What is the difference between Traditional and Contemporary Worship?
“Contemporary worship is strikingly different from traditional worship, yet it seeks to do the very same thing traditional worship seeks to do, which is to ready the people to hear the word of the Lord2”~Robert E. Webber
In church culture, “traditional” and “contemporary” are terms that are frequently used to describe the style of worship in churches. But the truth of the matter is, every church does things differently. A contemporary service at one church may look completely different from a contemporary service at another church, and the same applies to traditional worship as well. However, there are a few things that most churches with these styles of worship have in common.
What does typical Contemporary Worship look like?
The lights, the fog, the big stage: these are elements many people picture when they think of contemporary worship. But not every contemporary service, or church for that matter, looks like this. The contemporary label is far more often used to describe the music included in the service, rather than other elements. Music is often a central focus in this type of worship service, as Robert Webber argues that “the acts of entrance [(or the beginning of the worship service)] are carried out almost exclusively in song with a few appropriate comments here and there.” In these services, “a wide variety of musical instruments has come to be utilized, including the guitar, the drums, and the synthesizer3.” Contemporary worship music has gained a lot of popularity. Many churches view the inclusion of this type of music as necessary in order to remain culturally relevant.
However, this music has been put up for speculation, as there is “criticism in some Christian circles about the “thin” theological content of contemporary church music (leading to a preference for the doctrinally “thick” hymns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries)”, however, this criticism seems to completely miss the point of this style of music, as “the intent of contemporary music is less to cognitively teach through words than it is to accomplish a corporate unity before the divine, even a cooperate ushering in of the gathered assembly into the literal presence of the living God. Singing a chorus of “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” then, may be theologically “thin,” but can be quite “thick” in providing a corporate worship experience in which the focus is less on the words of the song and more on the sense of union in the hearing and singing together4.” Through the incorporation of contemporary worship music, churches are placing a stronger emphasis on the corporate worship experience.
It seems in this day and age, less and less people gravitate towards singing the hymns of traditional worship music. Singing out of hymnals is slowly but surely becoming a lost art, as more and more people are unable to read music. However, “hymns serve the purposes of Christian corporate worship. Though they have value for personal devotional use, for humming on the streets, for serving as the basis for elaborate compositions for choir and organ, their primary purpose is to allow a gathered community to thank God, confess sin, ask for divine intervention, and express hope for the coming kingdom of God5.” Many would argue that hymns are no longer “culturally relevant,” but their relevance is defined by how we as christians honor our tradition. No one would say that taking communion is culturally irrelevant. Many churches that offer traditional services do so either because it is apart of their identity (and people come to their church seeking traditional worship) or they have (typically older) members who have been at the church a long time and want to continue worshiping the same way. It would be unfair and downright oblivious to argue or assume that traditional worship is a dying art. Certainly, in his book, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Robert Webber argues that young adults are moving towards a reverent, more liturgical and traditional style of worship. Indeed, there is a growing percentage of christians who desire to attend liturgical worship services. They understand the liturgy not as meaningless repetition, but as a corporate experience of showing reverence to God. While many would assume that traditional worship is only for the older population, people young and old find joy in worshipping God through hymns. To say that it is no longer “relevant” to worship through hymns and liturgy is a vast generalization.
The Contemporary and Traditional worship styles are staples in church culture. In many ways, they divide us as christians, pitting us against each other because we either prefer one over the other, or believe one to be better than the other. Yet, while there are certainly defining features of these styles, every single church worships in a different way. It may be important to understand some of the distinctions between these labels. But, at the end of the day, it is far more important to understand the intentions behind individual worship services at different churches.
1. Providence United Methodist Church. Worship Styles. YouTube, YouTube, 20 May 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei6yg4TR7t0.
2. Webber, Robert. Renew Your Worship: a Study in the Blending of Traditional and Contemporary Worship. Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. pg. 43.
3. Webber, Robert. Renew Your Worship: a Study in the Blending of Traditional and Contemporary Worship. Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. pg. 45.
4. Marti, Gerardo. Worship across the Racial Divide: Religious Music and the Multiracial Congregation. Oxford University Press, 2012. pg. 11-12.
5. Witvliet, John D. Worship Seeking Understanding: Windows into Christian Practice. Baker Academic, 2003. pg. 259.