Defining “Contemporary Worship”

Defining "Contemporary Worship"

I am often asked to define contemporary worship. My response usually revolved around the musical definition. I never considered the full scope of what was really being asked. Although contemporary means many things to many people, let’s focus on its true meaning. Contemporary merely means “occurring in the modern” or “of the day.”

It can be a difficult thing to call worship contemporary. The true translation makes it too unclear. For the past 50 years worship was “contemporary.” It was the way people all over the world had done it…for the most part. Ideally worship cannot be categorized as traditional, contemporary or blended. Worship is worship. It hasn’t changed since man was created. We can argue over the elements and the ways in which we worship, differentiate the outward expressions of our worship, and even label our churches to better clarify the freedoms permitted in worship. To use the terms traditional, contemporary and blended as definitions for our corporate worship styles is misleading and incorrect.

The only things that have changed in our corporate worship are the tools we use to help facilitate it. Sadly, until 15-plus years ago, the church had not been contemporary in its use of music in the church. We held too tightly to the styles, presentation and other elements of our music. At the expense of losing millions of young people to the world, we failed to become contemporary in our look and in our presentation. We have, in a sense, left them behind at the risk of becoming relevant to their desires and needs.

The terms traditional, contemporary and blended are better used in the context of musical instrumentation and orchestration. To use a pipe organ as a tool to lead worship would probably place you in the traditional category. To use a Hammond B-3 in your worship would probably place you in the contemporary category—especially if it was played correctly with the right speakers. 🙂 If your church has a band, you would be considered contemporary. If your instrumentation consists of the piano and organ, you would probably fall into the traditional model.

When asked the style of worship we incorporate at our church, I often respond “traditional.” When asked what style of music do we incorporate, my response is always “contemporary.” Another oft asked question centers around the use of hymns. Hymns in themselves are neither traditional nor contemporary. It is how they are presented that makes them traditional or contemporary. Some of our more progressive musical worship bands have seen the value in many great hymns. It is their presentation that makes them contemporary. The fight over hymn and choruses takes center stage when it should have been over how they were arranged and presented. A lost person could hear Passion’s version of “O for a Thousand Tongues” and not recognize or differentiate whether it was a hymn or another great worship song. Maybe if we had made the change 20 years ago hymns would still be an effective tool in worship.

So what is contemporary worship? Simply the same as it has been since Jesus walked here on earth. It is giving honor and praise to his Father in heaven. It is living lives in obedience to His word and His call on your life. It is showing His worth to all because He is worthy. Let us not confuse worship with music. Worship doesn’t change.

In the future, I hope that we will begin to do away with labels on worship styles. There is only one style of worship…that which honors God and pleases Him.    

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Steve Newman
Stephen M. Newman is the author of Experiencing Worship, A Study of Biblical Worship, and Founder & Editor of ExperiencingWorship.com. Steve currently serves as Pastor of Worship, McKinney Memorial Bible Church, Fort Worth, Texas. Steve has extensive experience in both traditional and contemporary worship styles and has been serving in music and worship capacities since 1982. Steve earned a Bachelor of Music degree with emphasis in Church Music from Oklahoma Baptist University in 1986. He has also earned Master's of Worship Ministry and Doctorate of Worship Ministry from Christian Leadership Seminary, Elma, New York. Used by permission of ExperiencingWorship.

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