The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons

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By imminent decline of contemporary worship music, I do not mean imminent disappearance. Commercial forces have too substantial an interest to permit contemporary worship music to disappear entirely; and human beings are creatures of habit who do not adapt to change quickly. I do not predict, therefore, a disappearance of contemporary worship music, sooner or later. Already, however, I observe its decline. Several years ago (2011) Mark Moring interviewed me for Christianity Today, and in our follow-up communications, he indicated that he thought the zenith of contemporary worship music had already happened, and that the movement was already in the direction of traditional hymnody. He did not make any claims about the ratio of contemporary worship music to traditional hymns; he merely observed that whatever the ratio was, the see-saw was now moving, albeit slowly, towards traditional hymnody. If the ratio of contemporary-to-traditional was rising twenty years ago, it is falling now; the ratio is now in decline, and I suspect that decline will continue for the foreseeable future. What follows is a painfully abbreviated list of eight reasons why I think this change is happening.

  1. Contemporary worship music hymns not only were/are comparatively poor; they had to be. One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.

  1. Early on in the contemporary worship music movement, many groups began setting traditional hymn-lyrics to contemporary melodies and/or instrumentation. Sovereign Grace Music, Indelible Grace, Red Mountain Music, Reformed Praise all recognized how difficult/demanding it is to write lyrics that are not only theologically sound, but significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical). If the canonical Psalms are our model, few hymn-writers could hope to write with such remarkable insight (into God and His creatures, who are only dust) and remarkable craftsmanship (e.g. the first three words of the first Psalm begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph (א), each also has a shin (ש), and two of the three also have a resh (ר), even though each is only a 3-letter word. Even those unfamiliar with Hebrew cannot miss the remarkable assonance and alliteration in those opening three words: “ashre ha-ish asher”).

  2. As a result, the better contemporary hymns (e.g. “How Deep the Father’s Love,” “In Christ Alone”) have been over-used to the point that we have become weary of them. These two of the better contemporary worship music hymns are sung a half-dozen times or a even a dozen times annually in many contemporary worship music churches; whereas “A Mighty Fortress” may get sung once or twice (if at all); but neither of the two is as good as Luther’s hymn. What is “intrinsically good” (to employ Luther’s expression about music) will always last; what is merely novel will not. Beethoven will outlast 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera. His music will be enjoyed three hundred years from now; theirs will be gone inside of fifty years.

  3. It is no longer a competitive advantage to have part or all of a service in a contemporary idiom; probably well over half the churches now do so, so we have reached what Malcolm Gladwell calls the “Tipping Point.” Contemporary worship music no longer marks a church as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward-looking, because many/most churches now do it. Churches that do not do other aspects of church-life well can no longer compensate via contemporary worship music; they must compete with other churches that employ contemporary worship music. Once a thing is commonplace, it is no longer a draw. And contemporary worship music is now so commonplace that it is no longer a competitive advantage; to the contrary, smaller churches with smaller budgets have difficulty competing with the larger-budgeted churches in this area.

  4. As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new (and commercial culture always does so in order to sell what is new), most people will pine for what is new. But what is new does not remain so forever; and once it is no longer novel, it must compete by the ordinary canons of musical and lyrical art, and very little contemporary worship music can do so (again, because its authors face a fifty-to-one ratio of competition from other generations). Even promoters of contemporary worship music prefer some of it to the rest of it; indicating that they, too, recognize aesthetic criteria beyond mere novelty. Even those who regard novelty as a virtue, in other words, do not regard it as the only virtue. And some, such as myself, regard novelty as a liturgical vice, not a virtue because of its tendency to dis-associate us from the rest of our common race, heritage, and liturgy.

  5. Thankfully, my own generation is beginning to die. While ostensibly created “for the young people,” the driving force behind contemporary worship music was always my own Sixties generation of anti-adult, anti-establishment, rebellious Woodstockers and Jesus freaks. Once my generation became elders and deacons (and therefore those who ran the churches), we could not escape our sense of being part of the “My Generation” that The Who’s Pete Townsend had sung about when we were young; so we (not the young people) wanted a brand of Christianity that did not look like our parents’ brand. Fortunately for the human race, we are dying off now, and much of the impetus for contemporary worship music will die with us (though the commercial interests will “not go gentle into that good night,” and fulfill Dylan Thomas’s wish).

