Contemporary Worship Culture

(This blog first appeared as an article in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 3, 2002, and is here slightly revised.)

Over the last 10-12 years there has been a significant shift in the way in which we conduct worship services in our churches.  The shift to a more contemporary worship culture seems to be unstoppable.  But discomfort remains. Indeed, worship wars are all too common in our churches.   I suggest that most often we fail to penetrate to the underlying issues behind the current conflicts over worship.  I use the term “culture” to identify the deeper underlying attitudes, values and beliefs that are at the root of what has become the dominant style of worship in our day.  I could as well talk about a worship ethos, or make use of the metaphor of climate to refer to the general atmosphere surrounding worship today.  Most often we are unaware of the culture that surrounds us.  We take it for granted.  We find it most difficult to stand back and critically examine the culture that we assume to be natural and right. 

But there is a need for such critical analysis.  In this article, I will attempt to identify several characteristics of the worship culture as found in most evangelical churches in North America today, and at the same time raise some questions about each of these characteristics that I believe deserve more careful consideration.

Worship as Praise 

Together with an increased emphasis on worship, there is an emphasis today on praising God, lifting up his name in song, even raising our eyes and hands to symbolize the honor we wish to give to God.  In fact, most often worship is understood to be synonymous with praising God.  There is obviously something very healthy about all this.  We ought to sing praises to God (Ps. 33:1-3; Eph. 5:19-20).  The Psalms are full of expressions of this kind of worship.  Many of the contemporary choruses are directly based on the Psalms.

I wonder though, whether we have unwittingly adopted too narrow a definition of worship.  Worship is more, much more, than singing praises to God.  Worship also involves living a life of obedience to God – offering our whole self  to Him (Rom. 12:1).  Each and every action, for the Christian, everything from the changing of a diaper, to the writing of a computer program, should be done as an expression of worship to God (Col. 3:17). 

There also seems to be trend towards allowing worship as praise to displace other elements that have traditionally been thought essential to worship services.  The singing portion of our services has increased in length significantly over the years.  On occasion there is not even time left for the scheduled sermon.  Is this not a violation of the biblical mandate that when we get together there must be room for teaching and admonishing one another (Col. 3:16; I Corinthians 14)? 


Today’s worship culture is very comfortable with the use of technology.  Worship teams use mikes. Amplifiers are often connected to instruments.  A tangle of cables and a forest of mikes are commonplace on the front stages of our churches.  “Canned” music is used to accompany the soloist.  Videos are used to enhance worship.  Secret coded messages are flashed onto the corners of the front stage to inform parents that their children need them.  Powerpoints are flashed onto several screens to outline the pastor’s sermons.  Indeed the control rooms of all this sound and light technology at times resemble the cockpit of a 747 aircraft. 

Obviously we live in a world in which we are very much indebted to technology.  And surely there is no merit in deliberately staying behind the times. I have no quarrel with the proper use of technology.  My concern is that we do not follow the world in making modern technology an object of idolatrous worship.  Of course, this raises the difficult question of distinguishing between a legitimate and an idolatrous use of technology in worship – a question that needs to be addressed in our churches.  I for one find it very difficult to worship God in some churches that make an ostentatious display of sound technology and use it when it is quite unnecessary. 


There further seems to be a performance mentality that pervades our contemporary worship culture.  Much attention is paid to “staging” a worship service.  We want polished sermons and charismatic speakers.  Special music is a regular feature of worship today.  We use worship teams and worship bands to lead the congregation in singing.  A “stage presence” is carefully cultivated on the part of all those leading us in worship. 

Now some degree of performance is probably inescapable whenever you have a larger group being led in worship.  The use of choirs in “the good old days” surely also involved performance.  Charisma invariably accompanies the good speaker.  And surely we do not want to hold up sloppiness, lack of preparation, or just plain mediocrity as the ideal.

However, it is all too easy to slide into a mode that is predominantly performance oriented, and this is a betrayal of authentic worship.  Here one oft-neglected dimension of the use of worship teams and worship bands needs to be called into question.  Are not worship teams and worship bands by their very nature, performance oriented?  I in no way want to question the sincerity that most often characterizes the people involved.  Nor do I want to discredit the hard work that almost invariably goes into the preparation for leading worship services.   But the bigger the worship team and the louder the worship band, the greater the performance quotient.  Indeed, congregational participation in the singing seems to be rather incidental.  As a result, members of the congregation very often simply do not join in the singing, or if they do, they participate rather half-heartedly.  There is no need for them to sing.   


