Contemporary Worship, Pop Culture, and Traditional Critique

Over the years I have found that I stand in a somewhat odd mediatorial role between those who love Contemporary worship styles, and those who love Traditional worship styles. This is because I actually love both styles, and I do not know of many people who can honestly say that. As a result, I have friends, parishoners and colleagues on both sides of the Contemporary/Traditional divide.

Often I hear rhetoric from both sides about how the other is dying. Advocates of Contemporary worship point to blossoming megachurches, huge concert and album sales by Contemporary artists, and the immense Christian youth culture that buys it all, as signs that traditional worship is all but dead. Advocates of Traditional worship often point backward to the fact that their style of worship has nourished millions over centuries of change, and will continue to do so through the changes in the future (they often miss the fact that at some point their style- even if it is monastic chant- was once the "new" way to worship!). They also point out the growing group of young adults who see the shallowness of much contemporary worship, and desire something deeper, more connected with the Great Tradition.

And, in all honesty, both are right on the money. And I want to explain why.

This essay was originally written to a friend of mine who is a young traditionalist, so that is why I tend to deal more with the "Contemporary" side of this debate than the "Traditional". At some point, perhaps I will be able to write an essay to someone arguing the other side of this coin. But for now, let us begin:

First of all, I know you don’t particularly like contemporary worship. And second of all, I know that you live in a cultural milieu that does not particularly like it. Thus, you think it is normative that most folks your age do not like it.

However, as a corrective I would offer this: Contemporary worship makes a ton of money, and it is marketed all over the place to every age group, in every form of media. Marketers wouldn’t do this if it was not a growing market (which it is, at every age level). If traditional worship was gathering the kind of market share you are envisioning, the marketers would not miss out on making money off of it. But, the fact of the matter is, the marketing segment devoted to traditional worship is much smaller than contemporary worship, which means that people simply aren’t buying as much. Furthermore, the younger the age group, the more of the contemporary product is bought.

This experience is echoed in my own experience as a campus pastor at a major university. Out of the 25 or so Christian ministries on campus, only about 4 of us would be considered "traditional", including Canterbury House Episcopal. Even the Catholics use mostly contemporary songs in worship. So, out of the 500-700 young adults who may be involved in Christian worship on campus in a given week, perhaps 40-60 are in solidly "traditional" worship in Episcopal, Lutheran, and Orthodox ministries; Another 40-60 meet at the Reformed University Fellowship and do hybrid worship using traditional hymns updated to modern instruments and rhythms; And another 200-250 worship at the Catholic student mass, which uses a traditional liturgy, but contemporary songs.

I have always found it fascinating that I have students come to me and ask for contemporary music "because everybody wants it that way", and also an equal number who come to me and ask to keep it all traditional "because everybody wants it that way". Apparently their circles of "everybody" do not talk to each other, because they do not seem to acknowledge each other's existence. But they sure do talk to me.

However, I think you are right that the number of 20-somethings who desire traditional worship forms is growing, and is more now than 20-somethings in 1990, or 1970 for that matter. But a similar trend can be seen in the desire of 20-somethings for ethnic food versus fast food. More 20-somethings today desire ethnic foods like Indian food or Sushi than 20-somethings in 1990 or 1970. But that does not mean that an overwhelming number do not eat at Taco Bell and McDonalds. I bet you and all of your friends prefer ethnic foods to fast food, but then again you all don’t hang out with many 20-somethings from Denton, or Mesquite, or East Texas. In many ways, I think contemporary worship is the equivalent of fast food, and traditional worship is the equivalent of ethnic food, and appeals to similar populations for similar reasons.

Or, to put it more sociologically: Contemporary versus Traditional worship covers just about the same social space as the divide between "pop" culture and "refined" culture. Those who like "pop" music tend to like contemporary worship. In fact, I would argue that a better term for contemporary worship IS "pop worship". Those who do not like "pop" music also tend to enjoy traditional worship. Likewise, those who enjoy art museums, and who listen to NPR and classical music for fun, tend to enjoy Traditional versus Pop forms of worship. The divide between the two says a great deal more about culture of origin than it does about the actual theological or liturgical differences between the two worship forms.

So, what shall I say?

On one hand, I agree with you. I obviously have serious critiques of contemporary worship, especially the evangelical variety, or else I would not have left it to come to the Episcopal Church.

I think there are at least three valid reasons to critique contemporary worship.

First, it is valid to critique it from a theological perspective. Much of the theological content is shallow, simplistic, reductionistic, and even heretical. Perhaps 70% of the songs I hear from the contemporary tradition have this problem. They are fast food.

Second, it often appeals to a hyper-individualistic, consumeristic sense of what makes ME feel good. Much of it is all about ME and MY feelings. This introduces an unhealthy narcissism into what should be a Christ-centered event. It also implicitly rules out community as it focuses on meeting MY needs.

Third, it simply is not for everyone aesthetically. Humans simply don’t like the same sounds, instruments, rhythms, and styles. And it is OK if contemporary music doesn’t do it for you aesthetically. But it is also fine if it does. And we should be honest about that.

