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Big Ideas, How-To, and Articles on Worship, Media and the Arts

Temporary “Contemporary” Worship

Recently we were speaking at a large conference on worship, and the speaker that preceded us made a statement that really caught our attention. He said the Church has spent much time, effort and energy creating “contemporary” worship services, but has missed the purpose of contemporary completely by accidentally creating new forms of “traditional” worship. He concluded with these words: “Think about it, folks. The root of contemporary is temporary.”

Those words rang in our ears. If one believes, as we do, that worship should connect with people of this time and space, both believers and unbelievers, then we have to have a “temporary” mindset. Although the presence of God in Christian worship is timeless, the methodologies we use to increase our own awareness of this presence should be ever changing. The Spirit will always be moving in our lives and in our churches, so we have to stay fluid in our methodologies. We should stay true to our core values, while changing our cultural practice. This is the true purpose of “contemporary” worship.

There is irony in much of what is currently known as contemporary worship. Many congregations have a vague desire to create contemporary┬áworship (that is, a style of worship more contemporary than what they already do) but don’t have a clear direction about what exactly it is that they hope to accomplish. Often what transpires is a specific style of worship that is structured around the tastes of those creating it. The style then grows old with its designers. It becomes fossilized. What is still called contemporary┬áis no longer contemporary at all.

We’ve seen this with what is sometimes called Emergent worship, which is a reforming of the contemporary┬áworship format for a new generation. The challenge for these worship designers is to not let the new style grow old along with them.

What does it mean, then, to be “temporary” in worship? What is true contemporary worship about, exactly?

To further reflect on the speaker’s words, the root of contemporary is tempus, which is Latin for time. The adjective derivative of this root is temporal. According to Microsoft Encarta, to be described as temporal means, “1. Relating to measured time… or 4. Lasting only a short time.”

This is not a very apt description of what we often call contemporary.

As one aspect of worship, consider musical styles. Contrary to much of what is practiced, worship is far more than just singing, but it can be a good place to start. For many, poor quality music, or even high quality music not of this time, equals an inability to be aware of God’s presence.

Many contemporary┬áminded music ministers believe that for the most part, hymns don’t easily connect with or inspire those who haven’t grown up in the church. Even for some that have, it can be a difficult task to connect to God through this type of music. If churches really took the time to research the music their laypeople listened to when outside the church, they would probably find that hymns aren’t high on the list. Or even 4-part harmony. One well known large church in California asked its congregation to write on 3×5 cards what radio stations they listen to on a regular basis. In pouring over all of the cards that were submitted, they found that not one of them listed a station that featured all hymns all the time. There probably aren’t too many of those around!

What some music ministers fail to see, however, is that often, older contemporary worship music is to the new generation what hymns were to the generation that first shifted away from hymns. Emergent worship has begun to make use of hymns, recreated in a 21st century beat. (Insert your own comment about skipping generations here.) Choices made by music ministers have to be thought through carefully if the goal is to connect worshippers with a experience that is not stale, but in this time.

Consider Encarta’s second definition of temporal, which has roots in our Christian tradition. Encarta states, “2. Relating to the laity rather than the clergy in the Christian Church.” In other words, to be temporal in worship means to connect with the people in the seats. To speak their language. This unfortunately has often been opposed, historically, to connection with clergy. As Protestants, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. This means our emphasis is on laity – everyday people, and the world in which they live. Unlike our Catholic brethren, there is no clergy class, laity class, or division between the two. There is only the body of believers.

As ministers, we should be as intentional about how we communicate the message as Jesus was. The problem with much of what we call both traditional and contemporary┬áworship is that it tends to alienate people. If the worshipper, believer or not, doesn’t know the esoteric response lines, or the significance of certain objects, or words, or even the appropriate behavior, then they are lost. We speak a “Christianese” language without even knowing it sometimes. Many hymns and liturgical writings have language that needs significant deconstruction to even begin to understand what is being shared.

