Contemporary Worship Music Matures

Theologically serious song writers are acknowledging Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in contemporary songs that unite head and heart. A feature story exploring how contemporary music is maturing theologically.

Robin Parry taught religion and philosophy before becoming an editor at Paternoster, a Christian academic publisher in England. So it makes sense that he was musing about the Trinity on the way to church one day.

For some reason he noticed that the words and songs in that worship service only talked about Jesus. The Father and Holy Spirit were never mentioned. "I wondered if that was a one-off (one-time occurrence), so I started keeping track at my church and in others. I began reading songs and album lyrics.

"And I noticed that so many worship songs are Jesus or 'you, Lord' songs. This problem is particularly acute in churches that have no liturgy, so the songs bear the whole burden of theology. It's been true in our church, which is part of the Salt and Light network," Parry says.

He wrote Worshipping Trinity to provide practical advice and a theological foundation for worship leaders and songwriters who want to "fit their worship to God's revelation of himself."

Along the way he consulted with Stuart Townend, Matt Redman, and other songwriters who help shape contemporary worship music. Like worship leaders in North America, Parry sees healthy trends in contemporary worship music.

Develop a full-orbed worship

The first trend is that songwriters and worship leaders are taking a step back. They're reevaluating how music influences worshipers and questioning whether worship music encompasses the whole of worship.

You've probably noticed how "Lord I Lift Your Name on High," "Shout to the Lord," "Here I Am to Worship," and other popular songs help you remember Christ's death on the cross and recite Christ's many biblical titles.

Yet, as Asbury Theological Seminary professor Lester Ruth and emerging church expert Brian McLaren point out, when you look a bit closer, many worship songs are more about us than about God. We praise God for making us feel good and impress on God how much we are singing, clapping, lifting our hands, or bowing down.

Ruth and McLaren urge worshipers to remember that Christianity is more than a private relationship between an individual and God. It's more than what Ruth describes as "expressing our hearts and ministering to the heart of God."

We worship a Triune God who dwells in a community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship a God who is active in the world and invites Christians to work together to bring good news to all people, whether rich or poor, whole or broken, in every nation.

Also, as McLaren writes in "An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters," surely we can and should praise God through song. But our worship services can also praise God through poetry, historic prayers, silence, meditative reading, and more. And our songs can do more than praise. As Paul recommends in Colossians 3:16, we can also use songs to teach and admonish each other.

Connect songwriting and theology

Robin Parry says he's encouraged by the trend among songwriters to reach out to theologians, as Graham Kendrick has been doing for decades.

"Graham Kendrick has been writing solidly theological and Trinitarian songs even back to the '80s. He's streets ahead of most people," Parry says. For example, "Shine, Jesus Shine" asks Jesus to set us free through the truth he brings us-and also petitions the Father to fill the land with his glory and the Spirit to set hearts on fire.

Kendrick's output includes songs that teach through the stories of Nicodemus, Caiaphas, Simon, Peter, and Mary. They remind us that Jesus came as a Servant King who asks us to bring our lives as a daily offering and to pray for persecuted Christians. Kendrick's songs praise the Creator who sent galaxies cart-wheeling into space yet has cried children's tears and felt their fears ("Once upon a Universe").

Parry speculates that it took so long for other songwriters to emulate Kendrick because theology is hard. But he's "seen an explosion in the last five years" from songwriters such as Matt Redman, widely known for "Better Is One Day, "Heart of Worship," and "Once Again."

Matt Redman says that a few weeks after 9/11, he and Beth Redman wrote "Blessed Be Your Name," because "the church (and the world) needs its songs of lament."

Parry says, "Matt feels a big responsibility to make sure his songs are theologically rich. He started reading old hymnals. He organized a conference with Graham Kendrick and invites songwriters and theologians. In 'Gifted Response' on his album Facedown, Matt was trying to put J.B. Torrance's book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace to music. Matt says he's only just at the start of this journey."

Other signs of growth among U.K. songwriters include Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, who collaborated on "In Christ Alone," and composed music for a BBC hymn writing contest. Their second volume of "New Irish Hymns" was about the Trinity.

Ask the right questions

Gregg DeMey, a bivocational church planter in Ludington, Michigan, has a unique perspective on songwriting and theology, because he is a seminary graduate who teaches music theory and writes songs for worship. His advice to songwriters includes asking the right questions.

"Instead of asking, 'What will people really love to sing?' or 'What will get everybody going this week?'-ask 'What will be helpful for people in the long term?' and 'What will help people to pray?' " DeMey suggests.

He finds that thinking about how God desires to shape and prune worshipers is more important in writing and selecting worship songs than "questions about tempos, key signatures, musical segues, instrumentation, or clothing style.

"There's nothing like a compelling vision of what the Triune God is doing in the world-and in our specific, local community-to promote vital music making," DeMey says.

