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?