What You (Probably) Don’t Know About Modern Worship
It seems to be in vogue to predict the impending demise of modern worship, with some even suggesting we ‘kill megachurch worship’. The subject in question has been variously named ‘modern worship’, ‘contemporary worship’, and even the more direct and provocative aforementioned, ‘megachurch worship’. While there have been a plethora of futurists and liturgists rushing to judgment, I am not certain if any of them worship regularly in a church that employs a modern worship style. And I am quite sure none of them are involved in leading either modern worship or megachurches.
So forgive my skepticism.
Before I go further, it’s worth my saying that if you know my writing over the past few years, you know I’ve been strong in challenging the contemporary worship movement (on formation; on reclaiming the mystery of a faith through historic practices). You know that I believe in mining the old traditions of Christian worship, asking what they were doing and why and what we’ve changed and why. I believe with all my heart that ‘the way we worship becomes the way we believe‘.
But I don’t believe careless critiques will help us.
The renowned social psychologist Paul Eckman wrote that research from a social scientist is less credible when their fieldwork cleanly validates their hypothesis. This is because the kind of experiments and research social scientists engage in are not easily repeated, and thus their biases are less easily held in check. If this is true of the biases even of researchers, what shall we say of the biases of bloggers (even— or especially— if they are liturgy professors)?
If one wants to prove the shallowness of modern worship, examples abound; but if you want to really understand and assess the subject, you need a more careful eye. And you must account for an insider perspective. What matters is not simply what the outside observer/blogger/professor thinks is going on; what matters is also what the pastor or worship leader says is going on, and what the worshipper is experiencing. (The latter is known as phenomenological perspective— the way people describe their experience of a thing.) If all we get are theoretical assessments from afar, we will evaluate modern worship without knowing if we are actually evaluating modern worship or our impression of it— which is almost always a caricature.
I’m new to the interdisciplinary approach to practical theology, but as a researcher I’m learning that we need more than theology to evaluate our practices. We need the tools of social anthropology to help us look properly at the thing we seek to evaluate. We need the lens of phenomenology to take seriously how people describe their experience of a particular practice. Only then can we engage in robust theological reflection.
What does it mean to take a closer look at modern worship?
it means doing ‘participant observation’ in modern worship service and megachurches, not doing ‘drive-by’, prediction blogs with non-falsifiable claims;
it means looking closely at song lyrics and comparing them with older hymns to test if we are guilty of romanticizing the old songs (Lester Ruth’s work suggest that we are);
it means listening to worship leaders to know how they pray and prepare for a worship service, before assuming that they are all aspiring rock stars trying to be cool;
it means listening to worshippers talk about spiritual experiences and encounters with God, instead of concluding that they are shallow consumers looking for a better religious product.
Some of my friends in vocational ministry may wonder why one would bother listening to someone else’s critique at all. Too many pastors dismiss the opinions of non-practitioners. Practitioners need theoreticians the same way that contractors need architects. The one building a church ought not ignore the one who studies its history and theology. So, I am not suggesting that we only listen to practitioners; but I am suggesting that critiques from non-practitioners be more accurate and nuanced. In short: If you want your theoretical critique of modern worship to be helpful to pastors and worship leaders, make sure you actually know and understand modern worship and/or megachurches. If you want to serve the Church, you’ve got to love the Church. And in order to love the Church, you’ve got to know the Church. The most helpful evaluations from those who love us most and know us best. The most fruitful critiques are about the area of church practice that we know and love the best.
Here’s what you may not know about modern worship:
1. Not all megachurches are alike.
This should go without saying, but unfortunately, the broad assumption is that all large churches are the same. There is no such thing as ‘the megachurch’; there are megachurches, and each is a little different. Yes, there are broad similarities, but there are also significant differences. One example of undifferentiated study of megachurches is Kate Bowler’s landmark research on the prosperity gospel. In a journal article, she and her co-author fail to distinguish between the theology of Hillsong Church and that of Osteen’s Lakewood. Bloggers’ errors are more egregious. There is no recognition of the difference between the megachurch that adopts a ‘seeker’ approach and therefore plays Top 40 covers in service, and the megachurch that believes in singing vertical worship songs to God to facilitate a genuine spiritual encounter. This is a mistake. We don’t assume all smaller churches are alike, so why the broad brush about ‘megachurches’?
