Contemporary Worship is Dead

For decades, Canadian Lutherans have been engaged in a subdued but meaningless battle over worship style. But there’s good news: contemporary worship is dead. I mean, not in Lutheran circles. In Lutheran circles we still think contemporary worship is something worth trying. But I’ve noticed a trend among baptist and evangelical friends, and my observations aren’t far off the mark. As it turns out Lutherans are on the leading edge of a new worship trend. I’m not even kidding.

One of the perks of working at Concordia was conferences or events held on campus when things were quiet in the summer. I’d usually try to steal away for a break from work and to hear new ideas.

The most powerful and striking keynote speakers I heard was a tiny, one-eyed cancer survivor with severe osteoperosis and a long list of other health complaints. She was a most glorious and joyful soul named Dr. Marva Dawn. The most relevant things she said was this: “Contemporary worship is fine under the following two conditions:  First, the music must be excellent. Two, the words must be excellent. So far, I’ve found some of each, but not together.” She argued “contemporary” worship music wasn’t and may never be up to the challenge.

First, let’s set some ground rules: contemporary worship styles that we see today are really the offshoots of a youth movement within evangelical circles in the 80s and 90s. It was only “contemporary” when it started. I prefer to call it “Pop” worship, because it simply transplants pop culture and deposits it into the church. Like a turd in a burning paper bag. Pop worship is intended to mimic pop bands of the 80s. Baby boomers were concerned with getting and keeping their kids in church, so there was a boom of bands, and amplification. Worship style took on a bias that still looks suspiciously like entertainment. Hence: Pop worship

Pop worship focuses on what we do for God (worship), rather than what God does for us (we are saved, by grace, through faith in the crucifixion and resurrection of our sin). Gottesdienst is the German word for worship; it literally means “God’s service.” It’s God who serves us through His means of Grace, not the inverted pop worship method. Pop worship risks inverting the gospel: rather than worship being what God does for us, we make it about what we do for him. And if the lyrics don’t cause the inversion, then certainly the style misplaces focus too.

There’s also the 7-11 problem. You sing 7 words 11 times and that’s it. Ugh.

And the more I read, the more people I talk to, the more I’m convinced that anyone selling pop worship is behind the times. They’re also making promises the music can’t keep.

Meanwhile, Lutherans are still mostly behind the pop worship trend, which is fantastic. Why? Because pop worship is dying out (article 1) (article 2). Those are just two articles of dozens upon dozens coming to the same conclusion. Breaking news: the contemporary worship trend that’s now in decline, never showed the results or staying power proponents promised. New forms of worship are the snake oil sold to shrinking and hopeful congregations.

Breaking news: the contemporary worship trend that’s now in decline, never showed the results or staying power proponents promised. New forms of worship are the snake oil sold to shrinking and hopeful congregations.

What troubles me most about pop worship isn’t that, as Lutherans, we generally suck at it – if I want to hear an above average cover band, I can go to any number of venues and take in a band trying to make it big. No, the reason I’m not a fan of pop worship is because it promises something it can’t possibly deliver. If people are attracted to a congregation because of music, then hooray, pay that Pied Piper. But once they’re there, what’s being preached? For fun, let’s compare:

I encountered this song, cleverly titled, “You are Jesus,” in an Edmonton area LCC congregation that is into contemporary worship. This was sung during a seminary placement service years ago. And I quote, verbatim:

You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus
You are Jesus

That’s it. That was the whole lyric. I’m not kidding. I’m not making that up. Now let’s read a couple of verses of a Paul Gerhardt Christmas hymn, “Immanuel, We Sing Thy Praise.”

Now fearlessly I come to Thee:
From sin and grief O set me free!
Turn wrath away, dread death destroy,
And turn my sorrow into joy.

Thou art my head, my Lord divine:
I am Thy member, wholly Thine;
And by Thy Spirit’s gracious power
Will seek to serve Thee evermore.

Um. Wow. Maybe Paul Gerhardt’s hymn would be different if he had access to a quill that could copy/paste text. Even if it’s a terrible translation into English, Gerhardt’s words express something other than bothering Jesus with a song about what’s on his name tag.

Pop worship isn’t just a shift in culture or practice, it’s a change in how we view our relationship with God. If you want worship to become an “experience,” then by all means sell that and bring in the crowds. Crowds are hungry for the new and novel and they’ll eat it up. But, when “contemporary” becomes old, you have to retool again. It’s an addiction cycle of trying to “bring them in.” It works for while, then not so much, so you keep trying new, better, more, until what you have is so alien that you don’t recognize it as anything it’s supposed to be. Sometimes an intervention is necessary (note: in LCC we make it habit not to do interventions of any kind).

