On [Contemporary] Worship
by Vernard Eller

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Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

WORSHIP, of which Jesus says,

"God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth." (Jn. 4:23)

But which is the worship in truth? Is it the Contemporary-styled song and dance of which God says, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies ... Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream" (Amos 5:23)?

In John Greenleaf Whittier's familiar hymn, "O, Brother Man," he speaks of the "holier worship God deigns to bless." Yet, quite apart from Whittier's intention with that hymn line, there is in it the inevitable implication that, along with the holier worship God does deign to bless, there must be an "unholier worship" God does not deign to bless.

And it is to this distinction between "holier" and "unholier" worship I now propose to direct our thought.

Clearly, in the church of our day, there are current two distinct styles of worship; and I propose that these two can best be labeled as:

Traditional-Styled Worship and Contemporary-Styled Worship

us first get a good picture of each, from which we can then draw the contrast. The TRADITIONAL is obviously the most long-standing, so let's start there. Consult any Protestant Church hymnal of the past century and, in an instant you will know what I mean. TRADITIONAL WORSHIP is genuinely thoughtful, contemplative, self-examining, God-seeking. And the worshippers themselves are quick to confess their own sinfulness, guilt, and neediness before God.

Perhaps the one best example is the old-fashioned hymn, "Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me."

So, rather clearly, TRADITIONAL WORSHIP puts it's emphasis upon the confession of our sin, guilt, and desperate need of GOD.

But, shifting, now, to CONTEMPORARY-STYLED WORSHIP, the discrepancy is as much as TOTAL.

Here, there is not a hint of anything like Confession, Guilt, and all such. In fact, the very word SIN is essentially outlawed in many of the worship services of our day. Any confessing of sin, or of needing the help of God, is seen as a put-down of the true greatness of THE HUMAN SPIRIT. This, indeed, is what becomes the focus of CONTEMPORARY-STYLED WORSHIP.

So, the all-pervading theme of Contemporary Worship is LET'S CELEBRATE. (Perhaps the direct contrary of the TRADITIONAL theme of LET'S COME TO GOD in repentance, confession, and submission--the very things God called for in the Amos text: "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.... Take away from me the noise of of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."

So, let us now get a fix on what is commonly known as: CONTEMPORARY-STYLED WORSHIP

If I may try an interpretation here, what God is saying is that TALK (along with songs, dance, harp-playing, and praise) is cheap. And of that, God has already had more than enough. No, what God wants from us are the ACTIONS of justice-making, repentance, obedience, getting our lives into conformance with his will. So, it must be that what God wants of us is the the Traditional-styled worship that says, "The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Ps. 51:17).

So, now we address: WORSHIP in the CONTEMPORARY MODE

Whereas, in the TRADITIONAL era, it had been a case of people, on their own, spontaneously exercising a felt need for God, presently Worship has become the provenance of those professionals known as Worship Leaders. These are experts in the field who have made Worship a matter of study, who have read (or even written) the books, music, litanies, and programs that constitute the stuff of today's CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP. The appurtenances of Worship--namely, books, seminars, workshops, etc.--these constitute a very lucrative business in our day.

It should be observed that Contemporary Worship is not particularly Bible oriented. Rather than teaching Bible, the apparent goal is that the audience (the gathered congregation of course) have an enjoyable experience of music, readings, drama, etc.--which they are to understand as being what God most wants for them. So, as we have said, the big word of Contemporary worship is "Let's Celebrate." We are so happy with our loving God, and He is so happy with his loving people that quot;Happiness in the Lord" becomes the be-all and end-all of Christian existence.

But, do you sense how contrary all this is to what GOD had to say about taking away all our Celebrative Worship?

TRUE WORSHIP is not in any sense a programmed professional production number. It is, rather, the move of a worshipper needing desperately to get to God for help. So, in fact, the gulf between TRADITIONAL WORSHIP and CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP hinges upon a word. And that word is S-I-N sin!

I had determined to do a study at this point--but gave it up as a bad job. I wanted to find out just how many times in how many different books of the Bible, that word SIN puts in an appearance; and it turns out that the Bible is a very SIN-FULL book (if you know what I mean).

Yet CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP completely shies away from that biblical word and it’s implications. Any talk about SIN would immediately put a stopper on the CELEBRATIVE fun we have going. Note, then, that this so-called WORSHIP is very much aping the ways of the secular world that knows not GOD. Where TRADITIONAL WORSHIP centered on all sorts of self-examination, CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP seeks only self-enjoyment. Where TRADITIONAL WORSHIP sought quiet contemplation, CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP seeks only the riotous noise of the world. It regularly comes on LOUD (with electronic amplification, even). It inevitably betrays the heavy chording rhythms which the world recognizes as it's ROCK & ROLL.

However, if GOD gets the last word (with Jesus' in Spirit and in truth) well, then, we know what those words are:

On the one hand we get,
"Take away from me the noise of your songs."
And, on the other,
"The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O, God, you will not despise."


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Copyright (c) 1998, Vernard Eller