“Contemporary Worship” Doesn’t Have to Be Empty of History

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We were on holidays and decided to go to a “contemporary service” in a CRC with nearly 100 years of history. Now, I LIKE to be critical—part of the "old man" still kicking around, I guess. But my wife is a kind and gentle and just woman. So, imagine my surprise the next day when she energetically called it a “dipstick” service. Yikes. How come?

OK, we’re both old folks—early 60s. But we’re not anti-contemporary stuff in life or worship. I’m a right up-to-date guy with my road bike drive-train (Shimano Dura-Ace, just so you know.) Overhead projection in worship often works well for singing, movie clips, readings, announcements. Wonderful music produced by splendid musicians comes from more than organ and violins.

But our collective spiritual blood pressures rose that holiday Sunday morning not because the event was contemporary. Rather, I truly wondered if that carefully planned, but thoroughly disjointed hour was a service of any kind.

The worship leader started with a simple “Good morning” greeting. Then the well-prepared praise team led five stand-up songs. So few folks knew any of the songs that congregational participation was difficult to gauge or experience. None of the songs mentioned God, Lord, Jesus, Saviour, Holy Spirit or made any clear biblical reference or allusion to the Persons of God as revealed in Scripture. “You” was the only word approaching a personal address to God, but this “you” could just as well have been a casual acquaintance across the street who treated you nice last week.

The worship leader made some announcements about VBS during the offering, with only a brief reference to what the gifts were for. The preaching pastor read an Old Testament narrative and then preached a dandy 30 minute sermon. (So, I’m glad I went; I just might do some cribbing on that message—and I WILL give credit! Happily, the congregation was attentive till the “Amen.”) As we sang one slightly familiar song, the pastor walked to the back to greet people. Then a musician said a brief prayer and hoped everyone would have a good week.

I think something is really wrong with that service. There was no greeting or parting blessing from God--only the barest acknowledgement that we were indeed in God’s presence, under God’s care. There was no congregational prayer, no linkage to community life except for the sermon, no acknowledgement of sin, salvation or service in the (lack of) liturgy. The various parts of the service seemed like parachutes falling from nowhere, which is exactly where they landed.

What graveled me most about this whole event was that it was so carefully planned, almost deliberately, it seems, to exclude any transparent historical or biblical reference to the faith that goes all the way back to creation. If this was for seekers, what might they have found? If it was for folks tired of traditional spiritual worship food, well, this service was mighty thin gruel.

I have attended or led contemporary worship services in which every element is carefully linked together to reveal what God is doing in our world and lives. God can be worshiped in any kind of style, but where there is intentional thoughtlessness . . . well, I guess I just really wanna wonder.
 

 

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Just earlier this month my husband and I had a similar experience. I am a young (OK, OK... so I passed to big 3-0) worship planner in our congregation, and I am always mindful of the liturgy, it's flow, and what the service as a whole communicates. It's important to think not only about each element, but also about the sum of the parts. I see more and more the trend of "watering down" liturgy, leaving it without depth, richness, or meaning in worship. It is without biblical teaching, with the exception of the sermon. Personally, I find it at the least disheartening, and more often than not a nearly complete waste of time, gifts, and talents. I often wonder if God finds it the same, if not displeasing!

Being Christian Reformed means that we have so much to offer by way of history and liturgy, yet we shrink away from it. Why? Don't get me wrong - I like contemporary style music as do many my age, but that doesn't mean I want a lack of substance and purpose in my worship. Or that I don't appreciate a hearty rendition of "How Great Thou Art" (or, insert your favorite hymn title here) every now and then - or every week!

Our congregation offers what many would term a "blended" worship service - but this should not just speak to music style alone. It should also be a convergence of worship elements from various historical and cultural bases... The liturgy of the past should not disappear altogether.

I understand and appreciate certain cultural adaptations, but we ought to be much more careful that in our "blending" we don't puree the meat into milk, lest we starve.

I'm a young 21 year old, and am also fairly new to the CRC denomination (I began attending a CRC church about 5 years ago).

