In 1972, the first Scripture and Song book was published. It began, or marked the beginning of the movement broadly called, ‘contemporary worship music.’
That was 41 years ago. I’ve been working on a wee theory. Back in 1972, a musical and liturgical revolution occurred. That much is clear. The folk music that people were listening too on the radio began to be used as a vehicle for their songs of praise, confession and intercession in church. Although not for everyone. Based only on my own observations, I’ve drawn a bit of a line through church congregations as they were in 1972. Roughly speaking, those under 40 seemed to gravitate towards the emerging contemporary worship music movement. Those over 40 seemed to stay with the hymns they had grown up with. Of course the change didn’t happen as quickly as I’m suggesting, nor did the music arrive quite so suddenly. But it gives us a point to start imagining from.
So began the distinction within our worshipping congregations that exists to this very day. We have ‘traditional’ services, using the organ and singing hymns, and we have ‘contemporary’ services, often with full bands and singing songs from an ever increasing catalogue of worship music. It is because this catalogue is ‘ever increasing’ that another issue is beginning to emerge. The breadth of what we call ‘contemporary’ music now stretches from the folk influenced choruses of the 1970’s, to the power ballads of the early 90’s (think Geoff Bullock’s, ‘Power of the Your Love’) to the ambient, atmospheric 29-minute-long soundscapes of Hillsongs United on their most recent album, ‘Zion.’
Think about it. How old is the 39 year old who jumped on the Scripture and Song bandwagon in 1972 now? 80 years old, that’s how old. This means our traditional congregations are full of really old folk, and the contemporary services now represent an enormously broad age range.
Hence the language of contemporary worship music is beginning to lose its usefulness. It is being stretched beyond recognition. When you say, ‘we sing contemporary music’ do you mean Graham Kendrick 1987, or Darlene Zschech 1995, or Joel Houston 2003, or Chris Tomlin 2009? I believe the contemporary worship music movement is now fragmenting. Its moving so quickly, creating so much new music at such a rate, that congregations are having to adopt favourite writers and producers. Some seem to have decided that all the good ones have been written, and listening to some of the new material that’s emerging I confess that is a tempting perspective at times. Others align themselves with Jesus culture, or Hillsong United and follow that particular stream almost exclusively.
So what’s at stake? Our identity as congregations is under strain. Our contemporary services are becoming laboured under an unwieldy amount of music to sift, select and sing from. Some churches make the decision to keep up with the new and constantly clean out anything older than say, 5 years. But this seems a bit harsh and short sighted, as if there is no value in singing songs that have grown up with us.
Our ability to sing together is also at stake. I travel and minister in different churches a great deal. I can honestly say there are less than 10 contemporary songs that I can use across churches with any level of confidence that they’ll be known. ‘Blessed be the name’ and ‘How great is our God’ are safe bets, but when you are trying to shape a service with flow and depth, its a real challenge working off such a small list. The most recent addition to that list was, ‘10,000 Reasons’ by Matt Redman which was released in 2011. Will there be any others added? I have my doubts.
When I have been involved with leading worship in these broad, contemporary services, I’ve become aware of the different factions within the congregation. Everyone has latched onto a particular period of the movement which they consider the ‘golden age.’ In many ways its no different than the hymn singing tradition, except the periods of times are much shorter! Is it realistic to expect a movement to be perpetually contemporary? And if it is, what cost will that come at? If it means there is no memory, no heritage, no connection with the past (or the future) then count me out. On the other hand, has what we call, ‘contemporary’ worship music now become so broad as to be almost meaningless? Is it just a newer version of traditional worship?
So what do we do? Is there something flawed in defining our worship by our musical preferences? Is the answer just to create ‘Today’s contemporary worship service’ and realise that it wont last forever? What do you think?