The Language of Contemporary Worship — Creating Contemporary Worship Part 1

I. Deconstructing The Various Styles of Contemporary Worship

What is contemporary worship?

Contemporary worship is a broad term that refers to multiple worship styles.

For many, anything that is not traditional is contemporary.

That’s like saying that anyone that is not Roman Catholic is Protestant. Technically it’s true. However, not all protestants are the same.

If you were to go that route, then you could say the same about traditional worship. Anything that is not contemporary could be traditional.

It goes without saying that a Sunday morning Catholic Mass and a typical Sunday morning Southern Baptist worship service are very different experiences, even though they both might be considered their “traditional” service (the Catholic contemporary service is called Life Teen Mass).

As we continue our conversation about Creating Contemporary Worship (there are two posts before this one, and I will have six more to follow), I would like to narrow our focus. I will spend a brief section identifying a few other forms of contemporary worship, and then conclude by explicating “Modern Contemporary.”

My goal is to supply language and description for various forms of contemporary worship and to speak plainly about the type of contemporary worship that I believe is growing the fastest.

I hope to help create worship that has a clear identity and is willing to integrate specific elements (from traditional and contemporary) rather than conflate worship styles. To do that, we need to make sure we know exactly what styles we are talking about.

II. Other Forms Of Contemporary Worship

1. Ancient-Future Worship and Blended Worship

Ancient-Future Worship and Blended worship are not the same thing. Though they sound similar, and are often mistaken for one another, they are in fact two different styles of worship.

Ancient-Future is actually not contemporary at all. At least not in the way that contemporary worship is commonly discussed. Robert Webber talks about Ancient-Future worship in his Ancient-Future series. He describes it as an intentional reclamation of biblical and early Christian worship practices, as well as a restitution of the Word and Table liturgy.

It is “ancient” in that the worship service is doing the work of remembering God’s acts throughout history and invoking elements of worship from ancient Christian practice. It is “future,” in that it is eschatogical — future oriented.

Ancient-Future describes the ethos of the worship expierence more than it does any telos of its practical execution.

Blended worship, on the other hand, is what Ancient-Future sounds like it might be. Blended worship is an attempt to combine the Aesthetic/High-Church style of worship with the Modern Contemporary style of worship.

Two examples of this worship style are the ICON service at FUMC Pensacola, Florida and The Bridge service at FUMC Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I cannot tell you how many times I have talked to colleagues about contemporary worship and the first thing they say is, “Have you ever head of ICON,” or “I want to do something just like The Bridge.”

Unfortunately, for every one blended worship service that ‘succeeds’, I have seen a dozen fail at creating something similar. More often than not blended worship ends up seeming like a hodgepodge of worship elements from the Camp Meeting service and the Jesus Movement. It is desigined to appease everyone by including the favorite pieces of both forms of worship. However, often it ends up making few happy because most feel like the other style is the more prominent in the expierence.

Blended worship is one of the hardest styles of contemporary worship to do well, because it is difficult to establish an identity. And even when done at its best, it still only attracts a small niche.

  • 2. Emergent

Emergent worship looks similar to the Ancient-Future experience. However, its aim is decidedly different.

Much of Ancient-Future worship requires foreknowledge of the Bible (and Christian tradition) to fully appreciate and engage in the experience. The Emergent movement is designed to help assimilate non-believers and new Christian converts into a theologically rich intentional community. Emergent churches are “post” churches. They are post-seeker sensitive, post-modern and post-Christian.

The Emergent movement was born as a reaction to Seeker-Sensitive worship (which we will get to in a moment). As such it is trying to lead people in, what its proponents think is, a deeper form of spirituality.

Some leaders of the Emergent movement include Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Leonard Sweet, Dan Kimball, and many others. If you want to know more about the Emergent Church some good books are Emerging Worship, The Emerging Church, The Church In Emerging Culture, and A Generous Orthodoxy.

From Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations by Dan Kimball
  • Characteristics of Emergent Worship Experience
  • Reaction to Seeker-Sensitive Worship
  • Reversion to tradition.
  • Not Traditional — But borrows elements
  • Reflective
  • Experiential
  • The Gathering (worship service)
  • Refocused Center
  • Participatory
  • Communal
  • Enviro-centric
  • Deinstitutionalized

c. Pentecostal

Pentecostal worship is not intrinsically contemporary. However, many Pentecostal worship experiences are very similar to Modern Contemporary worship experiences. Like our original analogy, not all Protestants are the same, similarly, just because a service is contemporary does not mean it is Pentecostal.

Pentecostal worship is vigorously participatory. It elicits engagement on the part of the whole person. Participants in these worship gatherings often raise their hands, dance, laugh, cry, speak in tongues, become slain in the spirit, and other evocative forms of expression.

Pentecostal worship seeks ‘real’ engagement with the Holy Spirit and is not confined to conventional modes of expression. The Assemblies of God, many African-American congregations, and a growing number of non-denominational communities are considered Pentecostal worshiping community.

Currently one of the most influential churches within Pentecostalism is Bethel Church. The northern-Californian church is one of the largest Pentecostal worshiping congregations in the country and has had a massive impact on Christian worship music over the past decade. Though it split from the Assemblies of God many years ago, its worship services are still very much Pentecostal.

The “About Us” page on their website says,

“Bethel is a congregation rooted in the love of God and dedicated to worldwide transformation through revival. It’s our goal for God’s love to be manifest in signs, wonders and miracles. The atmosphere at Bethel is charged with faith and exuberant joy, which manifests in all we do.”