Paul is very clear – in the last days people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God “(II Tim. 3:4).  Somehow this worldly attitude has become part of our contemporary worship culture. Worship services are increasingly evaluated in terms of their entertainment value.  We want worship bands that please us.  Speakers must be entertaining.  We want drama.  Horses and donkeys appear on stage in our churches, for dramatic effect. Christian Schwarz suggests that worship in healthy churches should not only be inspiring, it should be “fun.”  And there should be “laughter” in the church.

This is surely a betrayal of what our Lord taught and exemplified.  It involves a denial of the reality that most of us face – there is pain and much suffering in this world.  It also does injustice to many of us who are of the serious sort.  As a physician friend of mine once suggested to me, today’s worship is mainly geared to the effervescent personality type.

Please do not get me wrong.  I am not rejecting entirely the place of celebration in worship. There are times when the church should be having fun together.  But should not worship also make room for the serious business of confronting a sometimes angry God?  And should not worship leaders take great care to be hosts to all who attend, including the many who are struggling with various degrees of heartache?


The contemporary worship culture likes informality.  No more wearing of suits and ties to church.  No more stiff and formal liturgy.  No more of the trappings of authority.  A dignified pastor behind an oak pulpit is taboo.  Informality is where it is at.  Laughter and visiting prior to the service.  A time of informal greeting of one another after the opening prayer.  A worship team casually getting prepared before the service.   

Here again, there is something right about this call for greater informality.  Dress is very much a symbol of class, and the church should be open to all classes of people (James 2:1-4).  Warm fellowship is surely also a key element of the church community.  And formal liturgy is in danger of becoming empty.

But can we not carry informality too far?  It is inappropriate, at a formal dinner engagement, to appear in cut-off jeans or to embarrass the hostess with boorish behavior.  A holy God surely also deserves some respect.  A quiet time of prayer before a worship service is surely more appropriate than boisterous socializing.  The atmosphere in some of our churches today is more akin to that of a hockey arena than a worship service.  You can saunter in whenever you want, and you can even wear a baseball cap.  And feel free to bring in your coffee mug (the ultimate symbol of being cool for the younger generations).  If you get bored with what is going on, start exchanging notes with your neighbor, or even better, share the latest gossip in loud whispers. 

Is not this kind of behavior an insult to God?   Informality, when it is carried to an extreme, is a sign of a degenerate worship culture.


Contemporary worship culture can also be characterized as having a tendency towards self-absorption.  A careful examination of many of today’s choruses will reveal that personal pronouns occur rather frequently.  Again, there is something very healthy about a personalized faith.  Even the Psalmist often uses the words “I” and “my” to describe his relationship with his Lord.  

But there is never any doubt as to the real focus of worship for David, or for John in the book Revelation – that other great book of worship in the Bible.  They worshipped an objectively existing God.  I wonder sometimes, whether in our worship today we are still worshiping a God who is really there, quite apart from your and my existence, or your and my feelings about Him.  Surely worship needs to be absorbed in God, not the self or the worshipper.  Can there not be too many “I’s” and “My’s” in our songs?  In our testimonies and our preaching too we must be careful to heed Paul’s warning:  “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (II Cor. 4:5). 

Worship too needs to focus on Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, who entered this world as a baby, died on the cross and rose again.  Here I find it curious that there seem to be few choruses focusing on the great objective events that define the Christian faith.  Isn’t it curious that at Christmas and Easter we seem to be forced to revert back to the traditional hymns?


Clearly worship involves more than the intellectual acknowledgment of the central  objective events that define the Christian faith.  It involves more than the mental affirmation of God as holy, worthy, mighty and existing for all eternity (Rev. 4:8,11).  It involves more than the mind.  Authentic worship must be inspiring and passionate as Christian Schwarz emphasizes. It must involve the emotions.

