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.