Anyways, one of the things that really attracted me to the denomination is the way the worship goes generally. I attend a more "contemporary" CRC church, but I still love the fact that the whole service is thought out and particularly planned, incorporating liturgy, scripture reading, and singing that all relates to a central theme usually expanded on during the sermon. I enjoy seeing worship planners and leaders incorporate traditional hymns in the contemporary worship. Generally, the hymns are so full of good solid theology that it would be a shame to lose them completely in the movement towards relating to a broader audience. That isn't necessary. There is a wonderful balance between incorporating the traditional hymns and liturgy into a contemporary service, and it's extremely powerful and relevant to my generation when it's done well.

It's nice to see others are just as concerned as I am. I have nothing against contemporary worship, and certainly prefer it over dead traditoin any day. However just as tradition is lacking so is contemporary. I like how you mentioned that no one knew the songs, but the band sure could perform. That's all too common. I'd go for biblical songs that everyone knows with
out-of-tune musicians anyday over coming into church, getting nothing out of it, and then going home as if Sunday worship never happened. That is exactly why I don't like traditional churches. I have nothing against teaching church history, I think it is greatly needed more than ever. Then again who wants to get stuck in the past. God intends to move us and his church from glory to glory, so being stuck in the past isn't my thing either. The only thing I think contemporary worship usually has is that it is better than some of the old hyms the church got stuck on. It is easier for the worshipers to express themselves in it as well. The old sing to a vowel for 4-8 beats does not stir up truth and spirit. It stirs up vowel based noise with no basis of worship in it. That is really the only problem with the old music, or the ole I'm suffering songs. Dude if we aren't experincing suffering in our lives as the songs states(martydom and persecution), where oh where is the truth of it in our hearts? And there I think is the main problem in all worship that we find lacking. Where is the truth in it? When I hear a pastor preach, I could care less about some one's dead dog, or a family car trip, or recent events. I just want to hear the word of God so that I can get guidence from God for my life, so I can follow him better than I am now. The problem may very well boil down to the church turning to worldly wisdom, and to the desire to perform well rather than turning to God and worshiping out of our weakness where He is found strong in our lives.

Do I detect a common presupposition in this thread? A presupposition is an an assumption or supposition one is making without realizing he or she is making it? Nevertheless, as a supposition that is "precognitive," it still influences and structures one's thinking on a subject. The presupposition I may be detecting is that worship ought to be pleasing (or otherwise acceptable) to the worshiper. It seems like much of the critique is influenced by this presupposition. How might we evaluate worship services if our only question was more clearly defined by something like, "is (was) this worship service, pleasing to God?"

Have you noticed the questions that people ask their friends as they're leaving the service? "Did you like the worship?" In our self-centered society, it has not even occurred to us that we are usually "worshiping" God really for our benefit and enjoyment, not for God's pleasure and glory. Would you like to hear people leaving your church after the service asking their friends, "Did God like the worship?" "Was God honored by our worship today?" "Did you worship God in spirit and truth?" You get the point; in other words, how would the worship service be evaluated from God's perspective rather than ours?

Father, may you find in us the kind of worshipers you seek, those who will worship you in spirit and truth, for your glory and pleasure. Should we personally also enjoy the worship service . . . well, thank you Lord for you blessings.

I agree that the focus shouldn't be our personal enjoyment, but God's that is important.  But it is difficult to get into that mentality.  It is especially hard when the church has done such a poor job of emphasizing worship even when you are having a terrible day/week/month/year.  Everything has to "feel good", even when life doesn't.  King David certainly had his bad days, but some of those psalms are the most beautiful and meaningful. 

 What irks me is another presupposition made by far too many churches that we need to "progress" towards contemporary styles.  I understand why, as it often appeals to a younger generation, but I don't think it is right.  I enjoy both "contemporary" and "traditional" services.  Both are edifying to me.  What I don't like is when a church is trying too hard to make one fit into the other.  More specifcially, hymns and contemporary worship songs are constructed in very different ways.  Too often contemporary services will chop key verses from a hymn to shorten the song.  Alternately more traditionally-minded churches will concede to a contemporary service, only to pigeonhole the songs into the standard hymn progression.  And if I'm coming down more on the contemporary service it is because that is what I've known/grown up with and have a tendency to gravitate towards.

