Contemporary Worship [A Critique] Part 2


Practicing Discernment Without Hysteria

While it is evident that contemporary worship involves not a particular style of music but a mindset and an ecclesiology which is questionable at best, heretical at worst, whenever a “worship war” disrupts a congregation, the central question with which most congregations will deal is what style of music will prevail.  This is the wrong question.  The proper question is, Which mindset, and the resulting ecclesiology, is faithful to Scripture?

In this section, what shall be examined are the presuppositions which underlie the advocation of contemporary music in worship along with the content and forms of that music.

When this writer was discussing the basic thesis of this paper with fellow students, one response was that the writer was out of touch with the world and needed to learn music before he critiqued it.  The writer’s response was that since he had played guitar for over 25 years [at the time this paper was originally presented in 1998], ministered through contemporary Christian music in coffeehouses when the art form was in its infancy, had written music for worship, and was instrumental in the introduction of contemporary music in the assembly at his home congregation over 20 years previously, he was not only qualified to critique it, but to critique the issue from both inside and out.

It must be stated at this point that any debate/argument/discussion concerning the music which is played and sung in the assemblies is dealing with superficial issues when it restricts itself to questions of style and instrumentation.  The critical issues concern the lyrical content of Christian music and the purpose for which the music is played and sung.

Several criteria have been offered by several teachers and consultants in the field of music and liturgy.  The purpose for such criteria has been to provide a means for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate music in the hopes that such criteria will prevent discussions from degenerating into divisive bickering over questions of style.

Establishing criteria is important because one critic of contemporary worship has observed:

The challenge of future worship is to identify those choruses and spiritual songs that have lasting value, to retain the music from the past that is characterized by depth and power, and to combine these many forms of music into an order of worship that remembers, proclaims, enacts, and celebrates the story of salvation. (Webber, 1994:203)

Another critic has observed:

I am very interested in using modern music…, but our music must contain the substance of the faith, the heritage of the Church’s uniqueness, the character-forming truths of Christianity. Similarly, our sermons must be focused on the Word of God, which is the “special” domain of Christianity. (Dawn, 1995:46, emphasis in the original)

And, finally, Liesch notes:

Despite the many benefits of worship choruses, we must acknowledge that they tend to reflect values of popular culture that should not be “bought into” unquestioningly—values that include instant gratification, intellectual impatience, ahistorical immediacy, and incessant novelty. (Liesch, 1996:20, emphasis added)

It must be noted that Dawn, Liesch, and Webber are not leveling their guns at the use of contemporary music in worship as such.  What they are doing is attempting to bring a level of sanity and reason to a controversy which has, in many congregations, brought conflict and divisiveness and a forced unity at the expense of truth.  There is nothing wrong with worship choruses in and of themselves as a musical style or form, but before congregations start burning their hymnals, they suggest a grid by which to evaluate the music presented in the assembly.  And it is stressed that these criteria should apply to all styles of music when dealing with issues of style and form.

The first question is, Does the text [lyric] express theological soundness?(Dawn, 170-172) As an example of weakness in this area, Dawn cites the very popular chorus “Mighty Savior,” in which the participant, in successive stanzas, ascribes the act of salvation to God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.  The Biblical teaching of the doctrine of the Trinity is totally muddled in the lyrics, if not denied.  The lyrics imply a heresy called Sabellianism, which denies the distinction of three Persons in one God.

The second question in the grid of discernment is, Does the text nurture in participants a godly character? (Dawn, 174)  In other words, does the text challenge the participant to be transformed in his or her character into what God desires him or her to be?  Does the text of a given chorus call the participant into deeper and more thorough obedience to God? Since the thrust of the overwhelming majority of contemporary choruses is a rather nebulous concept which is undefined, yet referred to as praise, there is no clear-cut call to holiness.

The third question in the discernment grid is, Does the choice of worship music increase or decrease the participant’s capacity to listen or think theologically?(Dawn, 176)  Music is a tool by which beliefs concerning the character of God, the Person of Christ, the meaning of His death, burial and resurrection, and our need for that Divine act can be related to each other and proclaimed in simple language.  Yet many of the most recent “praise choruses” ignore these aspects of the faith which are crucial. While they encourage the participant to “praise” God, they impart nothing concerning why God is praiseworthy. In other words, contemporary praise choruses tend to validate the criticism of atheists that the image of God presented by the contemporary worship mindset is nothing more than a cosmic egotist.

