Contemporary worship is declining.
Some months ago T. David Gordon wrote a post entitled “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons” that continues to be widely read and shared. While I don’t agree with Gordon on every point, what he says gives us hope for the future of the worshiping church. Alongside his reasons, here are the three main reasons I see for the decline (if not demise) of the contemporary worship movement.
Baby boomers are losing their influence. Or, as Gordon more bluntly put it, “my own generation is beginning to die.” Your parents, not your kids, are the biggest proponents of contemporary worship. I’ve seen this in my own ministry. The most committed (and often the most obstinate) defenders of contemporary worship is rapidly becoming the older generation. While their influence remains in many places, it is waning. Within a few short years, contemporary worship will have lost its original impetus and driving force.
Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. Also, as I’ve cited before, most millennials (and I’m one of them, by the way) grew up not knowing anything other than contemporary worship, and we’re leaving the church faster than any generation before us. Even by its own standards (i.e., number of butts in the seats) contemporary worship is a failed experiment.
Contemporary worship is an unstable and non-theological movement. To be thoroughly contemporary necessitates a slavish allegiance to the new, the current, the hip, the cool, and the commercial. It requires a thorough rejection of what is old, passe, not current, not cool, and what doesn’t make money. The bright shiny objects that get butts in the seats must continue becoming brighter and shinier. This holy bait-and-switch tactic is wearing thin. This constant need to reinvent yourself is a pretty tough row to hoe for any church, and few besides the largest and wealthiest are able to keep butts in the seats with any continued success.
Yes, this is good news, but for those of us who have long been resigned to the wars, there is much work to be done. Here are a few ways we can shake off our weak resignation to the movement and push toward a more profound alleluia.
Resist the temptation to “contemporize” old or new songs. The commercial idiom is thoroughly focused on recorded, individual performance. It deemphasizes the human voice, and emphasizes soloistic interpretation, affected vocal production, and contrived performance. This certainly doesn’t mean we can’t do new music (we should), but that we must choose music that can be sung well by a congregation and without conformity to commercial forms.
Look beyond the false worship dichotomy. We’ve done ourselves and the church a disservice by insisting that there are two kinds of worshipers, traditional and contemporary, and that everyone belongs to one or the other in accordance with their personality or preferences or however they happen to feel when they wake up on Sunday morning. Our musical tastes don’t dictate how we worship, our theology does. Both of these extremes are toxic. All worship is historic because it recalls the creative and redemptive acts of God. All worship is contemporary, because we’re doing it now. All worship is future, because it foretells the coming resurrection. So let’s move away from the false dichotomy toward a generous tradition. This frees us to be creative and diverse in our music-making, without being bound to arbitrary constructs in pursuit of a target audience.
Stop attending contemporary services. I received this comment yesterday:
I grew up in a church, back in the sixties, that only sang hymns. At the time I wasn’t for or against the hymns. But then came the contemporary praise movement in the seventies and I thought wow this is better than the old hymns. And we all know the rest of the story. I have an eight year old daughter who will never know the hymns like I do. And to be honest that infuriates me. – Brian
I hear these kinds of things a lot, actually. If you’re in a place where you fundamentally disagree with something so important, isn’t it time to move on? Isn’t it that simple? I don’t know. There are plenty of churches that sing hymns. But don’t just stop at hymn-singing. Look for liturgy, not entertainment. Worship is supposed to be the work of the people, not the jesusy entertainment of the masses. Look for new hymns and songs being sung, too. Music in worship isn’t supposed to be a vehicle for emotional manipulation, sensory gratification, or hooking an audience. Find a church where music serves the liturgy, not the masses. It may mean looking outside your denomination. It may mean going to a more theologically, politically, or culturally diverse congregation. It may mean leaving friends. It may even mean singing songs you don’t like sometimes. I’m not a fan of church-hopping, but worship is important. It’s not just another program, another ministry area. And if your church doesn’t get this, and if they won’t listen, it may be time to go elsewhere.
Refuse to contribute to the commercial industry. Stop paying Nashville and Atlanta and Australia for its so-called “worship music.” Stop going to “worship” concerts. Stop listening to commercial Christian radio. Stop supporting worship superstars. It should disturb us greatly how much of contemporary worship is driven by money. It leads to a Sunday morning flood of poor compositions, both musically and theologically. It leads to what Michael Raiter calls “Hillsongization,” when everyone sings the same songs in basically the same way. It leads to the quality of a church’s “worship” being judged solely by how good their cover band is. It leads to a further loss of the importance of gathered worship, and the understanding of “worship” as more than just cool music. “With my iTunes, I can worship anywhere!” Instead, discover the wealth of great hymns that have been written and are still being written today by people who may never cut an album or sing under a spotlight.
Involve your kids in corporate worship. The mega-church trend is to entice families to give one hour on Sunday, separate the kids from the adults, and then over-stimulate them in Jesus’ name with loud music and media. As a result, children are growing up in a siloed church, without the opportunity to worship, to develop connections to their faith and the larger body of Christ. As I’ve said before, it’s killing the church. If we go back to expecting much out of our kids, to welcoming them among us, we might find that contemporary worship was never the answer in the first place.
This issue has been framed poorly.
It’s not about old vs. new.
It’s not about old vs. young (especially these days).
It’s not about taste.
It’s not about what kind of music God likes more.
It’s not really about music.
It’s about the very purpose of gathered worship.
It’s about unity, not choice.
It’s about Holy Scripture, not self-help.
It’s about theology, not experience.
It’s about participation, not consumption.
It’s about liturgy, not jesusy entertainment.
It’s about being a church for the world, not getting butts in the seats.
It’s about ancient and future, not just now.
Gordon’s conclusion says it very well.
“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.
Let it be so.