Our worship design emphasis, therefore, is not to create esoteric worship that speaks to a ruling class in the Body of Christ, who are privy to the mysterious code of Christianese, but to create worship that is an expression of the entire Body of Christ – the everyday person.

Jesus came to Earth to make God and His message of love and forgiveness incarnate. He brought the message to everyday people in flesh and blood so that we, as these people, can find a connection with Him and His experience. He exclusively used stories from the culture, and metaphors (parables) from his day to teach. He rejected the rhetorical style taught in the temple. His ministry was to those outside the walls, not the ruling religious class; his language matched that style of ministry. (Mark 4:33-34)

Another aspect of worship is what goes on the screen. As important as music is the way we communicate the message in a visual world. To connect as Jesus did, we have to create and use imagery that speaks the visual language of our present culture. This means a move toward commercial or popular art styles found in magazines, television, movies and on the internet, and a move away from more traditional or fine art pieces created to speak to previous cultures. Fine art often requires as much or more interpretation than the language found in liturgical writings and hymns. The more intentionality we bring to connecting with the cultural art forms expressed in the world around us in this time?the more truly contemporary we are, the more the church and its mission will flourish.

A third definition of temporal is in opposition to eternal – that is, as Encarta states, “3. Connected with life in the world, rather than spiritual life.” In time, rather than out of time. In this world, to use Jesus language. As believers, we know that life in Christ is ultimately not of this world. It is timeless. The kingdom of God is both now and forever? – the very opposite of temporary! It is often tempting, like the disciples on the mountain at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt 17), for us to want to just build a shelter and live life timelessly, out of this world. To be disconnected with things of this world. This sometimes sounds nice, but it is basically selfish. Jesus calls us to come down off the mountain, go into the world, and preach the Good News (Mark 16:15). The disciples were not allowed to pitch a tent and hang out on top of the mountain. Jesus sent them back down to minister, to proclaim the Gospel in their own time. We must do the same, not being content to live out of time, but living the temporal life for the sake of bringing others along. Even as we follow a Savior not of the world, we must stay connected to life in the world. Which means we must strive to continually design worship that is truly contemporary, or connected to the world.

As the church moves further ahead in time, much of what is now known as contemporary┬áwill become traditional and what is known as traditional will no longer exist. This cycle of innovation and institutionalization is typical. To much of the broader culture, worship that becomes institutionalized, or set in stone so to speak, is seen as an attempt to hold on to the past – whether meaningful or not. This form of worship continues to speak to a certain (small) demographic, but its rituals and language often prevent people from experiencing God.

The move from archaic forms of worship to something that is more connectional using present cultural communication forms has to be considered if the church is to move forward in its mission to make disciples. We should strive to create worship environments where our members can feel comfortable inviting everyday people – our neighbors, literally (many of which are very much of this world). Where when they walk out the doors of the church with their guests by their side, significant deconstruction of specific words and rituals are unnecessary. Where the words that they sing, the message they hear, and the images they see connect to their personal experience.

To live this mission means that our understandings of worship should constantly change. We must continually come down off the mountain. We must guard against pitching the tent and exhort each other to keep those at the bottom of the mountain in our hearts. Truly committing to connect with the culture through worship, then, may mean that contemporary 70s worship with acoustic guitars and “Kum By Yah,” contemporary 80s with lots of synthesizers, and contemporary 90s with that familiar grunge sound might need updating. The way the church does worship today should look different than what it did 5 or 10 years ago. It should continue to look different in the next 5 to 10 years, too. Our ministry at Midnight Oil is devoted to helping churches staying of this time, while following whatever direction God may take us. We are committed, as the church should be, to changing with the culture, for the sake of making disciples.

20 Comments so far »

  1. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

    What do you think? Leave a message if you have something to say about this article. No registration is required to post a comment, but we will moderate for spam and obscene language, so your comment will be delayed in posting until we clear it.

