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Eight Reasons For The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music

T. David Gordon is a theologian and professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College. A practicing Anglican, Gordon has authored numerous articles and books on the phenomenon of Contemporary Worship in American Christianity. In an October 2014 article, Gordon penned eight reasons for what he sees as the imminent decline of Contemporary Worship Music.

To begin with, Gordon clarifies that imminent decline does not mean imminent disappearance. He suggests that the “zenith of contemporary worship music” has already happened, and movement is now in the direction of traditional hymnody. “If the ratio of contemporary-to-traditional was rising twenty years ago, it is falling now… and I suspect that decline will continue for the foreseeable future.” Below is a summary of Gordon’s Eight Reaons.

1. “Contemporary worship music hymns not only were/are comparatively poor; they had to be. “…One generation cannot successfully ‘compete’ with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so.” Gordon wonders about the arrogance of any generation that thinks its compositions are superior to those of say, Charles Wesley or Paul Gerhardt! “Good hymnals contain, essentially, ‘the best of the best,’ the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?” Gordon graciously describes our generation of hymn writers as “talented and devout,” but not more talented or devout than all other generations.

2. Gordon comments that early in the contemporary music movement, many artists focused on setting traditional hymn-lyrics to new melodies and instruments. Many began to recognize how difficult it is to write lyrics that “are not only theologically sound, but significant, profound, appropriate, memorable, and edifying (not to mention metrical).” Apparently, arranging new tunes is not nearly so difficult as composing a good text. Consequently, many contemporary worship songs are shallow, ambiguous, and lacking in scriptural foundation.

3. Because of that, the “better contemporary hymns (e.g. ‘How Deep the Father’s Love,’ ‘In Christ Alone’) have been over-used to the point that we have become weary of them.” Gordon suggests that neither of those examples of newer hymns is as good as Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” “What is intrinsically good will always last; what is merely novel will not. Beethoven will outlast 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, and Christina Aguilera. His music will be enjoyed three hundred years from now; theirs will be gone inside of fifty years.”

4. Gordon’s fourth reason is that “Contemporary worship music no longer marks a church as emerging, hip, edgy, or forward-looking, because many/most churches now do it.” Churches and preachers obsessed with being “progressive” will have to begin looking elsewhere than contemporary worship music.

5. “As with all novelties, once the novelty wears off, what is left often seems somewhat empty. In a culture that celebrates what is new (and commercial culture always does so in order to sell what is new), most people will pine for what is new. But what is new does not remain so forever; and once it is no longer novel, it must compete by the ordinary canons of musical and lyrical art, and very little contemporary worship music can do so.”

6. Gordon’s sixth reason is generational. “Thankfully, my own generation is beginning to die. While ostensibly created ‘for the young people,’ the driving force behind contemporary worship music was always my own Sixties generation of anti-adult, anti-establishment, rebellious Woodstockers and Jesus freaks… Fortunately for the human race, we are dying off now, and much of the impetus for contemporary worship music will die with us.”

7. Gordon points to the requisite “Praise Team” as another reason for the downfall of Contemporary worship music. Praise teams have always been problematic. Are they participants in worship or performers? “In most circumstances, the members of the Praise Team do the kinds of things performers do… In fact, if one were to watch a video of the typical Praise Team without any audio, they ordinarily look like performers; their bodily actions and contrived emotional expressions mimic those of the entertainment industry.” Much of Contemporary worship music was written for solo artists or small group vocalists, not for congregation singing. “Theologically and liturgically, however, it is the congregation that is to sing God’s praise, and what we call the Praise Team is merely an accompanist.” The Praise Team is a point of friction that will not go away.

8. Finally, Gordon strikes at the problem of the disconnect between Contemporary worship and Christianity in the widest sense. “Even people who are untrained theologically have some intuitive sense that a local contemporary church is part of a global and many-generational (indeed eschatological and endless) assembly of followers of Christ. Cutting ourselves off from that broader body may appear cool for a while, but we ultimately wish to commune with the rest of the global church. Indeed, for many mature Christians, this wish grows as we age; we become aware that this particular moment, and our own personal life therein, will pass away soon, and what is timeless will nonetheless continue. Our affection for and interest in the timeless trumps our interest in the recent and fading.”

Gordon concludes: “Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now. So ultimately, I think the Apostles’ Creed will stick its camel’s nose into the liturgical tent, and assert again our celebration of the ‘holy catholic church, the communion of the saints.’ The sooner the better.”

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The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons