A Dovetailed Life

The things that interest us weave us together to create who we are.

Tag: worship

Contemporary Worship Music: Unintentional Ecumenism



1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimedat achieving universal Christian unity and church unionthrough international interdenominational organizations thatcooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenicalmarriage.

In the United Methodist Church, we have a hymnal.  Every 20 years or so another one pops up, with great new hymns,  great old hymns, and…unfortunately…some of the same old, really bad hymns.  The church is trying to be ‘progressive’ (whatever that means), so we have seen little books like ‘The Faith We Sing’ and ‘Worship and Song’ pop up as well.  These are the technologically limited offerings aimed at keeping up with the rapid rate of song creation in the Church these days.  ‘Worship and Song,’ printed last year, has only now included “How Great is Our God” and “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (Open the Eyes of My Heart was written in 1997, How Great is Our God in 2004).

When I purchased my copy of ‘Worship and Song’ at Cokesbury, the sales associate told me that this was the “first expandable hymnal!”  I asked her how the binding to the book played a role in its expandability and she gave me the scrunched-nose face. Technologically, these books have been limited.

Interestingly enough, in some Christian circles, this technological barrier has played a huge role in keeping the churches singing the same songs they’ve been singing for ages. In others, they have ignored the technological implications completely.  Many Christians are growing up in church environments (that alone is something to celebrate) and do not realize that Christians used to sing songs out of books that they held in their hands instead of on screens (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is something to celebrate).

Long story short: music in the Church is rapidly changing.  Some people are changing it, some are avoiding it.  Others, like the United Methodist Church in large part, avoided it for 20 years or so and are just now trying to catch up. The last category of churches feel a little like RIM and Nokia do now when it comes to smart phones:  late to the game inevitably will hurt, no matter your customer loyalty.

Not long ago I presented a hymnal to a student of mine on which her name was imprinted.  I said to her, “These are the songs of our tradition.” Ever since that moment, I’ve been thinking about what I meant by that statement.  Did I mean that these are the ONLY songs of our tradition?  Did I mean that these are the songs our of tradition and OUR TRADITION alone?  What is it that I meant?  Does that make the songs outside of our hymnal NOT part of our tradition?

In seminary we talk a lot about the music we sing being formative for the Christian journey.  We sing songs pertinent to the liturgical context we are in, usually having something to do with the morning’s message.  We pride ourselves: the hymns we sing aren’t, and shouldn’t be, fluff.

In fact, the United Methodist Church has something going for it here.  Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley and co-founder of the Methodist movement in England, wrote hundreds of poems.  As the search for a ‘Wesleyan’ identity is set before us in the UMC, a return to Charles’s lyrics are usually appreciated.  Whenever I bring the topic up in UMC circles, eyes light up.  “Yes! That’s the way it should be!” they seem to say.  Methodism was blessed from its beginnings with theologically based hymns and Methodists far and wide don’t want to lose that.

This isn’t the whole story though.  We sing songs every Sunday in Methodist Churches that were written by non-Methodist writers. Heck, we sing songs in church on Sundays that were written by the Gaithers.  We sing songs written by Calvinist predestinarians.  We sing all kinds of music in the UMC, no matter how much we pride ourselves in being ‘Wesleyan.’

I was thinking about all of this, trying to put these pieces together in my head, so that I could sort out the proper course of action. Then I had this thought: We’re not seeing this hangup with many who are writing music for the masses today.

No, in fact, these hangups of being strictly ‘Wesleyan’ don’t matter to many.  The people who are constantly writing new, exciting, progressive, worship music are largely from non-denominational churches. These churches usually have some sort of vague mission statement and clearly defining themselves is not something they do!  The popular people writing music these days for the ‘contemporary worship’ setting are largely tied to movements.  Is Hillsong a movement or a church?  Yes.  Is Passion a movement or a church?  Yes.  What do these movements do? A little bit of everything.  Many of these groups don’t even use the word “church.” Being sticklers for quality, theologically sound music is simply not a priority.  They want music that is exciting and engaging, and the lyrical composition can be what it is.

The question then becomes: is the work coming out of these ‘movements’ unifying the church at all?  In other words, if those producing material are not hung up on staying true to their founders, are they free to write music that spans across denominational barriers? Are these songs acting, whether intended for it or not, as a form of ecumenism?

These songs, those written within the past 20 years for ‘contemporary’ worship environments are criticized all the time for being too “simplistic” or “shallow” in their theology. But it occurs to me that this  very criticism might actually be what makes these songs work across the barriers.  Charles Wesley wrote songs that were deeply explicit in their lyrics, calling out church heretics, heretical leanings, and teachings that were against his views of Christianity.  He even, from time to time, called out people by name.