  2. Tom said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

    This conversation (traditional vs. contemporary) has always been about style, regardless of how peopole frame it. Webster’s definition of contemporary is “of or related to the same time, as in style”. Our worship, should always be related to the time we are in or we can expect nothing less than disconnect from people. Since God (the object of our worship) is unchanging, it is the style only that should change to make OUR worship related to OUR time. Our worship should be born of our hearts, here and now, whatever the style. All worship should be contemporary, no matter the style.

  3. Leanah said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 3:35 pm

    Great article, Guys. Right on point. I have forwarded this to my Contemporary Worship Minister and Senior Minister, who thankfully share my perspective, but need just as much encouragement and validation as the rest of us!

  4. Dave said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 3:46 pm

    Really great!!!

    You know, the thing is that, as a pastor, I struggle to do something well. I mean, I see it somewhere, or I envision it, or God gives me the vision – usually all three. Then, I abuse myself and those who do the real work – the lay leadership of the congregation – to acheive the vision with excellence. Then, I like the product – and others like it – and then we get tired.

    Most of the time, I haven’t even done any good demographic work… I just know what I like and I’ve seen some other church that I like do it that way.

    Today, I sent an e-mail message to the church telling them that we need to beat feet and hit the streets. We’ll be observing the culture of our target demographic. Then, we’ll be engaging them in dialogue. Then, we’ll… lather, rinse, repeat, lather, rinse repeat…

    Jesus got out with the people. The simple everyday things that were part of first century palestinian culture – bread, wine, mud, an olive tree, wind, water, a farmer, growing grain, birds – these became the imagery, art, music (yes, Jesus and his disciples sang hymns, too!!! Mark 14:26) of his ministry…

    One last comment here: We use relevance to the culture to form relationships and do effective evangelism. Then, we build a counter-culture in which people become holy. There is a tension here. I notice that some churches only do cultural relevance. Others only do counter-culture. I so want to hold these in tension. I want to be cultural enough to attract and communicate effectively. I want to be counter-cultural enough to “annoy” people out of complacency and into submission to Christ’s sanctifying work in their lives.

    Hey, MO guys! You rock! Keep us honest, sharp, and excellent in our service of Christ.

    Yours in Christ,


  5. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 3:47 pm

    Yep, Tom. Your line here nails it:

    “or we can expect nothing less than disconnect from people.”

    Unfortunately, not everyone understands that, whether we acknlowledge it or not, there is a missional aspect to worship. The layer of how we communicate cannot be ignored.

  6. Barry Wiseman said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 3:49 pm

    One word used in the article jumped out at me and I realized I had been thinking of that word since about the second or third paragraph. “Cycle” implies a wheel of sorts. The phrase “cycle of innovation and institutionalization” is aptly used. What goes around, comes around. Hymns were traditional. Now they’re comtemporary if they have a beat. As humans, we are so locked into this cycle. I believe it’s inate. It’s also part of this world – “nothing new under the sun.” The only time our worship will be completely and truly fresh and original will be in heaven because our perspective will be different. While here, we’ll be seeking how to creatively express our vision of Jesus to a constantly changing culture.

  7. John Crossley said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 5:27 pm

    Good comment.
    We have moved worship now to our actions and interaction in society. We get together to let the Spirit help build and grow us as a body. We don’t sing hymns or songs anymore. None of us play an instrument or can sing anyway. But we are craft and relational based people, so we do banners and other craft work together, usually based on a topic for the morning. And we do it as a total group, with children from 6 months to 60 years of age. No more Sunday school or sending the kids out. Great.

  8. Richard Sharp said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 7:20 pm

    Thinking about the information in the article with the perspective of taking it into the community, I wonder if one could sell a worship experience in a coffee shop on a Tuesday evening to happenstance attendees. What would that look like? How could you present something to the community at large and have them buy into the experience while being true to the Word?

  9. Kitty said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 9:21 pm

    This is a tangent, but…

    from the article: “Unlike our Catholic brethren, there is no clergy class, laity class, or division between the two. There is only the body of believers.”