So what is worshipping in spirit and thruth? obviously not at the church visited in the article above! Our church SINGS, but as mentioned above, if it is unfamiliar, not so much. Some contemporary songs are obviously written for performance and commercial reasons, the words can be just fine, but singing these songs can be problematic for all and especially for the "older" generation. So, since the words may be right and fitting the theme of the service, but many mumble along or just wait out the song are we worshipping in spirit and thruth? Or are we doing it when the songs, old and new alike, are well known, singable etc. and the roof shingles of the church are ratteling from the pure joy of it rising up to the heavens? God has given us things of any kind to enjoy and to worship Him with them, my thinking is that when the congregation "likes" that service He is frowning on the offering to Him because, heavens forbid, they do it because THEY like these songs, I presume that that "worship offering" sent up is probably pretty fragant to Him.

Hi John,

 

I believe your point about the worshippers liking the songs and other elements of worship is the core issue.  Have you noticed that when a member invites a friend to church, that member will often ask something (or think it) like, "Did you like the service?"  We even ask ourselves that question.  I think it is one of the strongest criteria by which we "plan" our worship services, i.e. are "we" and our visitors going to like it?  The real question ought to be, "Did God like your songs? Your worship?"  Another question I've used is, "Today, did you worship God in spirit and truth?"  I never put the question to a human, "Did you like the worship?  I believe that question, in most cases, should be reserved for God.

When we come to worship with the desire to please God and do worship so that God likes it, it turns out that we "like" it too!

Having said all this, I must also admit, there is no inherent virtue in us not liking the worship!

Hi Simon, if I understand you correctly, yes indeed, it is all up to God to accept or refuse our offering/worship (Cain and Able). If we don't like the service, and I am speaking for myself, that doesn't mean that God didn't use what was done in the service. And so, I wasn't happy with what was going on or I didn't get anything out of the sermon etc. and then after the service in the fellowship hall, you hear about or talk to a member or visitor who was thouroughly impressed by what he received that morning, not by me (organist) nor the praise team or the pastor, but by the working of the Holy Spirit, kind of humbling isn't it. If we don't worship, as on Palm Sunday, the rocks will do it for us. Then again, it also keeps you going. And than again, man, if they sing their hearts out, you feel a connection with the most High, I hope I am not wrong.

Hi John.

I value what you're saying.  I think you have good insights into this subject and appreciate your reflections; so thank you for sharing them.

I too feel a huge lift when the congregation really gets into the music, singing strongly, jubilantly, etc.  But what I'm saying is, if I am seeking my joy it will always tend to be just about that . . . how am I feeling in worship. Worship becomes something for me and about me!  This is wrong.  Worship is for God, not for us.  It is about what brings pleasure, honor, and satisfaction to God, not necessarily to us.  It is a capacity God has given us to express our love and His greatness back to him.

Having said that, I confess to the discovery of a great truth!  After 36 years of marriage, I have found my deepest needs being met, and my most satisfying joys being realized, not in seeking to meet my needs or pursue my joys, but rather in seeking to know the needs of my wife and practicing the service of her needs and joys.  It has been interesting to me and deeply satisfying and joyous to me personally when I serve her, rather than myself.  I think I experience the same thing in worship, i.e. when, in worship, I seek to honor and serve the desire and pleasure of God rather than of me, then God also meets with me in worship in ways that are truly pleasurable and life-changing for me.  But when I seek to use worship as a means for my own pleasure I adulterate the worship.  In such a case, no matter how fervently I sing or bow or confess, "worship" does not connect my soul to God's.  God may still be honored by my commitment to worship duty, but I don't feel God's presence, nor the joy connecting with God in the worshipping community.

So, in short I begin with this maxim:  Worship is for and about God, not me.  But neverthless, God seems to enjoy pouring back on me some of the joy he must experience as He dwells in the midst of His worshipping people.  And that is deeply satisfying to me as well.

Hi Simon, thanks for your reply and wisdom in it, wow, it really is a thin line separating the me or God side of it. I must say, using your Maxim and perhaps changing the way I put it, that you feel connected with God when the congregation sings with joy etc. that in that case you feel God pouring back on us some of the joy we expressed to Him, a wonderful way of looking at it by the way. John