Call It What You Will

Though many would argue that the “worship wars” of the 1990s are over, I have found that the church persists in its usage of some linguistic weaponry from that era. In past decades, conversations about worship have polarized worshippers into opposing camps: especially “traditional” vs. “contemporary.” These terms are based primarily on expressive style in worship, largely related to music. I want to suggest that we abandon the use of these words altogether, as they have become code words, used to divide and demean, rather than helpfully describe.

In common usage in North America, contemporary is the label we use for worship with three primary movements: singing – talking – singing. Singing is primarily late 20th century “pop” music, led by a worship band with amplified guitars, drums, and vocalists with hand-held Shure 58 microphones. You hear the word spit derisively from the lips of some: “Their worship is SO contemporary.”

But etymologically, the word contemporary refers to anything “with the times” – anything happening right now. At 11:00 this Sunday morning, whatever worship is being offered by God’s people will be “contemporary,” whether it is the centuries-old liturgy of the Armenian Orthodox church or the we-just-nailed-down-our-praise-set-five-minutes-ago worship at the local community church. When we use the word contemporary to signify worship that is led primarily by a “praise band” (another term that could use a lexical time-out), we dismiss all those Christians who worship in other ways.

In the same way, the term traditional is often invoked without much clarity. Its common use connotes the use of strophic hymns, organ accompaniment, choral anthems as special music, fixed and perhaps fussy liturgical forms, printed in a church bulletin for the congregation to follow. It, too, falls with scorn from the lips of some in the church: “Their worship is SO traditional.”  But the term traditional itself suggests there is some “tradition” in view. My question is this: which tradition? 1950s New England Presbyterianism? Or 1820s Baptist Revivalism? Or 1220 French monasticism? Or is the tradition being tapped that of 4th century Alexandrian church? Our historical amnesia prevents us from recognizing that these alternatives would be very different from one another.

In Tom Long’s excellent book Beyond the Worship Wars, he uses the words “vital” and “faithful” to point to a similar distinction. “Vital” worship is alive to the present moment; “Faithful” worship recognizes the debt the church owes to the “cloud of witnesses” that has gone before.

Ron Byars argues in What Language Shall I Borrow? that the real rift in the Protestant church today is not between “contemporary” and “traditional”, but between those who see worship as fundamentally “formative” and those who see it as primarily “expressive.”1

Expressive worship takes seriously the context in which it is offered. It expresses the congregation’s devotion in a cultural language that is natural, familiar and comfortable. Formative worship is characterized by the insight that worship can stretch a congregation into greater Christlikeness, to encourage it into deeper compassion or praise or lament.

But it seems to me that this taxonomy, while an improvement on the traditional/contemporary polarity, is still inadequate. Worship will always be formative. The key question is “to what end?” What sort of Christians will be formed by the worship we offer on the Lord’s Day? Does our worship confirm a narcissistic view of the Christian’s place in the world? Or does it deepen our empathy with the world’s last and lost and littlest and least? Does it prompt love of God and loving service to the world God loves? Does it complexify and inspire our imaginations about how God is working in the world and how we might be partners in that mission? How does our worship form our minds and hearts and wills?

In the same way, worship will always be expressive. In cannot be otherwise. The pertinent question is “what will it express?” What affections and thoughts and patterns of being in the world will be manifest in our worship – in the songs we sing, the prayers we offer, the sermons we hear? Will it express anxiety over the church’s loss of cultural influence? Will it express anger over racial injustice? Will it express and reinforce habits of self-abnegation and trust in God’s providence? Will it overflow with love for Jesus?

I don’t have a brilliant taxonomic solution to this problem. Smarter scholars have tackled it, and you may find their answers helpful.2 My modest proposal is at least this: that we simply stop using abused terms like “contemporary” and “traditional” and use descriptors that are more accurate, even if the label makes use of more than one word.

Finally, my ancillary proposal is this: that congregations and pastors think seriously about how their worship might become more of what they are not: simultaneously  “contemporary” and “traditional;” “vital” and “faithful;” both “expressive” and “formative.”


View Sources About the Author

Ron Rienstra

Since his ordination in the Reformed Church in America in 1993, Ron Rienstra has lived and ministered at churches and educational institutions in Iowa, Michigan, and California, pursuing his primary interest: helping preachers, congregations, worship teams, and individuals learn to deepen and enliven their gatherings with God. All the while he remained active in local church life as an interim pastor, preacher, worship leader and consultant.

Ron Rienstra completed his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Michigan in May, 1987 with a major in philosophy. He received his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1992, and his Ph.D. in Christian Worship from Fuller Theological Seminary in 2015.

He currently lives in Holland, Michigan where he is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship Arts at Western Theological Seminary. He is the author of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Baker, 2009, co-authored with his wife, Debra Rienstra), Ten Service Plans for Contemporary Worship, volumes 1 and 2 (Faith Alive Publications), and is a contributing editor to Reformed Worship magazine. He has three nearly grown children.  His other interests include jazz, soccer, and gardening, and computers.

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