“Contemporary Worship.” It’s a phrase loaded with meaning. Even with the most progressive of worship styles, there are still loads of people in our churches who look at “contemporary worship” with disdain.
I hear the question repeatedly, and I know it from my own experience: What is the issue, and why is it still an issue? Many of the arguments against contemporary worship were personified in a conversation my sister had with a friend who is in her early 30s but takes issue with her church’s contemporary worship style (it’s not strictly a generation thing). When I asked my sister to articulate her friend’s problems, this is what she said. See if you have ever heard any of these things:
1. Contemporary worship manipulates people’s emotions. Her friend said it is “cynical or callous or manipulated” to put together a church service and think specifically about how to create “heart moments.” Or, to purposefully put things into the service to evoke emotions to make people want to come back and to increase the “stickiness” of the church. To be aware that those things are being intentionally created makes her not want to respond to that, even if she does feel something.
2. It bothers her to see acting in church. Music doesn’t bother her, movie clips and then discussions about the movie don’t bother her, but seeing someone’s “performance” and then celebrating it like she was at the theater bothers her. On this issue, she didn’t know why she feels as she does.
3. Communicating via different mediums feels like “entertainment.” She feels like her church is trying to entertain her to get her to come back. As a contrast, liturgical churches have specific liturgical functions in the service that “seem more aligned to the goals of what the church is motivated to do.”
4. It doesn’t feel natural to her to sing some of the songs, or to join in with everyone else who seems wholeheartedly sold on what is being “communicated” each week. It becomes “trying to fit into the group,” rather than worship, to sing along. So her friend feels like she’s watching someone else’s worship.
5. Finally, there’s rarely any “quiet time” or “dead space” in the Sunday morning service. If the prayers are being led, there’s no time to have individual prayers and thoughts and have reactions to that. And there’s not any time setup on Sunday to allow that to happen.
As my sister shared these things with me, I told her to tell her friend that I agree on number 5. There definitely needs to be more silence in worship. One of the problems with much contemporary worship planning has been the confusion of pace and noise, or activity. Pace is extremely important, but this is not the same thing as noise. Digital age worship planners need to not be afraid of silence. It is a crude analogy, but the filmmaker Cameron Crowe used silence and pause to accentuate, not diminish, the experience of the relationship of Jerry Maguire and his girlfriend in his film of the same name just before they kiss for the first time. The pause is highly contrasted to the pace of their interaction and the style of the film to that point. Pause becomes meaningful, and not boring, in the context of a well-paced experience.
I believe that as we move further into digital culture and become more mature in our practices, we as the church will realize that worship is essentially the same as it has always been. People still want an encounter of God through such things as scripture, communion, prayer, community, contemplation, participation and an awareness of transcendence. Worship is more than an emotional high or a cool video. The goal of worship, whether traditional or contemporary, is to tell the story of the risen Lord, and through it to glorify God through proclamation, prayer and presence, and because of it to edify each other as the community of Christ. Effective worship for any age connects people to what God has done and continues to do for us, so that we may fully understand and experience God’s love. This subsequently leads us to a fuller understanding of what a relationship with God is about.
I was at one church recently a few weeks before Easter. They had a powerful musical arrangement of the hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” performed by a rock band followed up by a sermon from a topical series on marriage that was still hanging around from Valentine’s Day. The disconnection I experienced from the song, which had really lifted up the presence of God, to the sermon, was disappointing. It was a move from powerful to cute. I see churches who put a lot of effort, time and money into creating powerful individual worship components for digital culture, many of which are excellent examples of experiential, authentic connection with God, only to destroy them by not having a broader sense of presentation or liturgical function. Being “sophisticated” or “slick” about technology is really about just being able to integrate the technology into higher form, so it is not so self-aware and the content of the experience can transcend the technology.
For my sister’s friend, and for many people who are a tied to a Christian heritage heavier in liturgy, connection to God and to the presence of God in worship is closely tied to the form of traditional worship. Ironically, even though they are using forms that were designed to create an awareness of a transcendent God, most churches are extremely low on the transcendence scale, as a result of hundreds of years of using worship to preach and perpetuate systems of belief divisive in their minutiae.
Digital age worship has the ability to re-introduce the transcendence in worship- authenticity- that many people fear has been lost. Well-produced worship for our culture throws away the false constructs of contemporary and traditional in favor of a singular experience that synthesizes the best of what has come before with the best of the present culture’s media. The key: the postmodern age encountering the presence of God in worship happens not through analysis but through experience.