‘Modern’ Worship: Du Jour, but is it Gospel Pure?

From the post on traditional worship, we can see that hymns are beneficial to the church. We now turn our focus towards modern or contemporary worship, choruses, bands, and artists.

We have already defined Godly worship; but before we begin, what is ‘modern worship’? Well it’s about bringing in new styles of music/instruments into the church.  It’s being creative in praise and worship to God.  It has a lot of positives, but at the same time it has its problems.  This post will address both the pros and cons, and examine possible solutions to certain problems.

The Blessings

Modern worship is powerful, and I say this as a witness to its power. The creative engaging power behind songs is great to see, people using their gifts to glorify God.  Congregations sing more.  Whether sung in a folk style, in an electronic style, or even in rock style, we are seeing people from all walks of life lifting up praise to Jesus and God, people from all different musical backgrounds coming together in Christ.  We see worship that allows response and stops us putting God into a singular box.

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Stuart Townend © gettymusic.com

Song-writers like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Phil Wickham, and the new hymn-writers such as Stuart Townend and the Getty’s have given us all a treasure trove of glorious songs which allow us to respond to God and live out our faith. The simplicity of the songs allow us to focus on a single aspect of God and to remember His might, His love, His power, that He is with us, that He does the impossible, the songs of today show a straightforward uplifting praise to God, something that is harder to see in the older hymns which in general focus more on doctrine (although there are exceptions).  At the same time we have the new hymns which focus on living out our faith; for example, not being greedy with money, giving to the poor, responding to the call etc.  Modern hymns can also focus on doctrine, but their focus has changed and I think there is a reason for this mainly that we as Christians really need to start doing more!  The modern hymn movement should really bridge the gap between old and new, but still there is resistance.  Why do we restrict ourselves so?  I understand some churches are not equipped or ready for modern songs in the church congregation, but modern hymns should face no problem, are we scared that they will challenge us, or are we just stubborn?  In regards in modern songs, if your congregation is not ready for such an inclusion, surely there’s no wrong in using them at home, I do!

Modern worship can be criticised that it is just repetitive, that is simple, or that it’s all about the tune. I aim to disagree.  Repetitiveness is found in the Bible, in the hymns, it’s everywhere, and it allows us to focus on those 5 or 6 words.  I love repeating words, as it allows me to lose myself in that truth.  We think that repeating words is for the weak Christian, I think we need to be very careful.  We should also never have the attitude that modern songs are simple, nothing about God is simple, and His love and His power should be celebrated.  Modern songs lift God up and focus on Him completely; again we should be very careful before we judge them.

Regarding tunes, there is an issue within the modern church with the church and I will discuss this very shortly, but tunes are there to aid us in worship, it should stir our hearts, but along with words, and I think a lot of modern worship does this.

Modern worship also likes to use technology, projectors, lights etc.…There is nothing wrong with each of these if used correctly. Projectors to me are just a way of the church adapting to the constant flow of new hymns and songs, some of which will last for generations, others that will be forgotten like many of the Wesleyan hymns.

Modern worship needs to be embraced in the traditional church. Modern writers, tunes should not be neglected.  I encourage modern worship leaders to use the vast resources that they have access too, the hymns, the songs and the old hymns, because the best worship is one that isn’t limited.

The Problems

However, modern worship does have its problems, and I shall list them here and discuss them in separate paragraphs. These problems are, performing bands, emotionalism, and weak songs.

One of the biggest problems in modern churches is having bands, which get carried away by the performance side of things. We put our most attractive young men and women up front and put them on a pedestal (we could argue same with pastors mind you, people flocking to hear certain preachers) and the music becomes less about God, and more about entertainment.  I’m not saying this is true with every band, far from me to say such things, I know some amazing Godly worship leaders and bands, but it is an issue.  A way to solve this might be to put the band behind the congregation, taking the focus off them.  Some church meetings more resemble rock concerts and this is dangerous.  Remember worship is only a part of what church is about.  Church is about believers meeting together in fellowship, to sit under the word, to pray together and worship together.  We shouldn’t put the focus on just one side of things.  At the same time, a church that neglects worship in favour for just preaching is also in danger.  So to worship leaders, I advise you to ensure that worship is in balance with everything in the church.

