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What Some People Are Saying About The Worship Pastor

I've been privileged to pass some advance drafts of my book, The Worship Pastor, to some thinkers, writers, scholars, and poets across all kinds of lines. I've been very grateful for the responses, feedback, and endorsements. Below is what they've said! Also, the book's site is officially up. Pre-orders really help, so please spread the word. And, there's some incentive. I've put together a study guide with discussion questions and "for further reading" recommendations. Some people will really want to dive more deeply into the topics I open up. Those helps are available for FREE for folks who pre-order!

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“The modern role of the worship leader . . . has emerged in recent years as a mission-critical position on church staffs,” writes Zac Hicks. But how do we characterize that role? With years of contemporary worship-leading experience, theological acumen, love of the church, and profound respect for the calling of leading God’s people in declaring his glory, Hicks identifies the role as pastor. Hicks explores perspectives that will inspire worship leaders and ennoble the worship practices and priorities of God’s people.”

— DR. BRYAN CHAPELL, pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church; author, Christ-centered Worship


“Zac Hicks educates and challenges us to carefully consider how we “do” our function as congregational leaders of prayer, all the while christening us with an elevated title that suits the role: the worship pastor.”

— CHUCK FROMM, founder, Worship Leader Magazine


“Not only is this book well-written, it is deeply wise and consistently scriptural. I love this book. I wish that every worship pastor (and every pastor) would read it. Read it. You will be pleasantly surprised.”

— ELYSE M. FITZPATRICK, author; Home: How Heaven and the New Earth Satisfy Our Deepest Longings


“It’s been fifty years since the first forms of contemporary worship appeared. It’s been thirty years since the position of worship leader developed. It’s been twenty years since mainline churches adopted contemporary styles. And so it’s time for a mature, multifaceted guide for those who lead God’s people in worship. Zac Hicks’ The Worship Pastor fills that need wonderfully.”

— LESTER RUTH, research professor of Christian worship, Duke Divinity School


"As worship pastor becomes a standard job title in churches across the globe, we are in dire need of a guide for this unique vocation. Zac Hicks has given us a masterpiece that is equal parts manual and manifesto. This book is pastoral theology at its very best."

—GLENN PACKIAM, pastor, New Life Downtown; author, Discover the Mystery of Faith


"This book is a welcome introduction to the multidimensional nature of worship leadership. Written for practitioners by a practitioner, Hicks brings a convincing voice to the slow-growing but much-needed plea for worship leaders to take up the pastoral duties that are so vital for successful ministry. I highly recommend it for persons in any stage of worship ministry."

—CONSTANCE M. CHERRY, professor of worship and pastoral ministry, Indiana Wesleyan University


“In The Worship Pastor, Zac Hicks holds up the diamond of worship leading and
wonderfully encourages us in its many faceted roles, reflecting the glory of the gospel with every view. This book is a must-read for pastors, worship pastors, and even worship team members.”

— STEVE AND VIKKI COOK, songwriters, teachers, worship leader/team member


“If I could choose one worship pastor to serve with for the rest of my life, it would be Zac Hicks. Marinate in his book, Worship Pastor, and you’ll understand why my words aren’t pastoral hyperbole. Get it; soak in it; share it with many.”

— DR. SCOTTY WARD SMITH, teacher-in- residence, West End Community Church


“Long has the worship community needed a guidebook for understanding that the role of the worship leader encompasses more than great music. I highly recommend The Worship Pastor to anyone seeking to follow God’s call to lead worship.”

— DR. VERNON M. WHALEY, dean, School of Music, Liberty University


“Zac Hicks has laid down some important principles for worship leaders to function beyond merely choosing songs—as pastors. Worship leaders who adapt Zac’s principles and disciplines will find that their call to ministry will be widely enhanced to the glory of God.”

— DR. EDWIN M. WILLMINGTON, director, Fred Bock Institute of Music, Fuller Theological Seminary


"Zac has thoughtfully and thoroughly addressed the many creative avenues in which worship can be pastored. And that’s so important, because techie artists like me need a better, deeper theological understanding of the influence we have over the worship space. And how we may actually be worship pastors even though it’s not in our job title."

—STEPHEN PROCTOR, visual liturgist and projection artist,


“This is book is an invitation to reenvision the identity of all of us who lead God’s people in worship. My prayer is that it will encourage and inspire both beginning and lifelong leaders of God’s people, and lead to worship of greater theological depth and Christian joy.”

