My second post reacted to a comment about contemporary style worship being “culturally accommodating”. I want to unpack that phrase and offer another way to look at “modern” worship styles.
(None of these posts is meant as a slam against the author of the quote I used. That quote just happened to be handy, but it’s not unique.)
So, what are “traditional” and “contemporary” worship?
By traditional, I understand the Protestant liturgical style of the second half of the 20th century (including Unitarian Universalist). This involves singing The Doxology, a unison or responsive reading, a hymn of ancient heritage, a reading, a sermon, a meditation, an offering. These elements may vary slightly from week to week, but they are stable and predictable. Today’s typical Unitarian worship is fundamentally similar to what I experienced in a Southern Baptist church in the 1960s.
This is a virtue – the stability of the form lets congregants concentrate on the content, without worrying about what’s coming next, how to act, what to say, etc. And a major component of successful worship is spiritual comfort, which a liturgical tradition provides to many.
But it’s not without its problems. Among these, I will focus on one: the musical style.
The typical hymn (even in a “liberal and modern” hymnal) is “four-square” – highly regular in form and in rhythm. Of the first 100 songs in Singing the Living Tradition, fully twenty are from the 16th-18th century, mostly by German composers. Think of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (SLT No. 303). And another ten or twelve are from Southern Harmony (1835) or related shape-note sources, which draw from the same four-square tradition.
This is not a musical form you hear much, if at all, outside of traditionalist religious services. In other words, it’s a distinctive part of the Protestant religious culture. And in this context, “distinctive” can mean “foreign” or “difficult to understand” for newcomers who weren’t raised in the tradition. For those who were raised in the tradition, it may sometimes mean “throwback” or “obsolete”.
In either case, the comfort factor is replaced by a cultural barrier for a newcomer, and a serious cognitive dissonance between our self-professed progressiveness and modernity and our centuries-old musical worship style.
By contemporary , I understand a worship style that uses fewer (perhaps none) of the traditional elements mentioned above. It replaces them with less formality, with modern musical styles and with more congregational participation. Rather than singing The Doxology and a four-square hymn, reading an affirmation, then listening to a visiting harpist, we sing a couple more popular songs together at the first of the service. Clapping, swaying and dancing are encouraged to engage the whole body in worship.
(Just as each congregation has local variants on traditional worship, of course, they will also have their own way of adapting “contemporary” elements.)
Here’s the central idea: the musical style and content reflect what people are hearing today. The song styles mirror pop structure. We use a rhythm section (bass/drums/guitar/keyboard) and rotating volunteer singers. Our repertoire leans heavily on popular music from the last 30 or 40 years.
Both these changes aim at one goal: making the worship style transparent to worshipers. Rather than bumping up against the language or musical style, or feeling baffled by the unspoken but (mostly) silently assumed traditions, the newcomer to a contemporary service hears music and language that is so familiar that it doesn’t even warrant notice.
So, calling contemporary worship “culturally accommodating” is a disparaging way of noting that it cares about communication first, and maintaining sometimes uncommunicative traditions last. When it’s done right, the form disappears, and the mind is free to concentrate on the content.