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If These Drums Go, I Go: A Critique of "Contemporary" Worship

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"If these drums go, I go..."

When I was a junior in college, I attended a church that was solidly "contemporary." Everything, the modern praise songs, long sermons about personal change, white walls, and, yes, the drums, signaled that this church was on the cutting edge of worship. In fact, the main reason I attended it was that super-trendy local para-church leaders highly recommended it. As a young college student I, like a magnet drawn to metal, had to like this church, or so everyone told me. It was at a parish meeting that the pastor spoke these words, "if these drums go, I go," suggesting that he would never stay in a church without drums, in a church that practiced "traditional" worship.

Harp Painted on Wall, photographed by David Bennett

Let me start from the beginning. After I re-dedicated my life to Christ during my junior year in college, I started looking for a campus church to attend. So, following the recommendation of Campus Crusade for Christ leaders, my brother and I went to visit this particular church. Everyone was very kind and welcoming, and the week after my initial visit, two girls showed up at our dorm bearing cookies, inviting us back to the church. Impressed by this act of kindness, we returned.

Having been raised in a more traditional evangelical church, this church's worship style was new to me, but it was a standard contemporary service. We sang praise songs for about 30 minutes, shared some personal stories, and then sat through a message, usually about personal transformation through Jesus Christ. After the service, almost everybody left to eat at one of the local restaurants. During the first few weeks, what I experienced was thoroughly positive. I proudly called my parents back home, feeling self-satisfied that I had found a new church experience that made short work of the soon-to-be-irrelevant traditional style of worship.

However, the honeymoon ended rather quickly. Over a year's time, the initial positive feelings I had were being replaced by a sense of doubt and despair. What actually made the church a strong initial choice gradually made it appear in a much different light. First, let me say at this time I was studying the Bible thoroughly, as well as reading many materials from the ancient church. In other words, I was discovering the sacred and meaningful ways that ancient Christians worshiped. It is within this context of study and development that I write.

One ministry, in which my brother and I participated, was to welcome "seekers" to the church, by participating in the cookie delivery ministry that had welcomed us to the parish. We, like others in the parish, bent over backwards to make sure that new people felt welcome. However, we were ignoring another group of seekers: members of the church. Let me explain. Deciding to follow Christ is the beginning of the journey, not the end, and after deciding to follow Christ, we still need the Church's help to become more like Christ. It seemed as if once we began attending this church, and we were another butt upon a seat, another membership statistic, the mission of the church had been fulfilled. Getting "saved" was the goal, and once that was attained, it was as if the church leaders called another number, and the older converts were to return to the proverbial waiting room. The support, food, and attention given to new arrivals never made their way to long-term members who often had to fend for themselves. This led to a high turnover rate, and the members that did stay often knew very little about basic Christian teaching. In fact, church leaders clearly stated that worship services should be designed for the benefit of non-Christians, not church members. This "seeker-friendly" model had the effect of creating a church that was a mile wide, but an inch deep. It also ensured that the make-up of the congregation changed significantly from the autumn to the spring.

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Gradually, the worship began to become less "exciting," and less meaningful. The praise songs began to repeat themselves, and hardly seemed "contemporary" anymore after we had sung them ten times. The time of sharing was nice, but it seemed as if the same people were delivered from the same problems each and every week, which I now attribute to the lack of stable support by the church for long-time members. The sermons seemed to resemble a self-help seminar, except that unlike most self-help seminars, the pastor read a few verses of Scripture beforehand. In fairness, the sermons were generally engaging and helpful, but I did not find them very theologically deep, but then again, this church was purposely reaching out to seekers, not those of us who were already Christian. Nonetheless, I began to wonder why it was worth getting up early on a Sunday morning to hear a sermon that was specifically designed for non-Christians.

