Essay:Traditional vs. Contemporary Worship

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! This is an original essay by DavidB4
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For a number of years, I have continued to see the advancement of contemporary worship while Traditional worship has continued losing ground. What was once used primarily by the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches has now been adopted by most denominations of the Christian church, including Nazarene, Presbyterian (although OPC has held out better than the rest), Baptist (including Southern Baptist), and Methodist churches. Many people accept this change freely, but in good conscience I cannot. The following is my attempt to explain what myself and some others believe on this topic. My beliefs in this area are based on writings by a variety of reformers including Calvin, Matthew Henry, C. H. Spurgeon, and Thomas Watson, and a number of other writers and speakers including Dan Lucarini, Dr. Peter Masters, and Bill Gothard, as well as, of course, the Bible. I have also learned some on this topic for family, friends, and Christian brothers and sisters. I regret that I often cannot cite specific ideas properly, because I have been studying the topic for some time and have lost track of some concept origins.

It is my belief that worship will always be based primarily on one of two things, either reverence or emotion. From what I see, Traditional worship is primarily reverence-based, while contemporary is more feelings/emotion-based.

Reverence-based worship

What I am calling reverence-based worship is that which treats God as one is high above us, yet has stopped down to out level. It recognizes that although he is higher than us (Isaiah 55:9), he has brought himself so low as to die for us, care for us, and listen to us. In turn, we worship him with gratefulness and reverence as a humble response to Him great kindness. This will usually not be devoid of emotion, as it should not be. However, emotions are directed focused as respect and honor. While such worship is not based on the Old Testament, this is usually kept in mind to some extent because in it God shows his holiness and might. While the New Testament concept of God's condescension and closeness is prominent, it is understood from the concept that He is so much above men. This leads to a certain formality in worship which many see as dry, dead worship, or even something done by rote simply because it should be. However, wholehearted participants in this worship will entirely disagree with such an evaluation.

Emotion-based worship

The idea of God's closeness, availability, and friendship are first and foremost in this kind of worship and attitude. Excitement and gratefulness are expressed in emotionally powerful music and other expression. This kind of worship is energetic and can be physically and emotionally draining, which is often seen as good. This kind of worship is seen by some traditionalists as reckless and disrespectful. However, participants in this kind of worship disagree, saying they are pouring out their feelings to God.
Emotion can also be used (or misused) in an exaggerated form of reverence. Many say this method is used by the Roman Catholic Church, with the "sights, sounds, and smells" to make individuals feel small, and the church and saints larger and more significant. Specifically, the high ceilings statues of people looking down on people, and in many cases, even the use of Latin which the public cannot understand, are common devices used to further this feeling.

Why is reverence important?

28Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29for our God is a consuming fire.[1]

The main difference between these styles of worship is the view of God which the people have. A pastor I spoke with at one point on the topic of contemporary worship offered his opinion that,

They do they things because they do not know what worship is, and they do not know what worship is because they do not know who God is.

He did not mean that these people do not know God as their savior. Rather, he meant that they do not understand Him as a whole. They understand his closeness and friendship with us, but not his royal omnipotence and omniscience, as well as his many other great properties for which He deserves respect and honor. In Revelation, he is labeled as the King of kings and Lord of lords.[2] This means he is above every earthly ruler. Imagine the following:
You are invited to meet with the Queen of England. For a British person, this would be more of an honor than for someone of another nationality, but even for an American such as myself it would be an honor. After much planning and preparation, you arrive at the Queen's palace. You are allowed to enter the great gate and pass through the enormous royal building. Finally, you are brought in to the Queen, who is dressed as would be expected and is wearing her crown. As soon as you see her, you stroll up to her throne, and say, "Hey queen! How's it goin'? Cool crown by the way!"
Of course this would be inappropriate! You are not in a casual atmosphere, and you would hopefully recognize this and act with respect towards her. You would act respectfully and in a dignified manner, even if she is not your queen. Now Imaging you are entering the courts of heaven, to bring praise and thanks to God, as David Speaks of in Psalm 100:4. This is not a casual environment either. Rather, it is a place of reverence and awe.

In Psalm 96 we see the following:

6Splendor and majesty are before Him, Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary. 7Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 8Ascribe to the LORD the glory of His name; Bring an offering and come into His courts. 9Worship the LORD in holy attire; Tremble before Him, all the earth. 10Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns; Indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; He will judge the peoples with equity.” 11Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and all it contains; 12Let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy 13Before the LORD, for He is coming,For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness And the peoples in His faithfulness.

David again and again paints the picture of reverent but joyful worship in this manner. Reverence does not prohibit exuberance, but only controls it. While the saying, "If God hadn't meant for use to _____ He wouldn't have given us ____" is often overused, it does apply in this case. He does not expect us be emotionless, but He also does not want us to be controlled by our emotions. One of the fruits of the spirit is self-control[3] (or "temperance" if you read it in the old English).

Additional concerns

Substituting worldly devices for genuine emotion?

It is foolish for anyone to say that worship should be devoid of emotions. There should be an emotional sense of worship, honor, and reverence for God. However, these feelings should come from the heart. When worldly rhythms must be imposed on worship to generate and foster feelings, what does this say about our hearts? If we need the aid of worldly devices used by musicians around the world to excite their audiences, there must be something wrong. Rather than worshiping in spirit and in truth, we are "worshiping" in an induced emotional rush.