— JOHN D. WITVLIET, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Theological Seminary


“Speaking from years of personal experience, Zac Hicks offers this winsome invitation to worship leaders to think of themselves as ministers as well as musicians. Essential reading.”

— MAGGI DAWN, associate professor of theology and literature, Yale Divinity School


The Gift of the Early Era of CCM

CCM's Story is My Story

For me, historical reflection on Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is always autobiographical. My life is intertwined with its development, because its songs are the songs of my upbringing. Isn’t it always the case that the songs present during our most formative and developmental years of faith stick in us perhaps more deeply than any others? Perhaps it’s the power of nostalgia, or perhaps it’s something deeper.

CCM is certainly disparaged by a lot of folks right now. It has fallen under scrutiny for its trite expression of Christianity, its suffering-less-ness, its fake or ignorant positivity, its moralistic therapeutic deism. A charitable read of its early history, which would involve listening to the hearts and testimonies of some of its founders, movers, and shakers (not just coldly analyzing historical anecdotes or other thinkers’ analyses), speaks a different message, which I’d like to highlight.

The Blessing of Being "Imprinted"

I was sitting on my couch last week, thinking about Psalm 24’s hefty rhetorical Q & A: “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart.” I was thinking about my dirty hands and my impure heart. I was thinking about Jesus’ hands and heart being the only answer to this Psalm, and then out from under my subconscious popped that early chorus from my childhood: “I Lift My Eyes Up” (1990), by Brian Doerksen. That setting of Psalm 121 became my prayer to Jesus that morning. A simple prayer of need, turning my eyes, yet again, off myself and onto my only Hope.

I started reflecting on the amount of Psalm-chunks I know by heart simply because early CCM (which, back then, wasn't a capitalized acronym...just a lower case descriptor) gave them to me in digestible, meditative portions (think “I Waited for the Lord On High” [Psalm 40], “As the Deer” [Psalm 42],  “To Every Generation” [Psalm 90]). Now before we jump to the usual critical places—“they were partial and didn’t display the spirit of the whole Psalm,” “they were affixed to trite music,” “they were cheesy,” etc.—let’s take a step back and ask what was happening at the time...what the founders were thinking.

A Presbyterian Gets Schooled by a Calvary Dude

Not long ago, I had a conversation with Chuck Fromm, one of the founders of Maranatha! Music and one of the thinkers behind many of the early project (including Psalms Alive, where we got a lot of these songs). He told me…now keep in mind that Chuck is a Calvary Chapel Jesus Movement dude speaking to me, a young Presbyterian…that his inspiration for getting these projects was none other than John Calvin, who employed the best poets and musicians he could find in his day to reimagine Psalm-singing for Genevan worshipers. Chuck pointed me to a few resources I had overlooked (particularly an obscure PhD dissertation which was underappreciated for its contribution to the Calvin/Church music discussion).

Back then, Chuck wanted to cut through what felt like layers, webs, and jungles of church music that felt like it struggled to get to the heart of things and re-engage the simple, Reformational model of singing Psalms, believing that these “new songs” (because they were Psalms) had the power to re-focus, re-energize, reform, re-ignite, yes inSpire worship. You gain some of this perspective if you read Chuck’s booklet, New Song: The Sound of Spiritual Awakening.

Semper React-amanda

Every generation of church music is reacting and attempting to correct. And now, many of us are reacting to CCM—its commercialization, its triumphalism, its absence of grief and suffering. But, what I’m noticing, the more I listen to the hearts and stories of the people who cherish what I am quick to vilify, the more I find the history more nuanced than I had dared believe. God only knows what’s on the other side of all this liturgy-love for guys like me…once we get old and liturgy is no longer in vogue, feels dead and needs a fresh overhaul. Hard to imagine, right? I’m sure it was hard for the early CCM songwriters, artists, and worship leaders to foresee a time when the music and songs they wrote and produced would be so criticized.

Certainly, CCM has broadened, evolved, morphed, and pressed well beyond the original vision of the early founders. And certainly there are many things to challenge and critique. I guess my hope with this little post is that, for all the complaining we do about the "state of evangelical worship" (When will the unhelpful critical posts cease?), we don't miss the hearts and, yes, the wisdom of what good we can find there. Many of the CCM founders are now in their retirement years, and they really do have a lot of long-term wisdom to share with the rest of us. The older you get, the more you're able to view chunks of history broadly and cyclically. The new, young "reactors" always need the seasoned, old "sages" to point out their blind spots. 

