The Modern Worship Revolution: Did It Help Us or Hurt Us?

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By Dan Leverence

In the mid to late 1990s, the “Modern Worship Revolution” was in full swing. I was finishing up college and the very first Passion album (Live Worship from the 268 Generation) was being released. Rock bands were becoming increasingly common in churches and the church music landscape was evolving significantly. We were being introduced to the likes of Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Charlie Hall, Lincoln Brewster, and Hillsong. It was a good time to be an aspiring worship leader.

Fast forward a few years. EVERY mainstream Christian artist was releasing a worship album. The market was being saturated with church music. At the same time, the accessibility of technology was (and still is) making it much easier (and less expensive) for artists to record albums. Church worship bands like Gateway, Elevation, Bethel, and many others (ours included) have become artists who write and record their own original music, adding to the cacophony that continues the modern worship revolution.

Today, I can visit ten (or a hundred) different churches on any given weekend and never hear a single common song. “Contemporary” is ambiguous and churches search for the next descriptive word to describe their “all-together-really-cool-and-the-most-current-relevant-style-to-your-life” sound. Right at the moment, everyone wants to sound like Mumford and Sons, but soon it’ll change and we’ll move on to another influence.

Before you think that I’m having a mid-life crisis of musical philosophy, let me assure you I’m not. I find myself fully immersed in the very same activity – searching for relevance and desiring that our church would be a place that people would want to come to worship. But as I grow older, I’m beginning to realize that the “modern worship revolution” may have done more harm than I would have once liked to admit. And here’s how I know …

A funny thing has happened over the last few years. We’re seeing the resurgence of hymns in our worship experiences. Sure, we write our own new arrangements or add a new chorus, but churches are once again using the time-honored songs of the Christian faith with increasing regularity. It’s certainly happening here at Constance Free Church. A few weeks ago we actually used two hymns in our weekend services (probably the first time that’s happened in the ten years that I’ve been here) and I joked with our teams that I’d be installing a pipe organ the following week. All kidding aside though, there’s a reason why it’s happening. Why? Because those songs are among the most well-known for the church and people connect deeply in worship with familiarity. We’re even starting to write new songs now that feel like hymns (Matt Redman’s 10,000 Reasons and even my own Quiet Voice among many others).

Additionally, bands and contemporary Christian artists that were once dedicated to recording their own original songs are becoming cover bands. Newsboys is singing “Your Love Never Fails” and “God’s Not Dead” (which they didn’t write as originals) and I could go on with countless other examples. While I’m always a little (ok, a lot) bothered that the original artist isn’t the one who’s able to get their song on the radio charts, I think it’s indicative of a trend: the Christian community is hungry for more common music and thus, the modern worship revolution is entering a new phase.

The way I choose new worship music for my church has become more of a middlebrained art and science than it ever has been before. The days of flippantly choosing a song because I liked it are gone. Now, I have a multifaceted system and review process before a new worship song ever makes it into one of our worship experiences. I check the Christian radio charts religiously and I follow several churches who post their worship sets online. When I see a song that at LEAST two other churches are doing, I’m willing to consider it. This obviously doesn’t apply to our original music. Thankfully, I’m part of a church community that values creativity and the opportunity to sing songs that we’ve written but we balance those with the rest of our repertoire. If I’m introducing a new original song for the very first time, I make sure that the rest of our worship set includes a lot of familiar tunes. The result for us has been a dramatic increase in congregational connectedness during our worship gatherings and that’s worth it for me.

So did the modern worship revolution help us or hurt us? Yes.


Dan Leverence has served as the Creative Arts Pastor at Constance Free Church in suburban Minneapolis, MN for the past 10 years and is also an adjunct instructor of Music Ministry at Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN. He lives with his wife, Angie, and their son, Tate. Visti, middlebrained.com

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    7 comments on “The Modern Worship Revolution: Did It Help Us or Hurt Us?

    1. Thanks for writing this article! My Pastor and I were wondering if you might share some of the “multifaceted system and review process” that you alluded to. A few basic things that are a priority for us when selecting new songs for our corporate repertoire are: lyrics that reflect Biblical truth, memorable/easier to learn melodies, a pitch range that is accessible to average and untrained singers (very often keys are changed from the original to make it accessible). There are many other things to consider when “building” a repertoire for the corporate gathering such as diversity in style, theme, and overall tone. Of course those items relate to criteria and but not the process. Would love to hear some things about your system and process!

