Walk into many American churches this Sunday morning — especially if they’re new or nondenominational — and you’re likely to experience the same things:
People dress casually. The auditorium looks like a theater, complete with high-tech sound and lighting systems. Songs sound like pop rock, lyrics are projected on high-def screens, and you sing for at least 15–20 minutes. The pastor’s message is Bible-based, but also relevant to your felt needs. A final song sends you out on a high note.
This style of worship, though quite common now, is relatively new. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, people still dressed up for church, sat on pews, and sang from hymnals. The lights never dimmed, and we almost always sang the Doxology at the end of service. I entered vocational ministry as part of a church planting team in 1990 and vividly recall the awkward transition from the traditional services of my childhood to the contemporary services so prevalent today. Perhaps you do too.
Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong detail the history of this transition in their new book, A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship. They focus on “how two liturgical theologies —two ideas — reshaped Protestant worship in the second half of the twentieth century.” Those ideas can be summed up in two words: “presence” and “people.”
(When the authors use the terms “liturgy” or “liturgical,” they are simply referring to the order of service or matters related to worship.)
The first idea emerged among the mid-20th-century Pentecostals affiliated with the Latter Rain movement. It has a precise point of origin and a definite biblical proof text.
The point of origin was Wednesday, Jan. 2, 1946. Reg Layzell was preparing to lead worship services at a Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (PAOC) congregation in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Desperate because God had seemed absent from the previous Sunday’s and Tuesday’s services, Layzell spent the morning fasting and praying.
At noon, while praying, Psalm 22:3 came to his mind: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (KJV). Ruth and Hong comment: “If God does indeed inhabit the praises of his people, Layzell realized, then he ought to fill the church building with the praises of God.” Praise is the way the people of God experience the manifest presence of God.
Once God had manifested His presence, His people moved from largely unstructured praise into a more structured order of worship. The authors thus refer to this idea and the movement it inspired as “Praise & Worship,” a term participants themselves used.
Although Praise & Worship emerged within a Pentecostal milieu, it divided North American Pentecostalism. Denominations such as the PAOC and the Assemblies of God (AG) criticized both the theological idea and the Latter Rain movement that grew out of it.
Eventually, however, Praise & Worship went mainstream in those denominations too through the influence of mediating figures such as Judson Cornwall. Other channels through which it became prominent include the Charismatic Renewal movement among mainstream Protestants, the Jesus People, and the Third-Wave Pentecostalism associated with the Vineyard Fellowship.
These various expressions of Praise & Worship united around “four core beliefs,” according to Ruth and Hong:
(1) God’s people can encounter and experience the divine experience through praise; (2) praise and the subsequent liturgical activity, worship, are primarily musical activities; (3) when and where God’s presence is manifest, God is active among the people, who should be thoroughly active to God in return; (4) this whole approach to Praise & Worship is God’s gift to the church, as can be seen and understood in the Bible.
The first belief flows directly from Psalm 22:3. The second gives rise to the importance of “worship leaders” who direct the “flow” of music. The third is seen in the widespread presence of activities like dancing, flag waving, and Jericho marches in Praise & Worship services. The fourth belief has to do with the movement’s theological method, which focuses on proof-texting praise verses in the Bible as well as the use of typology to provide a biblical foundation for its distinctive practices.
Ruth and Hong term the second theological idea that reshaped Protestant liturgy “Contemporary Worship,” a term advocates also used. Its key biblical verse is 1 Corinthians 9:22: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
If the problem Praise & Worship advocates sought to solve was the absence of God from the felt experience of His people, the problem Contemporary Worship advocates sought to solve was the absence of people from church itself. “Specifically, the theological idea of Contemporary Worship was a certain mindset of striving for effective outreach by Christians to others,” write Ruth and Hong.
And while Praise & Worship began among mid-20th-century Pentecostals, Contemporary Worship began among both mainline and evangelical Protestants at the same time. Both groups felt a growing gap between churches’ liturgical forms and the experiences of contemporary people. They developed different versions of Contemporary Worship in order to bridge this gap.
Praise & Worship developed a mature, complex theology for its beliefs and practices. By contrast, Contemporary Worship’s theology was more instinctual than reflective. Its basic insight was that there is a difference between the content of the gospel, which cannot be changed, and the forms of its presentation, which can be changed.
Rather than seeking biblical prooftexts or precedents for its specific practices, then, Contemporary Worship simply asked whether more people were coming to church because of the use of a specific form. Church growth became the theological imprimatur on contemporary methods. This theological justification built on the pragmatism that had long characterized North American Protestantism.
Not surprisingly, Contemporary Worship had a long interaction with the Church Growth movement associated with Donald McGavran, C. Peter Wagner, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Robert C. Schuller.
Ruth and Hong focus on four mature examples of Contemporary Worship: Willow Creek Community Church, a nondenominational congregation led by Bill Hybels; Saddleback Church, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention and led by Rick Warren; Community Church of Joy, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation led by Walt Kallestad; and Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church, led by Mike Slaughter.
Although Praise & Worship and Contemporary Worship emerged from distinct traditions and developed very different emphases, they began to merge by the late 1990s, becoming what Ruth and Hong call “the new liturgical normal” that Protestant worshipers so commonly experience today. This new normal is what the authors refer to as “Contemporary Praise & Worship.”
For me, A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship was both revelatory and helpful. It showed the depth of theological thought and evangelistic pragmatism underlying Praise & Worship and Contemporary Worship, respectively. It helped me understand the reasons behind the ways we now worship. It is an invaluable study that belongs in the library of every pastor and worship leader.
But it also raised a number of questions in my mind:
Given the disagreement among Pentecostals about both the theology and practices of Praise & Worship at the outset of that movement, is Contemporary Praise & Worship the only way Pentecostals can worship today? Or are we free to continue thinking and revising our liturgies?
Regarding Contemporary Worship, are there limits — theological, ethical, liturgical — to our evangelistic pragmatism as it applies to worship services? Or are there some worship forms that must be observed?
A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship demonstrates that Christians have answered those questions differently over the years, within our own lifetimes, even. If that’s the case, we can continue to theologize and change our worship practices, with the goal of drawing constantly nearer to God and to the people whom God loves and desires to save.
Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong, A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship: Understanding the Ideas that Reshaped the Protestant Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021).
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