  6. Contemporary worship music is ordinarily accompanied by Praise Teams, and these have frequently (but by no means always) been problematic. It has been difficult to provide direction to them, due to the inherent confusion between whether they are participants in the congregation or performers for the congregation. In most circumstances, the members of the Praise Team do the kinds of things performers do: they vary the instrumental or harmonious parts between stanzas, they rehearse, etc. In fact, if one were to watch a video of the typical Praise Team without any audio, they ordinarily look like performers; their bodily actions and contrived emotional expressions mimic those of the entertainment industry.

Theologically and liturgically, however, it is the congregation that is to sing God’s praise, and what we call the Praise Team is merely an accompanist. But there is a frequent and ongoing tension in many contemporary worship music churches between the performers feeling as though they are being held back from performing for the congregation, and the liturgists thinking they’ve already gone too far in distinguishing themselves from the congregation. Many pastors have told me privately that they have no principial disagreements with contemporary worship music, but that they wish the whole Praise Team thing “would go away,” because it is a frequent source of tension. I have elsewhere suggested that the Praise Team is not biblical, that it actually obscures or obliterates what the Scriptures command. I won’t repeat any of those concerns here; here I merely acknowledge that many of those who disagree with my understanding of Scripure agree with my observation that the Praise Team is an ongoing source of difficulty in the church.

  1. We cannot evade or avoid the “holy catholic church” of the Apostles’ Creed forever. Even people who are untrained theologically have some intuitive sense that a local contemporary church is part of a global and many-generational (indeed eschatological and endless) assembly of followers of Christ; cutting ourselves off from that broader catholic body may appear cool for a while, but we ultimately wish to commune with the rest of the global/catholic church. Indeed, for many mature Christians, this wish grows as we age; we become aware that this particular moment, and our own personal life therein, will pass away soon, and what is timeless will nonetheless continue. Our affection for and interest in the timeless trumps our interest in the recent and fading. We intuitively identify with Henry F. Lyte, whose hymn said, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” We instinctively wish to “join the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all” (to use Edward Perronet’s language). Note, in fact, the opening lines alone of each stanza of Perronet’s hymn, and observe how, as the stanzas move, our worship is connected to both earthly and heavenly worship, past and future worship:

All hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Let angels prostrate fall;…
Let highborn seraphs tune the lyre, and as they tune it, fall…
Crown Him, ye morning stars of light, who fixed this floating ball;…

Crown Him, ye martyrs of your God, who from His altar call;…
Ye seed of Israel’s chosen race, ye ransomed from the fall,…
Hail Him, ye heirs of David’s line, whom David Lord did call,…
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall,…
Let every tribe and every tongue before Him prostrate fall…

O that, with yonder sacred throng, we at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song, and crown Him Lord of all!

It is not merely that some churches do not sing Perronet’s hymn; they can not do so, without a little dissonance. Everything that they do intentionally cuts themselves off from the past and future; liturgically, if not theologically, they know nothing of martyrs, of Israel’s chosen race, of David’s lineage. Liturgically, if not theologically, everything is here-and-now, without much room for angels or seraphs, nor every tribe and tongue (just those who share our particular cultural moment). To sing Perronet’s hymn in such a setting would fit about as well as reading Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at a Ku Klux Klan gathering.

“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the “holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.” The sooner the better.

(Photo credit: Aikawa Ke/ Flickr)

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About the Contributor

T. David Gordon

T. David Gordon
T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, where since 1999 he has taught courses in Religion, Greek, Humanities, and Media Ecology. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He is the author of Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Re-Wrote the Hymnal. His personal website is www.tdgordon.net. He lives in Grove City, PA, with his wife Dianne, and daughters Grace and Dabney (and innumerable cats). 