Attendance is in decline, and we look for ways to attract new members. But we have something that’s irresistible when its expressed in each of our lives every day: the gospel. I would attend a music-less congregation if it meant hearing the gospel in truth and purity.

Lutherans value worship because it’s the heart of our fellowship – our life together, in Christ. Leading Evangelical churches are now moving to – the horror – liturgy. It turns out millennials (anyone born between 1981 and 1997) prefer studying actual theology (rather than book studies by famous authors) and are intrigued by the richness, depth, and structure of liturgy (instead of pop worship). They’ve seen the sizzle, but now they want the steak.

Scripture says make a joyful noise, and if I could find a lyre, I’d love to hear one as part of our service (we did get a beautiful flute and violin duet last Sunday though). Worship doesn’t have to be any particular style, other than faithful.

As it turns out, the trends are moving in LCC’s favour: liturgical worship is actually a strength for Lutheran congregations. Hooray!

Andreas Schwabe is editor and publisher of SolaGratia.ca, and an Edmonton-based multimedia & communication strategist and producer. His focus for SolaGratia is on administration, governance, and issues of faith. For clients, he writes or produces just about anything.

8 thoughts on “Contemporary Worship is Dead

  1. Todd

    Can you share data to support your claim that, in the larger Christian church, the trend is swinging back toward liturgical – to the point that contemporary worship can be considered a short-lived trend in the Christian church (a failed experiment). Even a quick look at churches in the communities I am familiar with do not support that claim.

    This talk about a returning shift to traditional liturgy is not a new discussion… I heard about the shift 15 years ago, and although I’m sure it has taken place in some communities, a quick survey of current practices in most large or growing churches (not Lutheran) don’t support your claim. What’s your evidence? And you’re right, there is still a conversation to have about this topic in our church, and that is not a bad thing.

    • LCC has been in steady decline (now accelerating) since 1971. No amount of evangelism dollars, worship styles, preaching styles, or anything else has stopped the needle from dropping. Any discussion of worship style is pointless. It’s simply a marketing strategy. It’s Moot. Look elsewhere. Nothing to see here. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for etc.

    • Larry

      Don’t let the size of a crowd deceive you into believing that the church is actually that size) (large or growing). A “show” always attracts lookers. A better measure would be to account for those who are actually instructed and consistent in their attendance. I think you will find great variance. Furthermore, a transfer or flow of members from other churches in the vicinity makes some congregations appear to be large or growing when all they are doing is shuffling the deck.

  2. Larry

    I think another key element we could include in the discussion Andreas is that most pop worship songs are un-singable by congregational standards. Instead they are generally “performed” by the praise band. So while the lyrics that Todd posted are indeed deeper than most of the contemporary ilk, I wonder (and I may stand corrected here) how “singable” they truly are. As an aside, I am currently following several Baptist and Evangelical forums where there is a wonderful rediscovery of the “leitourgia” direction of worship. (Leitourgia being the work of the nobility towards and for the people – hence Gottesdienst) Many formerly Evangelical and Baptist congregations are moving in the direction of becoming liturgical simply because they “had it wrong”! Lutherans of the contemporary version will be at least 30 – 40 years behind in their discovery of that because they tend to be more informed by the Evangelicals than their own theological roots.

    • Todd

      To hear how singable the Ancient Words, take a listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouTgX9hcwk4

      It’s beautiful and easy to sing. The reality is many of our hymns are not easy to sing, especially when it a completely foreign, unfamiliar musical form to the people who have not grown up with them. The only reason we as life long Lutherans find them easy to sing is because we’ve been singing them our whole lives.

      It’s a great conversation.

    • Todd

      Oops, and one more thought. Look around the congregation on a Sunday morning to see how many people are not singing at all. It would again be an interesting study (data gathering) to see how participation varies in well done contemporary worship and well done liturgical worship. A reality is that in many of our congregations, there is not a commitment to quality and practice, which results in mediocre worship. That is sad, but that lack of effort should not be used as a reason to dismiss the form. Again, for me, this all about how we can share Christ beyond our own circles. Our congregations should not be hubs for Lutherans, existing to protect and defend our cultural trappings and traditions. We need to be taking the pure truth of law and gospel and proclaim it in meaningful ways that will resonate in the hearts of all people, even those who didn’t grow up in the church (far less OUR church).

  3. Todd

    To give another perspective on this topic, my family and I also attended an LCC church in the Edmonton area this past Sunday, and this too was a contemporary worship style, done very well. Here are the lyrics of one of the songs we sang:

    ANCIENT WORDS

    Holy words long preserved
    for our walk in this world,
    They resound with God’s own heart
    Oh, let the Ancient words impart.

