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Beyond contemporary vs. traditional

Imagine a church auditorium packed with people. Their eyes are fixed on the stage where skilled musicians play and a handsome man leads the congregation in singing. He is dressed in clothing considered relevant to the congregation, and he skillfully manipulates the passions of the people with a style of music he believes adds vitality, energy, and life to the worship experience.

The lighting is perfect, the performance is slick, the people are mesmerized. There is no “dead time”–transitions between service events are seamless. The flow of the service has been meticulously engineered to bring the greatest impact and move the congregation.

“Worship” for the people of this church is dependent upon the music, the atmosphere, the experience; without these, people don’t feel like they’re worshiping.

Contemporary worship at the new hip seeker church downtown?

No.

This is First Traditional Worship Baptist Church in Suburbia, USA.

You see, slick programs, emotional manipulation, and engineered “worship” is not limited to contemporary worship. Even many “traditional” churches, dependent as they are on having a large choir and orchestra or pipe organ in order to “feel” like worship is taking place, often rely on external stimuli to create the worship experience.

The need for “emotional vitality” in worship did not start with the rise of contemporary worship; it started much earlier, first with Romanticism, and then with the theological underpinnings of Revivalism. Charismatic worship was only the next stage in a development in Western Civilization that had begun with Beethoven.

Yet true worship is never rooted in the physical, and any attempt, whether contemporary or traditional, to create an atmosphere of “worship” or otherwise “move” people to worship is a failure to worship by faith.

READ
Learning to Worship is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Problems with worship today are deeper than debates between contemporary and traditional. Post-enlightenment thinking has created cultural conditions that make us all desire physical proof of spiritual reality.

It is this mentality we must fight against in our attempt to recover biblical worship.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

7 Responses to Beyond contemporary vs. traditional

  1. "Yet true worship is never rooted in the physical, and any attempt, whether contemporary or traditional, to create an atmosphere of “worship” or otherwise “move” people to worship is a failure to worship by faith."

    One is not quite sure if you are outright condemning most of the elements you list (and one suspects you are due to your negative terms such as "slick" and "manipulation", and your stance throughout this blog); or whether you are seeking careful consideration and responsible attitude when employing any of these elements during a worship service (with which no-one could disagree).

    "Problems with worship today are deeper than debates between contemporary and traditional. Post-enlightenment thinking has created cultural conditions that make us all desire physical proof of spiritual reality."

    Agreed on the face of it. However, the issues are complicated if you are using this statement as proof of the need to abolish anything that has any physical element to it (or at least the ones you mention and find fault with). We are after all physical creatures rooted in time and space.

    You see, some of these issues existed long before the enlightenment, and what you are advocating as a fight against a certain relatively recent mentality and a return to a certain (perhaps idealized) norm as you see it may be nothing new.

    Your "fight" can also take on other overtones if you are not careful: you could go so far as to be leaning toward Ascetisism, which is perhaps equally in error. If "true" worship is so spirit-only oriented (whatever that means — a little help here would be appreciated) and any physical expression of our spirit is at best a distraction if not outright anti-worship, should we not all enroll in a monastery and stare at a stone floor for the rest of our lives (absurd, I know).

    Another way to look at it is this: we are where and when we are by God's will. There is no turning back the clock to some pre-enlightenment, idealized culture, however much we may think we pine for it. The Apostle Paul was where he was, and we are here and now. Is it really so different?

    Then one wonders if you would apply your thinking to learning, as well as worship. Are "physical" teaching or learning techniques such as demonstration, story-telling, role-play, power-point, inter-active projects, computers, etc. to be eschewed in favor of the purely rote or whatever else is supposed to equate to the "true spirit of learning", not because learning can in any way be compared to Worship, but because these things are intended to help the material "bring the greatest impact", "create an atmosphere" for learning or "add vitality, energy and life" to the learning experience to the extent that grades and other results are demonstrably improved?

    One wonders if some of these tensions did not indeed exist ever since the fall, and whether or not there are in fact examples in the Scriptures of physical expressions of true Spiritual worship. If so, then I would reiterate that few would disagree with the need for careful consideration and responsible attitude when employing any of the listed elements during a worship service.

    Since "biblical worship" is a matter of the right heart or spirit attitude toward God, and since "mindful" worshipers can be just as distracted or misled as anyone else, biblical worship is not guaranteed by or exclusive to worship marked by the absence of this or that physical activity or manifestation of spirit, nor divorcing the physical part of our beings from the spiritual.

  2. ministering,

    Thanks for your helpful comments. You are correct that we are physical beings, cannot help to be physical in worship, and can never divorce physical from spiritual. This is why we make such a big deal about physical things at this site.

    My point is very simple and narrow: if we use anything–even what is traditionally considered "safe" and "traditional" to manipulate people's emotions or "create an atmosphere of worship," we are failing to worship by faith.

    We typically attribute these kinds of errors to "contemporary worship," and I am simply trying to show that these errors are committed just as easily with a choir, orchestra, pipe organ, and song leader.

  3. what most people, even the conservative worshiper forget or neglect is that we are to to be in an attitude of worship toward God at all times. This idea of "turning on" worship on Sunday morning falls flat, our relationship with Christ should be so close and intimate that our worship(Corporate)will be natural and unforced.

  4. Scott: Years ago, I was the pastor of a newly-church planted in the suburbia of Detroit. The "mother" church had wisely built a "gymnatorium" for multi-purposes in addition to Sunday services. I'll never forget giving a tour during the middle of the week to a family new to our community. Walking into the "auditorium" the wife exclaimed, evidently shocked, "Where are the stain glass windows?" Definitely a teaching moment… THANKS for your thoughts…

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