But this means that we, while committed to our convictions, need to keep our fingers out of our ears and at least keep one palm open before the rest of the world. There is always more to receive.  


Listening to the Charismatic Tradition

If you're a worship leader engaging in any way with the mainstream of the music of modern worship today, you are interacting with and encountering charismatic Christianity in some way, shape, or form. Lately, God has led me into a season of earnest listening to the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions (many understandably lump the two together, but the more I hear from them, the more I understand their distinctives). God has placed some pretty amazing friends and worship leaders in my life who are committed, Jesus-loving, Spirit-seeking charismatic brothers and sisters. We hang out, do lunch, talk shop, swap stories, and encourage one another.

The Reformed, liturgical, and evangelical tribes I tend to most regularly hover in are often critical and suspicious of Pentecostal and charismatic worship thought and practice. And though I share some of these concerns, I find that folks in my traditions can be quite knee-jerk, broad brushed, and under-informed. Our criticisms (as is often the case in any polemic) are caricatures based on either (a) second- or third-hand information, or (b) the worst representations of the traditions.

In the spirit of one of my new heroes, Chuck Fromm, head of Worship Leader Media, I've been trying to listen and converse more widely than my tradition often goes. Some might call it selling out. I just call it loving the Church. And in my desire to listen well, I've tried to hear from the different types of voices: theologians, authors, speakers, musicians, worship leaders, worshipers. The net effect has been hugely edifying. So, with just a little commentary, I'm happy to disclose to you some of the things I'm listening to, reading, and learning.

(I will encourage you, though, with one thing. As worship leaders and pastors, we should cast our social and theological nets wider than our immediate circles. Read widely, and, even better, socialize widely. Nothing beats actually conversing and building relationships with people outside your folds. From personal experience, I can testify that it's just incredibly healthy. It also allows you to go back to your circles and better sniff out the Pharisaism, especially the self-righteousness in your own heart. Lord, have mercy.)

Worship leaders and thinker-practitioners:

Glenn Packiam, Pastor of New Life Downtown (Colorado Springs, CO), is one of my favorite charismatic dudes out there because he is exploring how the heart of charismatic worship (particularly in terms of the charismatic emphasis on "encounter" [see Pete Ward below]) intersects with the liturgical tradition. He just wrote a paper on worship and emotions that I can't wait to tell everyone about whenever he makes it public. Great, integrative insights. Everyone should check out his blog. He most recently wrote an excellent booklet called Re-Forming Worship: A Futurology of Congregational Music for the Non-Denominational Church.

Andrew Ehrenzeller, a South Floridian Jesus Culture artist, has become a valuable conversation partner. He introduced me to Ray Hughes (see below), and I find in him a zeal and earnestness that makes me want to be a better worship leader. He and I have had some very meaningful conversations about spiritually interpreting the indigenous musical styles of cities and regions to hear how God is already at work in them to sow the seeds of the gospel. Deep stuff. Check out his beautiful, creative, Peter Gabriel-ish album, Children of Promise.

Justin Jarvis, another South Floridian connected with Jesus Culture is a guy I respect and admire. I've had a few great, inspiring conversations with him, and I've interacted with his latest album, Atmospheres, HERE.


This was brand new for me and highly insightful. Pentecostal teacher Ray Hughes, whose ministry has evidently had not a small impact on many influential new charismatic movements (like Bethel and Jesus Culture), makes some fascinating connections between Old Testament worship, spiritual forces, music history, science, and ethnomusicology. For many, Hughes seems like he's really "out there" in moments, and some will find him hard to follow. His speaking style is organized but feels a bit stream-of-consciousness. I recommend his Minstrel Series at least to open up your senses a bit. 

One recurring itch for me, though, is how little the Gospel of Jesus is talked about. To me it gives credence to one outsider's observation that some corners of the charismatic tradition can feel like they're "pole-vaulting over Calvary to get to Pentecost."*


The Spirit in Worship - Worship in the Spirit, ed. Teresa Berger, Bryan D. Spinks

I particularly found the chapter, "The Spirit in Contemporary Charismatic Worship," a helpful history of and view into the later charismatic movements in the UK.

Simon Chan's chapter was a great featuring of how Nicene Christianity has always seen a close connection between pneumatology and ecclesiology...the relationship of Spirit to Church. I felt like there was some caricaturing of Western Christianity, though.