We simply aren’t seeing this in today’s music.  We’re singing statements about loving Jesus, about Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus saving us.  While they might still be criticized for aligning themselves with Jesus and little else of the Trinity, these are overarching statements that don’t necessarily apply to any specific denomination or tradition.

It seems to me that it is BECAUSE of the more universal nature of the lyrics within recent songwriting that these songs are becoming forms of ecumenism.  These songs are popular, easy to sing (choruses and refrains repeat constantly) and when played well, tug at the emotions of those singing them.  In a sense, these songs are unifying the church.  These songs are played in Baptist churches, Methodist churches, Presbyterian churches, Catholic churches, Lutheran churches, and most prominently in non-denominational churches far and wide.

So, are they unifying? Yeah, I guess, in a way they are.  These songs are being sung all over, much like hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy” “It Is Well” and “Come Thou Fount” were before.  Generalized lyrics and easy to sing melodies.  They surpass and tear down walls of division that have been placed there by theological and political arguments for 2000 years. To me, it’s an interesting phenomenon.

See, the technological barriers of printing books has kept many denominations and generations infused with the idea that if it’s not in our hymnal, it’s no good.  This has allowed for boards and agencies to curate the contents of our singing, too.  But, these groups that work past those technological barriers (we don’t print books anymore), are able to stretch beyond that. And, because of that freedom, they’ve explored new realms of communal singing.

The interesting question is, what if true, studied theologians had done this rather than the guy down the street who played guitar?  Would that have changed the outcome?  Could we have had a more universal set of songs that were ALSO theologically grounded?  I don’t think so.  I think the “shallowness” of much of what we see set to worship music today should get credit for helping me attend a non-denominational service and know the music.

Contemporary worship style gets a lot of crap for the way in which it exists. All I’m saying is that its music (one of the biggest reasons it has been successful) deserves a look. A critique, too, perhaps.  But, definitely, a look.

Just some random thoughts.


“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.


“Wrong Worship”

Divinity School has been busy. Sorry it’s been so long.

Give the next few minutes of your life to this clip.

It is evidently a clip used in a sermon illustration at what appears to be First Baptist Church in Orlando, FL.

I’ve been to the church before. It’s huge and their growing services are almost all in the contemporary style.

It seems to me that out of context this might appear to be a treatise against contemporary music, the performance-based nature of the art, and the sad reality that has come with the modern church.

I think this is what many people see when they see contemporary music. I think this is what many think of when they think of modern worship.

While I think the video makes some great points about the me-centered church and cultural bindings that have come with the modern church movement, I also worry about the danger it brings to those who criticize the modern church and contemporary music. Are some of the songs sung “hymns”? Sure. But, the giant stage, lights, microphones, and everything else that comes with it may add fuel to the raging fire around what seems to be a growing dislike for the modern worship movement.

It’s an interesting introspective look at what modern music has done to our world, the dangers that lie within any type of musical worship literature, and it surely will serve as an accountability measure for the faith community.

Funny, too.


Why Are Churches Segregated?

“There’s black churches and there’s white churches, and that’s racism.”

Is it? Is it tradition? Is it heritage? Is it comfort?

Also, is it good or bad?


A Taste of Passion 2011

One of the things that I like about a progressive Church culture is that new music continues to be written for the masses and the Church.

When contemporary music began to become mainstream, the world took cues from WillowCreek in Chicago. Then, the work that Darlene Zschech and Reuben Morgan did at Hillsong Church in Austrailia made an impression on the musical world. Around the end of the 90’s, artists like Charlie Hall, Chris Tomlin, and David Crowder became more celebrated worship writers through a series of conferences led by the 268 generation (under the direction of Louie Giglio) known as Passion.

Since then, more artists have come forward and more songs have been written for the Passion conferences in hopes that they would allow the Church to worship in new ways. It continues to change the worshipping world. These songs are usually somewhat accessible by a mediocre worship band at a local church or camp. Though other conferences have certainly gained the attention of worship leaders and potential song writers, Passion continues to develop the mainstream and new material comes out of them every year.

I didn’t want to post these at first, because there is bound to be some sort of copyright infringement (and surely at some point these will be taken down), but in the world of video cameras on cellphones readily connected to YouTube and music written for the Church at large, this is the way we live. Because I don’t know the specifics of those who authored these works, I’ll simply list the leadership.

I thought you’d enjoy the aggregation of the songs below. Please, in March, buy the album.

