Traditional, contemporary or…


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?


  • Tom Mepham

    Good thoughts Malcs.

    What do we do? Since it kind of makes my head hurt, I’m inclined to say: Bypass the question and the issues around music, and focus on discipling each other.

    Give people permission to create, to risk, to get stuck in; build teams; empower and mentor young people. (Our young people are incredibly capable.) Show people something of what the future could be, and find opportunities to help it happen. Expect more from people (not more time necessarily, just more); set the bar higher so we have to pray and trust Jesus to hit it.

    The result: increased love for Jesus and each other, increased awareness of issue-areas and increased ability to collectively grapple with the tough big-picture questions like this one.


    July 3, 2013
    • not bad Tom. I think a holy sidestepping is called for, we can’t keep fragmenting…

      July 3, 2013
      • Tom Mepham

        Maybe it’s time to bring back funk music into the fold. Surely everyone will be happy about that.

        I’m not sure though, really. I hear ya. In terms of music and styles – surely these are going to keep diversifying. But in terms of the approach to our communal worship gatherings… hm.

        What kind of holy sidestep do you think is called for?

        July 3, 2013
        • The answer I’m expecting people to arrive at is that we create an alternative style of worship to accommodate the diversity of styles and preferences. But I think thats a dead-end. We have the opportunity to forge a new identity with (almost) the whole church family at this point…

          July 3, 2013
  • Raz

    Hey you two musical madmen! This is an issue we can’t get away from and it seems to even snowball more into the music identifies who we are as a congregation even. I can see that from an outsider Church Shopping looking in that the music could be a defining factor for them (rather than the call of God…) BUT in our Churches we really need to look at ourselves as one congregation coming together to worship and I believe that means having different connection points for people – where you can really get into your bit but also journey with those others in the bits that don’t appeal you. This is for the bigger picture of a community of faith worshipping together rather than apart. I am in the process hopefully of proving you can have a one size fits all service – I really dislike how we have trad and contemp services at different times and one is more or a sacred cow than the other. Being together is more important and we should focus on holding it together in diversity rather than splitting off. And I believe that starts with Ministers and Elder teaching on being one body in Christ and that a unified worship is a much better missional proclamation that lots of different services. And pray God actually transforms people to get over their musical preferences for the sake of the growing the Kingdom. RANT ends.

    July 3, 2013
    • Hey Raz, I totally agree. I think unity is crucial, and more important than musical preference. Being called beyond ourselves is part of leaving behind our self governed lives and letting Jesus be Lord. All the best with the one size fits all, we managed it (pretty successfully) in Katikati for a few years. Not easy, but important!

      July 3, 2013
      • Tom Mepham

        Hey Raz. Good rant bro 😉

        July 4, 2013
  • Margaret Garland

    Hi Malcolm
    This certainly is a curly one and there is no easy answer – but I totally have to go with Raz here that its not about creating differing places/times for contemporary/trad worship. I spoke to a bunch in their 20s a couple of years ago and contemporary meant different things to each person. Traditional also usually means whichever particular hymnbook you sang out of before OHP and DP came along. So here is my penny’s worth – should not the music you have in a service be chosen and sung with the same care to connect to scripture, theology, mission etc as all the other words you have in the worship service. There are great hymns/worship songs from the earliest church days to now – figure out what they are for your congregation and use them to make Jesus Christ known! I get cross when people exclude old just because its old, applaud new because its new (or vice versa) without actually looking at how we are praising God, opening the scriptures and challenging our very lives through our music. Sources – Opoho was brought up on With One Voice – that is traditional for them. But they also use the NZ Hymnary books heaps, Wild Goose/Iona, some 70s/80s contemporary with a sprinkle of ‘I don’t know where they come from….’ and music of this century and occasional ancients. It’s enormously broad and that is just fine. And we do all this with just 4 or 5 max hymns/songs a service.
    Oh and why can’t we call modern church music ‘hymns’? Just a thought…. Enough from me!

    July 3, 2013
    • Again, totally agree with the conviction that unity is key. I guess its because our reality is so fragmented that the ‘love of the enemy’ actually comes into play here as we try to be the body of Christ. What is ironic is that Opoho would probably be described as ‘eclectic’ for its singing catalogue, yet in truth you may be broader than most!

      July 3, 2013
  • Matt Chapman

    Hi team!
    I’ve found the best way to start this conversation with people is by going back to the fundamental questions of:
    – Who is God?
    – What is the church?
    – What is worship?
    – What is the Sunday gathering all about?
    – Why music? Why singing? Why singing together with one voice?
    – Who are we singing to/for?
    – What has been sung, what are we singing, what should we be singing/saying/doing?
    – When should we shut up?

    I reckon those are some of the important questions to ask before you even pick up a harp.

    On a side note, two of my biggest regrets from my youth regarding worship are:
    1. Thinking worship was the singing time in a church service
    2. Living on a diet of 4 chord, christian guitar pop rock

    A very narrow way of seeing/experiencing the world, and one that is too common today.

    July 3, 2013
    • Thanks for the input Matt. Do you think that ‘narrow way’ of viewing the world is leaving many of younger people uninspired by our corporate worship? Is that because they haven’t been able to develop their own ‘native language’ in worship?

      July 3, 2013

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