Modern churches and worship can have the problem regarding emotionalism, that music is used to create an emotional state in people. Sadly there are places and churches where this is true and we should pray that those churches see some sense (we shouldn’t ignore these churches; they are still our dear brothers and sisters).  Music is powerful, and therefore can be used wrongly; it can be used to create something that is not there.  We may feel happy because of the key the guitar or because of the awesome rift, but we don’t really look at the words.  This can be dangerous as we aren’t authentic in our hearts.  I am not saying that guitars are bad, I love them in churches and I think churches should encourage their use, but we have to do everything in wisdom.  Remember that God deserves worship, but that we should love to worship Him, and we don’t need music to do this, it should be in our hearts anyway.  Music is a helper; it is not the sole thing we should use to worship.

There is also an issue regarding words. Now the majority of modern worship does a great job with words, even if you’re somewhat cautious of modern songs, modern hymns are just so powerful and challenge the modern Christian.  Sit down and read them, you will be blown away, I assure you.  However sadly, there is a problem with modern worship and words in the minority.  Some are just the same lyrics to a different tune, others are just focusing on tune, and some you can hardly find Jesus in the song at all.  Stuart Townend addresses the issue here in his brilliant article.

He states

I have to confess that a significant minority of the new songs I come across each year on various websites, events and albums fail to do any of the above. They are little more than a re-ordering of stock phrases in circulation among existing songs, just married to a new tune. It feels to me like the energy and skill has gone into creating a dynamic, memorable melody, and the words are something of an afterthought, which sound ‘right’ but say little.

And in great wisdom he continues:

We can lock ourselves into writing in order to achieve a particular effect: lyrics like “here I stand before You”, “with hands lifted high” and “I lift my voice to worship” are a sure-fire way to get a visible response from a congregation! And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But we don’t just write to create an effect; we write to point to the cause. We need songs that insightfully and imaginatively attempt to explore nature of God Himself, and the depthless wonder of His works, expressed most fully and gloriously in Christ. And when we do this with skill and creativity, the effects will usually look after themselves.

But songs don’t just have to give us an ‘experience’. They can teach us and challenge us. They can retell the stories of the Bible in a meaningful way. They can also (like the Psalms) attempt to explore the joys and sorrows of the human condition in the light of our faith. These kinds of songs may not ‘push the happy button’ for a congregation, but nonetheless they are vital in grounding our faith in reality.

Townend writes elsewhere that worship should create a response, and modern worship does this so well. However, modern worship does have a problem with getting stuck into a style, that electronic and poppy sounding is the only way to go, in a way modern worship is becoming stuck like bad forms of traditional worship, just in a different style of music.  In the modern church, there is a danger to focus on the tune, to focus on how it sounds, and then lyrics after, but when we look back at the old hymn writers, the same could be said for them.    In fact many of the old hymns were written to pub and folk tunes of their own time.  We need to balance our lyrics and tunes, both are important and both should be made important.  A desire to create an awesome song that will praise God by instrument and words.  As said earlier, this problem is only in a minority of modern worship, and most of it is great, but there is still a danger.

We need a healthy balance

So to conclude, modern worship has given us a treasure trove of new music, hymns and songs to use to praise God and we need to embrace that. We can and should be selective in our choice of hymns and songs, but we should not be scared of guitars or instruments and we should not be judging modern churches for such an approach.  Those with a more traditional outlook on worship, I would beg you, don’t go into modern worship with a subjective ideas or judgemental thought; approach it, even if the lyrics aren’t as long and poetic as the old hymns. The real issue is whether we are singing God-honouring words from the heart.  Maybe sometimes, we should just praise God in all that He is; perhaps we as the traditional church are missing out big-time because of our own stubbornness.  Not every church is equipped to have a big band or afford modern worship. However, that doesn’t mean in our own homes, we can’t listen to it, or introduce new hymns to supplement our hymnbooks.

To answer the question, is it gospel pure, I think the answer is of course, but I think the argument shouldn’t be about traditional worship vs modern worship, guitar vs organ.  Rather it should just be about seeking an authentic heart in any style of worship.

To those with more modern views on worship, I would suggest you shouldn’t focus everything on the tune, or on a band, but to put God at the centre of your worship, and avoid anything that get in the way. What we need in the church is a healthy balance, we need traditional worship and modern worship. In the final article, I shall discuss how we can be authentic in our worship and get the best out of the old and new, and examine what is good, and praiseworthy to God.