“Not that”: An Observation of ‘Contemporary Worship’
The more and more people that I speak with that are at least remotely involved with church life, the more questions come up about my opinion and experience with ‘contemporary worship.’ They like to pick my brain, ask my preference, and get a sense for how I feel like worship in the church ought to be. Yes, they often have their own preconceived responses and notions regarding the style of music used within the Church.
The questions range. “What do you think young people are into?” “Don’t you think ‘traditional’ worship is a turn off for young people?” “Don’t you think contemporary worship is too hoaky these days?” “Is it possible to plant a church that only uses traditional worship?” “Does Chris Tomlin every write any good songs?” “Don’t you think hymns are just boring?” “What’s the purpose of the flashy lights? To try to be something we aren’t?” “Aren’t choirs outdated?”
Contemporary worship, though, is the newcomer in this game. In many ways, it has to prove itself. Somewhere around 50 years ago or so, the Beatles invaded America, forever changing pop music and rock and roll. This, along with the decline of mainline church membership in the United States sparked new ideas. People left the mainline denominations to be ‘non-denominational’ in an effort to do church differently. That was the goal: do church differently. Maybe then, perhaps, people might think about coming back. If we just aren’t ‘that,’ maybe they’ll be more likely to come back.
In a sense, then, Contemporary Worship (with a common low-key liturgy and more culturally-relevant music) became “Not That” worship. See that stuff the Methodists are doing? We aren’t that. We’re cool. We’re hip. We’re reaching out to young people. We are meeting you where you are. You can wear jeans to our church. That’s the way we are.
This type of church is the church that I was born into. We still were a part of the big Baptist church downtown, but we were open to those who had never been to church before. We didn’t have cryptic creeds. We didn’t have strange liturgy. We watched movie clips and played slide shows. We had drama. Our pastor preached from behind a music stand rather than a pulpit. I was born into a church that was trying to make church relevant to a society that it wasn’t relevant to. What we did, in the early 90’s, was to be “not that.” For peope too intimidated or scared to attend traditional worship, we were “not that.” We called ourselves the “Seeker Service” so that those who were ‘seeking’ could find a place to feel at home. Too intimidated by the choir robes and organ? We aren’t that.
So, if this is true, and it was truly meeting a need, why aren’t all churches like that now? Why are there young adults begging to go back to the traditional services? Why are large portions of people leaving NOT ONLY the mainline denominations, but also the nondenominational churches? If being ‘not that’ was supposed to save the church, why are we drowning more than ever before?
I’ll tell you why. We stopped.
It isn’t 1995 anymore. What was hip and cool then is not hip and cool now. What drew people in because it wasn’t ‘that’ then, pushes people away now. ‘Contemporary’ has become a way of saying ‘not that’ and it has done so in a permanent sense. This is why so many ‘contemporary’ services feel hoaky. This is why many young people want to return to traditional worship. This is why when you hear about contemporary worship, you ask yourself if it is emergent or ‘contemporary.’ Oddly, those leading the traditional services never went out of their way to reach the young people and different generations; it’s very much a “take it or leave it” situation. Some choose, for many reasons, to take it. Many, sadly, are choosing to leave it.
‘Contemporary’ was great when it needed to be. But it is stuck now. Sure, churches like Hillsong and movements like Passion are successful, but by and large ‘contemporary’ music in many (especially mainline) churches is simply stuck.
‘Contemporary’ has to move forward. ‘Contemporary’ has to continue to be what it’s high and lofty goal was (an environment that allows those on the outside access to the inside) instead of what its not-so-just goal was (‘not that’). It has to be as innovative as it once saw itself being. It has to live into its title.
In order for us to justify our worship style, no matter how it exists, we need to be able to articulate it in a way that explands the Kingdom. Otherwise, it has little reason for being. This is true for traditional worship. This is true for ‘contemporary’ worship. Our worship should be creative. Our worship should be innovative. Our worship should remind of of who we are. Our worship should define who we are. Our worship should convey to those within it that the Church is thriving, moving, changing, and growing disciples. Our worship should be, of course, worship…reflecting the God who breathes life to the people.
We cant have ‘not that’ from either side. We need quality, strong, theologically sound worship in both environments (and perhaps more to come). That’s when it finally becomes quality worship and we can **finally** get out of the way.