Contemporary Worship

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Contemporary worship is a modern phenomenon that primarily involves the style of worship music, rather than overall differences in worship style. Because of this, contemporary worship is very similar to traditional worship, except that in contemporary worship, the songs ideally reflect the current surrounding culture. In other words, instead of an organ and choir, the music is led by a “praise band,” which generally consists of some mixture of a drum set, guitars (acoustic and electric), electric bass, a keyboard, and one or more singers. Contemporary worship music has spanned across denominational lines, blurring some of the differences between congregations. Where once different denominations had their own hymns, with only some overlap, today, contemporary worship services have much of the same repertoire, regardless of denominational differences.

Beliefs and Practices:

The general idea behind contemporary worship music is fairly simple. If the Church is going to connect with people, it needs to speak a language that they can understand. Hymns and organs are outdated and don’t communicate the Gospel very well anymore. It doesn’t matter how accurate the theology is behind a church, if people can’t understand it, it won’t impact their lives. Because of this, we should incorporate modern elements into our worship, such as electric guitars, video presentations, and dramas to illustrate a spiritual point. These things are meant to work together to help the worshippers feel more engaged and connected, both to their church, to their faith, and to God. Generally, proponents of contemporary music suggest that the worship space be made more comfortable and more recognizable to non-Christians. In a sense, the church building should feel less “churchy,” by going without stained glass windows, sitting in rows of chairs rather than pews, and making the pulpit look more like a podium (sometimes removing the pulpit altogether.)

In some cases, this means that churches stop calling the sanctuary the sanctuary, and instead refer to it as a worship space, an auditorium, or something similar. Additionally, churches sometimes remove Christian symbols such as the cross, because the cross bears a highly negative connotation for many people who have been somehow “burned” by a church. However, other churches who push for contemporary worship balk at the idea of removing the cross and images of Jesus, maintaining that they are major parts of Christianity, and whether they carry bad connotations in the culture or not, they are necessary.

This example helps illustrate some of the diversity within contemporary worship. Because contemporary worship is primarily about musical preference, it is hard to offer any sweeping statements about what such churches believe, because they believe all kinds of things. Such churches come from many different theological backgrounds. Some are extremely conservative in their beliefs, while others are rather liberal. Some churches that use contemporary music are also part of the Pentecostal movement, while most are not. Some churches come from mainline denominations, such as Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, while others are independent churches that don’t belong to any denomination, often identifying themselves as “Evangelical Churches.” For all of these diverse groups to share a similar collection of songs is really quite remarkable.

Finally, the music itself tends to be written in an informal tone, which emphasizes the intimate nature between God and people. Sometimes this is explicitly stated, such as in the chorus of the song “Friend of God,” which says, quite simply, “I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, I am a friend of God, he calls me friend.” Other times it isn’t as explicit, and some critics of contemporary worship music charge that if you took out references to God and Jesus, the song could function as a romantic love song. Along with the informal lyrics, the contemporary worship style was influenced by the Charismatic movement, so it is common to see worshippers raising their hands, swaying back and forth, kneeling, and similar things with their body. However, contemporary worshippers generally move around less than Pentecostals, unless of course the church is a Pentecostal church with contemporary music.

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Contemporary worship music is a rather new trend within Christianity, which began emerging in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Originally, contemporary worship songs were geared towards youth and college students, hoping to help them understand that the Christian faith was not dated, even if some of its songs were. The famous evangelist Billy Graham is sometimes credited for helping contemporary worship music get its start at his large, youth-oriented rallies. At the same time, youth groups and independent Christian groups geared towards young people, such as Young Life, were also being formed. Then by the 1960’s, movements like Youth for Christ, Young Life, and Campus Crusade had developed a collection of modern Christian songs that connected well with youth. Other noteworthy movements include the Jesus People, a hippie-like Christian movement, which was involved in the formation of Maranatha! Music, which is a major producer and distributer of contemporary Christian music today. Then in the 1970’s and 1980’s, two new major distributers developed: the Vineyard Music Group and Integrity Music. These publishing houses produce both Christian worship music, and Christian popular music meant for entertainment, more than for church. In more modern times, groups and singers like Hillsong United, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin have continued writing new songs for church and entertainment.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

The obvious strength within contemporary worship is that church services generally do feel less foreign to newcomers, and church members may have an easier time connecting their faith with their lives because of this. In this same vein, contemporary churches generally have a more casual dress code, which also may make newcomers feel more welcome, and that the church is less uptight. Again along these lines, contemporary worship music is written in contemporary English. So rather than having to translate “Thou” and “Thee” to “You,” and not knowing what some words mean at all (what exactly is the Ebenezer that we raise in “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing after all?) , there is no need to look up words, because we use the words in everyday speech. Additionally, contemporary worship music is very powerful in its ecumenical appeal –that is, the way it spans across different denominational lines and allows Christians from different denominational backgrounds to go to events such as Creationfest and worship simply as Christians (generally Protestant Christians, yes, but no denomination is the focus of the event.) Perhaps contemporary worship is moving us towards the realization of Jesus’ prayer that his followers may be one.

However, there are also a number of weaknesses with contemporary worship. One of the biggest problems is contemporary worship has a way of neglecting the past, replacing it with the present. This can lead to the often unconscious belief that Christianity is a new thing, or that modern Christians are the first Christians since the church in Acts to have properly understood the Bible. This can make Christians neglect their spiritual heritage, and miss out on many wonderful stories about our collective faith, along with differing insights about faith from people who lived in times distant from us. A second weakness of contemporary worship is that its development has led to the “worship wars” between traditional and contemporary music. Though it has been ecumenical across denominational lines, it has also caused church splits over worship style. A third weakness of contemporary worship is it might look too much like modern cultural events, such as a rock concert, and carry along with it unwanted ideas from that event. For instance, worshippers may feel as if they are at a show, where the important work is being done on stage, whereas all members of a congregation are meant to participate fully in the church service, even if that means simply singing along. One last weakness worth mentioning is that contemporary praise choruses are not always as theologically deep as hymns were. Proponents of contemporary music often point out that this may have been true at one time, but it is changing –song writers are getting better and better at writing theologically meaningful songs in contemporary ways.

Representative Denominations:

Again, there is no denomination that is easily classified as a “contemporary worship denomination.” Some denominations include Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Brethren in Christ, and even some Lutheran churches, while other churches that use contemporary worship music don’t belong to a denomination at all. Additionally, not all of the churches in these denominations use contemporary worship music in their services.

Additional Resources:

Click here to see an article on contemporary music by the
Calvin Institue for Christian Worship

Click here to visit the
Worship Leader Magazine homepage

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