In the latest iteration of a tired diatribe against contemporary worship, Hans Boersma complained in First Things that contemporary worship is ruining everything:
When traditional Calvinist churches switch from the Genevan Psalter to worship songs, it’s not just the form that changes. Calvinism itself is doomed at that point. When Anglicans trade their organ-led anthems and chants for band-led praise and worship songs, what is lost is a catholic spirituality that foregrounds reverence and humility in adoration of God. When Catholic liturgies replace Gregorian chant with evangelical songs, a mystical and contemplative tradition comes to an ignominious end.
Are centuries-old traditions so fragile that with three chords and a rocking groove, modern worship can make them crumble? I didn’t want to respond to it. It’s an old argument, and the talking points are not just familiar, they’re tired. Plus, I don’t want a fight. There’s enough arguing in the world. Are centuries-old traditions so fragile that with three chords and a rocking groove, modern worship can make them crumble? Click To Tweet
But some arguments require engagement. As the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “The alternative to argument is violence. That is why the argument must continue and never cease.”1 If we don’t want “worship wars,” we need to argue—not for the sake of victory, but for the sake of unity. And so I write, not simply to respond to an article, not to win or to have the last word, but to shed a different light in hopes that we might see not only the truth but each other more clearly.
Here are three things that Boersma and those who have made similar arguments miss:
A Pentecostal Genetic Code
The article is entitled “The Liturgical Medium is the Message,” borrowing from Marshall McLuhan’s well-known insight in the 1960s. The problem is not the application of communication theory to liturgical practice, but the assumption that the motivation for modernizing the music is the advancement of the church’s mission. Boersma writes:
The arguments are invariably the same: To be missional means to adapt in form while remaining theologically the same. The argument assumes it’s possible to put asunder what God has joined together.3
But Boersma is mistaken.
Worship historians Lester Ruth and Swee-Hong Lim traced multiple root systems for the contemporary worship movement. Yes, one is indeed a missional impulse borne of a burden to reach the lost. But another—arguably the more dominant one—is the expectation of an encounter with the presence of God.
Contemporary worship songs that are being sung around the world aren’t being written by seeker-friendly megachurches trying to set Jesus-y lyrics to Taylor Swift tunes just to get the kids to come through the doors. These songs are being written by charismatic worship leaders who believe that something happens when the people of God gather to praise God. Contemporary worship songs that are being sung around the world aren’t being written by seeker-friendly megachurches trying to set Jesus-y lyrics to Taylor Swift tunes just to get the kids to come through the doors. Click To Tweet
Ruth and Lim write that contemporary worship music has a “Pentecostal genetic code”.4 What they mean is that these songs emerge from movements that welcome the move of the Spirit, that believe that the gifts of the Spirit are for today, and that carry with them an expectation of encounter. Hillsong, Bethel, Elevation, Passion, and more are full of writers who, whether they know it or not, are heirs of a tradition that Ruth and Lim trace to the “Latter Rain” movement—a movement which repeatedly taught that “God inhabits the praises of His people,” (Ps 22:3) and so we should expect some sign of his manifest presence when we worship.
I wonder, if Boersma had known this, what he would say about the alleged corrosive effect of contemporary worship songs upon the Calvinist, Anglican, and Catholic traditions. Should we really lament when various streams of the Spirit’s work begin to “flow as one river”?5
Expecting an Encounter
There’s another problem with the argument. Boersma praises medieval liturgies for the way that “human expressions of beauty participate in divine Beauty”.6 He sees chants and organ music as “enchanted worship, with the liturgy uniting heaven and earth”.7 What he doesn’t realize is that is exactly how many Christians view contemporary worship services. Play that thick ambient keyboard pad; drone that electric guitar; let the voices soar on the melodies of these anthems, and the worshipper becomes aware of God with us, of heaven and earth becoming one.
Contemporary worship is built on the expectation of encounter, from pastors to worshippers.
In a new study that I did with Barna last year, we found that 43 percent of pastors believe that the primary purpose of the corporate gathering is to encounter God.8 A different Barna study we collaborated on found that about one in three US churched adults said their number one reason for going to church was to “meet with God/experience the presence of God,” twice as many as the second-ranked option.9
The sacramental imagination is in fact the link between contemporary worship and liturgical worship. Both believe that the Spirit communicates the presence of God to us through our senses and emotions, through the physiology of sound and sight, through the chemical activity in our brains when people sing together, and more.
Why have we frozen one kind of art over another? How is a Gregorian chant in a language no one understands substantively different from the soaring vocalization of “Whoa-ohs” in a bridge of a Hillsong tune? Why is the pipe organ’s blast any more transcendent than a Hammond B3’s hum? How is a Gregorian chant in a language no one understands substantively different from the soaring vocalization of 'Whoa-ohs' in a bridge of a Hillsong tune? Click To Tweet
The Creative Creator Spirit
This brings me to my third and final objection. Boersma is right to be cautious of the market forces that drive the globalization of worship music. He is not incorrect in naming the commercial engines behind contemporary worship music. I’m old enough to have been part of the movement before it became a genre, before there were “worship songs” on the radio, and before artists toured arenas to lead a fancier version of a church service.
I’m also from Malaysia. I remember my parents subscribing to the Hosanna! Integrity “tape of the month” club. Every Saturday morning, my parents would blast the latest cassette and sing and pray—yes, in tongues—over it, rousing my sister and me from our Saturday morning slumber. No one told them they needed to like this music. No missionary or evangelist or salesperson pressured them to buy these tapes. They did it because they sensed something in it. They felt a fresh move of the Spirit.
And here is the point: The creator Spirit is a creative Spirit. To chant Veni Creator Spiritus is to welcome the “finger of God’s hand” to stir us again.10 He is, as the Creed confesses, the giver of life. Not the one who gave life, but the one who gives it. A theology of participation helps us recognize that the Spirit is ever and always energizing and sustaining creation.
And, more to the point, the Spirit is ever and always empowering the church. Why would we expect that God’s liturgical creativity ceased in the sixteenth century? Can the presence of God not be mediated through art made today? Why was the medieval era in Europe the peak of divine-human creativity? The Spirit is ever and always empowering the church. Why would we expect that God’s liturgical creativity ceased in the sixteenth century? Click To Tweet
Excuse me, the global church would like a word.
Boersma is right: we can’t justify the medium because of the message. But neither can we dismiss the medium because the message of a particular contemporary worship song is weak. Not every new song is good; neither was every old hymn. The answer is to say better things in more beautiful ways.
Listen closely to the chorus around the world. The church is not crumbling; she is rising up to sing a new song. And it just might be the best demonstration that Jesus is risen from the dead, and the Spirit is on the move.
1. Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, p. 224.
4. Swee-Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, Lovin’ On Jesus: A Brief History of Contemporary Worship, p. 123.
5. A line from that one of my favorite early contemporary worship songs, “Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble?” by Delirious.
8. This data will be released in a forthcoming book I’m doing with insights from Barna called The Resilient Pastor (Feb, 2022).