    Words of Life, words of Hope
    Give us strength, help us cope
    In this world, where e’er we roam
    Ancient words will guide us Home.

    Ancient words ever true
    Changing me, and changing you.
    We have come with open hearts
    Oh let the ancient words impart.

    Holy words of our Faith
    Handed down to this age.
    Came to us through sacrifice
    Oh heed the faithful words of Christ.

    Holy words long preserved
    For our walk in this world.
    They resound with God’s own heart
    Oh let the ancient words impart.

    Ancient words ever true
    Changing me, and changing you.
    We have come with open hearts
    Oh let the ancient words impart.

    We have come with open hearts
    Oh let the ancient words impart.

    Songwriters
    FREEMAN, RONNIE C. JR. / WOOD, TONY W.

    The depth of these lyrics are more representative of the songs sung in today’s contemporary worship services than the example you have provided. Although there are some songs that are very repetitive (as there are parts of our liturgy, such as the Kyrie), it is unfair to take the most extreme example you can find and use that as a tool to inaccurately paint the entire genre as shallow. Of course, there examples of poor quality contemporary music (and of course theologically shallow or incorrect examples as well) just as there are examples of poor quality and theologically incorrect hymnody.

    Your title is intentionally provocative, which is fine. However, I’m curious about its accuracy. Quoting some articles written by people with the same biases you have (and we all have them, I freely admit!), doesn’t make it true. God isn’t dead, no matter how loudly Nietzsche proclaimed it to be true, and no matter how bold your title font is doesn’t make your statement any more true. Looking around the thriving congregations in the communities I am familiar with actually shows a very different reality.

    I’ve appreciated your interest in data and your desire to use it to lead to wise decisions. As you continue to look at the data, I would love to hear what you would find to be the worship styles in the congregations of our church who have maintained worship attendance numbers or grown over the last decade (going against the overall trend in LCC). I don’t know the answer, but my guess is that a high percentage of them offer contemporary or blended worship styles.

    I, like you, grew up in the church, practically nursed on the TLH, and the liturgies I sang in my childhood still resonate in my heart in a way that is special. The same is true about the hymns hidden in my heart and rehearsed for decades. The reality is that our churches do not exist to serve my interests and preferences. We as a church are here to seek and save the lost, and the reality is that hymnody and our traditional formulas for worship do not resonate in the ears and hearts of the people who have not been raised with them. A good and wise friend told me once when I was in my late teens and planning youth events, “You’re not normal… you can’t plan for what works for you. You have to plan ministry for who is out there.” That has stuck with me. Just as the Latin mass in the 1500s did not speak to the German people, leading Luther to make the Word accessible in the language of the people, we must be open to reforming our delivery to ensure the unchanging, ancient, dynamite filled, life giving power of the Word is presented in a way that is clear, true and understandable to all who desperately need to know Jesus.

    My wife’s cousin was raised in the Lutheran church, fell away, and is now rediscovering his faith in a large Evangelical congregation. (yes, with contemporary worship that is not dying or dead). His commentary to us last summer was, “Every time I went to church in Lutheran church, I wanted stab myself in the eye with a fork.” I hope we don’t too quickly dismiss that statement with judgement, but instead reflect on why he and many others feel that way. It is surely not a deficiency in God’s word. The answer might provide part of the answer of why we are seeing decline.

    With that said, God comes to us through His word, whether preached or sung, whether in 400 year old hymns or 4 year old songs. It’s our hearts that He looks at, and I pray He will keep my heart from being critical and focused on worship wars instead of on Him when I am in worship, whether that worship is sung out of a hymnal or projected on a screen, led by an organ or a band.

    Thanks for letting me share another side of the issue.

    • Thanks for the comment Todd. It makes a solid contribution in favour of my point, which is that the debate is over elsewhere – except the Lutheran church. After a brief marketing experiment, the trend is swinging back toward liturgy.

      Let’s examine the lyric you quoted using a simple editing technique. Good lyrics are hard to break, which is to say if you want to change the meaning of a song it amounts to a major re-write. In this case, I can break the entire lyric with a minor tweak…a change of one word. Change God to Goddess and we have a fantastic solstice song suitable for Stonehenge! Fun!

      Just one word and the entire lyric falls apart. Yes, the word “Christ” is in the lyric. Once. Ancient words is repeated at least 6 times. The whole ancient words motif has echoes of fantasy fiction and pre-Christian religion. What is ancient words supposed to evoke?

      Thanks again.

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