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Is ‘Contemporary Worship’ Worthy of our Praise?

The thing about ‘Contemporary Worship’…

Is it working?

And who is it working for?

I know that this sounds sacriligious right?

It won’t be long before I get the ‘Religious Mafia’ responding angrily to this post…or maybe even my brother and sister ‘prophet’ types who will no doubt rightly chime in with the ‘worship is for God not for us‘ sentiment…

This much is already clear to me…as I’ve rarely ever experienced any ‘Contemporary Worship’ that is actually ‘for me!’

I mean…it might be for some middle class folk who also happen to be middle of the road and pretty safe types…

Or perhaps it fits some late 60’s/early 70’s counter-culture that became ‘mainstream’ and got ‘watered down’ to it’s most acceptable cliche and packaged as ‘Contemporary Worship’ by a particular generation at a particular time in history (that’s already passed  it’s ‘sell by date”)

I just can’t get over the fact that when I hear ‘Contemporary Worship’ it all sounds so samey…and…well…terribly boring to be frank…that mixed with the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ type lyrics typical of many songs that castrate my manhood and well with all that goin on….I’ve never felt that ‘worship’ is for me…(or for any of my ‘non-churchy friends for that matter)

But when I see ‘Contemporary Art…’ vibrant, creative, alternative, experimental, cutting edge and diverse…it’s so different to ‘Contemporary Worship’…

Doesn’t ‘Contemporary’ simply mean ‘current’? Yet…most ‘Contemporary Worship’ transports me back somewhere between 20-40 years into the past…you know, a bit like when you hear a song that was played on your first date…or at the time of your first break-up, or when you were at school or college…it takes you back to the place of memories…to yesteryear…

Unfortunately that’s what happens every time we play worship music from a bygone era…or use the ‘sounds of the past’

New Movements need New Song and New Sounds…something that points prophetically to the future…or embodies the core values of the new paradigms that God is ushering into the present…

Consider the impact gospel music, soul and negro spirituals had on the Civil Rights Movement? The sound fed the movement and the movement fed the sound- they were intertwined- interconnected parts of the whole…

Unless the trumpeter sounds a clear sound…how will the people know how to respond? Do the songs we sing embody the message the Spirit is currently carrying to the churches? Does the Sound carry the movement, the vibe, the divine energy or wine that the Spirit is wanting to pour out? Or does it all just feel and sound…well… churchy

Era’s are marked by New Sound…consider what Rhythm+Blues, Jazz and Rock’n’Roll did for the Modern Era…

‘Contemporary Worship’ did the same for a generation…transforming the public and corporate expressions of worship from the organ to the band, and from the hymn to the song…

A Shift on a similar scale is likely to occur in the 21st Century…actually, let me go further to ‘say on record’…a radical shift MUST occur, right here, right now…so that the emerging generations can worship in their own expressions and the unreached people groups and subcultures can worship in their own ‘heart languages’ and the movement becomes a full scale tidal wave sweeping away the ‘dead works’ and ‘chaff’ that remains and is no longer useful from the 20th Century…

The offence that was caused when the first bass guitar was ‘plugged in’ and first guitar was ‘amped up’ let alone the ushering in of the drumkit…surely these devilish instruments were not ‘appropriate’ for ‘worship’…it was the sound of ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (by the way jazz, rock’n’roll and so forth were all euphemisms for ‘sex’). Imagine…bringing the ‘sound of sex’ into the ‘holy sanctuary’ of ‘religious church experience…’

Well after all the ‘record burnings’ and ‘night-club bannings‘ the ‘band’ fully replaced the sacred organ as the vehicle of choice for contemporary worship gatherings…now it’s mainstream in most churches…but in my view it’s rapidly becoming ‘old hat’ and ‘stale’

William Booth and the Early Salvation Army were considered ‘vulgar’ by their fellow, albeit respctable ‘middle class’ christian ‘friends’…because they took the music of the gin palaces and music halls, with their ‘brass bands’ and put their own god-infused lyrics to it and took it to the streets where ‘the common people heard it gladly’ and for the most part the ‘masses’ joined in revolutionising the notion of what was acceptable as ‘worship’ and even more….where worship took place and with whom…

This was a spiritual-cultural revolution!