    Ha! If only that were true! We may not say it outright, but these class divisions are there all the same.

  10. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 10:02 pm


    Wouldn’t it be great if that were thinking that all worship designers would take on – to be so intentional about communicating the Word and forming community in worship, that what emerges is something that would work in a setting such as you describe?

    We believe that good use of metaphor can accomplish, at least to some degree, your question. We talk about metaphor a lot in other articles, etc.


    You’re totally right. I guess we should have said “in an ideal world.” The priesthood of all believers is one of the Reformation theses that never really took hold very well.

  11. Joel said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 10:16 pm

    Wow! My associate pastor forwarded this on to me and it is great. This really exposes the tension that any music director knows exists in their church: contemporary vs. traditional. What your article did was to show that that is not so black and white like many of us believe. In my “conservative” church, I often battle over am I too one way or another in my style? The fact of the matter is deep down, style is so relative. I especially like the comment about the atmosphere, inviting yet Holy and Biblical. We need to abandon the ideal of debating style and instead focus on the root issue: God. We must never let style supercede God. Thank you for your indepth article that speaks to my heart.

  12. Jim Poole said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 10:38 pm

    The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings movies presented alien worlds with unique language, mysterious symbols, ancient poetry filled with almost hidden meaning. Yet the viewer was invited in to these brave new worlds with their strange cultures. Yes, many things needed to be deconstructed for the viewer, but that was a great deal of the appeal. Contemporary viewers marveled at the depth of these worlds and ate it up.

    As you know, we have begun the shift away from modernism, where progress was king and ‘the new’ was worshipped and the historic was shunned. Now we encounter the embracing of our roots, the hunger for the mysterious, the acceptance and the power of the strange. In fact, if the ‘strange’ adapts too much to the ‘familiar’, it is seen as weak and impotent.

    The irony is that the very strategy “to make things comfortable in the hopes to connect” is no longer contemporary!

  13. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 28, 2006 @ 10:53 pm

    Be careful Jim. Mystery in worship – good. Mysticism in worship – not good. Unless we want to forgo the ministry of Jesus and embrace Gnosticism.

    Those movies have worked as metaphors for faith for many. They are also films not worship experiences, and create fandoms that are loved by a few to the point of a cult, but ignored by most. While cultural references are helpful for developing metaphors for discussions of faith, as much as possible we try to look to the Bible for our models for ministry.

    The goal is not to make things comfortable. The goal is to move people toward the Cross, meeting them with symbols they understand for the sake of a Gospel that is in many ways not understandable.

    A Catholic-Jewish couple recently joined my (Len’s) church. The Jewish wife sat in a “basics of the faith” class last week and said, “I don’t understand… God, Jesus… are they different? The same?” We got to reply, “We don’t fully understand either!” And a dialogue happened. (See Mark 4!) She doesn’t understand the theology yet, but she’s coming to church, because she can understand our everyday metaphors, and she likes the community. They had tried the husband’s Catholic faith for a while, but she couldn’t handle it, saying it was too esoteric. But they like our church. It has given her an entry point. Now, our challenge is to move her toward the cross–to disciple her.

    “The power of the strange”? The mystery needs to come in the power of the risen Lord, not in the mystery of how we express our faith.

  14. Nick Ittzes said,

    Wrote on March 29, 2006 @ 9:48 am

    I’m sure this is not news to you, but perhaps you would want to explore it more in articles such as this. Some class distinctions in the church are put there by God. There are to be leaders and followers. Elders, deacons, and congregation. Husbands, wives, parents. There must be those who command and those who obey.

    Another comment: many of the teens in my church listen to the classical music station all day long and they love the great choral works of the past. Go figure. Along the same lines, did you see the PhD thesis that surveyed the worship preferences of almost 500 teens across all denominational lines and found that they preferred “traditional” church music? I don’t have the citation at hand. I believe it came out of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Sorry.

    In our desire to be contemporary we might find a healthy balance in the book, Prophetic Untimeliness. I read it some years ago.

