Is Contemporary Worship Becoming Self-Critical?

Michael S. Horton
Monday, July 16th 2007
Nov/Dec 1999

In preparing for a lecture recently, I picked up an issue of Worship Leader, a publication of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry. Having experienced that world, I was not surprised that one of the first articles (written by a minister calling himself "Reformed") was premised on the assumption that music is somehow a means by which we commune with God. And the subtitle read: "Music as Medium to Connect Us to God." (1)

Rather than looking to the preached Word and the administered Sacrament (where God actively gives the gifts and we, the needy, receive them), as Protestants have traditionally done, the author suggested that music (where we are the actors) is one of the primary means of grace. For "music can be spiritually generative," and "Spiritually generative events are things that 'connect' people with God and have a self reproducing quality." (2)

But there is more to learn concerning things "spiritually generative":

In antiquity we see this concept in the conversion of Celts in Ireland during the sixth century. Celtic orbs, knots and images about the Creation were incorporated into what we know as the Celtic cross…At the same time, the orb and knots were christianized. To look at the cross was to see Christ. To look at Celtic art was to think of the cross, wherever one might be. This is a good example of a spiritually generative event. (3)

But isn't it rather a good example of what at least Reformed folks have called "idolatry"? That is why it seems strange for the author to then cite Calvin in his favor for "a lot of freedom when it comes to music…" In the author's church, he tells us, "we pluck our themes right off of alternative and Top 40 radio. We are hoping for a spiritually generative result." (4) Lest I be misunderstood, I want to say explicitly that I do not regard alternative and Top 40 songs as inherently sinful or idolatrous. Some people do, but I don't. In fact, if any of our readers have listened to the White Horse Inn radio program, it should be obvious that we have no objections to Joan Osborne's "(What If God Was) One of Us" being played as a way of listening to popular culture.

But in worship we are talking about something different. Here it is not the culture-popular, folk, or high-which determines the shape of things. What we do on the Lord's Day is already determined by God: preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the prayers (Acts 2:42). How can we "pluck our themes right off of alternative and Top 40 radio" when we have been sent out on someone else's mission?

The Worship Leader writer is clearly not alone; it seems to be widely held these days that God has said nothing about how we should worship him. This silence, furthermore, prohibits us from making even preaching necessary to every worship service. Some conservative Presbyterian theologians, for instance, argue that a weekly service need not include the preaching of the Word, as God can speak his Word through a variety of other instruments: drama, liturgical dance, poetry, and so on. Repeatedly we are told by defenders of CCM worship that opponents are making too much of differences in style. One person prefers guitars, another prefers organs: Isn't that all that this debate is about?

It might seem so at first glance. But when theologians challenge the necessity of the preached Word to the service, clearly what is at stake is the status of the divinely ordained means of grace and the substitutability of other "means" appointed by us. Further, when a minister informs us that he and his staff "pluck our themes right off of alternative and Top 40 radio" (emphasis added), it is obviously not just a matter of taste, but of content. There were certainly times in Israel's history when she plucked her themes right off of the high places around her.

Hearing a Different Note?

But then, when I was expecting the entire Worship Leader issue to offer more of the same, I discovered that there are some dissenting voices in the camp. In between ads for synthesizers and PA systems are articles written by CCM industry leaders raising concerns about the directions of the last twenty years. While most of these self-critical arguments still appear to be merely pragmatic, it is nonetheless ironic to see contemporary worship movement leaders starting to have doubts-at the same time that many confessional folks (whose theological traditions ought to help them be more discerning) rush to join the alternative worship party just as it ends.

The magazine's managing editor David Di Sabatino observes: "Detractors of the contemporary worship movement have a legitimate complaint when they lament that current songs are devoid of theological acumen and have capitulated to the highly individualistic and commercially-driven zeitgest [sic] of our culture." (5) And remember, this is just as some Reformed theologians are scolding their peers (and pejoratively calling them "Historicus," to imply that they almost idolize tradition itself) (6) for making exactly these charges.

But that's not all. Another Worship Leader article calls our attention to the "quest of an ancient future: old hymns, contemporary context." (7) This piece cites Michael Card's observation "that the contemporary worship movement has simply capitulated to cultural trends." Card has discovered a new generation of young people for whom the old hymns are brand new. Fresh features, such as new harmonizations, are breathing new life into these old texts. Various seeker-oriented pastors are quoted as suggesting that the superficial era of contemporary worship may be nearing its end. What was old is now new. "By exposing new people to many of these old classics in a way that is musically familiar but non-threatening, we encourage a very healthy type of connection to our ancient faith." (8) It is not surprising, then, that the overly stereotyped "GenXer" is bored by CCM and is excited about liturgy and some intimation of transcendence. Donald C. Boyd recounts the story of a friend, a denominational official, who led a focus group of 20-something ministers. "While tossing on the table the idea of worship, one of the young pastors remarked, 'Well, I've been raised on traditional worship. You know, praise choruses, music projected on the wall, drama-that sort of thing." (9)

