Where Did Contemporary Worship Lose Its Way?

All congregations can benefit from a perspective that considers every facet of the service as part of our worship to God.

The lights are dim, candles are lit, the music swells as the lead vocalist goes up an octave for the climactic end of the song, and throughout the room dozens of college students raise their hands as they sing with abandon. It’s a powerful moment in the worship service. Then the song stops. The students drop their hands, open their eyes.

In front of me, two of the girls who had their hands raised a few seconds earlier are having a conversation about their afternoon plans. Then the music starts up again, they end their conversation, close their eyes and throw their hands up in the air again.

You may have witnessed a similar scene. For certain, nearly every congregation struggles with full participation in the service at times. And it’s not that I expect the people near me to act like no one is around them during worship. The ease with which these students seemed to turn “on” and “off” their engagement did get me thinking about another change in contemporary worship.

Many forget (or don’t know) that “contemporary” worship was inextricably linked to the Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This connection forged a musical style that was rooted in a particular understanding of the Spirit in worship. Specifically, the singing of praise and worship songs was understood sacramentally. God was uniquely encountered, by the Spirit, in congregational singing.

Several important aspects of this theology of congregational song are worth highlighting.

First, a premium was placed on intimacy with Jesus in congregational singing. This emphasis was largely due to the influence of John Wimber and the Vineyard movement of the late 1970s and 1980s. Though he was not the first to say so, Wimber emphasized that the church needed to sing songs “to God” and not “about God.” Lyrically, this was manifest in the frequent use of the personal pronoun “I.”

Just scan through the catalogue of songs published by Vineyard Music during the 1980s and see how many of them emphasize the importance of the individual engaging the second Person of the Trinity in the lyrics. While the intimacy motif wasn’t new in the church, it was an important development in what would become known as “contemporary worship.”

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Matthew Sigler
Matthew Sigler is a ThD candidate in liturgical studies at Boston University where his work has focused on the history of Methodist worship as well as lyrical theology. In addition to being a student, he has served for the past twelve years as a music minister in the church.