Not only that…they marched in procession, like a mardi-gras and dressed up in costumes (discarded Boar War army uniforms bricollaged together)…it probably had a similar feel to when David, the King of Israel took off his clothes and danced ‘before the Lord’ and the women with their tamborines…

The Early Salvation Army had ex-bare-knuckle fighters and fight promoters join the movement…and they brought with them their direct-to-the-masses marketing and promotion tecniques…they put up posters all over town advertising their public events…the posters had circus-esque and boxing promoter style publicity…and attracted the crowds of ‘un-churchy,’ ‘non-religious’ undesirables…

When the people entered these ‘meetings’ that were held on streets, in tents, in seedy theatres and notorious ‘sin’ spots…it was a rowdy, lively, chaotic, noisy cocophony…you had William Booth preaching (more like bellowing) out in his gruff and bold voice…you had trumpets and trombones and tuba’s (the ‘grime’ and ‘dubstep’ of the day) fighting for attention (like a Sound System Clash), you had drunks throwing rotten eggs…you had prostitutes and street fighters crying in repentance…and you had respectable ‘christians’ looking on- peering from their carriages appalled at the uncouth nature of the whole proceeding…it was probably like a mixture of The Voice, Britain’s Got Talent, X-Factor, Street Dance, MC Battle, Sound System Clash, Live Art Performance, Grime and Dubstep Night at an Underground Club and Battle of the Bands all wrapped up into one

This was a Mash-Up of the highest (or maybe ‘lowest’) order and I reckon God pretty much enjoyed this type of ‘worship’

What might a 21st Century Salvation Army look like?

What is the Sound for the next movement?

Can I suggest that there is not just One Sound?

And if there was that One Sound would be DIVERSE…

It would also be Indigenous…it would be Tribal…each Tribe will have it’s own unique sound to bring to the mix

These Tribal Bands will travel across their towns and cities and up and down their countries ‘worshipping’ in pubs, bars, clubs, bingos, art centres, music venues, festivals, parks, abandoned buildings…they wouldn’t keep ‘the sound’ and ‘the message’ to themselves or keep ‘God in a box‘ (God doesn’t live in mandmade temples)…they will not ‘play for christians’ but will take it to the streets

This Sound Network of Tribal Bands would also be interconnected…their would be the occassional ‘Worship Mash-Up’s‘….where the sounds of distinct Tribes come together and Mix-It Up and Sample from One Another…we are a generation that enjoys folksy as much as grime as much as jazz as much as classical as much as hip-hop…
What we don’t want is this watered down sap passed off as ‘Worship Music’

Now there are those that would say ‘worship is a lifestyle’...that we simply (but with major difficulty) offer ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’ and that that is our act of worship…there is no such thing as a ‘time of worship’ in the sense of ‘coming together to sing songs’ but that ‘worship’ is reflected in our every day activities…when we use our gifts and talents, when we work, when we build our relationships….when we do all these things mindful of God and in His Spirit….that that is what ‘true worship’ is all about…it’s hard to argue with that one

There is also a movement afoot which would say that the centre of corporate worship is not actually the ‘songs’ but the meal…as in ‘The Lord’s Supper…‘ Jesus said ‘do this (eat a worshipful meal) as often as you meet together…do this to remember me…’

It was as Jesus held the bread and gave thanks that some of his disciples understood who He really was…

Whether you see worship as singing a bunch of christian songs, a way of life or a sacred meal amongst your extended family on mission…do you agree that something needs to change in our collective understanding of ‘worship’ in the 21st Century?

Is there a role for ‘music and the arts’ in worship and what might this look like in the 21st Century?

Who is worship for? And Where Should worship Take Place?

Is it time for ‘Corporate Worship’ to Break Out of the Box?

Perhaps it’s time for the Alabaster Jar to smash so the aroma of Christ and the sounds of heaven can return to the streets, the mountains, the dens of notorious sinners, and the crowds in the marketplace where perhaps they’ve always belonged…


[This Article is an Extract from Peter J Farmer’s Forthcoming Book: TRIBAL MISSION]


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This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Aidan

    Funnily, a few days ago I was musing on an outreach we did in London, probably about ten years ago. During a morning and afternoon evangelising on the streets we invited people to a gospel event in a hall we’d hired from the Salvation Army. The start of the gospel event included our usual almost jarring variety of musical styles- soft rock, to hymns, to hymns made epic with electric guitars. Later, after the word and response we’d invited a trio of local rappers (not christians themselves) to rap about Jesus before we launched into a loud club-music worship celebratiory finalé, smoke and lights and energetic praise.

    I remember seeing a SA steward who’d been looking after us peering into the hall shaking his head, talking loudly to someone, clearly disapproving. We were singing about and celebrating Jesus but it clearly wasn’t church-y enough.

    Knowing the SA’s roots it stands out as a poignant warning to me. It makes me ask myself questions like “what cultural assumptions have I built up about the way we do church that get in the way of Jesus, in the way of people hearing the gospel in their own language? How much do our traditions and routines actually display Jesus to the people he’s sent us to reach?”

    Of course now I’ve said all that I must also state my absolute admiration and respect for my friends in the Salvation Army, for their sincerity of heart, their loving zeal and all the astounding work they do.

  2. Joanne Griffin

    If someone rather long in the tooth may comment, I love this. I love anything and everything, every broken alabaster jar that anoints a dying world with the love of Jesus.

