Contemporary worship isn’t all that old. However, it’s been around long enough now to receive at least some historical analysis. It seems as though this worship movement has passed out of infancy and adolescence and into a more mature young adulthood. The evidence: the repertoire of worship seems to be getting some brains.
With broad-brush generalizations, contemporary worship’s infancy in the 1970s and 80s created a repertory of church music which was not only simple but also sometimes simplistic. Taking cues from its hippie-movement, folk-based roots, the songs of early contemporary worship were the antithesis of verbose high hymnody. They were short, direct, and accessible. Even this era’s so-called “Scripture songs” were more often than not out-of-context Bible quotations, in my opinion, either a step or a giant leap away from the author’s original intent (think of Nystrom’s “As the Deer”).
Contemporary worship’s adolescence in the late 80s and 90s mirrored stereotypical teenager-hood—an only slightly more mature expression combined with a disproportionately emboldened hubris. The music and texts were more robust, and they gained a relational intensity with God not unlike the fiery love of high school sweethearts. Songs spoke of intimacy with God in provocative terms, like a John Donne love sonnet to Jehovah, minus the elevated vocabulary. Think of the worship renewal movement birthed in this era called “Passion,” or a Darrell Evans lyric, “Your fragrance is intoxicating in our secret place.”
But contemporary worship at the end of the first decade of the third millennium, A.D., seems to arriving at a kind of post-college young adulthood, having earned degrees of wisdom from professors like Marva Dawn and Harold Best. Contemporary worship is emphasizing more of God’s transcendence (think of Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God”), is exploring the deeper, paradoxical theological themes of Scripture (think of Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name”), is re-engaging the hymnody and history it once spurned (think of Crowder’s “O for a Thousand Tongues” or Aaron Shust’s “My Savior, My God”), and is concerned not only with personal matters but with global justice (think of “God of this City”). In short, contemporary worship still burns with youthful ardor, but it’s developing a head on its shoulders.
No doubt some will say contemporary worship is still not anywhere close to where it needs to be or should be. That’s fine. I’m just optimistic that its trajectory is actually pointed in the right direction.