One Thinker Modern Worship Leaders Should Pay Attention To

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music4 Comments

From the rise of contemporary worship from the 60s through the 80s, to its transformation into what is most often called modern worship from the 90s on, the worship of most western denominations has been decidedly impacted by this shift.  

For the amount of time that the contemporary worship movement has been around (now around half a century!), there has been very little careful reflection on the movement.  I don’t mean that people haven’t spoken up and lodged opinions either for or against it.  There’s been plenty of that.  What I am talking about is the type of historical, sociological, philosophical, and theological reflection that one often finds in great history books.  Not much is written which takes inventory of the rising influence of contemporary worship on the Western and now global Church.

Part of the reason for this is that contemporary worship has by and large not been taken seriously by the academy.  It’s evidenced in both the books and articles published (or lack thereof) and fledgling programs and tracks in higher education institutions (Christian colleges, seminaries) in “worship” or “worship leadership.”

However, I do think that scholars like Lester Ruth of Duke Divinity School, along with a handful of others, will be the catalyst toward changing this dynamic.   For instance, check out this stream of tweets from Dr. Ruth (@jl_ruth) over the last few weeks:

(Aug 30) writing update: in article bemoaning that musicologists have written better history of contemporary worship than worship historians

(Sept 2) writing update: steamed that sociologists and geographers know more about real dynamics of contemporary worship than do most liturgists

(Sept 3) work update: spent the afternoon interviewing Dave Roberts, who was instrumental in early UK worship music, e.g., Kingsway

(Sept 6) writing update: taking my field of liturgical historians to task for doing such a poor job of handling contemporary worship

(Sept 9) writing update: what needs to be done to write history: #1 describing it from its roots mid 20th century

(Sept 11) writing update: what needs to be done to write history #2: noting different strands in origins and over time

(Sept 13) writing update: what needs to be done to write history #3: actually tell the story of its evolution over time

The more work like this is actually done, the more we contemporary worship leaders will have the tools for proper self-assessment, and the healthier the movement will be as a whole.  The blessing that our forefather/mother church musicians had is that they were usually trained in the history, philosophy, and thinking of their sacred music heritage.  Contemporary worship leaders have not been similarly trained, and part of the reason is because they lack the resources to do so.  It’s not even on our radar.  

I met Lester Ruth a little over a year ago at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, and I had the blessing on sitting in one one of his breakout sessions on what worship in ancient Constantinople has to teach contemporary worship today about cultivating transcendence in our services.  This link on the Calvin Institute of Worship Studies site looks like it is a recording of a very similar talk.  It’s an example of what I mean when I say that good historical reflection goes a long way in helping proffer correctives to an advancing movement. 

If you would like a taste of how good historical work helps your thinking about how to plan and lead worship now, you should check out this series of books, written and/or edited by Dr. Ruth, from the Eerdmans Series “The Church at Worship: Case Studies from Christian History”:

Lester Ruth, Longing for Jesus: Worship at a Black Holiness Church in Mississippi, 1895-1916 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013)



Walter Ray, Tasting Heaven on Earth: Worship in Sixth Century Constantinople (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012)



Lester Ruth, Carrie Steenwyk, & John Witvliet, Walking Where Jesus Walked: Worship in Fourth Century Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010)



***Check out the presentations linked in Bruce’s comments below!

4 Comments on “One Thinker Modern Worship Leaders Should Pay Attention To”

  1. Thanks for posting. I've been looking for this kind of thoughtful work in these areas, and… well, there's not much out there. Helpful stuff. Thanks again!

  2. I had the honor of sitting under Dr. Ruth in a doctoral seminar at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Brilliant educator that is bringing a scholar's eye to contemporary worship models. His upcoming book on contemporary worship will set the standard for viewing contemporary worship from an academic standpoint.

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