You can check out their website at the link below.

d. Seeker-Sensitive

Bill Hybels, Founding Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church

Seeker Sensitive worship is the contemporary worship style most associated with Modern Contemporary. Its rise to prominence is often attributed to churches like Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois.

Seeker Sensitive worship was the offspring of the Jesus Movement from the 1960’s and 1970’s. Larry Norman and others found success in helping revitalize Christian piety by supplying music more akin to that of late-twentieth-century rock and roll.

Seeker Sensitive worship picked up this trend and took it even further. It tried to offer a new form of worship that seemed less “churchy.”
Sermons were replaced by messages. Sanctuaries turned into worship centers. Organs and stained glass transformed into guitars and video screens.

The Seeker Sensitive experience was meant to be a way of engaging people who were either harmed by the church or had disparaging preconceived notions of the church.

In 2007 Willow Creek published the Reveal study, which was an intentional deep analysis of the church. It recognized that there was a growing desire among participants for deeper spiritual engagement than what the Seeker Sensitive experience offered.

Although Willow Creek and other Modern Contemporary worship experiences attempt to address this crucial need, there are still occurrences of these same deficiencies in many contemporary worship settings today.

The Seeker Sensitive movement, as well as elements of Pentecostalism, were the biggest influences on Modern Contemporary worship.

III. Modern Contemporary

Go ahead and poke holes in the name — I won’t be offended. I know for many readers your first thought is, “Modern Contemporary worship is only modern until something more modern comes along.”

One of the biggest critiques of contemporary worship is its willingness to change. It is seen as temporal — just a series of fleeting fads.

However, I would suggest that what many see as its fatal flaw I see as one of its greatest assets.

The world is changing faster than it ever has. Industrialization and technology are recreating the human experience.

How do we engage the world that is rapidly changing?

We change.

Not everything of course. God is still God, Jesus is still the Son of God, and our mission is still to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

However, the way in which we carry out that mission has to be contextualized. Jesus himself practiced contextualization. He was constantly reinterpreting the Old Testament for his first-century audience and engaging the average person — not just the hyper-religious. He did not tell the sick and lost, “Hey come do things the way we have always done them or else you are not welcome.” He went and met people where they were.

Change is not a bad thing, no matter how much it may make us uncomfortable.

Example Churches

Just as a reference, some Modern Contemporary worship services can be found at; The City Church (in Seattle, Wa), North Point Community Church (in the Atlanta, Ga area), Hillsong Church (all over the world but originally in Australia), Elevation Church (Charlote, NC), Church of the Highlands (Birmingham, Al and other locations), Passion City Church (Atlanta, Ga) as well as thousands more.

Worship Elements

Worship services in these churches often follow a very similar pattern. Often the worship structure looks like; an introductory song, announcements, a set of songs, a sermon (usually between twenty-five and forty-five minutes), and a closing song (often with an invitation to dedication). In that time there may or may not be other elements as well such as; videos, drama, baptisms, and more.

The production and flow of these worship services are often the central focus points for those who plan these services. Most of these churches have less weekly programing and place a higher emphasis on small groups and semi-regular mission opportunities.

IV. A New Version Of Modern Contemporary

Though I am an advocate for the Modern Contemporary worship style, I also hear the critics. In fact, in some ways, I am one myself. I believe we can still hold onto some of our church traditions and ancient practices, while also loving contemporary worship.

I think above all, regardless of style, worship should be centered on God and the community and not become (intentionally or unintentionally) self-indulgent.

Worship is not about filling up our Jesus bucket once a week.

As I said in the previous article, I am not advocating for everyone to emulate the most popular Modern Contemporary worship practices and go try to be just like the biggest church in town. However, there are probably a lot of things that large church in your town is doing really well.

I am a big fan of most Modern Contemporary worship service elements (which we will talk about in more detail over the coming days). I think the churches mentioned earlier do a lot of things well, and other churches can learn and contextualize some of these practices.

My goal for the remaining six posts is to help us think about how we can create Modern Contemporary worship that is theologically sensitive, liturgically mindful, and culturally accessible.

Last note. Language does not just relate to the style of worship, but also how we talk about the various dynamics within any particular style. As was noted earlier seeker sensitive services call the preaching “talks’ or “messages,” compared to the more traditional term“sermons.”

Although we will talk about some of this more in the section on Atmosphere, there are two small pieces of the Modern Contemporary vernacular that I would like to highlight as I conclude this article.

The first is, “Worship Team” vs. “Praise Band.” Many people call the group that plays music on a Sunday morning the “Praise Band.” I push back against that name because it is such a limited understanding of what that group is doing, and what happens in worship. During worship we lament, we petition, we invoke, we rejoice, we offer intercession…and we praise. So the Worship Team helps lead the congregation through all the experiences of the worship services.

The other is the term “worship.” The language of Modern Contemporary worship is creating a false dichotomy. I continue to hear people call the music the “worship,” and the sermon the “message.” The whole experience is worship. The sermon is part of worship. The music is part of worship. The videos are part of worship. Having a full view of the experience helps us see the Call and Response narrative in each service.

I hope this piece helped show the differences in various forms of contemporary worship. There is so much more to say about each, but I am trying to respect your time and work on my brevity.

Please check back next week as we talk about how to create systems that will help develop effective contemporary worship.