Tracking the Trends in Worship

Tracking the Trends in Worship

Welcomed or not, the contemporary music-centered approach to worship that has been both dominant and effective in most large and megachurch worship services is being challenged. This challenge, however, does not come from traditionalists who are still demanding a return to the Hammond B3 and southern gospel. This challenge, which has been slowly growing over the past decade, is coming from the same age-group that once pioneered praise bands and raising hands: Teens and young adults.

Fortunately, the shift does not seem to be as sudden or as dramatic as when the college graduates who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s entered into church leadership roles in the 1990s. That era was one in which two dramatically different approaches to worship, especially the style and role of music, came into direct conflict in the so-called worship wars.

As I have noted in several earlier posts,* there is strong anecdotal evidence that points to an increasing number of young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches being drawn toward worship experiences that are more intimate, less polished and often more liturgical than the worship of their home churches.

In a recent survey taken in our required (for all students) worship class, the results seem to demonstrate the shift is already at the point where those leading worship need to at least make note of it. Admittedly, a sample of 30 students is too small to provide proof. But, since the class is made up of the general student population (as opposed to only those involved in worship leading), it does provide an opportunity to take the general pulse of where (at least our) college students are in regard to approaches to corporate worship. The average age in the class is about 20.

Matthew Pinson, in Perspectives on Christian Worship, gives five general approaches. This was the basis of the survey. Here are the percentages for each of the views students marked as their preferred worship approach:

48 percent Blended Worship
26 percent Liturgical Worship
15 percent Contemporary Worship
11 percent Emerging Worship
0 percent Traditional Evangelical Worship

What is worth noting is the steady decline of all contemporary worship as a preferred style for Christian young adults. Liturgical, garnering 1 out of 4, will not be a surprise to most of us who work in Christian colleges. Emerging Worship is probably best understood as worship that emphasizes creativity and symbolism, and would use music that would tend to use modest (acoustic guitar, for example) accompaniment or be sung a capella.

Not surprisingly, it seems that if the group being asked is made up entirely of those who have some involvement in worship leading, Contemporary Worship inevitably dominates when I ask for a show of hands. Since we tend to perceive the church filtered through our immediate circle of relationships within the church, this may explain what appears to be a gap in assumptions and perceptions between the musicians on stage and many of their peers in the audience.

I would be interested to get feedback from others who work with young adults, particularly in a college or university setting.

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Tom Lawson
Tom has taught in Christian higher education for 25 years, with a focus on the theology and history of Christian worship. Tom, along with his wife Linda, serves on the faculty of Ozark Christian College (Joplin, Missouri, US). Tom grew up among the Primitive Baptists of the Appalachian mountains. Through his adult life, he has served in churches and taught at schools associated with the Christian Churches (of the Stone-Campbell Movement).