Pete Ward, Selling Worship

I had passed by this book many times in years past, because, based solely on the title, it looked like just another critique of worship's consumerist tendencies. Boy was I wrong. Glenn Packiam turned me onto this gem of historical analysis. I've spent the most time digesting one of the final chapters on "encounter," which gave me important insights into one of the hallmark distinctives of charismatic worship music.


Don Williams, "Charismatic Worship," in Exploring the Worship Spectrum, ed. Paul Basden

This Presbyterian-turned-Vineyard pastor helpfully and generously articulates the charismatic perspective. I think his vantage point as a former Presbyterian was helpful for folks like me reading his insights. He knew that there would be some concerns, and he addressed them.



*Paul Zahl, "A Liturgical Worship Response," in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views, ed. Paul Basden, 154.

What I Learned from Bill & Gloria Gaither

Two weeks ago, at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to interview music legends, Bill and Gloria Gaither, in front of a large group of worship leaders and songwriters. Among the Gaithers' many accolades, they've been named the ASCAP Songwriters of the Century (yes, the century), which is not insignificant. Besides their songwriting, they've been faithful "platformers" over the years, responsible for the birth of music careers of not a small amount of artists.

If you're like me, you're tempted to write off the names of folks like Bill and Gloria Gaither. They may have been influential at one time (and may still be now), but their music and ethos feel to us like fourth cousins twelve times removed, we think. Modern worship leaders may have faint recollections of who they are or what they've done, but they don't have any bearing on or connection to what we do now, we believe. How we feel might be exemplified in the typical comment I received on Facebook after posting some pictures of my interview: "Wow, my grandpa LOVES them!" The Gaithers are for our grannies and pappies. 

Cycles of Sameness

The author of Ecclesiastes is instructive here: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). What I quickly realized as I prepared for and interviewed Bill & Gloria was that the same issues in every generation of worship leading end up recycling themselves, and it is only we who are young and rather arrogantly naive who think that we've stumbled upon THE answer in response to the previous generation's worship errors. The Gaithers have been able to witness several cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, and they were, for me, a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. 

One of the first questions I asked them was, "When you began your songwriting, what were YOU reacting against?" They said they were responding to a de-personalized faith. They wanted the church to be able to sing songs that hit them on the ground, where they were, in their experience. They were aiming at a more concerted authenticity (sound familiar?). And then the Jesus Movement came around, reacted to Gaither-ized worship, looking for something, well, authentic...something that matched their experience. Then the Jesus Movement music transformed (and, in the words of Worship Leader founder, Chuck Fromm, became "routinized") into an industry just in time for another generation to rise up and respond with cries for more authenticity. Enter "modern worship." And we're seeing the tide turn again, and more reactions occur. This historical observation, perhaps best articulated by folks like the Gaithers who have lived through these cycles, is important for us to ponder.

A Few Surprising Insights

One of the songwriting nuggets from Gloria came in the context of her admonishment of some of the anemic songwriting that inevitably accompanies every generation. She encouraged songwriters to, among other things, study mythology. She spoke of how mythology has a way of opening the mind and imagination to think in layers of meaning and communication, expanding what our songs can do. Mythology encourages thinking in pictures, symbols, and metaphors, and it is in the realm of such word-imagery where great lyrics (for worship songs or any song) are born. This rang true with my own experience, recalling that after reading Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found words flowing from my mind and hand that were workable, imaginative, poetic, and profound. Reading mythology can be like weightlifting for songwriters.

Gloria also challenged our individuals and institutions to value songwriting as an art and craft worth studying, honing, and shaping. Songwriters should be masters of their language, and more Christian colleges should have songwriting degree programs, she said. This sentiment flies in the face of at least one popular philosophy of songwriting that basically says, "Jesus gave me this song; it's from my heart; therefore, it's good." Hmm...

The Sum

All this (not to mention the entire conference) was a good reminder to me of how we need to hear each other out across traditions, generations, and persuasions. There's a temptation, in the midst of our tribalism (and I'm one who believes that lines and distinctions have their place), to believe that our tribes are all that there really are, or all that God really cares about. What can result is a kind of blind patriotism to our tribe that fails to see and savor the rich ways the Spirit is moving and shaking beyond us. Events like the National Worship Leader Conference always cause me to lift my head from micro-inspecting the tree that I'm in to see the forest that's all around me. And this year, the Gaithers were a big part of that. Thank you, Bill & Gloria!


