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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship” by Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth

Published Tuesday, November 5, 2019 By Micah Everett

In Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship, authors Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth offer a thorough, honest, and surprisingly non-polemical presentation of the development of contemporary worship practices. Rather than attempting to justify these practices or defend them against their detractors, the authors simply describe and explain certain post-1960 liturgical developments, though their generally positive tone suggests that they approve of the practices they describe. This is a well-written text, and will be a valuable resource for both proponents and opponents of contemporary worship in future discussions.

Although music figures prominently in current debates over styles and forms of worship, the authors attempt to avoid such a narrow focus. They instead begin their discussion not with changes in music, but in language. Of key importance here is the replacement of the King James Version with modern translations in most congregations, along with concomitant changes in the types of language used in prayer and liturgy. For the post-World War II generation with which this history begins, “contemporary worship” might have been synonymous with “vernacular worship.” In subsequent chapters, the authors discuss contemporary worship practices with regard to time, space, the Bible, and preaching. Nevertheless, music ends up occupying an unsurprisingly large role in the discussion, since music is of fundamental importance not only to questions of style but also those of space and time in worship. Two chapters detail the history and development of contemporary worship music, beginning with the simple choruses of the Jesus People from the late 1960s and early 70s and proceeding to the present day, with greater complexity, more amplified instrumentation, and higher production values mirroring developments in secular popular music.

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of this text is the candor with which certain issues are presented. While those commending contemporary worship forms to more traditionalist churches might downplay Pentecostal influences in the development of contemporary worship, Lim and Ruth repeatedly trace contemporary forms and practices to Pentecostal movements. Similarly, the incorporation of entertainment industry-type production values in order to produce a certain “flow” in contemporary services is described frankly and repeatedly, an influence whose presence might be more veiled in a polemical text seeking to defend contemporary worship from its detractors.

Readers with confessional Protestant—and particularly Reformed—understandings of worship will be particularly disturbed by what is described throughout the text as “contemporary worship’s sacramentality.” In this view, the “worship set” (i.e. an extended and unbroken series of songs sung during the service) becomes “a journey of being ushered into the presence of God.” (18) It is no wonder, then, that in many contemporary services the chief musician has become the “worship leader,” and has assumed the central liturgical role formerly held by the pastor. Thus, whether by design or as an unintended consequence of these developments, the reading and preaching of the Word is replaced by music as the most important aspect of the worship service. The sacraments are treated similarly; as the authors write, “understanding that sacramental notions have been attached to music helps us understand why baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been relatively unimportant aspects of most forms of contemporary worship. If God was encountered in the music, they were not needed.” (123) The authors seem less positive about contemporary worship practices with regard to prayer, particularly “the absence of intercessory prayer for others and confession of sin.” (99) Instead, short extemporaneous prayers between or during other aspects of the service prevail, often accompanied by soft music played in the background. After all, “a long prayer by a single person violates a sense of flow.” (100)

Though more traditional Protestants adopting contemporary forms as means of improving evangelism and outreach might wish to downplay the Pentecostal roots of these forms, the authors describe this as “[adopting] the interface for contemporary worship (its style) for tactical reasons without also appropriating its operating system (its emphasis upon the Spirit and the sacramentality of praise).” They further state that:

Whereas Pentecostal authors have spoken of [contemporary worship’s] rise in terms of divine gift, revelation, or revival, mainline historians usually have told the story of the appeal (to their displeasure) of a few successful megachurches whose examples provided pragmatic models for implementing this style of worship for evangelistic success. However, that mainline telling of contemporary worship’s history is incomplete—like the white mainline appropriation of this form of worship—because it overlooks the Pentecostal sacramentality that lays behind the rise of contemporary worship in many critical respects. (139)

In other words, while some confessional churches might wish to adopt the forms or styles of contemporary worship without appropriating the underlying theology, Lim and Ruth suggest that this “Pentecostal sacramentality” is bound up in the warp and woof of these practices. If this is so, churches that believe the divinely ordained means of grace to be the Word, sacraments (i.e. baptism and the Lord’s Supper, not the “worship set”), and prayer should be wary of the adoption of contemporary worship practices. As with the proverbial camel, those letting a nose in the tent might soon find the whole animal inside.

While this volume is for the most part commendably thorough, the authors’ usual juxtaposition of Pentecostal and mainline congregations omits more conservative, confessional Protestants. The reader might assume that these are subsumed under the category of “mainline,” or perhaps they are not included in the discussion because of their small numbers. Notably, the practice of setting older texts to contemporary tunes, which is common in some Reformed circles, is dismissed as “on the margin.” (87) Non-charismatic evangelicals are glossed over to a certain extent, as well. While these omissions are unfortunate, their effect on the overall thrust of the text is negligible.

Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship is a helpful addition to the literature discussing modern developments in Christian worship. The book is thorough yet concise, easily understood, and full of footnotes and suggested resources for further study. While one might assume that the authors’ intended audience was those positively inclined toward contemporary worship, more skeptical readers will appreciate the honest and thorough presentation of the history, influences, and motivations underlying these practices.

Micah Everett is associate professor of music at the University of Mississippi. 

  • Micah Everett

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