Observations on the State of Modern Worship from the National Worship Leader Conference

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought12 Comments

The National Worship Leader Conference (NWLC) held every year in Leawood, KS is a sight to behold.  It really is an off-the-chain modern worship “concentrate.”  Many of the big name Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) industry artists and leaders are there with bells on, and the multitudinous breakout sessions range from the pragmatic to the philosophical.  It’s a wonderful place to get immersed in this world, to learn much about it, and to bounce thoughts off it. I spent much of the conference with roomies and compatriots Bruce Benedict and Wen Reagan, and I must say that one of the most helpful things to do is to reflect with thoughtful folks like these guys as the experience is happening.  If any of you out there are thinking about going to conferences in the future, make sure to experience it with others as it’s happening.  Your takeaways, growth, and formation are multiplied.  Bruce has posted his reflections here.  They’re critical but important.  So here are my reflections:

Scholarship is finally emerging which takes contemporary worship seriously enough to analyze it.  I was able to spend time with four individuals all at the conference, who are writing for and publishing on the CWM industry:

  • Lester Ruth, Duke Divinity School
  • Reggie Kidd, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
  • Monique Ingalls, Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Cambridge
  • Wen Reagan, PhD candidate, Duke Divinity School

Their writings are no joke.  Dr. Ruth has done a lot of reflection on Trinitarian theology as it relates to modern worship.  Drs. Ruth & Kidd are “mirror-reflecting” how ancient Christian worship practices can interact with strengths and weaknesses in the movement.  Dr. Ingalls is researching from a musicological perspective and is on her way to publishing an edited work of fresh interdisciplinary interaction with modern worship, including a chapter on Israel Houghton by Wen Reagan.  In my conversations with all four of these folks, I am impressed by their intense academic rigor and acumen coupled with a gracious, humble posture to engage from within rather than criticize from without.  This emerging scholarship will be a great asset to the continued growth, health, and development of the modern worship movement.

The industry is attempting to be conversant with this thoughful scholarship.  I had the privilege of meeting and having a brief conversation with Chuck Fromm, the guru over Worship Leader Magazine and the NWLC.  Aside from being approachable and amiable, I was struck by Chuck’s obvious learnedness.  Along with Wen Reagan (a friend and PhD student at Duke University), I got to briefly discuss aspects of Dr. Fromm’s PhD dissertation from Fuller Seminary many years back, integrating the discipline of sociology with reflections on the early contemporary Maranatha! movement.  Chuck’s own appreciation for the influence of the academy is evident in the room he made for the above-mentioned scholars to impact and interact with the conference-participants.  He gave Dr. Ingalls a platform to share some of her reflections (emerging from her cover story article in the most recent edition of Worship Leader Magazine), and Drs. Ruth and Kidd both held outstanding breakout sessions on many of the aforementioned topics.

Modern worship is, perhaps, witnessing a turning point toward eclectic styles.  Notwithstanding a few exceptions, contemporary worship has largely been stylistically monolithic over the last 30 years.  What I mean is that even as styles have changed (from folk, to light adult-contemporary, to alt rock, etc.), they’ve changed together, such that one could observe a general “sound” that characterized the majority of western, largely white, suburban contemporary/modern worship.  It seems like this is changing.  Rend Collective Experiment, for instance, came off as a very amped up, Mumford-meets-Dropkick-Murphys (so definitely no U2/Coldplay vibes), and yet they were accepted and appreciated with great enthusiasm.  A similar sense was felt with All Sons & Daughters.  And this was all alongside acoustic-pop Paul Baloche, in-your-face-rock Elevation Worship, and (I won’t attempt to describe him) Israel Houghton.  Perhaps modern worship has always had its fringe ecclecticism, but I wonder whether this diversity will infiltrate the core in the coming years with the increased tribalization of worship music and independent artists.  Though the labels still run these folks, you can feel the impact of the independent worship recording anti-industry when you witness this trajectory toward a splintering of the contemporary/modern worship “sound.”

Modern worship has a great heart and has captured an important aspect of what whole-self worship looks like in the corporate setting.  Whenever I’m in large, bombastic modern worship settings like this one, I’m continually impressed by the fervency of many worshipers.  You see it in bodies and faces.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: What modern worship has to offer to the larger worshiping body of worldwide Christianity is one model of what full-bodied worship looks like.  Though I am a mind-body dualist, I’ve been jamming recently on viewing the human being, body and soul, as a unified whole.  Sometimes our dualism has allowed us to excuse bodyless, “inner-heart” worship as appropriate and adequate.  But it seems to me that the scriptural call, modeled in the Old Testament’s whole burnt offering and the New Testament’s gospel-response of bodily living sacrifices as our spiritual act of worship (Rom 12:1), is a corporate worship expression that includes the body as well as the soul.  Though we may critique aspects of the way CWM engages the corporate expression, an open heart witnesses something much more “shalom-ish” in CWM settings than it does a lot of other places.  I’m grateful that this challenge is always brought to me to be more invested, more whole-hearted, and more full-bodied.  (Check out other posts on this subject here.)

Modern worship has a healthy self-awareness of its quirks.  Savvy, cynical outsiders like to tease the odd stage mannerisms, predictable hairstyles, skinny jeans, v-necked shirts, Coldplay-emulating, U2-rehashing, kick-thumping sameness of the modern worship leader culture.  More than once at the NWLC, some of those big names (e.g. Paul Baloche, Laura Story) were poking fun at themselves and their cohorts.  More than that, some of them were calling for a more sensible approach to the rock show aesthetics (lights, haze), even as the “show” would be in full gear every night.  They are aware of themselves, which means they probably haven’t been oblivious to their critics.

Modern worship continues very much to struggle with ageism and the worship of young, beautiful people.  With a few exceptions, all the highlighted artists were either actually young or quite young-looking.  Virtually no one was ugly or overweight (by our cultural standards).  This continues to be a problem which affects churches on a local level.  It’s really hard to see how this will change apart from miraculous divine intervention.  It is a deep-seated, nasty reality.  It is idolatrous, and I find my own heart all too often tempted to bow to this god (check out my post on ageism in modern worship leading for more on this).

Regardless of their denomination, many modern worship leaders are oblivious to how beholden their practices and worship planning habits are to pentecostal theology.  In almost every instance, if there was a breakout session with an artist or practitioner, their language and reflection were loaded with pentecostal presuppositions: comments about the human’s relationship to the causality of God’s manifest presence and the power of the Spirit; quips about the role of the worship leader; hints at internally-oriented, very individualized piety; and on and on.  Whether Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, or non-denominational, it’s still a bit discouraging to see that many worship leaders see no tension between the theology upheld by their tradition and the praxis of much of modern worship.

The CWM industry/movement still lacks adequate reflection on technology.  I have been observing the industry for long enough and have jumped in its stream many times now to believe wholeheartedly that CWM’s unbridled use of technology (sound, lighting, projection) is moving much faster than any accompanying theological reflection. Thoughtful authors and reflectors are certainly asking the probing questions, but conferences like the NWLC show that they haven’t been heard and are far from being answered.  Questions may include: (1) How do we reflect the “otherness” of God in a screen-/image-saturated culture? (2) How is our use of fast-paced technology shaping us in our ability to attend to the drama and elements of corporate worship? (3) What place does the spoken word have in a media culture dominated by the image? (4) How do big up-front productions encourage and hinder the corporate singing and participation of the people of God?  

Alright.  There you have it.  What say ye?

12 Comments on “Observations on the State of Modern Worship from the National Worship Leader Conference”

  1. Zac,

    Great thoughts – thanks for sharing these! Could you elaborate on your next to last point about being "beholden to pentecostal theology," in particular the last sentence: "Whether Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, or non-denominational, it's still a bit discouraging to see that many worship leaders see no tension between the theology upheld by their tradition and the praxis of much of modern worship."

  2. I have the same request as the first commentator…can you please elaborate with more detail & examples on the Pentecostal theological influence on CWM worship leaders? I'm sure Pentecostalism has influenced my worship leading but I'm not aware of in what ways it is a negative theological or philosophical influence.

    Thank you – I really enjoyed your article and am excited to have discovered your blog.


  3. I'd like to read "I Am a Friend of God: The Prosperity Gospel of Contemporary Worship Music Superstar Israel Houghton" but can't find it. Can you help me get hold of that?

    Also, I admit to reacting immediately to the reflections on technology, because I think it is a slippery slope in the other direction. With screens/displays/mobile – I would suggest that if we truly follow the rabbit hole, we end up dismissing mass media altogether and end up with the only permissible transfer of the gospel by word of mouth, having memorized the entire Scripture. If movies, graphics, motion is out – surely print is next. So books must go. We know that the divine Scriptures are printed in book form, so how does that fit in? Is it just our current bias toward the new? You and I don't have any concept of life before TV… perhaps this is just the latest iteration of the technology issue. Everything is profane. There is divine redemption. I'm pretty satisfied with us creating because God is creative – and pointing to Him at every opportunity with every vehicle possible. (Even Jackson Pollock style abstractionism – despite my under appreciation of that particular form – if it gets the job done.) I'd like to see a follow up – perhaps a series from you – on what your personal thoughts are on each of these topics. Glad you're enjoying your time.

  4. Jay & Daniel: Great question. You could read what I've said and think that I'm critical of pentecostalism in general, which I am not. I agree with many points of pentecostal theology and am grateful for its influence and voice in evangelicalism. Two pentecostal theologians in particular (Gordon Fee & Simon Chan) have had a big influence on my life and theology. Anyway…

    Check out, for instance, this 1991 article by Robert Webber (thanks Bruce for pointing this out to me!)…especially the section "The Temple Sequence" toward its end.

    The concept of the "manifest presence of God" in relation to MUSICAL phenomena is a strong pentecostal value. Many, if not most, other historical Christian traditions point to that reality being more overt in preaching and (especially) the Lord's Supper. But you sometimes find evangelicals of all denominational stripes saying things like "I really experienced God in that song" or "God came down when we sang that." Pentecostalism, too, also places high value on the relationship between the Holy Spirit's presence and moments of spontaneous ecstasy. In many ways, Pentecostalism's pneumatology has been the "tacit understanding" of many evangelicals, mainly because said theology is loaded in modern worship songwriting.


    Where did you hear of that article? It sounds like something my friend Wen Reagan is currently writing. If it indeed is the same article, it is due to be published by editor Monique Ingalls (mentioned above) as a part of a larger work analyzing CWM from a variety of angles. I can put you in touch with Wen, if you like. Re: technology…don't misunderstand my critique as saying that technology is inherently bad or wrong. If that were the case, you're right…it would be a slippery slope. All I'm concerned about (along with many others) is that we engage in important theological/anthropological/philosophical reflection on technology, because the "hey, culture digs it so we should too" paradigm is unsatisfactory. Technology shapes us…and our desires. It may not be inherently bad or good, but its shaping power is not neutral. There are benefits and liabilities to any technology (whether projectors or paint brushes, speakers or Gutenberg presses). There is more being written on this. I just wish the CWM industry would try to pay more attention. I believe, actually, that some of Dr. Ingalls' future publication will be to explore some of these realities as they relate to CWM. I'm excited to read what she comes up with. Hopefully that helps, brother. I hope and pray your ministry is going well. It's exciting to see you're on the SongDISCovery listening team! You've got good ears.

  5. I'd like to hear more on the subject of the pentacostal bent of contemporary worship culture and forming a healthy theology of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God in relation to worship. In the past I've been extremely critical of any sort of worship that overtly focuses on the "presence" of God but I've lately been convicted that this is a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…after all God in three persons, certainly the theology of the Holy Spirit should equally inform our worship along with God the Father and God the Son?

    But I'm having a hard time treading the line between simply acknowledging and celebrating the presence of God with us through the Holy Spirit, and chasing after mystical worship "experiences" and viewing the Holy Spirit like some sort of sideshow performer. A part of me thinks that the Holy Spirit has historically been forgotten or overlooked and the modern worship movement is recovering that. But I also clearly see a lot of overindulgence, or at least a lack of theological grounding and investigation into how it all fits together.

  6. Kristin,

    Thanks so much for opening the dialogue. Read my comment above clarifying the pentecostal thing. As for "presence," I'm glad that you're feeling that tension, because I'm convicted that the presence of God is a central motif of Christian worship. A great book that drove this home (not pentecostal, but thoroughly and robustly evangelical) is John Jefferson Davis' Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence. Really, check out that book if you're trying to find solid, biblical thinking on the issue of worship and the presence of God.


  7. Zack,
    Thanks for your thoughtful attention re the NWLC and I look forward to futher dialogue with you. We are continuing the conversation of the Kansas NWLC theme "In Rememberance of Me" in San Diego.. Oct 9-11 .. with Jeremy Begbie and Len Sweet. Jeremy just sent me his focus question re: "Remembering the Future" ..How can worship celebrate both what God has done and what God will do? Jeremy will use music and live performance, to show that worshiping Jesus means remembering a past that’s bursting with a future.
    on "remembering" Len Sweet wrote me last week .. "Can’t wait to sink my teeth into “In Remembrance of Me” theme. The many ways we airbrush Jesus out of Christianity is SO up my alley. I will also want to talk about how part of “remembering” is re-membering the dismembered and forgotten . . . . this is where justice comes in, not in the “red letters” but in the re-membering "
    So in addition to the "PENTECOST" of music… our hope is that although we may speak with a variety of theollogical tongues there is one clear understanding regarding who our worship leader is; Jesus. ..the center focus of our worship.
    At Pentecost the confusion of tongues was healed through Jesus as everyone HEARD and understood. We pray that through the variety of theological
    Speaking of Pentecostal theology and modern worship music have you read "A Precious Fountain"… by Catherine McGann (2004). music in the worship of an African American Catholic Community .. which happens to be located in San Francisco Calif. This is a catholic pentecostal church. Also McGann and Edward Foley have a brilliant little book decribing a methodology for doing ethnographic research in worship entitled.. " Exploring music as worship and theology" an interdisciplinary method for studying liturgical practice… I would highly recommend this book.. it can be the basis for creating a helpful tool for Evangelical worship pastor/leaders.
    Let me know how we can help plug you in to San Diego. As I said… in addition to the "pentecost" is to continue our worship reflection on sevearl levels. Email anytime…sorry this is so long… blessings, Chuck

  8. Chuck,

    Thanks for taking the time to read the post and to interact. I've got both those McGann books on order, as I have not read them before. I can't wait to dig into them. Thank you for the recommendations! I'm excited to see that Dr. Begbie will explore some of the significance of "anamnesis" (remembrance), because that's been a significant exegetical insight that has shaped my views of worship, worship leading, and worship planning. I certainly wish I could be in San Diego! My church graciously sends me to one conference a year, so Kansas City may be it for me. I can't wait to talk further, and thanks again for finding me in my little corner of the blogosphere.


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