How the Calvary Chapel Movement has Impacted Worship Worldwide

**UPDATE: Several have commented and asked about how to get Fromm's dissertation. It's not formally published, so I emailed him and asked. He said the best way is to request it to be loaned out from Fuller Seminary's library. (Sorry, it's a little tedious!)** I have just finished reading Chuck Fromm's fascinating dissertation with an impossible-to-understand title: Textual Communities and New Song in the Multimedia Age: The Routinization of Charisma in the Jesus Movement. Fromm is publisher and founder of Worship Leader magazine, Song Discovery, and National Worship Leader Conference. He's a key player and thinker in the modern worship "industry," but he is no industry hack. In addition to reading his work, I've been blessed to interact with him many times, and he is thoughtful, generous, wise, and analytical. 

Textual Communities is a fascinating exercise in interdisciplinary studies, particularly the intersection of sociology, theology, and ecclesiology. Fromm chronicles the birth and rise of Calvary Chapel churches out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s in Southern California and analyzes it all through sociological lenses.  I have many takeaways from this important study, but most perhaps significant for me and for worship leaders in our current age is Fromm's detailed recounting of the history of Calvary and Vineyard worship.

The Underappreciated Impact of Calvary

Before this study, I had not put the pieces together of just how significant the impact of Calvary Chapel worship "shifts" were (and are) on worship today. Reading the history made me realize that so many of the taken-for-granted values of contemporary worship emerged from the sensibilities pioneered and championed by Calvary in the 60s and 70s. Again, these sensibilities, which were so novel back then, are now things I hear as "worship givens" from the lips of worship leaders and worshipers alike today. Put another way, when I hear many worship leaders often talk about "what worship should be," or when I hear worshipers often talk about what "good worship is," it's shocking how many of those values I observe were birthed or newly emphasized in the Calvary Chapel / Vineyard construct.

Worship leaders and worshipers alike should make themselves aware of their own values and seek to ask questions of how they arrived at those conclusions. For instance, why is self-expression such an important part of the ethos of modern worship these days? Or, why do we modern worship leaders have an almost instinctive impulse to perpetually find new songs and discard old ones? Or, why do we see spontaneity as a sign of the Spirit's authentic work in our worship services? I think the answers to these questions and more can be found, at least in part, in investigating what happened in and through Calvary Chapel, particularly from the mid 60s through the 80s.

Values and Emphases Observed in the History of Calvary Worship

From my own reading, here are the values and emphases I picked up as Fromm told the history of Calvary Chapel and Vineyard. For the sake of blog-post brevity, I won't explain them, but just list them. Fromm did not list these things. They are my own gleanings from his historiography:

  • originality and perpetually "newness"
  • authentic, "real" worship expression
  • high performance standards for music and production
  • leaders and congregation are openly and mutually receptive
  • expressions and feelings of intimacy in worship
  • a liturgical "curve," moving from thanksgiving to intimacy (i.e. "praise," THEN "worship")
  • spontaneous singing
  • "real/authentic worship" equated with something immediately emotionally moving
  • blurred lines between a worship service and a rock concert
  • flowing, seamless music "sets"
  • "rhapsodic" singing

We must realize that many of the above ideas were quite new or not widely practiced in Christian worship. Or, perhaps more accurately as Fromm would argue (and I believe somewhat rightly so), they were in some instances forgotten and rediscovered.  (For instance, Fromm highlights that the intimacy and quasi-romanticism of some Calvary/Vineyard/Jesus Movement music was a rediscovered expression of early church worship, demonstrated in the exotic-to-our-ears Odes of Solomon).

The Worldwide Impact

I don't think it's too grandiose to say that the above values have had a worldwide impact. Why? Because the commercial Christianity of the American West has successfully exported these values in packaged, transferable, reproducible form--i.e. recordings, worship concert tours, overseas church planting. Think of Hillsong's impact in Latin America, South America, Asia, and Africa, for instance, or the fact that many non-Western Christians are likely to have sung a Chris Tomlin song.

The Point

Christianity is deep and wide. Sometimes, we worship leaders can have our heads in the sand about our values and assumptions. We can be oblivious to the way God has worked through His people across the centuries and well outside our traditions. Historical studies like these, if we're paying attention, can give us an opportunity to jump out of the pond and do some testing of the water we've been swimming in. And when we do, several things will likely happen. First, we'll probably discover that there are some toxins in the pond that we were previously unaware of. Second, we'll appreciate the good things about our pond as compared to others on the terrain. Third, we'll be able to jump back into our pond (our calling) with greater pastoral care for the blessings and liabilities of our ministry context, so that we can do our part in God's disciple-making process.


