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May 30, 2007

Substance and Form in Worship

Kudzucar I don't have any particular animus against contemporary worship or the use of "praise" songs in the assembly of God's people. There is always a place for singing new songs to the Lord and for introducing aspects of native culture into the life of faith. Contemporary pop culture, however, poses a unique challenge to those who insist on making it more and more the language of faith and worship.

All forms of pop culture are like kudzu, the tenacious Southern vine which, unchecked, will overgrow and overwhelm everything it touches. It is not uncommon, in places in the American South, to see fences, telephone lines, stands of trees, even abandoned farm buildings completely overgrown by this fast-growing herb. While a kudzu-form is recognizable, the original substance has been buried. The result is that everything looks the same. Even though the forms of fence, lines, trees, and buildings are still recognizable, it's all kudzu, and, while there's a certain beauty to the phenomenon, it soon becomes tiresome.

Pop culture, including that which finds its way into the worship of God's people, can be like kudzu. It will overtake whatever it attaches to and transform it into itself, replacing what was a distinct substance with a pop form, and obscuring or completely eliminating the reality that lies beneath. I hope this won't be the fate of worship in the American Church. But if we continue clothing the substance of worship -- liturgy, music, preaching, and so on -- with pop forms, leaving behind the rich tradition and heritage of worship bequeathed by our forebears, ultimately, all we will be left with is a pop culture form of worship. All the rich substance of worship will be buried under the rhythm and beats, lights and multi-media props, skits and anecdotal sermonizing that is coming increasingly to characterize much contemporary worship.

But for those believers nurtured in this kudzu environment, do they even know what they're missing? Not likely. How many advocates of contemporary worship have even the slightest sense of worship's rich history and heritage? Take, for example, this portion of a litany, written for the personal use of pastors, and as a ground for their preaching and teaching, in 14th-century Ireland:

O Savior of the human race; O true physician of every disease, O heart-pitier and assister of all misery; O fount of true purity, and of true knowledge; O bestower of every treasure; by the heavenly Father, by the Holy Spirit, by Your own Divinity; by Your great compassion, by Your great affection to the human race from the beginning of the world to its end, grant me abstinence in place of gluttony, chastity in place of lust, compassion in place of greed, gentleness in place of wrath, spiritual joy in place of carnal sorrow, tranquility in place of anxiety, silence in place of loquacity; impart to me Your fear and love around my heart and in my thought, that I may despise every carnal pleasure, and all vain glory of the present life, that I may desire earnestly to meditate on You, to pray to You, and to praise You forever.

Let us hope and pray and study to ensure that such substantial gems of devotion are not lost and forgotten under the ever-growing kudzu of pop culture in worship.

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Michael Snow

Just a reflection...Kudzu thrives because it has roots. Pop culture is rootless.

This reminds me of Elton Trueblood's observation over a half-century ago, that we are a cut-flower society (no roots).


I've often felt this same problem. I appreciate that contemporary worship is alive and thriving, a vibrant way to speak the language of the people (of course, Jesus spoke in Aramaic!). I do however thirst for something more solemn and more sacred. A worship that isn't driven by drum beats and guitar riffs, engineered to move you.

My church has a traditional service and a contemporary service in the morning and more worship-centered one in the evening. I try to mix up which ones I attend and make a habit of visiting other churches.

Thanks for sharing that section of litany. I'm going to save that!


Question - Can contemporary worship be both contemporary and rich in tradition?

Doug Hepner

I believe that it is important to understand the roots of our Christian heritage and appreciate traditional worship services.

I believe that the key to worship is not the format, but it's adherence to the Bible and grounding in the basics of the faith.

I currently go to a Church that has contemprory worship music and I previously went to one with traditional worship style. My current church is solidly Biblical with many direct quotations from Scripture in the songs and the Responsive Readings and Confessions (along with the Apostles and Nicene Creed.) The songs selected are screened to ensure that they are aligned with the solid theological bases of the church. The sermons are solidly based on large portions of Scripture and are consistent with the solid foundations of the faith.

On the other hand the church that I went to that had traditional service with traditional music, much time was put in to making the music very excellent musically. This was very solid, but not very enlightening when Latin or German classics were selected. The responsive readings and some of the confessions were hip and socially aware (in the liberal/progressive) way - yet jarringly inconsistent with the core theology of the historic Church and the Bible. The sermons were based on very small excerpts from Scripture which were often twisted beyond recognition. (ie When Jesus sat in the boat on the water to preach - this is seen as Jesus crossing boundaries and we were admonished to cross boundaries - such as sexual preference/alternative life-styles) The Gospel message was not preached from the pulpit. What was preached was the Biblical/"Christian" points to make your life more successful.

I think that discussion of worship styles can overshadow the content.
I know that the contemporary worship that I currently attend is far more solid in theology and faithful to Scripture than the traditional worship that I attended, where the large portions of the Bible were not taken literally (especially those that did not fit the social goals of the very liberal leaders of the denomination.)

James Willis

Lets not miss the point here, Music is at best a way of enhancing worship. Worship can and does occur even without music, and many times music actually detracts from the worship experience. If the music is very poorly performed it is a distraction, but if the music is so powerful that it simply evokes an emotional response, is that really worship? Worship is an act of the will, I believe we have become so focused on the form we have nearly forgotten the substance. See Romans 1:24-25.


If, however, we follow the practice of the Apostles, and use the liturgy of the Word from the synagogue, and the liturgy of the Eucharist that Christ added, form will contain the substance, and we will worship as they do in heaven, as John saw in Revelation.

And then we shall be neither trendy nor traditional, but timeless.


I've seen the modern church react with pride, using the whole "new wineskin" approach to dismiss all that has gone before, as if God tolerated those boring hymns until we could figure out how to plug in our guitars!

There is a beautiful and holy heritage that we shouldn't turn our back on. We can't live by tradition, but we shouldn't lose out on what those before of have already discovered.

Thanks for this post.

Phil Steiger

I have some of the same concerns for the near future of the evangelical church. This is partly why I am such an adamant supporter of exegetical preaching. It forces the pastor to engage with the "full counsel" of Scripture, and it instills a sense of its importance in a congregation. Too many pastors plagiarize from other, more popular pastors, or are soap-boxers who grab some Scripture to proof-text.

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