 But it seems to me that today we are rather preoccupied with feelings when we worship. Comments about a good worship service invariably make reference to the mood that was somehow created.  There would seem to be a good deal of effort made to carefully orchestrate a good “feel” to the service. The informal handshaking gives the feel of friendliness and warmth. Worship teams try to create enthusiasm. Clapping is encouraged to keep the singing lively.   Even preaching must be passionate, if it is spirit-inspired, and a tear or two from the preacher doesn’t hurt.   

Is there not a danger here that we get carried away with our emotions?  Paul warns about zeal without knowledge (Romans 10:2).  He also urges us to pray with the spirit and with the mind (I Cor. 14:15).  Peterson interprets Paul in I Cor. 3:2 as saying, “Stop grabbing for what makes you feel good.” 

Marva Dawn has recently reminded us of various idolatries that seem to dominate Christian worship today – self, our own personal tastes, excitement, and charismatic personalities.  But content must come before feeling, says Marva Dawn.  “That is why the content of our worship music and preaching must proclaim the splendor of God, rather than our feelings about him. (I am not excluding feelings; they simply are not as important as the One whose splendor stirs them.)” 

Corporate vs. Individual

I would further suggest that much of the present conflict with regard to worship rests on a failure to distinguish clearly between that which is appropriate for worshipping God individually in private, over against what might be suitable for corporate worship.  How often, for example, does one see worship leaders with closed eyes, raised hands, singing praises to God?  I am not at all questioning the sincerity of what is being done here.  But might this not be more appropriately done at home, alone?  Jesus very specifically condemns practicing your piety before men (Matt. 6:5-8).   Further, does not the personalistic tone of many of the choruses make them more appropriate for personal and private worship?  Many of them, in fact, have their origin in a very personal setting, an individual privately strumming away on a guitar.  Perhaps these individual expressions of worship are better left to the private domain.

Corporate worship is a public and group phenomenon.  It is therefore very important not to import private worship practices into public worship.  This was the problem Paul addressed in the Corinthian church.  He distinguishes between edifying oneself and edifying the church (I Cor. 14:4).  In the church, only that which others will be able to identify with, and even affirm by an “Amen” should be allowed (v.16).  If this is not possible, then the person should “speak to himself and God (v.28). 

When we come together we gather for collective worship.  David repeatedly draws attention to the fact that he is going to the house of the Lord to worship with the multitude (Ps.42:4; 55:14; 122:1) .  Paul too stresses the collective body when he describes worship (Eph. 4:1-16; Col. 3:16).  We need to do more thinking about the meaning of corporate worship.

The next generation

A frequent argument used in defense of moving to a more contemporary worship style is that the church needs to be geared to the next generation.  Times are changing!  And we need to adjust to the tastes of  Generation X and Y (is there a Z?).  I have no quarrel with the claim that a church that fails to pass on the faith to the next generation has failed.  But how do we do this?

We as adults need to have the courage to teach the next generation what worship should be like.  We do not simply ask them what they want.  We tell them what they should want. God wants us to educate our children, to teach them how to worship (Deut. 6).  And by the way, children can be taught to love hymns!   I know of one denomination which is doing some very creative work in this regard.

Here I would like to issue a further caution. We must be careful to read the musical tastes of the younger generation properly.  I would suggest that choruses are about as far removed from the musical tastes of the young as are hymns.  It strikes me that often judgments about what the younger generation wants are really based on what parents want their children to want.  All too often the boomer generation is using the supposed tastes of their children to impose their own preferences on a congregation.  We need more honesty here.  Let’s not prejudge what our children want.  Let’s ask them.  The results may surprise us!


Coupled with our focus on the next generation in our contemporary worship culture, there is also a profound disrespect for the older generation.  A dear old saint recently shared with me the struggles he has with the church that he is attending.  He cannot understand the fast-talking pastor – another feature of today’s worship culture.  He cannot join in the singing (even though he loves to sing) because he is simply not familiar with the choruses which are the main musical diet of this church.  Thus he, together with a good percentage of his congregation, are forced to rely on religious programming on television for their spiritual nourishment.  When I suggested to this 90 year-old that he might change churches and attend instead a neighboring church where there is a more balanced worship diet, he shook his head and said he couldn’t do that either.  Loyalty is a virtue for this generation.  So they suffer in silence.

A pastor of one of our Canadian churches recently made a statement to the effect that if the elderly did not like the worship in his church, they could go to the foyer in the back of the church and worship God by themselves.  This was stated publicly at a supposed Anabaptist conference!

