In countless churches across America’s denominational landscape, contemporary worship practices have won the day in the name of cultural relevance and stylistic preference. But inherent in contemporary worship is a dangerous dichotomy of style and substance that if not remedied, can eviscerate the very heart of Christian orthodoxy.
Proponents of contemporary worship explain that they are not changing the substance, or content of Christian worship, but only updating the style, or form for modern tastes. Rock bands, production pop-tunes, TED Talk sermons, coffee-house vibes, and (fill-in-the latest worship trend here) are, the argument goes, just making Christianity relevant. While seeming harmless, this argument is built on a problematic divide between style and substance; a hidden transubstantiation of sorts that fosters a rejection of form and ritual in worship in favor of a supposed inner-substance, or feeling, induced by worship.
My contention is that this style-substance split is the real issue. To be sure, one could rightly critique the vague and vapid lyrics of some contemporary worship songs. But the problems go deeper into the messages communicated by the style, or form itself, which unintentionally drives Christians further curvatus in se (curved in on oneself) and away from the objective nature of Christian truth as extra nos (outside ourselves).
The style-substance division severs the deep ties between doctrine and practice recognized by the historic church. With worship practices now untethered, they easily end up running counter to the very content of the Christian faith that worship is meant to buttress. What must be recovered is the sense in which style is substance and how the Church has a distinct style and culture that transcend the tiresome debates over relevance and musical tastes.
While no Evangelical would readily admit to espousing the Roman Eucharistic position, practically the same principles are at work in their worship services as transubstantiation finds a new home not in the Lord’s Supper, but in their novel sacrament of “worship time.” In the Lord’s Supper, Rome says that the outward form of bread and wine remain the same while the inner substance change into the body and blood of Christ based on Aristotle’s philosophical categories of form (accidents) and content (substance).
Contemporary worship proposes a similar separation between the outer form or style of worship and its inner content or substance. Worship leaders are the new priesthood who preside over not the Lord’s Table, but the Spirit’s Moving. The requisite praise band performs a mixture of songs leading the congregation through an emotional progression assumed to be the work of the Holy Spirit. The induced emotions are interpreted as evidence of the Spirit with the subjective inner feelings of the worshiper being the substance of worship that matters, while the outer style of music, words said, and rituals enacted are the incidental forms.
And herein lies the latent transubstantiation: the outward form of worship does not matter, as long as the substance, i.e. inner content of the heart feels right. In other words, low-church Protestants think that the outward form and style of worship does not affect the content and substance of what actually is communicated in worship. The same philosophical separation of form and substance used by Rome in transubstantiation is used by advocates of contemporary worship as justification for “relevant” styles and techniques in worship, while claiming to retain the historic substance of Christianity. Consider the following quotes:
Styles will always be controversial because they reflect personal preferences…. I believe that the answer to this conflict is to keep the substance central, and the styles secondary…. Worship…seems to me to be a heart question, not something tied to a style of worship.
The substance of our worship is more important than the style or form of worship. …When we gather together, of course, one of the things that has been so problematic and has divided the churches so much are these so called worship wars — wars over organ or guitar; hymnal or overhead projection; quiet, still, cognitive, contemplative or loud, expressive, jubilant. God is concerned more about the heart of the worship, the substance of our worship, the heart of the worshiper, the content of our worship than He is about the style or the particular format or approach of our worship.
Much of American Protestantism has uncritically accepted this reasoning, as a quick tour of their sanctuaries reveals. Out goes the anchoring presence of Christ’s altar, in comes the pulsating drum set. Out goes the logocentric pulpit, in comes the ephemeral plexi-glass podium. Out goes the preacher covering his own sinfulness with vestments, in comes the stylish pop-star wannabe. Out goes the communal permanent pew, in comes the individualistic stadium seating. Out goes the sensual tangibility of candles and incense, in comes the fantastical spotlights and fog machine. Out goes the pipe organ designed to accompany theologically rich congregational singing, in comes the color-coded mic stands for the performers. Out goes the memory-facilitating physical hymnal, in comes the transience of words projected on the screen. All of these changes are much more than just a style-swap.
Each change communicates theologically, but in the wrong direction as such changes tend to undercut historic orthodox doctrine about God, man and salvation. In the midst of the confusing messages sent by these practical changes, Christianity’s core content easily gets lost, until one is left to wonder what these church-goers are being catechized into in the long run. Perhaps it should not be a surprise that people leave the church if all they find there is an impotent imitation of the world with a vaguely religious second-rate rock concert and an “oh-by-the way” self-help pep-talk.