Does the music unify the congregation? (Dawn, 177)  This is the most pervasive question because it requires everyone involved to seek what is the best expression of the love of God within that community.  There is no true unity or love in a die-hard, unexamined traditionalism.  Nor was there any love for believers in Christ who respect the tradition when David Clark expressed to the seminary class his desire that if people in his congregation couldn’t get with his program, he would direct them to attend elsewhere. (Searby and Wilson)

Does the text call the culture outside the church into question, and strengthen the [counter] culture of the Christian community? (Dawn, 178)  This is the key weakness of contemporary Christian music in the late 1990s.  There is no message which critiques the culture outside the community of faith.  The offense of the cross is downplayed because churches involved in contemporary worship do not want to “turn off” the seekers.  The very symbols which provide the meaning and establish the context of the faith, the Bible and the cross, have been eliminated by portrayal and reference from “seeker-sensitive worship.”  In other words, to those in the “seeker-sensitive” mindset, the unpardonable sin is not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit–it is “offending” an unbeliever by suggesting that he or she is a sinner in need of God’s grace.

Is the musical style appropriate to the message expressed in the text? (Dawn, 181)  This is not a question of taste, but of setting.  As an example, this writer would offer that when he was in high school, he was taught to sing the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” to the tune of the top forty hit “Puff the Magic Dragon.”  Although the tune fit the lyrics metrically, the mood of the substituted melody did not match the mood of the lyrics.  Other example taught to this writer at the same time was to put the lyrics of the song “Amazing Grace” to the tune of an advertising jingle called “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”  The melody was used to market a certain soft drink, and it was impossible in this writer’s mind to divorce the mood of the melody from its, commercial intent and marry it to a text concerning the wonders of God’s redemptive gift.  Worse examples of such nonsense include singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The House of the Rising Sun” [a song celebrating a boy’s coming of age in a brothel], “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” sung to the tune of “Light My Fire,” or “Bringing in the Sheaves” to the tune of “Smoking in the Boys Room.”

Is the music honest in the way it expresses a text? (Dawn, 189)  This is closely connected to the previous question concerning appropriateness.  It is not honest to express the sorrow of the passion of Christ with a light, airy melody.  Nor is it honest to portray the joy of the resurrection with a somber melody.

Does the music foster a genuine reverence for God within the congregation or does it encourage vanity and show in the instrumentalists and vocalists? (Dawn, 190)  This is highly subjective because each individual cannot determine what effect the music may foster within the hearts and minds of others, nor can we arrogate for ourselves the prerogative of claiming to know the intents of purposes of the instrumentalists and vocalists.  The only thing which is measurable is the visible presentation of the music.  Perhaps an example may help place this criterion in a helpful context. Several years ago in his home congregation at the time, this writer witnessed a solo presented by one of the women in the congregation.  The lyrics were very simple and straightforward.  The singer, however, presented the music in a very theatrical and overstated manner–which completely overrode the lyrics.  Although this took place over fifteen years ago, I cannot remember a single lyric of the song–but I remember the presentation.  The overall impression was that the song was not as important as the person presenting it.  A simpler way of expressing this caveat is that the messenger must never become more important than the message of the text.

Are the music and lyrics appropriate to the setting? (Dawn, 195)  One doesn’t sing Christmas carols during Lent.  It is unthinkable to sing songs expressing the joy of the resurrection at a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday assembly.  A song which may be perfectly appropriate for a gathering of high school students at a Saturday night coffee house or at a campfire sing-a-long might not fit into the mood of a Sunday morning assembly.  When believers think in terms of setting, they must consider the overall context of the whole time of the assembly.  A song about the perseverance of Job would not be at all effective if it was to be followed by a message on financial stewardship from the pastor.

To these criteria, this writer would add some derived from his own study of Scripture. The first would be that simplicity is not synonymous with superficiality. Paul wrote to his associate Timothy:

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles,  Believed on in the world,  Received up in glory.  (1 Timothy 3:16)

It is stated that this is an early hymn of the Church. (Radmacher, 1917)  It is marvelously simple in its straightforward statement of doctrine.  But it is not superficial or shallow in its meaning–every phrase, every clause, is loaded with theological significance.