    The Father, Son and Spirit are ever-communicating, ever-relating, ever-speaking, giving and receiving— and Jesus has invited us into THAT sound wave. Take heed how you hear and receive, and then send that Spirit-filled sound out into the Night and

    One caution: Judge every spirit; for the same spirit that goes into a created form, is revealed when we experience it. If it drives us to Jesus, we know whence it came. If it drives us to the flesh, we know it’s not worship. Judge, prayerfully discern, and let loose!

    A side note: In the US ages ago there was an old preacher named Holy Hubert. Only thing I know about him was that when he was tut-tutted about the caliber of people showing up at his bar car-park revivals his reply was, “Son, light attracts bugs.”

    God bless you and the “fire” you are married to!

    1. admin

      Thanks Joanne,

      I like your style
      Sounds like you are led by the same creative spirit who spoke worlds into being 😉

      Yes…let’s hear the new sounds from heaven and play them on earth

  3. Malcolm MacGregor

    A problem with “Contemporary Worship” is that it is someone else’s worship – rather than the “gathering” being the place that we bring our worship to. Wrestling with a passage of scripture is worship, not just the final outcome and resulting prayer.

    Another problem is that (and we hear this so often) is that worship is singing songs, but everything is worship – reading scripture, teaching, prayer, testimony and so on is all worship. And actually this needs to be taken to its full extent in that everything that we do is worship – done is thanksgiving for the glory of God, whether within or outwith the “gathering”.

    Now, I can already hear Pete say this! How are we supposed to obey 1st Corinthians 14:26 in a traditional gathering?

    1. admin

      Hi Malcolm

      Yes- we need to have a worship lifestyle and expressions of ‘clan’ type worship where each person Brings+Shares what they have and Christ is formed among us in the midst of this…

  4. james

    I’m a white middle class christian living in central London and have been attending traditional style church for about 12 years. I’m passionate about music and connecting with God through music, song and dance, especially DJ culture, graffiti (and more recently creative upcycling) – to me these are all forms of worship…

    …but I’ve only ever experienced ‘church’ worship through a soft-rock acoustic style band, nowadays with beards. This is fine; I understand why – it’s because soft-rock is the most approachable expression for corporate worship (apparently that’s what I been told anyway). I can appreciate that we are lal different and for many people, they are genuinely ‘into’ the soft-rock scene anyway and band culture… but what about every one else?

    London is one of the most diverse cities on the planet and Britain a truly global country. But the church IMO has a very limited ‘style’ of worship which restricts itself to what you’d find under the religious section in a record store.

    When I read about the parties in heaven, I get excited; I want to worship but its a different feeling than the worship I experience in church, very different. I get we are all different but other forms of music (jazz, soul, dance, house, hip-hop, disco and gospel and many more) are so expressive and free and allow for genuine creativity and a release of energy, spirit, movement and light which you simply cannot achieve in a soft-rock setting.

    Why these (and more) other forms aren’t touched upon in traditional church settings disappoints me and also worries me that it teaches Christians there is only one proper way to ‘worship’ or at least indicates one style of music that expressed God…but this is not true!

    And why is anything other than the mainstream guitar strumming considered ‘alternative’? Surely there is only what’s worship and what’s not.

    A lot of Dj’s say that Dj’ing is their own form of prayer – many house/techno producers pray before producing a record, so that God imprints are present through the music. Raves, parties, clubs have lights lasers smoke and movement and worshippers who will dance 12 hours straight; I guess the difference is that not all in that scene will be worshipping Jesus, though some will

    I often think about football too. Men (mostly) who go to games will have a weekly time of ‘gathered worship’ with 10,000-50,000 others chanting ‘songs of praise’ showing their affection, love, support and adoration. Their not worshipping Jesus I get it but the point I’m making is that what they are doing is a sign of contemporary worship, just not a Christian expression… but what if, like football fans, Christians took to the streets to party, shout songs from their heart, waves banners and set flares alight…or something like that… just my thoughts.

    Anyone who’s been raving or been in a stadium when a goal is scored usually gets a tingle down the back of their spine or goosebumps – a sense of awe comes over them perhaps akin to what Christian worshippers hope to experience. I know its not about creating artificial experiences, but if we only ever do guitars, closed eyes and (stationary) hands in the air for the main chorus then worship is limited.

    *I gotta log-off now but will be back! 🙂

    1. admin

      Yes James

      I think that when we get to sizes of gathering in any place beyond 15-20 and involving ‘non-churchy’ people, it should feel more like ‘party’

      And when we are talking about 100’s and 1000’s meeting it might feel more like a football match, club night or concert/gig…

      But that this does not need to be and should not be bland and monoculture everywhere you go!

      Where is the diversity in ‘Christian Gatherings’ of all shapes and sizes eh?

  5. james

    Another Dj / producer I enjoy listening to said:

    “Creating music is what heals me, It’s the highest level of orgasm of spiritual elevation you can reach as the communication you establish (if done with the right intension’s & purpose) is direct with the most High”

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