Comments

  1. I can only hope that Dr. Gordon’s prognosis on CWM for congregational singing proves historically accurate. I’ve noticed in services of many congregations substituting worship bands in place of congregational singing that the demographic profile is grayer and grayer! Most CWM worship teams are mediocre rock bands masquerading as worship leaders. That is the litmus test: does the music and those leading it put congregational singing the desired outcome as taught by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:19 et al.)? This should apply, irrespective of genre, instruments, or leaders. If the objective is performance, getting attention as a member of “the band,” or working oneself up into a lather, and NOT “speaking to one another,” then what has transpired has defeated the Almighty’s purposes for congregational singing. I hope Dr. Gordon is correct: that CWM in congregational singing will decline as the Baby Boomers progress into their dotage.

  2. It always bothers me when people began to offer their opinion and states that hymns are better than contemporary worship and like another poster replied, you say that contemporary worship days are numbered while failing to state what will take it’s place? Do you really think that organs are going to make a comeback and suddenly become the driving force of hymns again?

    I have so many problems with your article that it’s hard to begin. My biggest one is: “my music is better than your music.”

    First, anyone who strives to make a style of worship (hymns or choruses) as the only mode for worship God is worshipping style, not God Himself. Style is simply a vehicle that we use to worship God and it really shouldn’t matter what style we use — I get around in my Ford but others might drive a Chevy — we can have discussions about which car is better but for the most part, it’s simply opinion and what matters is getting to our destination.

    Second, for those who say choruses are emotional like there is something wrong with emotions. Since God created us as emotional creatures, I believe He wants to be the center of our desires and emotions as much as He wants to be the center of our thoughts and minds. We need to worship God with everything we our — our minds, our emotions, our will, our relationships, our very purpose in life.

    Next, let’s stop making worship an event that happens on Sunday morning whether it’s hymns or choruses. Worship is not an event and I would say the chances of your worshipping on Sunday, if you haven’t worshipped Monday through Saturday, are very poor. We have become event worship driven (and that is true for those who worship through hymns or choruses) and it focuses on Sunday rather than Monday through Saturday. Why was the early church known for being “little Christs”? It wasn’t their style of worship, it was the fact that they spent time daily in God’s Word together and the Word changed their lives. We somehow have decided that once a week in God’s Word is enough and it shows in our lifestyle.

    I actually am very eclectic in my worship and love both hymns and choruses but we have some awful hymns just like we have some awful choruses. And you want to talk about hymns but you point to a couple of the hymn “standards” while making the comment that contemporary music only has a couple of great songs that will stand the test of time. I have a few favorites that are rich in depth and thought provoking: Be Thou My Vision, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, as well as A Mighty Fortress is My God. But I find some great choruses in my hymnal to: How Great Thou Art, To God Be the Glory, My Jesus I Love Thee. How Great Thou Art is much more a chorus than it is a hymn but since it’s found in a hymnal, people espousing these claims simply overlook it’s nature and style. My guess is people will be singing that for a long time making your thesis statement erroneous and there will be others.

    Bottom line, quit getting hung up over a style and start getting hung up over the Savior. If people get to Christ with a hymn, celebrate it! If people get to Christ with a chorus, celebrate it! And let’s make sure we disciple our brothers and sisters in following Christ and get over the hang ups that divide us instead of challenge us to make a difference in our community and world.

  3. The Bible say’s “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord”. The Bible does NOT say what instruments or styles of music we MUST use to do this. I challenge the author to prove me wrong on this. All Christian music has been influenced by the contemporary trends of the times. For example, take the fascination at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century with Vienna Waltz music. The three-quarter time Waltz rhythm was created specifically for dancing to yet so many of the Hymn composers of that time period used a Waltz rhythm.

    The instruments still predominantly used in fundamental churches today (Piano and organ) did not exist when the Bible was written so how can you justify using them in churches but not guitars and drums, etc.? It’s ludicrous to think piano’s and organs are the only “true” instruments that God accepts for His worship.

    Another point, would anyone today say that the music of J.S. Bach was too secular and sensual to be used in church? No of course not but Bach was almost thrown out of his position as the church organist because people complained that his music was indeed too secular and sensual and also too rhythmic at the time. These are the same types of people who today complain about Christian Contemporary Music.