But the biggest swap of all, and the one that most uncovers the hidden transubstantiation, is the elevation of praise and worship to near sacramental status as evidenced in the large segment of the church service it consumes, and in the emotional crescendo it creates. This has not always been so; for the vast majority of church history, the climax of Christian worship was the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
But when this practice is jettisoned, something fills the vacuum, and for many churches contemporary worship has done exactly that. And so, in the most consequential trade-off, out goes Jesus’ objective and firm forgiveness of sins in the breaking of the bread, in comes the subjective and fleeting feelings conjured up with yet another repeat of some praise chorus. Not only do the liturgical practices of contemporary worship communicate this sacramental shift, but also the lyrics of many worship songs make this replacement crystal clear. One of CCLI’s top ranked worship songs, Pat Barrett’s “Build My Life”, includes a prayer of sorts:
Open up my eyes in wonder
Show me who You are and fill me
With Your heart and lead me (x4)
Where do Jesus’ disciples say their eyes were opened in wonder after the Resurrection? In the breaking of the bread. Where does Christ show who he is and fill Christians with his heart? In the Eucharist. But not so in contemporary worship. Instead, that all takes place in the noumenal realm of the spirit during the emotional singing of songs. Take as another instance the “bridge” lyrics from Hillsong’s recent hit entitled “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)”:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior (x3)
Where is this “presence of the Savior” to be found? Is it in the emotions of the heart? One is left to assume exactly that based on the song lyrics which give no sure word of where Christ is to be found. And so, instead of actually experiencing the Savior’s promised presence and having one’s faith “made stronger” through Christ’s forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper, it all becomes an abstract, disembodied, spiritual thing to emote about through song and experience ethereally in the mind, if one is lucky. What a disappointing replacement. The exchange is costly, and when held up to scrutiny, contemporary worship’s style-substance model breaks down in even more fundamental ways.
For one, the attempt to be “relevant” very quickly becomes irrelevant with rapid changes in cultural tastes. By the time something new makes its way into worship practices, it’s already old in the eyes of pop culture. Also, this paradigm is problematic in the subtle ways it spurns physicality and community. Focusing on the inner substance of worship encourages an individualistic “me and Jesus” attitude with each worshiper purportedly experiencing God in their own way, in a sort of back-door cultural relativism. By focusing exclusively on the “inner-mind” or “heart” in worship, a mind-body dualism emerges that runs counter to Christianity’s holistic view of the human person.
In his excellent book, Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble summarizes: “we have made communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies.” The contemporary worship model also neglects the communio sanctorum that is the body of Christ, and replaces a community confessing the faith together in Word, Sacrament and song with atomistic hearts expressing their feelings.
The whole paradigm of style and substance presents a false dichotomy. To translate Marshall McCluhan’s famous phrase “the medium is the message” into the categories of worship, the style of worship is the substance of worship, or, the form of worship is the content of worship. Perhaps to nuance it slightly, the style and form that worship takes defines the boundaries of intended or unintended meaning communicated via that form. This perspective transcends the whole contemporary versus traditional “worship wars.” If form is content, then the real question is not stylistic preferences, but theology. And theology is not a matter of preference. This takes us above and beyond such superficial style arguments.
In McLuhanesque fashion then, the Church should acknowledge that current cultural styles and tastes easily distort the message of the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Every word, act, style and gesture used in worship speaks theologically about the nature of God and humanity. Worship also sends messages about how one reaches God; who is active and who is passive in the process. The question for any form or style then is, does it intentionally and subliminally communicate historic, orthodox theology about God, man and salvation? Both traditional and contemporary styles come up lacking here as they are bound to a specific time and place and see humanity as the main actor in worship, and God as the recipient of worship.
The way out of this is to understand that the Church doesn’t play the cultural relevance and style game. Instead, the Church creates and sustains its own culture as evidenced in the longest-standing practices of historic, orthodox Christian worship with their distinct, sacred musical styles and other-worldly, high liturgical forms all saturated with Scripture. What makes the Church relevant is the fact that it is timeless, and has an unchanging message of truth that applies to all eras and places. This timeless approach communicates that God meets with his people through Word and Sacrament to forgive them in Jesus Christ. In historic worship, God is the one doing the work, not humans. This older understanding of the term worship is retained by the Confessional Lutheran and Orthodox traditions who still refer to their worship as the Divine Service and the Divine Liturgy respectively.
