I’m Through Using the Contemporary and Traditional Worship Labels

I’m Through Using the Contemporary and Traditional Worship Labels May 22, 2019

“Wasn’t all worship once contemporary?”

I’ve thought for a good while that using “traditional” and “contemporary” to describe different worship formats was pretty confusing. One of the things the “contemporary” worship apologists like to throw back in my face is that all worship, usually referring to music for worship, was once contemporary.

They do have a point, of course, and it bothers me. We all know that “contemporary” doesn’t mean “like the music you hear on the radio.” It simply means something occurring in the present, something that’s happening now.

Well then, no matter what your liturgy looks like, all corporate worship is contemporary, because it’s happening now. Of course, the profundity of Christian worship is much broader; it’s not just that we’re all there worshiping together, but that in the liturgy, we are participating with the church triumphant and the church that is yet to come.

But in terms of discussions about worship, particularly discussions for thinking people, saying “contemporary” isn’t really helpful. After all, there are plenty of new hymns being written today, hymns that would be perfectly at home in most any traditional Christian liturgy. So, those hymns are contemporary worship, right?

Well, no, and here’s where the term really becomes unhelpful. People who insist on hearing “contemporary” worship don’t just want new hymns, they want so-called “worship” songs in a marketable format. They want jesusy music that will sell to indiscriminate masses of people, many of whom feel they love Jesus, but have no idea how his church has historically worshiped him. And from my experience, most of those folks don’t even care about their own ignorance.

“Pop” Go the Worship Weasels

Back to the jesusy pop music for a minute. I have really only used the term “contemporary” to describe worship because I used to think it saved us all a lot of time. I thought everyone knew what I was talking about. I’m not sure about that anymore. I probably answer a comment every day about how historic Christian worship was not contemporary in its day in the sense contemporary worship is contemporary in our own day.

For centuries, the church sang its own creations. In fact, the popular music of the day, both art music and what we might now call “folk” music, generally emerged from the church. While there was certainly some amount of cross-borrowing going on, the music used in the church was designed specifically for the church. It wasn’t some knock-off of contemporary culture. And it sure as heck wasn’t peddled by a worship industry with the goal of making money.

Basically, the liturgy wasn’t bound to follow the trends of the day. Church music was its own thing. While this began to erode during the Sunday School hymnody craze in the day of folks like Fanny Crosby, Charles Gabriel, and Robert Lowry, what we’re seeing today is a whole new thing. Until the Australian influence of the 80s and 90s, and the subsequent rise of record empires growing out of McCongregations like Hillsong, Bethel, Gateway, and Elevation, church was never bound to the entertainment trends of the prevailing culture.

And now those entertainment trends have completely taken over in many denominations, and they continue to devour any semblance of historic Christian liturgy wherever they find it.

What is the little-G god these churches are worshiping? It’s Christian derivatives pop music.

So, from here on out, I’m not using the word “contemporary” anymore to talk about worship. I’m going to say “pop worship.”

It may not be the best term, and I’m sure I will find problems as I work it into my own personal discussions, but it’s a start.

Pop Worship vs. Worship

And while we’re on the subject, I’m not crazy about the term “traditional” worship. It’s a creation of the pop worship trend, anyway, because without pop worship, we wouldn’t have needed to be specific about it. It’s just worship. It’s liturgy. It might be good or bad liturgy. It might be corporate worship in Word and Table, or it might be a blue-haired all-request hour of sentimental good times, but it’s liturgy, nonetheless.

So I’m going to stop saying “traditional” worship, too. Maybe worship, liturgy, Mass, corporate prayer, or divine service, but not “traditional.”

Worship is not about taste.

It’s not about preference.

It’s not about finding a place that fits just right.

And it’s not about creating a perceived emotional connection with God through music.

Liturgy is the way the church worships. Pop music, created for solo performances or recordings, has no legitimate place in liturgy, so let’s stop using nomenclature that legitimizes it.

While we’re at it, let’s get rid of the worship smorgasbord completely.

Let’s say goodbye to traditional and contemporary worship.

Let’s go back to liturgy.

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