National Worship Leader Conference 2013 + FREE Registration Giveaway

Why I Love the NWLC

This blog was birthed largely to foster interaction between solid theological reflection and the “modern worship industry.”  I’ve been astounded at the blog’s success, faithfully growing readership, and thoughtful challenges and interactions.  There is a growing hunger for this kind of integrative and non-dismissive approach, coupled with incisive and careful thought.

When I attended the 2012 National Worship Leader Conference, I honestly came in with low-bar expectations of the content.  I thought it was going to be the industry pedaling their wares.  And there was some of that.  But I would also say that there was a surprising amount of stimulating, informative, and inspiring content that made the entire experience not only worthwhile but powerful.  I got to hang with a few very talented and smart buddies, and you can read about my reflections of the entire experience here.

The 2013 NWLC is Shaping Up to be Dynamite

If my life weren’t in such severe transition this year, I’d be going myself, but I hope to take my team to it in 2014.  This year’s conference in Leawood, KS, from July 15-18, doesn’t look like it will disappoint.  These are the speakers/worship leaders I would most be interested in hearing, and they’d be the ones I’d commend to you:

  • Ian Morgan Cron – a liturgy and history guy and a creative writer I’ve been dying to meet in the flesh
  • Marva Dawn – simply one of my biggest “worship heroes”; her thought dramatically influenced mine
  • Reggie Kidd – I met him at the last NWLC, and his breakout session was one of the best (he had hipster worship leaders chanting ancient liturgical texts…how cool is that?!?)
  • Matt Maher – he’s a mainstream worship artist and songwriter whose music I’ve found a cut above the rest; he writes with deep biblical allusion, and you can tell he’s imbibed a lot of traditional Christian liturgy based on the language and content of the lyrics ("Your Grace is Enough" has become a classic example); I would take a songwriting breakout session by this guy in a heartbeat

FREE Giveaway!!!

So here’s the deal.  Worship Leader is letting me give away a package deal to one lucky winner.  It includes:

  • full conference registration
  • pre-conference and dinner ticket
  • worth over $400

If you want it, I’ll need you to share this post on Facebook or Twitter to drum up some support for this event and my little blog. 

If you share it on Facebook, you’ll need to:

If you tweet it, you’ll need to:

When you do so, I’ll be able to know that you did it, put your name in a tally, and we’ll announce the winner one week from today, contact you, and get you your sweet prize!

**4-30-13 Update**


Ben Williams, Worship Leader
Christ Community Church (Jackson, TN)


What Technology's Democratization of Worship Songwriting Means for Us

Ones and Zeros

Chuck Fromm, publisher of Worship Leader magazine, recently summarized and explored the implications of the shift of the church’s song from paper to bits and bytes in the January/February article in that publication, “The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation.”  The transition from hard publishing to web publishing has much more de-centralized and democratized the enterprise of hymnody for both songwriters and publishers (“hymns” being used in the broadest sense of “the Church’s body of sung prayer”).

Fromm, both a tenacious student of and seasoned insider within the contemporary worship movement that arose in the 60s and 70s, does a marvelous job rehearsing the history of the emergence of contemporary worship.  For those who don’t know much about the history, the article is a great place to start for that.  But tracing contemporary worship’s origins is not his goal.  Rather, the article arrives at an open-ended vision for a way forward for the worship songwriter to regain his or her seat at the table of ecclesiastical theologizing (shaping the Church’s understanding of biblical doctrine). Fromm’s purpose appears to be to both impress upon local worship songwriters the gravity of their vocation and to encourage their contribution to the “open-sourced hymnal” that no longer exists locked down in publishers’ offices but floating rather formlessly in the cloud.

The New Hymnal

The article is a fascinating exercise in the intersection of sociology, technology, philosophy, and theology:

A new form of hymnal has emerged. In terms of appearance it hardly looks like its past predecessor. Print culture was symbolized by the book—several hundred pages of print between two pieces of cardboard. The book represented standardization, authorship, and authority. It was also a very costly form of storage…The new hymnal is stored in mp3s, PDFs, and on YouTube.

The new multimedia hymnal is networked with thousands of other hymnal content agencies (denominational and “non-denominational” producers and distributors). In modern vernacular, it is a “Hymnal Cloud” that is open for continuous contribution and enlargement, i.e., it is not limited by the pages of a book. At the creative core of the hymn cloud stands the worship leader and the rest of the congregational theological team.

