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Entries in contemporary worship (42)


Thoughtful Responses to All the Modern Worship Bashing

In various spheres of the online worship conversation, a few posts (like this one and this one) have been circulating and dominating many of our social media feeds. They offer a strong (and not completely unwarranted) critique of "contemporary worship" and "megachurch worship." Their sharply critical posture, along with their provocative titles, is certainly what has attracted so many people to click, read, interact, and share. Several people have asked what I think about it all. The short answer is that I think about these kinds of posts similarly to how I have reviewed T. David Gordon's Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns: These posts are unhelpful in actually moving the church in a positive direction, not because some of their arguments aren't worth pondering but because they caricature what they critique and, in doing so, foster a spirit that actually makes fruitful dialogue harder. In my opinion, contemporary/modern/megachurch worship (whatever label you wish to use) is simply not homogenous enough to successfully analyze it in the way these writers have analyzed it. I'm not saying that making generalizations is bad, and I'm certainly not saying that today's worship landscape doesn't need an awful lot of prophetic critique. 

Thankfully, there are a few responses out there that I think do a far better job analyzing the issues at hand and offering ways forward, and that's the reason for this post. I would love to point you to them. The first is Glenn Packiam's "What You (Probably) Don't Know About Modern Worship." Glenn's is more strictly a critique of the critique. Here's a choice paragraph:

If one wants to prove the shallowness of modern worship, examples abound; but if you want to really understand and assess the subject, you need a more careful eye. And you must account for an insider perspective. What matters is not simply what the outside observer/blogger/professor thinks is going on; what matters is also what the pastor or worship leader says is going on, and what the worshipper is experiencing. (The latter is known as phenomenological perspective— the way people describe their experience of a thing.) If all we get are theoretical assessments from afar, we will evaluate modern worship without knowing if we are actually evaluating modern worship or our impression of it— which is almost always a caricature.

The second post is Mike Cosper's "Kill Your (Celebrity Culture) Worship." Mike (I think successfully) reframes the discussion around more core issues. Here is his summary:

In our day, we should be suspicious of the overhyped promises of megachurch worship, but we should also be suspicious of overhyped laments for “the good ol’ days.” What’s truly needed today is what was needed in every age: liturgical renewal—faithful pastors leading in worship that is faithful to the gospel, comprehensible to the congregation, and formative of the soul. 

Please read those posts! 


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.  


Why I Will No Longer Be Updating the Hymns Movement Page

When Strivings Cease

It is with great pleasure that I announce that I must cease my striving. When this blog began almost six years ago, one of its primary objectives was to herald, champion, promote, persuade, propagandize, coerce, ramrod the burgeoning retuned hymns movement. In addition to retuning hymns myself, especially on my first (The Glad Sound [2009]) and second (Without Our Aid [2011]) albums with Cherry Creek Worship, I wanted to highlight all the church musicians and independent artists who were taking seriously the movement to re-gift old hymns to new believers.

Along with others, I wanted to help turn the tide of contemporary/modern worship by undertaking the massive project of backfilling its gaping holes with the songs of the past. I consulted and networked with inspirational forerunners like Indelible Grace and Red Mountain Music, and I discovered some new partners in the vision, who would over time become great friends--Cardiphonia, Sojourn, and others. 

So I launched a page that would chronicle the movement by cataloguing the artists and pointing to their work. As I heard about more projects, and as they found my home base, the list increased, and I watched before my very eyes the spread of this movement to more and more places in the United States.

The Propaganda Campaign

At the same time, I began a concerted propaganda campaign to highlight these churches and artists and observe the "infiltration" of the vision in the contemporary/modern worship mainstream.  The following highlights track some of that campaign throughout the years (notice I hit the gas hard in 2010-2011). Just glance through the titles to get a glimpse of what we were thinking and doing:

The Effect

Somewhere along the way, as the conversation widened and the rehymning multiplied, I think we can say that this became a bona fide movement. The artists and churches became more aware of each other, and as networking possibilities increased through the saturation of Facebook and Twitter, conversations led to collaborations, and influence multiplied. With this spread came a diversification of styles, too. Retuned hymns went beyond the Southern, country, bluegrass, folk, and Americana roots of Indelible Grace and Red Mountain into the new waters of funk, blues, indie rock, pop, gospel, EDM, and experimental. In other words, the hymns began to take on more indigenous clothing as they were retuned in the accompaniment of their local contexts and influences.

Why I'm Shutting It Down, and a Vision Forward

As you can see, the retuned hymns movement is at the point where I simply can't keep up. If it is to be chronicled and catalogued, it's going to take efforts (and probably algorithms) that I don't have the bandwidth to generate. Thankfully, though I can't share much now, I know some people who are in the middle of a kind of cataloguing project and I'd ask you all to pray for its success. 