    2. Hi Dan, thanks for the article and insight. I ‘m pretty insulated as a worship leader; I don’t check all the worship charts, or even know that much what songs other churches are singing. Our church has a pretty sizeable percentage of people aged 50+. In this regard, most of the songs that we sing are quite old-school, and we rarely introduce new songs. Sometimes that feels stale, but your article satisfies me somewhat that we are aiming to meet the congregation’s need to connect through familiar songs.
      Like Jennifer, I’m also very interested in this multifaceted system and review process for choosing new songs. Because, as you described, I can often flippantly choose a new song just because I like it. But your article makes me think there should be a better and more consistent way of doing this.

      Thank you,
      Bryan

    3. Yes! I think it hurt more than help. While it DID bring to the forefront a scriptural call to sing new songs, its been taken to the extreme. In 2008, I was told by a pastor that our songs needed to have been written in the past 10 years, with the exception of an occasional hymn, and that after the first week a song isn’t new anymore and we should do a new song every week. Very frustrating to slam the band and congregation with that much new material. But in regard to the idea of so few churches having a standardized repertoire, I also like knowing that, because what “we’re” going through in “Gotham City” may not be what “you’re” going through in “Emerald City” and what “North Emerald citizens” are going through may differ from “South Emerald citizens,” the songs are representing that local assembly better than a denominational hymnal or Billboard sales chart.
      So I share your mixed feelings, but lean toward hurt more than help.

    4. Dan, thanks so much for your reflections. I’m from a congregation and denomination that has remained mostly traditional in our worship style while all of this has been going on around us. From my perspective the “modern worship revolution” has been very helpful. While my denomination hasn’t taken hold of much of the new repertoire that’s been available, the “revolution” has given us lots to talk about and think about with regards to worship. The presence and pull of the movement, while not visible or audible in many of our congregations, continues to be something that stretches us away from just living in the past (and singing only the best songs of the last 300 years). The “revolution” has helped remind us that healthy trees need both strong roots in deep soil and new growth that reaches for the sky.

    5. Dan, I appreciate the points you made. I question whether the sheer abundance of new congregational music constitutes a ‘revolution” though. New songs were flowing into the historic churches in the 60′s, mostly folk is style of course. The early 70′s brought a wealth of “Jesus Music” into the churches and it’s influence was strong and global. The 80′s saw a marked move into the broader commercialization of “praise & worship” music and the 90′s witnessed the adoption of contemporary music into nearly every branch and brand of Christendom. The proliferation advanced into the 2000′s and continues to this today. One factor of significance that should be noted is that during this transition thousands of churches who loved the music that was coming from the churches who were on fire didn’t accept the fire that birthed the songs. This led to a cloning dynamic that was repetitive, copy-cattish and lifeless. But the “market” had now increased vastly in size, breeding the perceived need for even more songs to be thrown into the mix. And so the saturation that you speak of. Interestingly enough, most churches are now doing the same songs. And that list is fairly short. Did the “revolution” help? Yes. Did the saturation hurt? Yes.

    6. Dan,
      Coming from a Southern Gospel /souther Rock Background before I started Leading worship I have to say I have mixed feelings on this. I honestly feel that a mixture of both old and new with introductions to both the right way has worked for me. The last church I was WL at we did both our congregation was approximately 50/50 and it seemed to work. I will say, I did spice up the hymns with some blues and jazz in them and we did tone down some of the new songs as well.
      Also unlike some of the churches I’ve attended, when we introduced a new contemporary song we would keep it around for a while. We wouldn’t just sing it once and pitch it. That way, the congregation actually got to learn it and would eventually start singing along with us both the older and younger crowd.
      There is a myth that the younger crowd doesn’t like the old hymns and some of the older songs. The key is worship. If you are in a worship enviroment, with the Holy Spirit present, and you have the Praise and Worship Team all in sync and their objective is to Praise and Honor God, that makes all the difference in the service!
      Great article……

    7. I think worship music is better than it’s ever been. Hillsong and others are doing great stuff. Scriptually strong, simple but beautiful melodies and music this is culturally relevant to the times. While it’s important to consider the congregation and make songs easy to join in, worship is more about pleasing God than man. I mean that in this way. There are many in the church who think “I will sing if the band plays a song that moves me”. But it’s not about people being moved. It’s about bringing an offering to God. When you approach it that way, you’d be surprised how many songs “move” you.

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