Robin Parry admits to feeling a bit self-conscious when his book came out and the elders and worship team at his church began paying more attention in prayers and songs to God's revealed nature.

"When you start to appreciate creation, fall, and redemption through a Trinitarian perspective, you realize we are enabled by the Spirit to worship in Christ-and that pleases God the Father. It's a more Christian understanding that injects God's grace into worship," he explains.

People tell Parry that this worship emphasis is like going from black and white to color or from two-dimensional to 3-D, expanding their vision of who God is and how God works.

For himself, Parry says this emphasis gives him hope for holiness. "I feel like a train that was spiritually static for years-but has now changed tracks. The Father transforms us to be like Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. I don't have to change my habits and lifestyle on my own, because now I see that transformation is a deeply communal journey."

Make wise worship choices

Along with changes in songwriting have come a new understanding of the worship leader's role.

"The worship leader is not merely a song leader anymore," says Dave Nyland, a Florida-based youth and music pastor who now ministers as a worship consultant.

He says that in the last decade, worship music has moved from performance to communal singing. People have become interested in historic songs and words that connect them to Christians from the past. Worship leaders direct the "service flow" of praise, thanks, confession, message, and response, so that people understand God's grace.

"People are surprised when I stress that it isn't about the music. It's about authenticity and genuine love. Well-meaning church members who focus on 'traditional,' 'contemporary,' or even 'emerging' labels get off track. People connect with a church, regardless of music, if they feel noticed, welcomed, accepted, and plugged in," Nyland says.

Bob Kauflin, director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, says that many people learn more theology from songs they sing than from the sermon. That's why he advises pastors to work with worship leaders "to guard and shepherd the flock" through song selection.

Pastors and worship leaders, Kauflin says, "lead people into a fresh awareness of who God is, what he has done, and how that affects our past, present, and future."

Kauflin knows that thirst for money and fame sometimes taints contemporary music. After all, "everything we do is tainted by sin. But we can still use contemporary worship music in a mature way.so that the congregation sings with understanding and passion."

The repetition and musical interludes in many contemporary worship songs provide time for knowledge to sink in and space for silence and reflection. They also offer opportunity for a Spirit-led worship leader to say, for example, before a refrain, "When you sing 'His wounds have paid my ransom,' think about how you know this with all your heart."

"The point," Kauflin concludes, "is to sing not about how I feel about God but what God has done and will do." 

Learn More

Bert Waggoner, national director of Vineyards Churches USA, makes a case for Trinitarian worship, as do Susan J. White, a Brite Divinity School professor, and John Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship director, in his chapter of A More Profound Alleluia.

Bob Kauflin says that reading Harold Best's book Music Through the Eyes of Faith helped him appreciate "the goodness of musical pluralism without dismissing musical excellence and doing all for the glory of God." Best, an emeritus Wheaton professor, delivered a 2005 Calvin Worship Symposium address on authentic worship and artistic action.

Christianity Today maintains excellent information-bios, discography, reviews-of dozens of worship singers and bands, including Tim Hughes, MercyMe, Michael W. Smith, Chris Tomlin, and Darlene Zschech. Cross Rhythms News compiles news about Christian musicians from around the world.

Browse related stories on hymn writingchoral anthemschildren's choirsdrumming in worship, African-American church music, global music, sung psalms, and equipping worship leaders and worship pastors

Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church council, education, or worship committee meeting. These questions will get members talking:

  • What does it mean to worship? Which elements of your typical service most help your congregation to worship?
  • Imagine that someone unfamiliar with Christianity visited your church for a month. Imagine, too, that many of your songs stayed in this visitor's memory. What would your visitor know-from your songs-about who God is and what God does?
  • The Bible says that God delights in our praise. So what do you think of the idea that some praise songs are actually more about us than about God?
  • Which aspects of worship does your church do best through song? Which elements of worship would you like to emphasize more through song? Ideas include God's action in history, God's care for the forgotten, lament and hope, the Father's work, the Spirit's work, and what the Trinity teaches us about community.

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to select or write songs that convey the whole of Christian faith to your congregation? 

Whether you do these or any other things, we'd love to learn what works for you:

  • Did you gather church members for a survey of who knows which worship song and chart how these songs fit into various categories (e.g. praise for a specific person of the Trinity, remembering Christ's death and resurrection, thanks for what God does for you, the Father's work in history, the Spirit's work in your lives)? Did you also look at how these popular songs fit within your order of worship (e.g. praise, lament, confession, petition, thanksgiving, dedication)?
  • Have you written out your process for forming, training, and encouraging small groups of worship songwriters? If so, have you shared your model with another church or at a symposium?
  • Have you found an effective way to teach people about how God's revealed Trinitarian nature shapes our lives together?

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