    This whole argument against CCM is silly, baseless and lacking in any credibility whatsoever. .

    If you don’t like progress, then why are you driving a car rather than still using a horse and buggy? CCM music is here to stay and you need to deal with that.

  4. Steven Clark says:

    I guess I am to speak for the first 37 generations of hymn writers. The Hymns of the Church became the hymns of the Church because they were widely received and spoke eloquently of the faith on behalf of the whole body of Christ.
    I do not pretend that the hymnody has developed and changed through the centuries, however, a remarkably large number of them were already being talked about by commentators in the late 4th century. The hymns that were sung (and are still sung) distilled the faith in such a way as to be embraced by all.
    However, not all the hymns have been written. There has been some fluctuation in form. Such will happen slowly over time and be what the Church, under inspiration of the Spirit embraces together.
    If this article is to be faulted it is that it has limited itself to the last 13 generations.

    • Steven Clark says:

      Sorry, nothing improves proof-reading like hitting the “Post Comment” button.

      It should say “I do not pretend that the hymnody has NOT developed and changed …. “

  5. Joanne Griffin says:

    I love it all, if it is beautiful, if it is true, and if it is singable by most saints. CWM is how a former Catholic girl first learned scripture in the 70s. Many songs sustained me when I later lived in a foreign land and, having grown up Catholic, I never knew any Protestant hymns.

    Moreover, as a missionary I had to learn an entirely new idiom of praise, even a new rhythm. The Western-centric sensibility is what it is, but it is not the Last Word of Praise. I have come to love hymns only in the last 20 years, mostly because I’ve finally been exposed to them.

    I have only one request: do not make me a spectator and disenfranchise me from the joy of worship in song, with my church family singing happily and easily beside me. The apostles sang a hymn at supper without hymnals, directors, instruments or projectors, but it is stated so matter-of-factly in the Bible that we don’t meditate on the organic, natural and traditional upwelling of praise that is our birthright in Christ.

  6. Randy Nettles says:

    Sorry…agree with your description of what worship is ABOUT, but what does that have to do with musical styles? If anything, the burden rests on Worship Leaders who need to be more theological in their prayers, comments, and music selection, and who need to lead with more inventiveness and creativity, (just like any Choir Director, or Worship Pastor should), so that the worship experience they provide for the congregation continues to challenge them, and deepen their faith (as well as grow their musical skill and develop their own leadership ability).

    The music style should just be tailored to what you want to accomplish and who you are leading worship for…whether that’s full blown Hillsong, Austin Stone mega-church worship, formal traditional worship with a 100 member choir and organ, a Contemporary Youth Worship Band, or a singer-songwiter singing original tunes at a Christian Coffee House.

    There’s no uniform “right” or “wrong,” way to worship…and all of us should spend our time growing in ALL different styles, so that we can reach out to those who need Jesus, in whichever way is best for them (not us)

    In His name, Randy

  7. Steve Sanders says:

    Many good points above. Cudos.

    As a musician and song writer I can distinguish, both in my works and the works of others, “cute” from lasting. If I give up writing because I am only creating short-lived, albeit popular songs, I may never create one that IS lasting. Bach didn’t create beautiful tunes his first time out. It takes practice and mistakes before lasting can be achieved.

    Seeker churches try many things to get people to commune. For example, while arguably unfounded liturgically, Clydesdale’s “A Time for Christmas” brings ‘em in. Isn’t that one of Christianity’s core goals, to bring ‘em in? By definition contemporary will not last, but if it exposes others to the Word and gets people going to church, is that a bad thing?

    Personally, I am in favor of services that balance old and new. I miss the old hymns that withstand the test of time and even more contemporary “In the Garden” and “Awesome God” tunes that have been replaced by newer, more “hip” songs. There should be balance, something for everyone, not because we are pandering but because we are trying to communicate.

    If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain. If we revel in our own piousness and tastes, insisting that one form of worship is somehow superior to all others, we miss the message.

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