2. Not all environments and examples of modern worship are alike. Modern worship songs are sung in all sorts of contexts, from Lutheran churches to Pentecostal churches. Furthermore, the distinction between ‘songs in the hymnal’ and ‘songs on the screen’ is blurring as modern worship songs are being added to hymnals (I know at least two that were added to the Baptist hymnal a few years ago). I recently worshipped in a Presbyterian church where modern worship songs were thoughtfully sprinkled into the communion liturgy. So, if one were to critique modern worship, the questions are: Which expression of modern worship? Are we talking about the songs themselves, or the presentation of them? Or are we talking about the shape of the service as a whole, or the portion of the service that involves music?
3. Many churches that employ modern worship do so because of a rich theology of the Spirit. This may be the most unaccounted for and under-studied dimension of modern worship. In many churches, renewals in worship are seen as a result of the Spirit’s work. Consider that the two churches producing the most widely-used modern worship music (Hillsong and Bethel) are churches from a charismatic/Pentecostal tradition. Moreover, the sociologist of religion Martin Stringer argues that ‘the Charismatic meeting, complete with “worship time”, powerful, emotive and biblical preaching, and the manifestation of the Spirit in some dramatic form’, is the most ‘common form of Christian worship in the contemporary world.’
Christians have long believed that the Lord is present in our gathered worship. Yet the location of His presence has often been restricted to the Eucharist. Some have argued that through the Reformation, the Spirit’s presence through the Scripture– the proclamation of the Gospel– began to be recognized and even given center stage (literally). In a similar way, the ‘great worship awakening’ (Robert Redman’s phrase) came as churches began to see the portion of the service known as ‘sung worship’ as a viable place of ‘encounter’. (My friend and scholar Nick Drake has written wonderfully on this, and has helped me see the trifold places of encounter in Christian worship: Word, Table, and worship/prayer.)
Furthermore, these Christians believe that the Holy Spirit empowers us to proclaim the Gospel in a language people can understand (just as He did at Pentecost). Modern worship is the result (at least in part) of a renewal of awareness of the Spirit’s work, both to communicate God’s presence to us as we sing, and to empower each congregation to reveal Christ in fresh and meaningful ways.
4. Many churches that employ modern worship have a robust sense of mission. Mission is not automatically in contradiction with ‘formation,’ though the two must be held in tension. Some churches go too far by advocating a ‘reach the lost at any cost’ approach. Yet others don’t take mission seriously enough and confuse liturgical conformity with gospel faithfulness. Many churches that utilize a modern worship style are trying to hold both things in tension. They want to faithful to the core of the Gospel and to the Great Commission. They want people to be properly formed in the image of Christ in order to bear witness to others about Christ. Believe it or not, there are churches who sing modern worship songs who have no desire to resort to gimmicks to win people to Christ. In fact, these churches sing modern worship songs precisely because they believe only the Spirit of God can draw people to Christ.
5. Modern worship engages the congregation emotionally, and that’s a good thing. Emotions are not secondary, lesser important parts of being human. (I’ve blogged quite a bit about this HERE.) Some researchers have even suggested that humans are seekers of ‘emotional energy’, which is a ’socially derived…feeling of confidence’ which results in the ‘courage to take action’ and the ‘boldness in taking initiative’ (Collins, 2004). In fact, a recent academic study of twelve nationally representative megachurches discovered that ‘megachurch attendees have high levels of belonging and spirituality’, and that their ‘megachurch makes a strong effort to help them realize and use their gifts to serve the wider community with most attendees volunteering for their megachurch at least occasionally.’ All of them cited the worship (the musical portion) as either the first or second reason for both choosing the church and choosing to stay. Maybe modern worship– or if you’d like, ‘megachurch worship’– actually helps people belong and meet with God. I am not suggesting it does this better than other forms of worship, or that it will have this effect for everyone. I am only citing this research to say, don’t be so sure that it doesn’t. The popular criticisms of megachurches and modern worship is that they are ‘merely a source of entertainment without any real substance and that large churches cannot produce feelings of intimacy, morality, and transcendence.’ A closer look says otherwise.
I could go on, discussing in depth the pure hearts of so many worship leaders, the hunger for the presence of God in so many megachurches…but I hope you get the point: painting with a broad brush doesn’t give us the best picture.