body, music, Worship

Frank Answers About Contemporary Worship Music

This was a question asked and discussed at the Canadian Rockies Theological Conference in April 2015 on the topic, “Worship Wars, Peace Negotiations.” 

Question: More and more congregations are adopting Contemporary Worship Music. Many have a service that is contemporary and a service that is traditional. This seems to divide the congregation. Is there any way that Contemporary Worship Music can be blended into the traditional liturgy?

I agree that having separate contemporary and traditional services can be divisive within a congregation. It is like dividing the congregation according to musical taste. Some congregations may resolve this by having only contemporary worship services. But there are ways to “blend” or integrate contemporary worship music (CWM) into the traditional order of worship.

I’m assuming the question is from someone in a denomination that is used to a liturgical order of service. In such churches just having a service that is basically a song fest followed by a message is inadequate. The worship of a liturgical church is word and sacrament — readings of Scripture with preaching and Holy Communion. The sacrament of Holy Baptism may also be celebrated within such a liturgy. The liturgy or order of service will also includes elements of praise and adoration, confession of sins, confession of faith, intercessions and thanksgivings.  Pulpit, table, font, and cross will be prominent in the worship space. So the kind of seeker service or praise and worship service that is offered in many celebrated megachurches like Willow Creek or Hillsong will not be an option even if the only music used in worship is “contemporary” (or what I would prefer to call “popular”).  

Hillsong Church in suburban Sydney, Australia

Today traditional worship is almost dogmatically defined by the four movements of Gathering, Word, Meal, and Sending. CWM can be used in this order of service. But the music will be spread throughout the order, not confined to an opening medley. I will list some of these ways, follow the liturgical ordo with which we are most familiar, and which might be used in Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist churches. It is also similar in structure to the Roman Catholic Mass.

The traditional prelude is replaced by Gathering Songs (songs of praise), supported by a full band of drums, guitars, and a synthesizer. As people enter to take their seats and assemble for worship, they sing praise choruses such as “We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise.” The last praise song may serve as the entrance song during which the ministers come into the chancel.

After the entrance song, there is a call to worship, invocation, and confession of sin. Then the congregation sings more praise music, especially music that reflects the thanksgiving of entering into the inner court of the tabernacle or temple, an idea that the historic “Glory to God in the highest” also expresses.

There might be more contemporary songs sung in response to the readings and the sermon. This could be music based on psalmody. In Lutheran services the hymn of the day would be chosen, as always, to proclaim the same message as the lectionary readings and homily.

The offertory provides another opportunity to use contemporary music, perhaps also some songs sung by a choir. The songs express such themes as the stewardship of creation and acts of offering.

During the Great Thanksgiving and before Holy Communion there might be contemporary settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”).

During communion, the congregation sings choruses as people receive the sacrament. Choruses with repeating refrains sung by the people while the musicians/choir sings the stanzas would be especially useful so that people can continue singing as they move toward and away from the communion stations. Songs sung during communion would express an intimate relationship with God, such as “Father, I Adore You,” “I Love You, Lord,” and “I Lift My Voice to Worship You.” Such songs have a sense of what John Chism calls “The Manifest Presence of God.”

Finally, there might be songs of sending that will express the theme of commitment and mission.

What I have imagined here (drawn from possibilities that I have actually experienced or seen listed in bulletins) is a liturgical ordo in which all the music is CWM. But in addressing the question of whether our worship can be both traditional and contemporary, we should recognize that this is simply slipping all contemporary songs into a traditional order. That is one way to do it. But I would also like to suggest that there could also be a mixture of musical genres and styles that would make our worship more integrally traditional and contemporary.

Let me describe a Roman Catholic Mass that I experienced in St. Mary of the Angels Franciscan Parish in Singapore.

St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church, Singapore

There was gathering music that included songs sung by the worship band and some in which the congregation joined in.

The entrance hymn was a traditional hymn with organ accompaniment (electronic—not many pipe organs in that part of the world).

The “Glory to God” was a piece of contemporary Catholic service music. All of the contemporary service music in the mass was accompanied by guitar, bass, keyboard, and flute.

The psalmody between the readings was a contemporary psalm setting sung by the choir with a congregational refrain.

The Alleluia before the Gospel was one of the settings making its way around the world.

Music was performed by the praise and worship band during the offertory.
The traditional plainsong Eucharistic dialogue and preface were chanted, leading into a contemporary Sanctus.

Contemporary songs of a quiet character were sung during communion.

The sending hymn was another traditional hymn accompanied by the organ.

So in this mass the music included praise songs, traditional hymns, contemporary Catholic psalm settings and service music, and plainsong chant. I take this as a model of how our worship can be traditional and contemporary. If the songs are spread throughout the mass, it is not jarring to have a mixture of genres and styles.

I was in a Lutheran congregation during Lent this year in which the Sunday liturgies included a German chorale, setting three of the LBW Communion Service (the chant setting), a Victorian hymn, a South African song, and an African-American gospel song sung by the choir.

