Sep 27, 2011

Accounting for the dominance of contemporary worship music

From the mid '80s to the mid '90s, roughly, there was a struggle in many American evangelical churches over worship music. In some places, it was the most controversial issue. The "worship wars."

It seems like for the most part contemporary music won out. Where there was a struggle, new music won. Choruses and worship bands pretty much predominate evangelical churches, and quite a few mainline churches too. It's not like you can't find traditional Christian church music in an evangelical church, can't find a piano and a hymn book somewhere (or even, on very rare occasions, an organ), but, for the most part, that's not what happens in evangelical churches on Sunday mornings.

The new classics of Christian worship -- the songs that everyone knows -- are "Mighty to Save", "Lord I Lift Your Name on High", and "Shout to the Lord".

What I haven't seen, though, is a good account of why contemporary music won. The sense, at least for those who still sometimes pine for older songs and so still talk about those days of hymns of yore, seems to be that the change was inevitable and inexorable. That it had to happen.

I don't find the Hegelian idea of telologically-determined history satisfying, though, so I'd like to know why contemporary music, which was so controversial for so many, has come to be so broadly accepted.

Some guesses:

  • The Scorsese thesis: The generational center of gravity has shifted, and those who came of age after 1960 now have the most power in American Protestant churches. As pastors, elders, board members, congregants, financial supporters, and as worship leaders. As Julie Ingersoll points out in "Contemporary Christian Worship Music" in Religions of the United States in Practice volume II, "Baby boomers were the first Americans to grow up with popular music as a continual backdrop to their lives." In the same way Martin Scorsese makes the soul of his movies pop music, Americans now find their souls moved by contemporary music.

  • The church growth thesis: Those who wanted traditional music in churches focused on traditional music, but those who wanted contemporary music talked of it only as a means. The ends were things broadly agreed upon, such as growth. The church growth movement, with seeker sensitive mega churches, used contemporary music and demonstrated the usefulness of contemporary music not for its own sake, but for the sake of growth. As evangelical churches copied the model of Willow Creek, for example, they adopted the music without making arguments for the music itself, focusing instead on getting people into church. By whatever music necessary. Contemporary music "worked," according to the definition of growth, which most in these churches agreed was a good definition. 
  • The slipperiness of the slope thesis: A lot of the arguments against contemporary music depended on bad things -- horrible things -- resulting from abandoning hymns and traditional worship music styles. There were arguments from the mild, e.g. that Christian beliefs would basically wither in the "shallow ground" of choruses, to the extreme, e.g. that drums were linked to and would lead to Satanism, which depended on a clear connection between contemporary music and bad, bad results. Those arguments just didn't hold up. The doom didn't follow from contemporary music, and the traditionalists often ended up looking silly, and like they were just nostalgic for some imagined past, or, worse, cranky because they were losing control and ownership.
  • The industry thesis: No one promotes hymns. There's no industry supporting and promotion and pushing traditional music.
  • The compromise thesis: About half of all Protestant churches have "blended styles," according to a 2002 report from Barna. Seventy-three percent have multiple services, and half of those with multiple services have one with traditional music. In evangelical churches, "blended styles" sometimes means one hymn in a service, or a re-mixed hymn such as "Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)." Contemporary worship music, in these ways, is able to accommodate some traditionalism, where traditional worship music doesn't adapt and accommodate so easily. Even if a church is split down the middle on worship styles, contemporary music is more likely to appease more people, and that makes it an appealing choice, especially when church leaders are weary of "worship wars."
The thing that I think is interesting about contemporary Christian worship music is that this has been one of the main, predominate outlets for evangelical artistic expression and the evangelical imagination in recent decades. It shapes and gives from to evangelical identity. So far as I know, it hasn't really been studied.

One place to start would be the question: why this music?


  1. A factor that I suspect you are overlooking is what I want to call demographics. Has there been a statistically significant migration of younger evangelicals toward traditional liturgical churches (e.g., Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and (perhaps) Lutheran)? My intuition is that there has been.

    If so, we might expect those younger evangelicals who have stayed in mainstream evangelical churches to be, in general, more likely to be the ones who are _not_ looking for traditional hymns in their worship. The countervailing voice for traditional worship among younger evangelicals has, in general, already left these churches, so what's left can easily be (mis)interpreted as an old-vs-young, past-vs-future narrative.

    I'd add into this mix that even the "old" in this narrative is, by now, a generation not particularly well known for its own reverence for tradition, either in worship or in music.

  2. I don't think the number of evangelicals who have converted to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc., is large enough to have made a difference. Only 8 percent of American Catholics are converts, and not all of those are former evangelicals. The attrition rates of young evangelicals may be quite high (most of the well-reported numbers don't look reliable), but the bulk of those former evangelicals are more likely to now be "nones."

    Even if the number were larger, though, and even if they had all stayed in evangelical churches, I don't know that it would have made a difference. The 30-year-olds who are in churches don't often have the authority necessary to shape the style of worship.

    Perhaps there will be a change, though, when the demographic center of gravity shifts past the Boomers.

  3. Okay. It's always tempting to extrapolate from one's own experience. Among my own friends, a solid majority of young evangelicals have left for other shores (many no longer identify as Christian, but those that do are all Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican). I didn't know what the actual numbers on this are.

  4. On the bright side, if the percentage is small enough you can think of your friends as elite.

  5. I think you missed a rather obvious one: churches fighting for traditional music simply picked the loosing side. People in the younger demographic prefer a contemporary approach to music. As time passes there are more of them and more of them in charge than those fighting for traditional music.

  6. How is that different than my first thesis?

  7. I guess that it is not really different. But I would be worried if I were still fighting for a traditional organ and choir approach. Time is not on that side of the argument.

  8. Yeah, it seems inevitable. But if we're not satisfied that history works like that -- where it *had* to be how it is, simply on account of history (or the spirit working itself out in history) -- the question is why.