Another article in Worship Leader features an interview with a couple of "single adult ministry experts." Where one might expect to find the usual hype, instead one hears "ministry leader Holly Rollins" arguing:

In contrast to an application-oriented [seeker] church, through [our] seeker-friendly services…we decided to target this highly intellectual, very well-educated demographic with very deep, philosophical teaching….We spent a significant amount of time studying our demographic before we launched the new ministry. The premise of this was that we're not hitting 80 percent of our target demographic…. (10)

Remarkably, the same pragmatic marketing criteria are being used to move away from seeker-driven shallowness. The unchurched, especially the younger crowd, are burned out on hype. "That makes Soul Purpose [the singles' ministry] probably the most 'ecclesiastical' ministry in our very non-traditional church." (11)

Rich Hurst, the other "single adult ministry expert" being interviewed, says of these changes:

I have a whole different view of ministry. I'm still stuck in a seeker mode and I'm trying to get out of it. That's a big problem with our church world. I find it difficult to say anything positive about the church growth movement. In 1970 there were 10 megachurches, today there are over 400, and yet overall church attendance is off 35 percent. I was in Chicago recently with some pastors. I used to be on the pastoral staff of a seeker church, so I have a pretty good working knowledge of that kind of ministry and what it takes to raise a lot of money. I don't think they have much of a future; they'll wind up being tourist attractions or community colleges because they haven't learned how to reach the next generation. The idea of seeker worship hasn't been the answer to what ails Christianity in America. (12)

Interviewer Sally Morgenthaler adds, "That's the difference between self-help and transformation. It is a whole different worldview if you believe in [human] depravity…." Rich Hurst replies, "Churches influenced by the seeker-church movement have just become big self-help places, sort of a Parks and Recreation Department for the middle class."

Note what these folks are saying: These former advocates of shallow seeker-services are recognizing that much of that movement carries a weak doctrine of sin and, consequently offers only self-help-that is, the righteousness which is of works, rather than the divine rescue which is actually needed! Jeff Peabody continues the thought in the next article, titled "Rethinking the Worship Leader: A Pastoral Vision." He writes, "Many good books and gifted speakers have prompted me to rethink my concept of worship and worship leading. I have become increasingly aware that worship is more profound than what typically occurs on any given Sunday morning. We breeze through our worship, without giving it the theological reflection it deserves." We need to start asking the question concerning "worship leaders": "Do they show any theological understanding of their role, or are they musically gifted but biblically illiterate." (13)

How Do We Go Forward?

Of course, not everybody is moving in this direction. And a ministry based on pragmatism is built on sand regardless of whether it is more traditional or contemporary. Furthermore, it will take an entire generation of reeducation in the substance of Christian faith and practice for us to attain linguistic competence again in terms of the Christian grammar. We need to get beyond the "traditional/contemporary" categories and rediscover the biblical, confessional, theological warp and woof of worship. This will require new thinking, whether we're either lazy praise-and-worship folks who are satisfied with a few guitar chords and undemanding content, or lazy conservatives who just want to sing familiar tunes even if they have lost their freshness. Neither innovation nor nostalgia should reign. Even now there are gifted pastors and musicians working in tandem to produce new lyrical constructions and musical composition. Every era of genuine reformation and awakening, as the Gospel is rediscovered in its astonishing depth, has generated a new era in liturgical and musical development. Like our forebears, we are reformers and not revolutionaries. We should challenge ourselves and each other to greater biblical fidelity, but be always suspicious of those who want to start from scratch. Reformation assumes change within continuity.

Despite the challenges, the growing interest in reinvesting in historic Christianity represents an invigorating turn. It is ironic that more conservative Reformed and Lutheran writers are defending the Gaithers' music as "contemporary" and "seeker-sensitive," while the coming generation of evangelicals finds this music far more alienating than the Psalms of David and the great hymns which were written before the adoption of sentimental texts and tunes. While many of our own are defending "Shine, Jesus, Shine," many of those on the vanguard of seeker-churches are seeking refuge in the Rock of Ages, though perhaps with James Ward's new and, to my mind, definitely improved music.

1 [ Back ] Worship Leader, May/June 1999, 14.
2 [ Back ] Ibid.
3 [ Back ] Ibid.
4 [ Back ] Ibid.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., 22.
6 [ Back ] See, e.g., John Frame, Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1997), especially chapter 7.
7 [ Back ] Worship Leader, op. cit., 24.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 26.
9 [ Back ] The Asbury Herald, Winter 1999, 6.
10 [ Back ] Worship Leader, op. cit., 30.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 31.
12 [ Back ] Ibid., 32.
13 [ Back ] Ibid., 34.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, July 16th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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