The New Testament scripture also sets forth the purpose of music in the assembly as being teaching and admonition. (Colossians 3:16)  Liesch, in his discussion of this and the parallel passage (Ephesians 5:19) devotes an entire chapter to the meaning of the phrase “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” but never even mentions the fact that the texts command that these be used for teaching and admonition. (Liesch, 33-34)

But choruses do not lend themselves to teaching or admonition.  The very format itself stresses simplification to the point of banality.  And banal is exactly what the lyrics of many “praise choruses” are.  An example of this banality is seen in the “praise chorus” “We Will Glorify” as sung by Twila Paris.  She will praise, magnify, or glorify God, but nothing of substance is said as to why God is praiseworthy or deserving of worship, honor and glory. Without this context, praise becomes meaningless. As noted above, to the unbeliever, God has the appearance of being the universally supreme Egotist whose fragile ego must continually be stroked to appease Him.  Contrast the song by Twila Paris with hymns of praise such as are found in Revelation 4:11;  5:9-13;  11:17-18;  15:3-4;  16:5-6–in every one of the hymns of priase found in Scripture, the reader is informed as to why God is worthy of praise.  The only thing I can think of in terms of an apt comparison to the majority of contemporary “praise choruses” is the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 to a recipient who had done absolutely nothing to merit receiving such an honor [and still hasn’t to this day–but that’s a topic for another blog].

Because of the deficiencies in contemporary worship music, those who have studied the issue have concluded:

How will we teach Christianity’s specialness if the music in our worship services imitates the superficiality and meaninglessness of the general world and sermons talk about subjects that those in the pew can learn from psychologists, sociologists, and the local television station? (Dawn, 46)

In general, choruses lack intellectual rigor and fail to offer a mature exposition of biblical doctrines.  Choruses bracket the cross and resurrection together in their lyrics but shortchange the full reality of sin and human weakness and fail to capture adequately the agony and suffering of Christ upon the cross. They put the weight on sin defeated and therefore gloss over persistent sin in our lives.  There’s very little emphasis on corporate confession or repentance.  And the cost of discipleship and need for endurance and perseverance in the Christian life get scant attention. (Liesch, 20)

[The] Exclusive use of choruses tends to produce a people who have the same depth of spirituality as the music they sing.  The result is a faith which lacks depth, is simplistic, pleasure-oriented, emotionalistic, intellectually weak, undisciplined, and prone to the changeability of feelings.  The end result of nothing else but chorus singing is spiritual immaturity. (Webber, 20)

Allowing the Other Side to Speak for Itself

Having presented the case for establishing a context to make all styles of music meaningful in and to the assembly, the advocates of contemporary music only must be allowed to speak to the questions raised.  Since Miller is the only one who has presented a book on the subject from the perspective of one who has abandoned all “traditional” church music, and David Clark has been the only speaker who has gone on record in the writer’s hearing with unreserved and complete support for only permitting contemporary Christian music in the assembly, this writer will accept their views as representative of that perspective.

First, Miller has asserted that the priority of all music in the assembly is praise. (Miller, 1993:76)  Miller bases his arguments upon inferences drawn entirely from the Old Testament while ignoring basic principles of hermeneutics which teach that all Old Testament teaching must be interpreted in the light of and subject to the more complete revelation of the New Testament as well as clear-cut commands in the New Testament.   And the New Testament commands that the use of music is for teaching and admonition.   While the functions of teaching and admonition can certainly include praise;  praise, in and of itself, is insufficient to fulfill the teaching and admonition requirements set forth in the New Testament for appropriate music.  This writer is not saying that praise is wrong.  What he is saying is that if our musical diet consists of praise only, the church is musically drinking soda pop and never maturing in its diet.

As evidence for Miller’s argument, he invokes the book of Psalms as Divine sanction for his view being the norm and that praise choruses are everything.  He states that because the Psalms comprise the largest single book within the canon of Scripture, that is indicative of the preeminence God places on praise. (Miller, 77)  This writer would respond that the longest Psalm within that volume stresses the need for the people of God to be people who reverence and know the laws of God and bring their lives into obedience to His word. Indeed, the first psalm is an exhortation to righteous conduct based on knowing Scripture. Therefore, within the psalms themselves there are strong emphases on doctrine and holiness, themes which are neglected in contemporary praise choruses;  and, as I stated earlier, every Psalm in which praise is directed to God, provides the context as to why God is deserving of praise.  The Psalmists did not offer “praise for the sake of praise.”  Praise in the Psalms had an apologetic value, which promoted the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as transcendant above creation and the gods of the nations.

