A few months ago, I wrote about the different versions of the Bible, and I was surprised at the flack I got for thinking the Message was completely worthless. So, this time I thought I’d tackle a much less controversial topic: what’s the difference between contemporary and traditional worship?
I think we’d all say that the two styles are equally acceptable to God and equally holy. But there’s a bit of a misconception that contemporary worship is the exact same as traditional worship but with different instruments or a different musical style. I think anyone who’s been in both types of services can tell you there are more differences than musical styles. The main differences actually come down to the emotion of worship, the style of worship, and the underlying purpose of worship.
And again, before I hear anything from people who are ardent defenders of one style or another, both types are equally valid, holy and necessary for Christian living.
Emotion of Worship
The fact that congregational worship includes music goes to show that a key purpose of worship is to bring up your emotions. The goal of musical worship is to shift your mindset away from what you’re seeing in the world and get you into the mindset that you are in the presence of a God who is to be worshiped.
In traditional worship, this is accomplished through a sense of reverence. There’s always a certain ceremony to traditional worship, encouraging you to wear your “Sunday best” and sing along to these hymns, full of well-written classical accompaniment that contains sophisticated lyrics full of words we wouldn’t use in our everyday speech. It’s a symbol that God is worthy of the absolute best of our dress, our culture, and by extension, our lives.
Contemporary services accomplish the same through intimacy. The music is simpler, but the fuller band and the style of the music is designed to set a particular atmosphere. Often the lights are brought down, delay is put on guitars, and it begins to feel like a spiritual setting. The lyrics to the songs are about God’s closeness to us, with the instrumentals and the lyrics together guiding us to a sort of emotional high in which we recognize both God’s greatness and His goodness. People often have a deeper understanding of the easier to understand lyrics in songs like Good Good Father and Holy Spirit. The goals of contemporary worship are mainly to come as you are and experience God in the most intimate way possible.
Style of Worship
Most people could identify the real difference between traditional and contemporary worship through the response of the congregation. In each case, you’ll find people responding as the worship leaders intended, but you see very different results. Both styles are designed to praise and worship God for who He is.
In traditional worship, the most important thing the congregation can do is sing along. The hymns are songs of praise, full of words that God deserves to hear. The congregation sings along to the (admittedly pretty complicated) melodies. Instead of just one worship team, even with a choir present, the general feel is that the church is all singing together. No one is really leading or following, but they are all uniformly singing together.
That uniformity isn’t really present in contemporary worship. Contemporary worship tends to focus more on a physical or emotional response. Usually the worship team are the only people who are heavily focused solely on the content of the music. Many people in a contemporary service will reflect on the music, meditate on the words, and give an emotional response. Sometimes that’s closing their eyes, or lifting their hands, or dancing, or falling to their knees. There’s a lot of motion in contemporary worship, and the generally attitude is that there’s just as much for us to gain from worship as there is for us to give unto God, which leads me into the final difference:
Purpose of Worship
Musical worship is all throughout the Bible and is used for a variety of reasons, so to say the purpose behind one church’s worship is wrong and another is right is pretty asinine. In any case, however, the primary purpose is to life our praises unto God. Beyond that, however, there are many options. In the Bible, musical worship has been used to celebrate, to mourn, to ask for victory, to declare God’s promises, to mark special occasions and plenty of other tasks.
Traditional worship mainly uses the music portion of its service to transition to the sermon. It has you sing praises of God for the glory of God and to shift your mindset so you’re ready to hear the Word of God. You tend to think of God in a broad context in traditional services, rather than in terms of your own life.
In contemporary services, often the worship is just as important as the sermon. It’s often used to speak personal truths about God to the congregation. It is also for the glory of God, but now there is a spiritual benefit. It’s designed to give you an emotional connection to God. The music leads you to think about what God means in your specific individual life, which then leads you to understand God in a broader context (rather than the opposite direction found in traditional services).
At the end of the day, the difference between traditional worship and contemporary worship is simple. Traditional worship is about reverence for a big God who lives outside of time, created the universe and has infinite power and wisdom. Contemporary worship is about an emotional connection to a God who loves us and wants a relationship with each and every one of us.
Obviously, there are plenty of times of overlap. Contemporary services spend plenty of time talking about how great God is and traditional services spend plenty of time talking about how good and loving God is. But in terms of the general moods of the worship service, this is the case.
Both forms of worship are necessary for a full relationship with Christ. The purpose of this post was to point out how profoundly different and profoundly necessary they both are. So look at your own church services, see which way they lean, and use that to determine what you really need from your personal time with God. If your service is very traditional and leaning toward the omnipotence of God, focus on the relational aspects of God during your personal time, and vice versa. The God of love and the God of power and might are not separate in the Word of God, and we shouldn’t neglect one in favour of the other in our lives either. Just something to think about.