We're All Back on the Hook

But the article is also a summons to worship songwriters to return to ancient paths:

In the midst of these communicational/cultural changes we have only partially described and hinted about above, it is critical that we again review the historic role of the songwriter/poet as a member of the theological team. It’s a shame that so few seminaries across the world understand or appreciate the vital role of the hymn composers and adapters as key transmitters and creators of theology.

This should be both empowering and frightening for us as local worship pastors, leaders, and songwriters.  We should not think of ourselves merely as song leaders or lead musicians but as people called by God to guide the church’s living, fiery doctrine toward biblical ends.  To use an old-school term, worship leaders and songwriters are some of the church’s most preeminent catechists. This should therefore give us pause about doing our job in a haphazard, willy-nilly fashion.  No longer can song selection be merely about keys, groove, flow, airplay, and popularity.  Too much deep shaping is going on for us to take such a superficial approach. 

It probably means, too, that it may be less helpful than we thought to wholesale import pre-fabricated worship sets from outside entities like (well, this is ironic) Worship Leader magazine or CCLI readouts.  We, as worship leaders in tune with the people of God in our local contexts, need to straddle well that interplay between those (great and not so great) data and the movement of the Spirit in our hometown ekklesia.  And perhaps, as Fromm suggests, if we are faithful to exegete and minister to our local contexts well, we can contribute our little offerings to the hymnal cloud above to see what cyber highways and byways the Spirit might carry our songs and ideas on to bless brothers and sisters in other contexts.  It’s an exciting time to be a worship leader and songwriter, folks. 

Chuck Fromm, "The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation," Worship Leader Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013 (Vol. 22, No. 1), 26-29.

Observations on the State of Modern Worship from the National Worship Leader Conference

The National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC) held every year in Leawood, KS is a sight to behold.  It really is an off-the-chain modern worship “concentrate.”  Many of the big name Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) industry artists and leaders are there with bells on, and the multitudinous breakout sessions range from the pragmatic to the philosophical.  It’s a wonderful place to get immersed in this world, to learn much about it, and to bounce thoughts off it. I spent much of the conference with roomies and compatriots Bruce Benedict and Wen Reagan, and I must say that one of the most helpful things to do is to reflect with thoughtful folks like these guys as the experience is happening.  If any of you out there are thinking about going to conferences in the future, make sure to experience it with others as it's happening.  Your takeaways, growth, and formation are multiplied.  Bruce has posted his reflections here.  They're critical but important.  So here are my reflections:

Scholarship is finally emerging which takes contemporary worship seriously enough to analyze it.  I was able to spend time with four individuals all at the conference, who are writing for and publishing on the CWM industry:

  • Lester Ruth, Duke Divinity School
  • Reggie Kidd, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
  • Monique Ingalls, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Cambridge
  • Wen Reagan, PhD candidate, Duke Divinity School

Their writings are no joke.  Dr. Ruth has done a lot of reflection on Trinitarian theology as it relates to modern worship.  Drs. Ruth & Kidd are "mirror-reflecting" how ancient Christian worship practices can interact with strengths and weaknesses in the movement.  Dr. Ingalls is researching from a musicological perspective and is on her way to publishing an edited work of fresh interdisciplinary interaction with modern worship, including a chapter on Israel Houghton by Wen Reagan.  In my conversations with all four of these folks, I am impressed by their intense academic rigor and acumen coupled with a gracious, humble posture to engage from within rather than criticize from without.  This emerging scholarship will be a great asset to the continued growth, health, and development of the modern worship movement.

The industry is attempting to be conversant with this thoughful scholarship.  I had the privilege of meeting and having a brief conversation with Chuck Fromm, the guru over Worship Leader Magazine and the NWLC.  Aside from being approachable and amiable, I was struck by Chuck's obvious learnedness.  Along with Wen Reagan (a friend and PhD student at Duke University), I got to briefly discuss aspects of Dr. Fromm's PhD dissertation from Fuller Seminary many years back, integrating the discipline of sociology with reflections on the early contemporary Maranatha! movement.  Chuck's own appreciation for the influence of the academy is evident in the room he made for the above-mentioned scholars to impact and interact with the conference-participants.  He gave Dr. Ingalls a platform to share some of her reflections (emerging from her cover story article in the most recent edition of Worship Leader Magazine), and Drs. Ruth and Kidd both held outstanding breakout sessions on many of the aforementioned topics.