    Finally, a few years ago I took some teens on an 800-mile bicycle camping trip to Canada (from Ohio). Out in the middle of the prairie we found a very large and ornate Catholic church building. It was open and we went in. Immediately a hush fell on the teens. Afterward I asked them to explain to me what had happened in there. To sum up, they said, “Surrounded by all that beautiful art and the huge size you couldn’t help but be in awe of God.”

    Thanks for your good work, guys!

  15. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 29, 2006 @ 12:36 pm

    It is not a huge surprise that many teens enjoy classical music. In a way, classical music is tied very much to contemporary culture in that every movie we see, and many of the more dramatic television shows we watch included elaborate orchestrated music in them. We have stacks of movie scores in our personal collections. Interesting though that in most markets you can’t really find a choral music station on television.

    The study about teens and traditional music is food for thought, but makes us wonder how the question was asked. If we were asked if we’d rather listen to polished traditional church music, or poorly performed less than garage band quality contemporary music, we’d go for the traditional style too. In many churches there is a history of excellence when it comes to organ, or choral music. Most pipe organists are highly skilled at their craft.

    Unfortunately many attempts to perform “contemporary” music fall very short of where the culture is. If bands in churches sounded like the music downloaded every day on itunes, the study might have much different results. That why we put the bit in there about “contemporary 70?├âÔÇ×├â┬┤s worship with acoustic guitars and ?├âÔÇ×├â┬║Kum By Yah,?├âÔÇ×├â┬╣ contemporary 80?├âÔÇ×├â┬┤s with lots of synthesizers, and contemporary 90?├âÔÇ×├â┬┤s with that familiar grunge sound might need updating”

    Lastly, we’re not saying that there is no power in classic architecture and art. Those things are awe inspiring and can be very meaningful. Fine art, Gothic cathedrals, and other more traditional forms can have meaning if there is some kind of connection. If you’re companions on the bike trip were teens with a lifelong faith experience, they would see God in these forms, where someone outside the church might not react the same way.

    Being contemporary can be engaging and inspiring for believers, but is even more important for non-believers who are searching for God without the knowledge and experience of “Christianese”. They come in with cultural communication perspectives, and if they hear the the gospel presented in that language, there is a much better chance they’ll find a connection.

  16. Pamela Schmidt said,

    Wrote on March 29, 2006 @ 6:50 pm

    I think in all the discussion on ‘contemporary’ worship something has been forgotten. Those who meet for ‘worship’ are the church, the body of Christ: they are already believers. Worship for those people, in my experience, can and usually does encompass many ‘styles’ and ‘traditions’. Whatever helps manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit will be different for each group and at different times because it is the Spirit that makes things relevant and contemporary as needed.

    There is a place for ‘seeker services’ for the uninitiated, where the basic Gospel is presented and a variety of presentations made to suit the occasion. At that type of service there would be minimum participation required from the audience: most of the singing would be presented by group or choir and the style of course relevant to your target audience (and to the home church).

    The contemporary view that you take non-believers to church to hear the Gospel is, I believe, a far cry from the practice of the early church. Casual observers weren’t game to join the believer’s in the early days because of the power manifested amongst them (Acts 5:12-16). The number increased because the believers did the work of witness and evangelizing whilst at their every day activities, e.g. on the streets, in the market place, nattering to the neighbours, etc. The new converts THEN joined the church.

    I think we do a great dis-service to the church body when trying to incorporate non-believers into a believers’ service of worship. The service then becomes an ‘outreach’ and does not provide the necessary meat for the body, see 1 Cor 2:14. Oil and water do not mix (pun intended).

  17. Wes Schmunk said,

    Wrote on March 30, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

    Several things that I am garnering from this whole discussion is that our worship needs to be an exersize that is not out of the realm of understanding by both believers and those who do not believe. It cannot leave behind the past “traditions” lock, stock and barrell, but needs to include the most relevant practices from the past, and weave in those cultural elements that draw the “contemporary” person.