This is cruel. It represents a lack of love, which is to be the defining characteristic of the church (John 13:34-5).  Those who are responsible for the worship culture of these churches are acting unchristianly.  The church is meant to be intergenerational.  Where God’s spirit is present, young and old, together are to worship God (Acts 2:17).  Here we also need to ask what it means to honor father and mother (Deut. 5:16).  And note that there are no age limits to this biblical injunction!

The world

The culture that inspires worship in most of our churches today is also strongly committed to reaching out to the world.  We want to be relevant.  We want to communicate the gospel to this generation.  The ultimate expression of this commitment is the seeker-sensitive worship service.  Again it is clear that there is something very healthy about all this.  We should make adjustments in relating to the audience we are trying to reach so that we can win them for Christ (I Cor. 9:19-23).  But are there not limits to making such adjustments?  We must be careful not to become worldly in order to reach the world.  Stop trying to be up-to-date with the times, Paul tells the Corinthian church (I Cor. 3:18).

Here we also need to be very careful to separate the notions of worship and evangelism. To ask the world to worship the Christian God before they have been evangelized is to foster blasphemy.  It is to promote a kind of civil religion – a form of godliness but denying its power (II Tim.3:5). Worship services are fundamentally for Christians. It may be that non-Christians will on occasion attend worship services, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps even because of a genuine search for God.  But this is the exception rather than the rule, as Paul clearly indicates in I Corinthians 14:22-5.  The possibility of non-Christians being present does not call for a complete adjustment of worship services to cater to the unique needs of the unbeliever.  To accommodate these needs, the church might want to conduct special evangelistic services.  But an evangelistic service is very, very different from a worship service.  Let’s not mix the two.


There is a final value underlying contemporary worship culture that deserves to be highlighted – the assumption that the new is better.  How often do we hear the mantra that we need to keep up with the times?   Implicit in the call for contemporary music in our churches is the assumption that because it is recent and contemporary, it must be good, even better than the old and the outdated. 

Yes, there is a danger of the old becoming empty and sterile.  Yes, there is a danger of assuming that because it is old and traditional it must be good – that is the sin of traditionalism.  But must we not also acknowledge that there is an equally dangerous  error of “changism” – the assumption that because it is new and contemporary, it must be better than the old?   This is the error of liberalism with its faith in inevitable progress.  We must be careful not to let this error creep into our churches, thereby creating untold misery because of its disregard for healthy tradition and its insistence on rapid change.  At the same time, we must guard against the error of traditionalism.  Both traditionalism and changism are wrong.


It is frequently maintained that our quarrels with regard to worship styles and the use of hymns vs. choruses are really only a matter of differing tastes.  Clearly preferences in music are in part a matter of tastes.  But even tastes can be good or bad.  We must be very careful not to succumb to the relativism that is so rampant in our society.  There are objective standards, even in the area of aesthetics.  We as Christians are called to judge between that which is good and bad (Phil.4:8).  And Paul repeatedly warns about adjusting what we do in church to the fickle tastes of people (II Tim. 4:3).

But more important, it should be evident from my analysis that our differences with regard to worship are not merely a matter of differing tastes.  There are theological issues at stake here.  Many of the characteristics of contemporary worship that I have highlighted involve worldly attitudes and values that have somehow been allowed to infect the church.  Indeed, I believe the central question that we need to be asking today is whether our worship has in fact become worldly. 

I realize that for many readers it will be difficult to admit this, and they will view my analysis as fundamentally mistaken.  The analysis of the culture underlying worship is not easy.  And I am certainly open to being shown that I am wrong in my analysis.  What I am more confident about is that I have identified some of the issues that need further discussion as we seek to alleviate the conflict that frequently surrounds the way we worship.  “Test everything,” Paul tells us (I Thess. 5:21).  And John encourages us not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see whether they are truly from God (I John 4:1). 

Much is at stake here.  We would do well to listen to the prophets of the Old Testament who frequently found it necessary to critically evaluate the worship of their time.  I have no pleasure in your meaningless offerings, your evil assemblies, and even your many prayers, the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah (1:10-17).  “I cannot stand your assemblies. . . . Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-ending stream” (Amos 5:21-4).


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