All of the music for worship, no matter whether it is traditional or contemporary, has to be carefully selected. The pastor and cantor (I’ll use that term for the principal staff musician) must meet to do the worship planning. The music selected must be appropriate to the liturgical day or season, chosen with an eye on the lectionary, and also how each piece fits in each liturgical moment. Church musicians today must know a full range of repertoire. Particularly if contemporary worship music is going to be used, the cantor must know  how to sort through hundreds of songs to find ones that meet these criteria and avoid excess individualism since we are planning for corporate worship. The pastor cannot abdicate responsibility for the content of the congregation’s worship.

Overall, those who are planning worship must remember that worship exists first of all to give glory to God. But the music, like the sermon, also proclaims the gospel and addresses the needs of the people in their worldly contexts. In my experience the lyrics of many contemporary worship songs cannot match the hymn lyrics in typical denominational hymnals for theological substance, liturgical suitability, and range of concerns for Christian life in the world. 

Both pietistic hymns and contemporary praise and worship songs are concerned with the heart. Chuck Fromm of Maranatha! Music once related the rise of Praise & Worship to a saying of St. Francis: “St. Francis told us that a laborer works with his hands, a craftsman with head and hands, and an artist with head, hands, and heart,” said Fromm. “The praise and worship tradition has brought the heart back into worship because of the work of the artists.”

Well, certainly the heart has been and continues to be engaged in many traditional liturgical services of worship. Nevertheless, I agree with Chuck Fromm in the sense that worship, especially in the mainline traditions, has been intellectualized and geared primarily toward the mind. This is probably a reason why many worshipers today find it dull and lifeless. People today are more action-oriented, which means more body-oriented. Cognitive science in recent years has even shown how the experiences of the body shape the mind. The mind is part of, and not separate from, the body. I think this is a reason why our young people especially are fleeing to a worship that touches the heart and engages the senses.

It doesn’t have to be only contemporary worship music and neo-Pentecostal (e.g. Vineyard, Hillsong) worship styles that touch the heart and engage the senses. Some are finding their way into Eastern Orthodox churches whose liturgies are totally sensual. Martin Luther is reported to have said that we have five senses with which to worship God and it would be sheer ingratitude to use fewer. All of our senses need to be engaged in worship: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting. We receive information through all five senses.

But we respond to the information we receive through our bodily senses with our bodily postures: standing, sitting, kneeling, turning, walking. What else do we have with which to worship God and serve our neighbor than our bodies? We are embodied creatures, not spiritual beings like angels. But just as we have restricted the use of the senses in much Western worship, so we have restricted the use of the body. I’ve reached a point where I can’t stand to be hemmed in by pews. Our worship needs to be more action-oriented, and we need to get the pews out of our way. We need to at least turn and look at whoever is speaking, even if from the back of the church.

There ought to be more processional movement that involves the congregation. Holy Week preserves a n umber of processions that can include the entire congregation. There is the outdoor Palm Sunday procession (weather permitting). On Good Friday many churches participate in an outdoor Way of the Cross (Via Crucis). There’s also a procession with the cross in the Good Friday Liturgy and at the end of the service people may come forward to show some sign of veneration of the cross. The Easter Vigil begins by gathering outside around the new fire and processing behind the paschal candle with lighted hand candles into the dark church. There might be a movement of the whole congregation to gather around the baptismal font for the Renewal of Baptism.

Movement of the congregation requires ritual music in which the stanzas or verses are sung by cantors or choir and the people join in on repeating refrains. In fact, the great processional hymns in the tradition were sung by choirs in place with the moving people singing refrains so that they don’t have to read texts and walk at the same time. Think of hymns like “All glory, laud, and honor” on Palm Sunday or “Hail thee, festival day” on Easter, Ascension, or Pentecost. And if the people are moving, projection screens aren’t very useful.

In any event, we have the options of different styles of worship music today and the options of mixing genres. For some worshipers the pipe organ and classical church music represents the message of a God who is transcendent and mysterious. But for others, the guitar, the synthesizer, and the drums, the media of their own popular culture, represent a God who is immanent, a God who wants intimate fellowship with the church. For them this style of music and worship brings immediacy, relevancy, and an engaging participation. However, I think our God is both transcendent and immanent in relation to us: both the “Father” and “the Almighty,” as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. So maybe we shouldn’t have to choose one style over the other.

Each congregation will have to decide what to do about contemporary worship music and consider what is lost if the traditional hymns are forgotten. Some will ignore CWM. Others will resist it. Some will only use CWM. And others will incorporate it into traditional worship. What I see in the future is a convergence of worship traditions, a convergence of the liturgical traditions and the Praise and Worship tradition. It does not seem to me to be an either/or, but a both/and.
What a blended or convergence service will look like is dependent on the way the traditions are brought together. When good preaching and good music and engaging ritual are all brought together, our congregations may discover a richness and fullness in worship that one tradition without the benefit of the others does not seem able to achieve.

The future of worship lies, then, not in the repudiation of this or that tradition, but in a mining of riches from all the traditions—a convergence of worship traditions that recognizes the gifts of God given to the people of God down through the ages and around the whole world today and deep into our own culture who worship in ways different than our own.

Pastor Frank Senn, STS

Contemporary music group in Christ the King Lutheran Church, Orangedale, CA

Image above article: Northern Hills United Methodist Church

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