This is a clear reminder that worship is not about what one can do for God. Rather, worship is God’s service to humanity through the giving of his gifts in Word and Sacrament to the whole human person in all five senses. We hear God’s forgiveness in the absolution and in the Word preached. We touch God’s forgiveness in the waters of baptism and taste and see it in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We smell God’s forgiveness in the pungent wine and the aromatic incense. This is better than any slick multi-media worship presentation or praise and worship session because there is a resonance and unity of form and content given to us by the Lord himself.
This holistic understanding of the unity of style and substance and the importance of the complete human in worship is finding its way into some segments of Evangelicalism, perhaps signs of the contemporary worship paradigm crumbling. Christians from many denominations are encountering the problems created by dichotomizing worship style and substance, and are rediscovering the catechetical power and theological content of forms by way of the church year, liturgical worship, rites, creeds, and sacred art.
Consider the recent success of Every Moment Holy: New Liturgies for Daily Life, published by Rabbit Room Press, located in the very heart of the Contemporary Christian Music scene, Nashville, TN. This is a beautiful book filled with liturgies and written prayers for all aspects of life accompanied by meaningful art, geared to Evangelicals. Consider also the recent movement among Evangelicals to use a structured lectionary to guide Bible reading with the re-emergence of Robert Murray McCheyne’s Plan from the 19th century.
Or take another example of the rediscovery of liturgical forms in worship with Andrew Peterson’s recent song “Is He Worthy” which is mostly Scripture quotations about Christ as portrayed in Revelation in a call and response format between the congregation and the leader – one of the oldest forms of Christian ritual. All of these are signs worthy of celebration, and perhaps hints for the future.
What Evangelicals and other low-church Protestants are discovering for the first time, historic Christian orthodoxy has been practicing for millennia and can offer great treasures to those beginning their newfound journey. In the search for something more real, relevant and lasting, there is a risk that the replacements for contemporary worship might be just as problematic or might lead people even further afield from historic doctrine and practice.
To avoid this danger, those familiar with the great inheritance of historic Christian worship need to share the roadmap into the land of rich, mature and refined liturgical worship. Historic creeds and confessions forged in the crucible of persecution and heresy. Hymns and melodies from all times and places that transcend cultural style and preference. Prayers for all occasions used since time immemorial. Rites and liturgies passed down from the Ancient Church that echo God’s own words back to himself. This is real. This is relevant. This is lasting. This is true Christian doctrine in practice.
The Ancient Church had a succinct way to summarize the importance of this unity of doctrine and practice: lex orandi, lex credendi. Literally, the law of praying is the law of believing, or more aptly put, how you worship is how you end up believing. They realized long before the contemporary worship debates that theology and practice have a symbiotic relationship, and Christians should be just as concerned about orthodoxy as orthopraxy, because if you destroy one, the other is likely to follow.
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- It is not the purpose of this essay to critique transubstantiation; Rome is right to see the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, but perhaps their philosophical explanations of it leave a bit to be desired. The point is that in drawing parallels between the philosophical categories used by Rome and by Evangelicals, perhaps the problems of the contemporary worship paradigm become more clear. ↑
- Peter Horne, “Expanding Worship – Substance & Style,” July 23, 2012, https://ozziepete.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/expanding-worship-substance-style. ↑
- “What is More Important in Worship, Substance or Style?” Biblical Training, April 12, 2012, https://www.biblicaltraining.org/blog/curious-christian/4-10-2012/what-more-important-worship-substance-or-style. ↑
- Luke 24:35, ESV. ↑
- Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 130. ↑
- Jude 1:3, ESV. ↑
- A whole website of resources is offered in conjunction with this book at: https://www.everymomentholy.com/. ↑
- Paul Carter, “5 Good Reasons to Use the RMM Bible Reading Plan in 2018,” December 1, 2017, https://ca.thegospelcoalition.org/columns/ad-fontes/5-good-reasons-use-rmm-bible-reading-plan-2018/. ↑
- The phrase most likely originates with St. Prosper of Aquitaine in 5th century AD during the semi-Pelagian controversy. Brother Andre’ Marie, “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi,” April 18, 2009, https://catholicism.org/lex-orandi-lex-credendi.html. ↑