Contemporary worship music (CWM) is a loosely defined genre of Christian music which has developed over the past sixty years and is stylistically similar to pop music. The songs are frequently referred to as ‘praise songs’ or ‘worship songs’, and are typically led by a worship band, with a guitarist leading. Today it is arguably the most common genre of music sung in churches — particularly in Protestant churches, both denominational and nondenominational. Some songs are even featured in more traditional hymnals.
In the 1950s and 60s the Church began to place particular emphasis on reaching to the youth. Christian Unions in university environments hosted evangelistic talks and provided biblical teaching for their members, Christian cafes opened with evangelistic aims, and church youth groups were set up. Amateur musicians from these groups began playing Christian music in a popular idiom. Some Christians felt that the Church needed to break from its stereotype as being structured, formal and dull to appeal to the younger generation. By borrowing the conventions of popular music, the antithesis of this stereotype, the Church restated the claims of the Bible through Christian lyrics, and thus sent the message that Christianity was not outdated or irrelevant. The Joystrings were one of the first Christian pop groups to appear on television, in Salvation Army uniform, playing Christian beat music. The Jesus People in America also had particular influence, and began to create their own musical subculture, sometimes referred to as Jesus music— essentially hippie-style music with biblical lyrics. This Jesus music gradually biforcated into Christian rock (music played for concerts) and 'praise music' (music for communal worship).
Churches began to adopt some of these songs and the styles for corporate worship. These early songs for communal singing were arguably the first examples of contemporary worship music, and were characteristically simple, often only involving a three chord structure. ‘Youth Praise’, published in 1966, was one of the first and most famous collections of these songs. More recently songs are displayed using projectors on screens at the front of the church, and this has enabled greater physical freedom, and a faster rate of turnover in the material being sung. Important propagators of CWM today include Hillsong, Vineyard and Soul Survivor.
As CWM is closely related to the charismatic movement, the lyrics and even some musical features reflect its theology. In particular the charismatic movement is characterised by its emphasis on the Holy Spirit, personal encounter and relationship with God, and agape.
Lyrically, the informal, sometimes intimate, language of relationship is employed. The terms ‘You’ and ‘I’ are used rather than ‘God’ and ‘we’, and lyrics such as, ‘I, I’m desperate for You’, and ‘Hungry I come to You for I know You satisfy, I am empty but I know Your love does not run dry’ both exemplify the similarity of the lyrics of some CWM to popular love songs. Slang is used on occasion (for example ‘We wanna see Jesus lifted high’) and imperatives (‘Open the eyes of my heart, Lord’, ‘I want to see You’), demonstrating the friendly, informal terms charismatic theology encourages for relating to God personally. Often a physical response is included in the lyrics (‘So we raise up holy hands’; ‘I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my king’). This couples with the use of drums and popular rhythm in the songs to encourage full body worship.
The metaphorical language of the lyrics is subjective, and therefore does risk being misinterpreted; this emphasis on personal encounter with God does not always balance with intellectual understanding.
Just as in secular popular and rock relationships and feelings are central topics, so in CWM an association is forged that again restates personal relationship with God and free expression. Also, the informality of this popular style creates a mood which enables the worshipper to simply approach God without pretence.
As in traditional hymnody, some images, such as captivity and freedom, life and death, romance, power and sacrifice, are employed to facilitate relationship with God.
Because CWM is sung communally, there is a practical and theological emphasis on its accessibility, to enable every member of the congregation to contribute to the overall musical product, and use the songs as a forum to express their personal praise to God. This manifests in simple, easy-to-pick-up melodies in a mid-vocal range; repetition; familiar chord progressions and a restricted harmonic pallete; spare notation (usually lyrics with guitar/piano chords). At the same time, certain more recent songs have experimented with more complex rhythms and metres, and, to a lesser degree, harmonies.
