights. We darkened and then all but blacked out our sanctuaries. We turned up the volume so no one would feel self-conscious about anyone hearing them sing. The worship set had become a homogenized, whitewashed, safe (albeit loud) product.
No matter how I looked at it, though, when these changes occurred it felt like “my” worship had been stolen from me. I had become a victim.
Chasing the Ghosts of Worship Past
In this post-“golden age” time I feel as if I have been wandering through a worship music wilderness. I feverishly walk and walk through a vast, unfamiliar landscape, hoping against hope to see something I recognize, something that feels like home. This sense of hopeless wandering leads to the reason I am writing, which can be summed up by a well-worn cliche: By focusing only on what God did in the past, I am in great danger of missing what God can do and is doing in the present.
It is futile to chase the ghosts of worship past, to re-enact a worship moment, or to think the anointing of God is dependent on an “anointed” song or, even worse, my memory of a song. Nostalgia and sentimentality in worship are dangerous. If we hold too strongly to a memory, too strongly to “the way things should be,” too strongly to our favorite songs, we will dismantle all that God is attempting to do among us now. Nothing has the potential to inhibit our worship more than a memory we have allowed to become an immovable idol. To be sure, the past should always inform the present, as we are most certainly the products of our cumulative pasts, but the past should never inhibit us from learning, growing, and changing in the present.
I have two incredibly influential pasts I am always striving to relive: the spontaneous, Spirit-filled Pentecostal worship of my youth, and the rich incarnational and liturgical heritage of my young adulthood. I am forever bouncing back and forth in my mind, thinking we’re not doing worship right because we are either not Pentecostal enough or liturgical enough. My friend carries the past of the great Reformed hymn-singing tradition—a past I cling to as well, as I am now a huge proponent of the hymn resurgence movement. Thus the list grows long of all the potential ghosts of worship past I am trying to live up to.
The warning stands, to you and to me: No matter how powerful, healing, transcendent, transforming, educational, or “correct” your past was, do not turn it into a false god. Whether it is the tradition and structures of the church that formed you or the intimately personal memories of your times with God, the key is to be in a place of openness today. The Word of life is forever speaking over his people, proclaiming, “All things are new.”
I write as a worship and music leader who steps into the tensions of my own past every week as I lead my congregation in song. And as I lead them, I know I am stepping into their expectations as well of how our worship and music should be. These are formerly Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Assemblies of God, Vineyard, Apostolic Christian, Presbyterian, Reformed, Baptist, nondenominational, and Episcopalian people. My prayer for us all is that we may sing a joyous song together, no matter what that song happens to be, and that we may be a people caught up in the presence of God, shaped by our past but deciding to see God move in the present.