Contemporary Praise and Worship Today

Joe Horness, worship leader of Willow Creek, defines Contemporary Praise and Worship in this way:

Contemporary worship endeavors to use modern instrumentation (e.g., guitars, drums, synthesizers, percussion, horns), contemporary musical styles (e.g., rock, jazz, hip hop, rap, gospel), and freshly written or arranged songs (both new choruses and fresh treatments of traditional hymns), in the language of this generation to lead people into authentic expressions of worship and a genuine experience of the presence of God.(6)

Contemporary Praise and Worship fits best within a non-liturgical, congregational worship setting. At the beginning of this type of service there is about twenty to twenty-five minutes of song singing, usually a couple up-tempo songs followed by a few slower ones. This time of singing songs together has come to be known as praise and worship, or simply worship.

Horness says as a worship leader his “primary purpose is to lead God’s people to meet God,”(7) but in practice, the goal of the worship leader often seems to be to elicit some form of outward expression from the people. Expression is equated with meeting God; if worshippers are not outwardly expressing their worship they are not meeting God. To the onlooker, the worship service appears reminiscent of a concert being performed before an admiring audience, with their hands raised, singing the same words to the familiar, popular songs flawlessly performed by the excellent musicians. Since there is no liturgy, there is no need for the songs to be inter-related thematically, or for any of them to pertain to the preached word to follow. In fact, there is really no need for the words to have very much meaning at all. As long as the people have had an emotional touch from God, they have “worshiped” Him to their satisfaction. The lyrics have little if anything to do with the experience.

Since the sung words have such little significance, naturally, the lyrical content of most Contemporary Praise and Worship songs lacks doctrinal depth. “Love” seems to be the hottest topic. There has been a gradual shift from singing of “God’s love” in general, to singing of “God’s love for us,” to “our love for God,” to “God’s love for me,” and it has become ever more popular to sing of “my love for You, God,” with God as the object of my affection. I have actually participated in a contemporary worship service in which the leader encouraged everyone to draw an imaginary box around themselves, so as not to be ashamed or distracted by anyone around, and to make love to Jesus. These lyrics to one of the wider known Contemporary Praise and Worship songs attest to this shift toward narcissism:

Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire
No one else will do
‘Cause nothing else can take your place
to feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find a way
Bring me back to you
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know you are near(8)

Narcissistic worship says that the origin of worship is within the self. God is the object “out there” who wants and maybe even needs my worship. “I worship you,” “I enthrone you,” “I magnify you,” “I exalt you,” and, I should add, “I free you,” for according to Horness, “If we learn to worship from hearts that are fully engaged, God will be glorified and set free to move in us and among us”(9) (my emphasis).

“Draw Me Close to You,” a beautiful song in its proper context, is on CCLI’s list of the top twenty-five Contemporary Praise and Worship songs of all times. Out of these twenty-five songs, nineteen of them use the first-person singular (I/me/my) with God as the direct object (You), while only eight of them partially use the third-person singular (he/him/his) with God as the subject.(10) Not only has this lent to narcissistic worship, but it has largely diminished the element of narrative in expressions of worship. God’s great story is not told. Worshipers do not try to find their place in God’s story. Instead, they tell God their own stories and try to fit Him into their own lives.

(This section will be continued in Part 5.) (next post)

(6) Horness, 102.

(7) Horness, 113.

(8) Carpenter, Kelly. “Draw Me Close to You.” CCLI#: 1459484. © 1994 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing. Used with permission.

(9) Horness, 104.

(10) Click here to view table of CCLI top 25 song topics and persons.

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