This sound clip is a recent example of CWM and demonstrates the variety available within these boundaries: Strength will rise (Everlasting God). With the exception of one 2/4 bar shortly before the chorus, rhythmic variety is achieved by syncopation, most notably in the short section leading into the chorus, and in flowing one line into the next. The use of a pedal note at the opening secures the piece firmly in B flat major, and the whole piece uses only four chords: B flat (tonic), E flat (subdominant) and G minor (submediant), and just two references to F (dominant) as it leads into the chorus. Structurally, the form verse-chorus is adopted, each using repetition. In particular the use of a rising four-note figure, used in both melody and accompaniment, makes the song easy to learn.
Such techniques are common to CWM: the strong sense of home key, climactic chorus and repeated motifs. Though the style has developed according to what is ‘popular’ between 1950s and now, it is notable that Christian music usually follows popular trends that are already well-established rather than the most current.
At more charismatic services, members of the congregation may harmonise freely during worship songs, perhaps singing in tongues (see glossolalia), and the worship leader seeks to be ‘led by the Holy Spirit’. The role of improvisation, flowing from one song to the next and inserting musical material from one song into another, all contribute towards a unique experience.
There is no fixed band set up for playing CWM, but most have a lead singer and lead guitarist or keyboard player. Their role is to indicate the tone, structure, pace and volume of the worship songs, and perhaps even construct the order or content of the worship during performance. Some larger churches are able to employ paid worship leaders, and some have attained fame by worship leading, blurring contemporary worship music with Christian rock, though the role of the band in a worship service, leading and enabling the congregation in praise normally contrasts that of performing a Christian concert. In CWM today there will often be three or four singers with microphones, a drum kit, a bass guitar, one or two guitars, keyboard and possibly other, more orchestral instruments, such as a flute or violin. There has been a shift within the genre towards using amplified instruments and voices, again paralleling popular music, though some churches play the same songs with simpler or acoustic instrumentation.
Technological advances have played a significant role in the development of CWM. In particular the use of projectors means that the song repertoire of a church is not restricted to those in a song book, and so CWM has a much greater rate of turnover than other Christian genres. Songs and styles go in trends. The internet has increased accessibility, enabling anyone to see lyrics and guitar chords for many worship songs, and download MP3 tracks. This has also played a part in the globalisation of much CWM. Some churches, such as Hillsong and Vineyard, have their own publishing companies, and there is a thriving Christian music business which parallels that of the secular world, with recording studios, music books, CDs, MP3 downloads and other merchandise. The consumer culture surrounding CWM has prompted both criticism and praise, and as Pete Ward deals with in his book ‘Selling Worship’, no advance is without both positive and negative repercussions.
Criticisms include Gary Parrett’s concern that the volume of this music drowns out congregational participation, and therefore makes it a performance. He quotes Ephesians 5:19, in which St. Paul tells the church in Ephesus to be ‘speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit’, and questions whether the worship band, now so often amplified and playing like a rock band, replace rather than enable the congregations’ praise. Samuele Bacchiocchi expresses concerns over the use of the rock idiom, as he argues that music communicates on a subconscious level, and the often anarchistic, nihilistic ethos of rock stands against Christian culture. Using the physical response induced by drums in a worship context as evidence that rock takes peoples’ minds away from contemplating on the lyrics and God, he suggests that rock is actively dangerous for the Church. The theological content too has raised questions for some, including Martin Percy, who argues there is too great an emphasis on a very intimate relationship with God, using terms such as ‘I’ and ‘you’ instead of ‘we’ and ‘God’ and very passionate, physical language, and argues that this bias needs urgent correction. He explains how the emphasis on emotion can encourage hype and a need to create an atmosphere which evokes a sense of encounter with God, rather than allowing God to do so.
As arguably the most common genre of Christian music found in churches across the world, CWM has proven successful. It has given church music mobility by breaking away from the need for an organ and choir, and therefore is able to be taken outside of church buildings. Its simplicity means that almost anyone with some degree of competency on a musical instrument can join in, and everyone can sing, creating an all-inclusive worship experience. It reflects the social climate of individualism as the lyrics emphasize personal relationship with God, even within a group context. And perhaps most importantly it creates an atmosphere of religious euphoria in a style suited to the musical taste of a generation who have grown up singing pop songs and find classical music less accessible.