Music association

Another argument against contemporary worship is that of association. A number of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) pieces are based on secular songs. While someone is trying to focus on God, they are instead being reminded of worldly things which the original song was focused on. Even the style may be associated with worldly thoughts and behaviors for some, even though a particular piece is unique to CCM.[4]


Music has a cycle of four natural beats. The second and fourth are primary beats, which should usually be dominant. Syllables are usually started on these beats, at the same time as one or more note is played. The first and third beats are known as the backbeat. If you are counting of the beat, this will be exactly in between the primary beats. While most music would focus on the primary beat, most modern music focuses on the backbeat. It is accentuated above the primary, to cause a greater emotional response. When Engaging in emotional worship, it is almost necessary that this backbeat to be used, to help encourage emotional expression. The argument given by CCM writers and users is that music is amoral (neither good nor bad). Therefore, it is fine to use any musical device as desired. However, there are arguments to the opposite as well.[5]

Physiological impact

Bill Gothard has spoken on this impact of a backbeat in great detail, and is the person I tend to remember most in this area, although he is surely not the only one to speak on this. As a counselor, he has been given plenty of expose to people in many different situations. He has seen many people influenced by music with a backbeat. These people have found themselves such freer to sin after or while listening to such music, usually rock. People he counseled also used such music to deal with guild over sin, such as one person in particular he spoke of who would go out with gang members, and listen to rock music in their car for some time before they got up their courage to go beat up or rob someone. Afterwards, the music also helped them to forget their guilt and not feel as bad. Does such music then facilitate sin? It seems so, but what about CCM? The words are right, so it must be okay, right? A backbeat has been proven reduce inhibitions, so it is not hard to believe that such music may do this, simply because of the backbeat.[5]

Satanic influence?

Before you skip this section assuming I'm just calling something I do not agree with something from Satan, please hear me out. A missionary friend related to me a relevant experience. They were living among a tribe of native Africans, working to teach them the gospel. The family was making good progress as God opened the people's hearts and minds. A large percentage of the natives had accepted Jesus Christ, and almost everyone understood the gospel. On one particular day, their two daughters began playing some contemporary Christian music in their room. Before long, several of the tribal leaders came to the missionary, and asked him and his wife why it was that they were allowing their daughters to play the music which had enslaved the tribe to Satan. The utterly shocked missionary and his wife quickly instructed their daughters to stop. They had not really taught anything about the good and evil of music, but the natives somehow recognized this at least by association nonetheless.
I have also heard several third hand stories from reliable sources of people who apparently suffered attacks from demons. For them, one major solution was getting rid of all such music with the backbeat.


Another issue with contemporary music is often the focus of the words themselves. While most well-known hymns speak to God, praising, honoring, and thanking Him, the contemporary music often speaks in a testimonial manner about God. While saying good things about someone in their presence may still be honoring to that person, it would be more appropriate to speak to that person directly. Likewise in song, if the purpose it to worship God, it should ideally be spoken to Him. Let's quickly compare a couple. Holy, Holy, Holy is a well known hymn which starts this way:

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee

Note that it is speaking directly to God. Now let's look as In Christ Alone, one of the better popular CCM songs:

In Christ alone my hope is found
He is my light, my strength, my song

This song is clearly speaking about God, but not to Him. It only takes a few seconds to check the pronouns and tell the difference.


It is often more difficult for many to learn Contemporary songs. Compared to traditional music, the tunes tend to wander more, sometimes fail to resolve, sometimes start on the second or third beat, which in some cases essentially inverts the forebeat and the backbeat, and portions are often repeated. With a traditional hymn, you would usually sing from top to bottom of each verse. With CCM, a portion of a verse, the bridge, or the chorus will often be repeated. The singers must know this fact, or they will tend to get lost. Additionally, contemporary music is often left musically unresolved, so it tends to keep running through people's minds. While this can help people learn it, it can get very annoying to some, and in rare cases, people even find that before they have hardly even learned a song, they will already be tired of it.


Most of the popular hymns are old enough to be in the public domain. While this makes usage of these especially easy to use and distribute, even those which are still protected tend to be more free to use. Contemporary music, however, often requires a person to have a CCLI license number in order to display or distribute it. This prevents people without a license from even helping distribute printouts or display them on a projector.

Final Thoughts

One book I read on this subject, I believe it was Worship in the Melting Pot by Peter Masters, took this topic a bit further, and I think his point is worth mentioning. He spoke about living a life of worship. This means that we do not simply go to regular church meeting, sing to or about God, then put a check mark in the "Worship God" entry on our To-Do lists. Rather, all we do should be done for the Lord. While out jobs and hobbies may not be directly serving God, we should do them with the Glory of God in mind. He can be honored simply by hard work done for the purpose of honoring Him (Colossians 3:23-24). If we have a casual attitude towards God, what will our "life of worship" be like? A quote I clearly remember but unfortunately cannot cite is, "Casualness always leads to carelessness." This is what I believe is a serious problem in many of our churches today. When God no longer sits on a throne in our minds but rather the sofa beside us, He loses something, and so do we. The New Testament does show Jesus as a friend, but we mush remember His personality and place as a whole. Even Peter, who leaned on Jesus' breast later (in Revelation) fell on his face saying "My Lord and my God!" He had learned both halves of this topic, but not right away. We should endeavor to learn both halves as well, so that we can serve and honor Him better.
It is my hope that be reading this, you have gained a better understanding of the importance of reverence for God, and perhaps even the dangers of contemporary music. I am not a theologian or an expert, but I feel that this needs to be said, in whatever shoddy fashion I can. If you would like to do further reading on the subject, I suggest the book Worship in the Melting Pot by Peter Masters. I think I have learned more from it than any other single resource. Additionally, if you have any questions or disagreements, I'm happy to do my best to discuss them with you.


  1. Hebrews 12:28-29
  2. Revelation 19:16
  3. Galatians 5:22-23
  4. Lucarini, Dan. Why I Left the Contemporary Christian Music Movement: Confessions of a Former Worship Leader. Darlington, England: Evangelical, 2002. Print.
  5. 5.0 5.1
And other sources, as listed in the preface