    How all of this is done really depends on the individual church, because, as we all know, none of them are exactly the same. The one thing that is imperative is that our worship, whether it is singing, praying, or in whatever else we do, it is intentional, real and heartfelt. If we strive to be real in our expression of worship, then those who are not believers with see it, that is the best testamony any of us can ask for.

  18. Doug Faulkner said,

    Wrote on March 31, 2006 @ 12:28 pm

    I am in agreement with the tension that exists surrounding this topic. Additionally, I think there are bigger issues surrounding the discussion that need to come into play. But to approach those involves the need for the local church to ask such questions as ‘who are we not reaching for Christ on a wide scale today’? And what obstacles exist in our worship services that preclude them from wanting to fully participate? Other questions can stem from there when it comes to the element of worship through music. Here are some examples: Why in Americal (fr. Barna) is the typical congregation made up of 30 to 40% males, while women make up 60 to 70%? This even after the contemporary worship movements, more resources, more elaborate structures, etc. have been poured into American Christian churches? Do we ‘design’ too much of our services around who’s coming through our doors because we’re afraid we might lose them too? When it comes to music in our worship services, where in Scripture does the church model require it (obviously music played key roles in large celebratory events, but I don’t see where it was a regular part of early worship in the early church vs. inspiring teaching and preaching). Perhaps the questions we’re devoting significant amounts of time on regarding ‘contemporary’ worship aren’t as relevant as addressing why our ‘contemporary’ worship may be uninspiring to the masculine spirit (and this can be traced back to the Victorian era for sure). In David Murrow’s book titled “Why Men Hate Going to Church”, Murrow disusses how even the language we’re using in today’s praise songs is not the typical language most men would use (ie-nonchurch going males; ex: ‘desperate’, ‘I am so in love with you’, ‘altogether lovely’, wonderful to me, my sweet sweet song, etc.)and a lack of excellence certainly turns more people off (‘it’s like amateur hour versus giving God our best). I believe God calls for balance in meeting the needs of both the feminine and masculine spirits along with addressing other obstacles preventing a more balanced attendance at our worship services.

  19. Zach Oaster said,

    Wrote on April 3, 2006 @ 11:26 am

    In reference to using music in modern worship, I can whole heartedly say that music still holds a great deal of relevance in our culture… both old and young. Those who are now becoming “old” are still the classic rock generation, and the young are into all kinds of different styles. As a music minister (in my 20s) I find it most difficult to choose which styles to pursue, rather than contemplating whether we should have music or not. You show me one person under 25 that doesn’t have an mp3 player stuffed in their ears. With that said, the quality issue I think is the most overlooked problem in todays modern church. As someone stated before, amateur hour doesn’t appeal to ANYONE… young or old, male or female, etc. Quality often comes from investment… time, money, and resources. Churches are often (not always but…) not willing to make the necessary dedication of investment toward the most impacting modern approach… instead they spread it out having multiple services, or trying to do everything half way instead of one thing all the way. We are so afraid that another church might offer something that we don’t, that we aren’t willing to let them be good at that, and us be good at something else… *working together*. That leads to an entirely different direction, but you know where I’m going.

    One final concept that noone has yet to approach is the idea of looking at the *entire* worship service and relating it to relevance. Not just looking at the music style, or the screen/metaphorical content… I’m talking about asking questions like “is listening to a live speaker/pastor talk for 15-30 minutes really culturally impacting?” or “do we even really need to invest our resources in a church building?” or “is the best way to build up our fellow believer to do so only at a structured Sunday gathering?”… I could ask a thousand more… but are you?

  20. Midnight Oil Productions | Reading | Archive » Identifying Your Team?├âÔÇ×├â┬┤s Purpose said,

    Wrote on August 20, 2007 @ 4:40 pm

    […] Temporary ?├âÔÇ×├â┬║Contemporary?├âÔÇ×├â┬╣ Worship […]

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