Open the Heavens/All My Fountains – Chris Tomlin Leadership

Spirit Fall – Chris Tomlin Leadership

We Are Here for You – Chris Tomlin Leadership (although this sounds like a Matt Redman tune)

All To Us – Chris Tomlin (This is actually on his most recent album also)

Where You Go We Will Follow – David Crowder Leadership

Song of Liberty/Set Free – Chris Tomlin Leadership

I Need You – Chris Tomlin Leadership

And…the results from “Do Something Now” as read aloud by Louie


That’s it for now. When I get a kind email from Passion, I’ll take them all down.




Creativity in Worship…and Why We Are Wrong

One of the things that I find myself thinking about a lot (at times, too much) is the actual experience of a worship service. I try my best to attend a variety of services and even participate in as much as possible in many different roles.

I think it’s because of the incredible amount of emotion that is called forth when people gather together to give praise to God that I am so drawn to it. A good worship service (no matter the style) evokes the emotions in a way that allows God to enter into the worshiper’s heart. This is why we place things of the utmost importance (baptism, communion, etc) inside of these services. These times that we get together as a body of Christ are the times when we connect and grow together. They are important.

As I have mentioned several times, I was a child of the “contemporary movement”. You know, guitars, keyboards, drums, lights, and gyms instead of sanctuaries.

It was my definition of church.

Because of this, we rehearsed music, dramas, transitions, and the like in order to create an experience that flowed well.

Those of us who still participate in this practice today get accused of making this experience a form of “entertainment”. Like going to a movie theater. For a while, I nodded my head and bought into their arguments. I go to school with many of them.

They were, and still are, wrong.

The argument, as I best understand it, has to do with whether or not church should be entertaining. To them, if church is something that you can go to, enjoy, be anonymous, and not have to commit to, something is wrong. And…the argument is that this new form of worship enables this attitude toward worship and church. It was a fair argument because of the naming of the services. My home church growing up called the service, the “Seeker Service”. The name implied that the real Christians, those no longer “seeking”, went to another service. As if us Christians aren’t always seeking. This implication wasn’t the intention though. To outsiders, it may have seemed so.

The other half of the argument was the stupid part. Whether or not they admitted it, they just didn’t like this form of worship. So the whole “holier than thou” mindset was a good way to argue against it instead of admitting that it worked.

I sang with the Duke Divinity Gospel choir the other day.

I have sung in worship services since before I can remember. I have led worship for big groups, small groups, in contemporary style, and sung in choirs in traditional services. I have even lead hymns from the guitar.

But I have never really sung in the tradition of the African American Church. One of the things that I noticed was the flow of the service. We sang our songs and the congregation followed along as well as they could. The songs went on for a long time, and involved both the choir and directors interacting with one another. The lead soloist lead us through “Sanctuary” and used techniques to interact with the congregation so that they were “along for the ride”. It was awesome.

My realization: the service was truly creative. One of the songs we sang had two parts. The director lead us through it, showing us what to sing, when. There was no sort of “Verse, Chorus” outline prior to the service. It required him to interact with us and us with him. It required him to interact with the congregation.

It required creation to happen.

My belief is that God created us to be creative and I TRULY think that he is OFFENDED when we don’t use those talents and gifts inside of our worship services.

Many advocates of traditional worship would argue that their organist is creative. He or she probably is. Many of them would argue that those who write the music for their services is creative. He or she probably is. Many of them would argue that their pastor is very creative. And then their friend sitting next to them (also an advocate) would elbow them in the side because they know that it isn’t true.

But in that argument, they would argue against being even more creative in a contemporary setting. Why? Because they don’t like it, it makes them uncomfortable, or it’s hurting the attendance of their services.

Today I was reminded of what creativity in worship can include. These are pictures from a man who calls himself a “worship VJ” and uses software from Renewed Vision (primarily PropPresenter and ProVideoPlayer) to portray an immersive experience behind the musicians that are leading in worship. You can follow him on twitter at @worshipvj or his site at worshipvj.com

I think that this use of technology and creativity only adds to an experience that helps to connect those who participate, to God.

Lots of people disagree with me.

Again, I believe them to be wrong. I think God rejoices when we use the gifts he has given us to praise him in new ways.

If, somehow, this requires that the lights to have to come down, and that techniques that we used to only see either in movies or theaters have to be used, so be it. This is church. We should be incorporating the brilliance of God’s creation in our ongoings before anyone else. And yet we don’t. Because we are concerned about tradition.

And because we are wrong.

Let’s rejoice in the variety of worship forms. Let’s rejoice in creativity no matter where is appears. Let’s rejoice in what God is doing in our churches, no matter their “style”, and invite others to partake and experience it as well.


**Apologies to those who got the preprocessed notification of this via email. My fat fingers accidentally hit the Publish button and there was no going back**

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