I'll no longer be updating the hymns movement page, but I will leave it there in the meantime as a kind of mile-marker and time capsule. 

The retuned hymns movement was never a be all and end all. There are deficits to the church's worship if all we do is recover a previous generation's hymns to the exclusion of the "new song" of other generations/cultures and our own. (I point out one of those deficits in a post about traditional worship here.) I gave heavy influence early on because I felt that a thick injection of hymnody would serve as a kind of "gateway drug" to other important worship reforms and correctives: historical connectivity, theological depth, gospel-centeredness, thoughtful cultural engagement--things that this blog is deeply committed to. I still believe that this strategy is an effective one at the local level, so if you're a worship leader whose church doesn't sing many songs except those of the present, I'd encourage you to slowly incorporate some historic hymns (retuned or restyled to suit your context) to begin broadening the doxological appetites and sensibilities of your flock.

I'm grateful that the retuned movement is at this point, and I cheer on its continued growth. Recovery and retrieval of this sort can only be a good thing. In fact, throughout history, recovery and retrieval were at the heart of every reform-movement of God's people, from Bible times down to the present. So, let's keep digging up these old gems, polishing them off, and casting them in new settings and display cases for the sake of Christ and His Bride!


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.


One Thinker Modern Worship Leaders Should Pay Attention To

From the rise of contemporary worship from the 60s through the 80s, to its transformation into what is most often called modern worship from the 90s on, the worship of most western denominations has been decidedly impacted by this shift.  

For the amount of time that the contemporary worship movement has been around (now around half a century!), there has been very little careful reflection on the movement.  I don't mean that people haven't spoken up and lodged opinions either for or against it.  There's been plenty of that.  What I am talking about is the type of historical, sociological, philosophical, and theological reflection that one often finds in great history books.  Not much is written which takes inventory of the rising influence of contemporary worship on the Western and now global Church.

Part of the reason for this is that contemporary worship has by and large not been taken seriously by the academy.  It's evidenced in both the books and articles published (or lack thereof) and fledgling programs and tracks in higher education institutions (Christian colleges, seminaries) in "worship" or "worship leadership."

However, I do think that scholars like Lester Ruth of Duke Divinity School, along with a handful of others, will be the catalyst toward changing this dynamic.   For instance, check out this stream of tweets from Dr. Ruth (@jl_ruth) over the last few weeks:

(Aug 30) writing update: in article bemoaning that musicologists have written better history of contemporary worship than worship historians

(Sept 2) writing update: steamed that sociologists and geographers know more about real dynamics of contemporary worship than do most liturgists

(Sept 3) work update: spent the afternoon interviewing Dave Roberts, who was instrumental in early UK worship music, e.g., Kingsway

(Sept 6) writing update: taking my field of liturgical historians to task for doing such a poor job of handling contemporary worship

(Sept 9) writing update: what needs to be done to write history: #1 describing it from its roots mid 20th century

(Sept 11) writing update: what needs to be done to write history #2: noting different strands in origins and over time

(Sept 13) writing update: what needs to be done to write history #3: actually tell the story of its evolution over time

The more work like this is actually done, the more we contemporary worship leaders will have the tools for proper self-assessment, and the healthier the movement will be as a whole.  The blessing that our forefather/mother church musicians had is that they were usually trained in the history, philosophy, and thinking of their sacred music heritage.  Contemporary worship leaders have not been similarly trained, and part of the reason is because they lack the resources to do so.  It's not even on our radar.  

I met Lester Ruth a little over a year ago at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, and I had the blessing on sitting in one one of his breakout sessions on what worship in ancient Constantinople has to teach contemporary worship today about cultivating transcendence in our services.  This link on the Calvin Institute of Worship Studies site looks like it is a recording of a very similar talk.  It's an example of what I mean when I say that good historical reflection goes a long way in helping proffer correctives to an advancing movement. 

If you would like a taste of how good historical work helps your thinking about how to plan and lead worship now, you should check out this series of books, written and/or edited by Dr. Ruth, from the Eerdmans Series "The Church at Worship: Case Studies from Christian History":

Lester Ruth, Longing for Jesus: Worship at a Black Holiness Church in Mississippi, 1895-1916 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013)



Walter Ray, Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth Century Constantinople (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)



Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, & John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)



***Check out the presentations linked in Bruce's comments below!


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?


How Passive Worshipers Become More Active

Contemporary worship has been criticized over and over again for its ability to form spectators, but I’ve actually witnessed passive worship all across the stylistic spectrum. (I see it at my church every Sunday in BOTH of our services, one of which is "traditional" and the other our version of "contemporary.")  Worshipers, sitting or standing with blank looks on their faces with little to no movement of their bodies, stare bored at the leadership, screen, bulletin, or song-sheet.

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