Miller’s second argument is that because many who defend “traditional” hymns do so on the basis of the profundity of many of the more traditional hymns, they are downgrading those psalms which he claims are not so profound.  The danger in this argument which this writer sees is that Miller, by association, wants to equate all contemporary praise choruses with the book of Psalms.  The difference is that the psalms were theopneustos—God-breathed. Contemporary praise choruses are not.  Moreover, the Psalms which Miller deems to be less profound, are canonical, while I have yet to hear any contemporary praise chorus which merits inclusion in the canon.

Miller then offers as his next justification that Scripture requires us to become all things to all people, (Miller, 91ff) a position identical to that expressed by David Clark in his presentation. (Searby and Wilson)  Again, this is Scripture taken out of context and completely ignoring the point in which Paul wrote the passage they are misinterpreting. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)  Paul writes to encourage and to edify a church torn apart by factionalism. Miller and Clark use the passage as a bludgeon to trivialize, mock and demean any who disagree with them.

Again, this all points back to a fundamental heresy concerning the purpose of assembly.  For Miller and Clark, the purpose of assembly is evangelism only, rather than training and equipping people to go out into the world to proclaim the whole counsel of God, members are encouraged to merely invite their families, friends and neighbors to church so that the hired gun in the pulpit can sell them a sugar-coated inoffensive gospel.

The entire context of contemporary worship is grounded in a postmodern philosophy which values instant gratification and self-centeredness.  The gospel of contemporary worship is not the biblical gospel that humanity is totally depraved and deserving of God’s wrath, so that God in His infinite love provided a means whereby those who would accept His grace could be redeemed from their depravity into new life by and with Him.  The gospel of contemporary worship is that of a feel-good, pep rally type religion, where Jesus is trivialized with such terms as “fun,” “neat,” and “cool.” (Webber, 201)

Another problem is that the postmodern emphasis on pluralism and diversity, while it welcomes and recognizes different musical styles in the assembly is hypocritical in that the one style it will not tolerate is anything viewed as “traditional.”  As David Clark observed, the first thing which must go in order to be “seeker-sensitive” is “tradition.” (Searby and Wilson)

The problem with contemporary “seeker-sensitive” worship is that in its striving to be relevant worship combined with evangelism, the result is something entirely other which is neither true worship or true evangelism, since the goals of such appear to be to soothe and amuse rather than to confront and challenge.  Postman commented on this approach when he wrote:

I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion.  When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether. (Postman, 1985:121)


The lyrical content of praise choruses ignores and trivializes human reason as does what passes for preaching in “seeker-sensitive” assemblies.  The appeal is to emotion, not to the intellect.  But when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of the heart, soul, mind and strength, (Mark 11:29)  He made no mention about loving God with the seat of the emotions, which in the Hebrew view of psychology was the bowels.  When one looks at other emotions, such as anger, Scripture indicates that emotions are subject to the will and the intellect. (Ephesians 4:26)  In the theology and practice of “seeker-sensitive” worship, the Divine order is reversed and thereby perverted.

Moreover, this writer has witnessed many situations of “worship” [so-called] in which the music was nothing more than a vehicle to manipulate the congregation.  This is accomplished by repetitions of a line or couplet numerous times.  The overall effect of the repetitions is that it produces in the congregation a heightened state of suggestibility, in other words, the music produces a trance-like state—similar to the state induced by chanting a mantra while practicing yoga.

With problems of this nature, is it therefore possible or even desirable to incorporate contemporary music forms into the assembly of believers?

* Unless noted otherwise, all Bible references are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Dawn, Marva.  Reaching out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn of the Century Culture.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1995.

Liesch, Barry.  The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.

Miller, Steve.  The Contemporary Christian Music Debate: Worldly Compromise or Agent of Renewal?  Wheaton:  Tyndale House, 1993.

Postman, Postman.  Amusing Ourselves to Death.  New York:  Penguin, 1985, 121.

Radmacher, Earl D., (ed.).  The NKJV Study Bible, 2nd Edition.  Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2007.

Searby, Mark, and Wilson, Robert.  “Guiding the Church Through Change:  Presentation by David Clark.”  Lincoln, IL:  Lincoln Christian Seminary, 18 November, 1998.  Class Notes.

Webber, Robert E.  Worship Old and New:  A Biblical, Historical and Practical Introduction,  Revised edition.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1994.


About davestheology

I found a book that was kind of worn, But to my surprise, not a page was torn; It had a title, that I could not read, "Red Letter Edition" was all I could see.
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