Modern worship is, perhaps, witnessing a turning point toward eclectic styles.  Notwithstanding a few exceptions, contemporary worship has largely been stylistically monolithic over the last 30 years.  What I mean is that even as styles have changed (from folk, to light adult-contemporary, to alt rock, etc.), they've changed together, such that one could observe a general "sound" that characterized the majority of western, largely white, suburban contemporary/modern worship.  It seems like this is changing.  Rend Collective Experiment, for instance, came off as a very amped up, Mumford-meets-Dropkick-Murphys (so definitely no U2/Coldplay vibes), and yet they were accepted and appreciated with great enthusiasm.  A similar sense was felt with All Sons & Daughters.  And this was all alongside acoustic-pop Paul Baloche, in-your-face-rock Elevation Worship, and (I won't attempt to describe him) Israel Houghton.  Perhaps modern worship has always had its fringe ecclecticism, but I wonder whether this diversity will infiltrate the core in the coming years with the increased tribalization of worship music and independent artists.  Though the labels still run these folks, you can feel the impact of the independent worship recording anti-industry when you witness this trajectory toward a splintering of the contemporary/modern worship "sound."

Modern worship has a great heart and has captured an important aspect of what whole-self worship looks like in the corporate setting.  Whenever I'm in large, bombastic modern worship settings like this one, I'm continually impressed by the fervency of many worshipers.  You see it in bodies and faces.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again: What modern worship has to offer to the larger worshiping body of worldwide Christianity is one model of what full-bodied worship looks like.  Though I am a mind-body dualist, I've been jamming recently on viewing the human being, body and soul, as a unified whole.  Sometimes our dualism has allowed us to excuse bodyless, "inner-heart" worship as appropriate and adequate.  But it seems to me that the scriptural call, modeled in the Old Testament's whole burnt offering and the New Testament's gospel-response of bodily living sacrifices as our spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1), is a corporate worship expression that includes the body as well as the soul.  Though we may critique aspects of the way CWM engages the corporate expression, an open heart witnesses something much more "shalom-ish" in CWM settings than it does a lot of other places.  I'm grateful that this challenge is always brought to me to be more invested, more whole-hearted, and more full-bodied.  (Check out other posts on this subject here.)

Modern worship has a healthy self-awareness of its quirks.  Savvy, cynical outsiders like to tease the odd stage mannerisms, predictable hairstyles, skinny jeans, v-necked shirts, Coldplay-emulating, U2-rehashing, kick-thumping sameness of the modern worship leader culture.  More than once at the NWLC, some of those big names (e.g. Paul Baloche, Laura Story) were poking fun at themselves and their cohorts.  More than that, some of them were calling for a more sensible approach to the rock show aesthetics (lights, haze), even as the "show" would be in full gear every night.  They are aware of themselves, which means they probably haven't been oblivious to their critics.

Modern worship continues very much to struggle with ageism and the worship of young, beautiful people.  With a few exceptions, all the highlighted artists were either actually young or quite young-looking.  Virtually no one was ugly or overweight (by our cultural standards).  This continues to be a problem which affects churches on a local level.  It's really hard to see how this will change apart from miraculous divine intervention.  It is a deep-seated, nasty reality.  It is idolatrous, and I find my own heart all too often tempted to bow to this god (check out my post on ageism in modern worship leading for more on this).

Regardless of their denomination, many modern worship leaders are oblivious to how beholden their practices and worship planning habits are to pentecostal theology.  In almost every instance, if there was a breakout session with an artist or practitioner, their language and reflection were loaded with pentecostal presuppositions: comments about the human's relationship to the causality of God's manifest presence and the power of the Spirit; quips about the role of the worship leader; hints at internally-oriented, very individualized piety; and on and on.  Whether Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, or non-denominational, it's still a bit discouraging to see that many worship leaders see no tension between the theology upheld by their tradition and the praxis of much of modern worship.

The CWM industry/movement still lacks adequate reflection on technology.  I have been observing the industry for long enough and have jumped in its stream many times now to believe wholeheartedly that CWM's unbridled use of technology (sound, lighting, projection) is moving much faster than any accompanying theological reflection. Thoughtful authors and reflectors are certainly asking the probing questions, but conferences like the NWLC show that they haven't been heard and are far from being answered.  Questions may include: (1) How do we reflect the "otherness" of God in a screen-/image-saturated culture? (2) How is our use of fast-paced technology shaping us in our ability to attend to the drama and elements of corporate worship? (3) What place does the spoken word have in a media culture dominated by the image? (4) How do big up-front productions encourage and hinder the corporate singing and participation of the people of God?  

Alright.  There you have it.  What say ye?