Another thing I noticed was that people often quit coming when things turned boring, showing no loyalty to the local body of Christ. Like seeking a drug, many left for more "contemporary" settings, where people even danced in the aisles, which made the church I attended seem "dead," no better than a traditional church. During a rather long sermon series many of the regular members just quit attending. Some left for other churches, others just stayed home and prayed. This is not surprising given the emphases of many leaders in the church, because God's kingdom had already been reduced to individual "quiet times" with God. In many ways, the assembly of believers was superfluous if one had meaningful quiet times.

The white walls also became rather boring and meaningless. The stained glass, an important part of the church's design before it went "contemporary," was hidden behind doors. The church, the setting for encountering the Holy and the Sacred, did not feel any holier than a conference center, and other conference centers certainly had more amenities, like bars where you could go if the conference became boring. This church had no connection to the past either. Actually, the church was eager to shed any past connection it could, because as it goes, college students wanted the new and exciting. History and tradition, no matter how ancient, simply either got in the way of Christ's mission, or at best, was a curious artifact of the past, like big band music.

This church constantly emphasized being emotionally "happy," and, for lack of a better word, "peppy." My faith was often questioned because I did not "get into" the music and worship like others did, which meant that I did not always clap my hands, wave them in the air, or smile constantly during worship. My girlfriend at the time was questioned by her Bible study leader because she didn't seem "happy" enough. It became apparent to me that this church's obsession with contemporary worship was deeply intertwined with its theology. The basic premise underlying both was that worship should be emotionally happy and exciting, just as we, as good Christians, were supposed to be emotionally happy and excited. The bottom line is that this church's worship and spirituality were reduced to an emotional experience, and the experience of only one emotion (happiness) at that. I never accepted the premise that we were created to feel one emotion, or that worship was meant to appeal solely to one emotion.

A funny thing happened while I attended this church. What was new, contemporary, and exciting in the autumn, was ritual and rote by the spring. What was exciting in 1998 was routine by 1999. Despite the church's criticism of ritual, most sang without hearing the words, and sat and stood at the same time each week. Many of us clapped to the beat even if we didn't pay attention; it could have been a praise song or a classic oldie, it did not matter. In other words, we soon fell into the so-called trappings of traditional worship.

I eventually stopped attending this church regularly, because what worked at one stage of my Christian journey was inappropriate for the next. I moved on to a less contemporary setting, but one that is more enduring. I guess part of the problem lies in trying to be contemporary. The problem is that the people who decide what is contemporary, i.e. "cool," are advertising executives, corporations, popular musicians, television networks, sports stars, and a whole host of other sources that can hardly be described as thoroughly Christian. I have no problem with the entities mentioned above. In fact I listen to (post)modern music, watch TV, and play sports. The issue I have is that the church is never going to be a key influence in determining what is "contemporary." In fact, what some churches usually embrace as contemporary is often just stale and recycled pop culture. For instance, many "praise and worship" songs are more throwbacks to early 1990s adult contemporary music than anything cutting edge. If I am listening to the newest alternative-country song in my car, why would I be impressed with a church that is trying to appeal to the same desire, only doing so in a very outmoded way. Unfortunately, whenever a church tries to be current, it is often so inorganic and stale, that it looks as if it is M.C. Hammer's comeback attempt. It's no wonder. "Contemporary" churches are usually run by baby boomers, not by the same people that actually set trends in our society. My point? Churches will never win the race to be contemporary. They will always be beaten before they even leave the starting gate by the culture that actually determines what contemporary is. Perhaps this is why most Christian T-shirts are no more enduring than the brand images they rip-off.

In the end, the gospel and message of Jesus can never be contemporary as certain contemporary churches wish it would be. For today's churches, contemporary is often synonymous with "trendy," "popular," and "easy-to-appreciate." The story of Christianity is one of the poor Jewish God-Man preaching repentance, poverty, and spiritual suffering among the dregs of society. Jesus was rejected by his own people and then crucified. These factors can hardly be considered "cool," and following Jesus could lead to dejection and isolation when lived-out seriously. When Jesus rose from the dead, the situation became no better for Christians, as many were martyred, tortured, and expelled from synagogues for their faith. Even after the death of the apostles, early Christians were killed by wild beasts, burned alive, and forced to freeze to death, unless they would deny Jesus as Lord. The gospel for which many saints died, can never be cool in the modern sense, and it can never be mass-marketed. On the contrary, if the gospel is thoroughly preached and lived, then fewer butts are likely to grace the bottoms of seats. In fact throughout Church History, what was "contemporary" was usually novel, heretical, and spiritually dangerous in comparison to the timeless truths derived from the Apostles. And while contemporary doctrines and practices often appealed to the masses (as did the ancient Arian heresy), they were deviations from the timeless gospel truth.

