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"Bridging the gap between faith and culture"

By Paul Cannon, Dave Lefurgey, Rolanda Ward, Lisa Zambarano

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Introducing Contemporary Praise Worship in a Local Church Setting

By Dave Lefurgey

It is evident that a gap exists between the Christian church and contemporary culture, a gap that is continually widening. What can the Christian church do to close this gap? Can contemporary praise worship music be used as a bridge to reach a society and culture that seems to be moving ever farther away from the Christian church and faith? This paper uses social construction theories as a basis to evaluate the use of contemporary praise-worship music in the worship liturgy at Jonesville United Methodist Church in Clifton Park, New York, as it attempts to use contemporary praise-worship music to bridge the gap.

The Situation

Jonesville UMC is located in a bedroom community of Albany, the capital of New York State. During the past five years, the church has slowly and steadily grown. A number of these new attendees are of the "Younger Baby Boomers" and "Older GenX'ers." Although some contemporary praise-worship music has been introduced into the worship liturgy, it has not been enough for several of these families who have migrated to another local church which has a more definite contemporary praise-worship liturgy.

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Contemporary Praise Worship

What is contemporary praise worship? Contemporary praise worship is using contemporary-style music to engage people in a personally involving, expressive, and emotional worship of God. Contemporary praise worship can mean very different things to different people for there is a great variety of musical styles under the umbrella heading of contemporary praise-worship music. For the purposes of this project however, contemporary praise worship will focus on the singing of the more middle-of-the-road contemporary style praise-worship songs selected from songbooks such as the Praise Worship series published by Hosanna! Music, a division of Integrity Music, Incorporated, Mobile, Alabama. In singing the songs, the worshippers will be free from holding a hymnal and may sing from memory or the words of the song may be projected on a screen for all to see. This enables them to be free to raise their hands, clap, to respond to and with the music in an emotional, experiential, involved expression of praise, adoration and worship to the divine.

A praise team of singers and musicians will be in front of and facing the congregation, leading them in singing. Guitars, piano, drums, and bass will be used to accompany the singing. This style of worship differs from the more formal mainline church liturgy in which the congregation sings from the hymnal in a more reserved, less emotional manner, accompanied by an organ.

Sociology of Religion: Worship as Ritual

Society is a human invention developed through human interaction with the common goal of living together in a stable, harmonious environment. When accepted, the societal structure takes on cosmological importance. Religion can be a powerful legitimization for society, and religious rituals play a vital role in maintaining an harmonious and stable state for the participants in both society as well as with their transcendent being. Contemporary praise-worship music can be an effective form of religious ritual to help bridge the gap between the Christian church and culture.

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Contemporary Praise Worship as Ritual

In a contemporary praise-worship service, the participants come together with intention: they come to worship God. And in their worshipping, the individual's body is involved. Bodily involvement is exhibited in singing, clapping, raising one's hands in worship, and even swaying or dancing to the music. It is more than singing a song by rote. It is bodily presence and involvement (including involvement of the emotional, intellectual, spiritual elements of the person) as the human being worships the transcendent being.

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Contemporary Praise Worship at Jonesville UMC: A Plan With Criteria

Introduction of contemporary praise worship at Jonesville UMC has already begun with the occasional use of praise songs in select services. The goal is to increase contemporary praise worship in the worship services and to develop a group of musicians to serve as a worship team.

The following four criteria are the pillars upon which the bridge between church and culture is built. They will be the guide for selecting lyrics. The lyrics must:

  • Be Christ centered,
  • Compel one to service,
  • Encourage community, and
  • Integrate faith and life.

Not every song's lyrics will specifically meet every criterion, but the lyrics of the overall selection of songs must support the four-criteria evaluation. These criteria will help to assure that the values, beliefs, and theology of the church are neither diluted nor secularized and that a full-orbed presentation of the faith is made.

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Theological Reflections on Contemporary Praise Worship

Is contemporary praise worship simply a crass marketing of the gospel that sacrifices the traditional liturgies of the church on the altar of contemporary culture?

The basic strategy of marketing is to identify a need and to offer a product that meets that need. The church recognizes the need to present the gospel to this generation and this culture, and, by using contemporary praise-worship music, it is attempting to meet that need. It is presenting the gospel in a musical package that seeks to catch the attention of those persons who, for whatever reason, feel they cannot embrace the more formal/classical styles of church music and worship but who can respond to and enjoy a more contemporary style of music.

The use of a contemporary-style music to engage people in hearing and receiving the gospel is a marketing response to the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned his followers to go and invite everyone to be a disciple. He did not define the marketing strategy. He did not define the style of music to be used in worship. Paul the Apostle recognized this, and in his missionary ventures he attempted to speak the language of the culture wherever he went. He was able to write: "I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (I Corinthians 9:22b NRSV). John Wesley used the strategy of contemporary music to help him proclaim the message of the gospel. He wrote theologically sound lyrics to be sung to the melodies of bar-room songs to present the gospel message to the people of his day. In a culture that is continually moving away from the church, contemporary praise-worship music is an important tool to use to enable the church to, in one sense, "become all things to all people" so that the ministry of the church might "by all means save some."

In spite of the use of contemporary praise-worship music, the traditional liturgies of the church can and should remain. There is more than one style of worship. There are those to whom the traditional liturgies are meaningful. Those people will worship through those liturgies because they understand and embrace them; they are part of their culture. Contemporary praise-worship music does not seek to secularize or eradicate them; it seeks to present the message of the gospel to those who speak its language and who embrace the experience of worshipping in that language.

Is contemporary praise-worship music simply a diluting of the gospel message that will leave the "Boomers" and "Gen-Xrs" disillusioned once they discover the demands of the gospel?

There are some contemporary praise-worship songs whose lyrics present a diluted version of the gospel. The use of these songs can distort the theology of the people singing them. Disillusionment can follow when the real demands of the gospel are discovered.

The Church must guard against diluting the gospel message to attract any person or group. This is an important reason for the four-point evaluation criteria. The lyrics of the songs must: be Christ centered, compel one to service, encourage community, and integrate faith and life. If these criteria are met in the songs that are sung, the message of the gospel will not be diluted. "Boomers" and "Generation-X" types will hear the uncompromised message of the gospel in the contemporary praise-worship songs they sing. This will be a tool in helping to bridge the gap between the Church and popular culture.

Bibliography of Works Cited

Baldwin, George, Executive Editor, Praise, 3rd Edition, Nashville: Word Maranatha, 1993.

Berger, Peter L., The Sacred Canopy, New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Bible, New Revised Standard Version, Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1990.

Di Sabatino, David, quoting Donald P. Hustad, "The Power of Music: What to Keep in Mind While Under Its Influence," Worship Leader, May/June 1999.

Eliade, Mircea, Editor in Chief, The Encyclopedia of Religion, 12, New York: MacMillian Publishing Company, 1987.

Hamlin, Jeff and Brooks, Tom, Praise Worship, 1, Mobile: Integrity Music, Inc., 1987.

Jary, Jary & Julia, The Harper Collins Dictionary of Sociology, New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Johnson, Allan G., The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Rowland, Randy L., "Complexities of a Growing, Maturing Church," Worship Leader, July/August 1998.

Main Page for this Project | Bibliography | Index of Class Projects