Now, on the other hand, I think there are three invalid- even spiritually corrosive- reasons to reject contemporary worship.

First, I believe that there is not-too-subtle classism that is at the root of many people’s rejection of contemporary worship, especially in privileged areas. Traditional forms of worship- whether Jewish, Christian, Hindu, or whatever- are often associated with "high" culture. In fact, the difficulty of understanding and performing certain rituals, the difficulty of singing certain songs, and the difficulty of leafing through complex liturgical books, are all badges of accomplishment for those who want to identify themselves as “high culture”. These “religious difficulties” are often appropriated by those of a higher culture, to show that they are more able, more patient, and more refined than those of lower culture. They are used as implicit barriers to "keep out the riff raff", so we can have a "nice" Church service with "folks like us". As a result, there is an often “allergic” reaction of high culture people to popular forms of religion, which guises itself in the garb of theological or aesthetic critique, when in actuality these are just rationalizations for a desire to be "better" than those people “down there”. This kind of classism- which is also frequently racism as well- has no part in a religion which claims that all persons, of all genders, of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all educational levels, are beloved of God.

Second, most forms of popular religion are highly emotional and enthusiastic. They are overtly expressive in ways which indicate a passion and intimacy with God. The legitimate concern this can raise is emotional manipulation and an overly individualistic orientation to religion. However, many people are just plain uncomfortable with strong emotion, and may feel threatened that another person has an intimacy with God that they may not [seem to] have. And rather than deal with their own emotional baggage and relationship with God, they simply reject emotional forms of religious experience altogether. Such a rejection says more about that person’s emotional and spiritual problems than any problem with contemporary worship.

Third, I find that many people reject contemporary worship- and any other form of worship other than what "their priest" did at their "home parish" when they were growing up- because they simply fear change. They don’t like new things. They have huge control needs. And rather than admitting this, they create large facade arguments about theology or aesthetics to cover the fact that they simply want things to be the way they want them to be. Forever.

Now, I also want to note that a reverse corollary of people who reject traditional worship in favor of contemporary worship is true too. First, such a rejection may be a function of classism (I don’t want to be like those rich people!) or ageism (I don’t want to be like those old people!) or racism (I don’t want to be like those white people!). Second, it might be because they simply do not want to use their minds in worship, and instead prefer to always be swept away by their “emotions”. Third, it might be that they think worship always has to be different, new, and novel, and they have an inbred dislike for routine, tradition and discipline.

I also want to note that these are ploys of a consumer culture to get more people to purchase more product. First, socialize people to have a dislike of the "Other" (in classism, racism, ageism, etc.), and get them to want to purchase product based on "not being like them". Second, get them to stop thinking and rely only on emotions. This creates impulse buyers. Third, create in them the idea that things always have to be new and different, that novelty is good and tradition is bad. Then they will purchase things just for the sake of their newness, and to not be "old fashioned" or "out of date". So, I think that much of what drives pop culture- including pop worship- is a demonic consumerism that is sustained by the profit motive rather than the prophet motive. But that is another sermon.

I think that most people who reject forms of worship- whether traditional or contemporary- are actually doing so because of implicit classism, fear of emotion (or of reason), or fear of change (or of routine). These socio-emotional motives for rejection are then clothed with theological and aesthetic rationale to be given respectability, so that even those who complain and reject do not realize the REAL reasons why they are doing it.

So, with that said, I would like to offer three brief reasons why the Church needs traditional worship AND three brief reasons why the Church needs contemporary (or “pop”) worship.

First, the Church needs traditional worship for continuity. It is axiomatic that traditional worship preserves tradition. Tradition is the living memory of the organism of Christ’s Body. Without it, we perform a lobotomy on Christ’s memory and are doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over. Thus, tradition is a constant reminder of our identity and our story as Christ’s Body. And traditional worship rehearses this identity and story with maximal continuity.

Second, the Church needs traditional worship to feed the mind. Let’s face it: Traditional hymnody and liturgy is just deeper on a cognitive level. The great hymns and liturgies are repositories of spiritual knowledge, and often whole sermons- and systematic theologies- are played out as we rehearse traditional liturgical forms.

Third, the Church needs traditional worship for the fullness of the sacraments. Because traditional worship is an implicit recognition that the Holy Spirit functions through certain regular, repeated, routine actions of the Church, it is also an implicit recognition of sacraments. Much more than “new” forms, traditional forms of liturgy convey the idea that God is at work in and through human action, created matter, and repeated ritual.