I do believe that worship itself can actually be "cool" although I prefer the term "meaningful," or even better, "sacred," but it should always be beyond any label we would put on it. After all, worshiping is entering into the presence of the almighty God of the cosmos, and not about our personal entertainment. The ancient Church did not sing songs or read scriptures that appealed to only one emotion, such as happiness, but through the Church calendar they worshipped God within a wide range of emotions, emotions that we all have at various times. During Advent we, as members of the Church, wait for Christ's second coming, during Christmas we celebrate Christ's birth and incarnation, and during Lent we enter into Jesus' suffering and death, thereby exploring our own suffering and making sacrifices to connect to the sacrifice of Christ. At Easter we celebrate Christ's victory over evil through his resurrection from the dead. Humans are emotionally complex individuals, and simply appealing to our desire for happiness (with year-round contemporary praise music) succeeds for a short time, but comes up empty, and even seems patronizing, when we suffer, mourn, or have doubts.

In conclusion, I think the church should always strive to teach and worship in a way that effectively renders the timeless ancient beliefs and worship of the Church into a culturally relevant form. In other words, there is nothing wrong with using high-quality newer songs (all songs were new at some point) and updated language (we don't speak in "thees" and "thous" anymore). However, these should be blended with ancient worship forms and older prayers (including the use of Latin prayers within the the Western Rite of the Catholic Church). Many Christians today are worshipping in a way that blends ancient forms and practices with newer elements. This position captures the richness and meaning from our past and utilizes newer contributions from Christians in the same living tradition. I don't really have problems with drums per se, except that I believe their use in Mass is inappropriate. My real problem is when the use of drums, or some other new worship fad, becomes the litmus test for true worship, taking center stage simply because it is the newest thing. Musical style does not determine true worship (although the music we choose for worship often reflects our theology). Whether Christ is present in the worship is what matters (1). However, we must remember that if Christ is present, then we want the worship service to be as sacred as possible!

When we let secular trends fully shape our worship, the Church becomes an inert, tamed-down, and outdated version of the culture it supposedly wishes to be distinguished from. We neither succeed in living the gospel, nor do we remain "contemporary," when the state of being "contemporary" fluctuates almost daily. What endure are the living teachings of Christ, preserved through God's community, the Church. And while Eucharistic worship, extensive scripture reading, iconography, common prayer, meditative prayer, service to the poor, and Christian holy days may not be inherently "cool" to a culture that appreciates only the new and exciting, they will endure, perhaps tweaked and shaped for different contexts, long after any trend originating in the year 2003. In the end, I have no judgment of those who worship with a contemporary style. However, many become disillusioned with such worship and do not know where to go. Many of us have sought out liturgical churches, in my case the Catholic Church, where worship is less "contemporary," but consistent and meaningful. I will not shed a tear if the drums go; if the presence of Christ, and the meaning his presence brings, goes, then I go.

Last Updated 11-17-2009

Footnotes
1. We must note that in the Catholic Church, following the decrees of Vatican II, the pipe organ is considered the central musical instrument of Western Catholic worship, and Gregorian Chant is given "pride of place" in the same worship. However, parishes are permitted to utilize other instruments and musical styles, provided they are suitable for sacred use, contribute to the beauty of worship, edify the faithful, etc. The organ and Gregorian chant are so greatly honored because they have been time-tested across cultures and generations. See Constitution on the Liturgy: 116, 120.

See also But Isn't Liturgical Worship Dead?

Ancient and Future Catholics