Worship Media Arts

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

Wonder and Mystery in Contemporary Worship

“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.

3 Comments so far »

  1. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on March 29, 2006 @ 9:27 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. Matt Gunia said,

    Wrote on September 6, 2007 @ 4:21 pm

    I enjoyed reading your article. However, while I think you’ve hit the target, you haven’t quite hit the bullseye. These are just a couple quick critiques that I hope are taken in a good spirit.

    1) It should be noted that I tend to agree in essence with what the “30-something-year-old friend” says about the drawbacks of contemporary worship as opposed to traditional worship. However, I emphasize the words “in essence.” The summary of her arguments appear superficial and emotinally/idiosyncratically based. There is actually more objective substance to our arguments than is indicated. When arguing/debating, it is highly important to present your opponents argument so that he can say, “yes, that’s what I think.” It doesn’t appear you’ve accurately summed up why people argue for traditional above contemporary.

    2) That being said, you are kind in your analysis. You don’t take cheap shots nor do you take our arguments to silly extremes. This is appreciated.

    3) I would challenge you to re-explore the purpose of worship. You write that the purpose of worship is to create a situation in which people catch a glimpse of God’s transendence or encounter the presence of God. This basically takes the definition of Sacrament according to Lutherans (God giving grace to a faithful person through a physical object combined with God’s word (applied to baptism and communion)) to worship. To restate, you elevate worship to the status of Sacrament and seem to argue that to worship effectively (to reap the benefits), the various elements of worship must be structured in a particular way.

    It’s a provocative argument that has some elements of truth in it. One definition of worship I’ve heard is “the right Words of God, presented in the right order.” However, while it looks like we agree that worship should be purposefully structured, I think we disagree on the focus of worship.

    Yes, of course, Jesus–his blood-stained cross and empty tomb–is the focus. But of the two persons worship (me and Jesus), which direction does the blessings flow? It appears you view worship as something that we design correctly to get a benefit from it. And we know we did it right when we feel a crecendo (sp?) of sorts. Thus the worship experience begins and ends with me. I view worship as a one-way street where I’m simply the recipient of Christ’s blessings–forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. He heaps these blessings on me over and over again in the worship experience as I sing Christ-centered hymn lyrics, as I listen to a Christ-centered cross-focused sermon, as I listen to his Word read from Scripture, as the pastor says, “…by His [Christ’s] authority, I forgive you all your sins…” and as I recieve Christ as he comes to me in the Body and Blood of Holy Communion. It doesn’t matter if the music is catchy, it doesn’t matter if if the preacher is a wonderful orator, it doesn’t matter if the technology is outdated. The substance trumps the style every time. And the traditional liturgy is excessively thick with substance.

    Thanks for reading hastily-typed musings. Feel free to reply if you so desire.

  3. The MO Guys said,

    Wrote on September 6, 2007 @ 9:20 pm

    Thanks for the reply Matt.

    We’re not sure you have described our definition of worship quite accurately. Notice the sentence in the article above:

    “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. ”

    Notice the emphasis on proclamation, adoration and community.

    To get a fuller view of our approach to this topic we’d encourage you to look at two additional articles here – Temporary Contemporary Worship, and Being Cultural and Counter-Cultural at the Same Time. Particularly, pay attention to the discussion at the end of the latter article, and the point about cultural context.

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