And now for contemporary, or “pop” worship:

First, the Church needs contemporary worship to make use of all the tools God has given the Church. We take it for granted that God has given the Church the “technologies” of wine fermentation, bread baking, flame, and the printing press to worship God. However, we somehow doubt (or at least demean) that God has also given us other technologies, like drum sets, computers, projection systems, and sound systems for worship as well. As good and faithful stewards, we are called to at least explore the use of the technologies God gives us as means of worship. The early Anglo-catholic ritualist movement recognized this, and they moved the Church from a very “logocentric” spirituality, to a spirituality that made use of sight, sound, touch, and smell. They began in low class neighborhoods in England’s growing cities, and were roundly criticized by “proper” English culture in many of the same terms that "high culture" condemns popular worship today. But they were right in advocating “multi-media” worship, and I believe that we must make use of “multi-media” as much as we can today. But these new technologies, including projection and modern instrumentation, can also be used with traditional forms of hymnody and liturgy. It is often said that this is “not the Episcopal way”, but that is the same thing they said of the Anglo-catholics in the 1860s. Furthermore, as I have noted above, “not the Episcopal way” is frequently a catch-phrase for “i reject it because it does not fit the social class I want to be a part of”.

Second, the Church needs contemporary worship to meet the developmental levels of God’s people. Contemporary music is almost always less complex musically and theologically than traditional hymnody, while also being more complex than children’s songs. The reason is that, developmentally, it fits between the two. We sing children’s songs and preach children’s sermons to children because developmentally they cannot make sense of adult concepts and syntax. In addition, all the great studies of cognitive development show that a great many people reach a certain developmental level and stay there, with only minor changes over their lifetime. In the same way that not everyone can read a book on systematic theology and make sense of it, so also not everyone can “get” traditional worship. I would argue that it’s complexity both in style and cognitive substance make it harder to follow. Thus for completely developmental reasons there are many people- perhaps even the majority- will be touched by “pop” worship because it speaks to their developmental level. They should still be challenged and pushed to greater spiritual depths, but their normal “mode” of worship and religious experience rests soundly in the "popular" realm, and always will.

Third, the Church needs to be open to experimental worship to honor the creativity of God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit is radically free, and radically creative, and inspires creativity in all of God’s children, whether they are Pentecostal or Anglican, refined or pop, highly educated or average. And when the Spirit inspires someone, that inspiration will be reflected in their abilities and on their developmental level. So, when we reject popular or contemporary worship simply because it is new or different, we are not just rejecting the artist, pastor, or musician, we are rejecting the Spirit that inspired them.

So, in conclusion, I advocate a healthy critique of contemporary worship, especially when it is theologically or morally dubious, simplistic, or in error. I encourage everyone to worship in a way that best fits their aesthetic and developmental levels, and to be honest when a worship form simply does not “fit” with who they are.

But I also encourage brutal honesty with ourselves about WHY we critique certain worship forms, with special emphasis on whether we are doing so because of classism, racism, agism, or because we are afraid of emotion, or rationality, or change, or routine.

In the end, I have one definition of "good worship": And that is worship which "draws" people into Christ. I mean draw in at least two senses: First, I mean draw in the sense of being brought closer, into deeper levels of union with the Triune God revealed in Christ, through greater emotional intimacy and cognitive knowledge of God. Second, I mean draw in the sense of an artist drawing someone or something. We are drawn into Christ as we become more Christ-like, more full of agape Love, more merciful, more just, more compassionate, more like Jesus. Good worship draws people into Christ in both senses, both as individuals and as a community, so that good worship creates individuals, families, parishes, and communities that embody the Risen Christ to the world.

This means that there are objective criteria for good worship. There are theological, moral, and social errors that can be objectively pointed out and named as corrosive to people being "drawn into Christ". But, good worship is also irreducibly subjective as well. Some folks are moved by a hip hop beat, while others like a waltz, while others like Anglican chant. Some are touched by a guitar, some by a harp, and some by an organ. Some feel distracted from worshipping God by big theological words and complex syntax in prayer, and some feel positively drawn closer to God by those same things. Even in the Bible, some Psalms are simple and repetitive, while others are complex poetic treatises. Even the two Pauline Christ-hymns in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 are very stylistically different ways of speaking of the same Event of the Incarnation of God in Christ.

All of this is to say that our opinions on worship forms need to be held with a large dose of humility. We need to realize that our opinions on both style and substance are often held primarily because of cultural, aesthetic, and developmental reasons, rather than because of solid moral or theological criteria. Furthermore, when we feel like seriously critiquing another's worship on theological or moral grounds, we need to first do a "gut check" and honestly assess whether or not our critique really arises from a base motive, only to clothe itself in theological respectability. There ARE valid critiques of worship to be made, but they can only be made with a pure motive: And that motive is the legitimate concern to see people drawn into Christ.

I will end with a paraphrase of St. Paul's letter to the Romans [14.1-12]. In the original he is speaking of those who eat meat and those who don't. I will take some liberties and replace these words with forms of worship:

"As for the one who is one-sided in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he must worship with contemporary music, while the other person worships only in traditional ways. Let not the one who uses contemporary worship despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who uses contemporary worship, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one style of music as better than another, while another esteems all music alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who uses only one type of music, does it in honor of the Lord. The one who uses other forms of music, sings in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brothers and sisters? Or you, why do you despise your them? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God."
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.