Hostname: page-component-7d8f8d645b-dvxft Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-05-28T23:18:49.832Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Listening for the Lex Orandi: The Constructed Theology of Contemporary Worship Events

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2013

Stephen R. Holmes*
St Mary's College, University of St Andrews, St Andrews KY16 9JU,


Scholarly attention to the popular style of contemporary worship has so far been infrequent, and generally dismissive. Dismissive attitudes have generally been based on claims that individual contemporary worship songs are lacking in theological development, and that contemporary worship merely apes the mores of pop culture, replacing a proper liturgical event with something akin to a rock concert. In this paper I suggest that both these criticisms are false. The first is a misunderstanding of the nature of the liturgical tradition of contemporary worship, in which the crucial liturgical event is the ‘time of worship’, constructed out of a number of songs and other liturgical elements, which together construct a liturgical narrative with theological and pastoral depth; criticising individual songs is therefore largely irrelevant. The second fails to pay attention to the nuanced negotiation with popular culture that is evident in the tradition of contemporary worship, when observed carefully; dominant cultural practices are not unreflectively adopted, but modified and, if embraced, embraced critically and put to use. I demonstrate these two points by offering readings of two (video recordings of) contemporary worship events, Matt Redman's Facedown DVD and Tim Hughes's Happy Day DVD; in each case I explore the ways in which cultural practices are modified and effectively subverted in pursuit of a liturgical goal, and offer a theological reading of the narrative of the time of worship. I propose that, whilst there are significant differences, both can be seen to be liturgically responsible and theologically deep experiences of worship.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2013

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 By ‘contemporary worship’ I mean that broad tradition of worship which constructs liturgical events largely out of repetitive (and often repeated) modern praise choruses, led by amplified music. I acknowledge that the term is not entirely happy, but cannot find one better. Ward, Pete (Selling Worship: How What we Sing has Changed the Church (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), p. 1)Google Scholar and Koenig, Sarah (‘This is My Daily Bread: Towards a Sacramental Theology of Evangelical Worship’, Worship 82 (2008), p. 143)Google Scholar choose the word ‘charismatic’ over ‘contemporary’, but that seems to me to elide an important distinction between those congregations which practise contemporary worship with a clear expectation of spontaneous, and perhaps supernatural, interventions, and those which practise contemporary worship without such expectation; I would prefer to reserve the word ‘charismatic’ for the former group. Spinks, Bryan (The Worship Mall: Contemporary Responses to Contemporary Culture (London: SPCK, 2010), pp. 91123)Google Scholar also uses the word ‘charismatic’, but prefers ‘praise and worship songs’ (Koenig, ‘This is My Daily Bread’, uses a similar phrase, ‘praise and worship music’); I have no objection to this usage, but I want to talk about the entire liturgical event, and ‘praise and worship worship’ seems intolerable.

2 There is some historical description in standard histories of worship such as Wainwright, Geoffrey and Tucker, Karen Westerfield (eds), The Oxford History of Christian Worship (Oxford: OUP, 2006)Google Scholar: see Telford Work's chapter, ‘Pentecostal and Charismatic Worship’, pp. 574–85. Remarkably, when Horton Davies updated his multi-volume Worship and Theology in England in 1996 to include a sixth volume, covering the period 1965–95, the chapter that promised to deal ‘at length with the extraordinary eruption of creative hymnody’ (p. viii) offered, inter alia, four pages on Brian Wren followed by more than three on F. Pratt Green (pp. 247–55), but no mention of Graham Kendrick, who had long since eclipsed them both in productivity, popularity and (in the, perhaps eccentric, opinion of the present writer) poetry. Davis, Horton, Worship and Theology in England: The Ecumenical Century, 1900 to the Present, book 3 (2 vols in one) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996)Google Scholar, vol. 6. Wakefield's, GordonAn Outline of Christian Worship (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998)Google Scholar, offers no more reflection than a couple of passing comments about the dangers and irrationalism of contemporary worship; see pp. 194–5. Lang's, Bernhard somewhat eccentric Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship (New Haven: Yale UP, 1997)Google Scholar asserts that ‘spiritual ecstasy’ is one of the six ‘sacred games’ which determine Christian worship, and so pays some extended attention to Pentecostal and charismatic worship, but largely focusing on the exercise of supernatural charismata – see pp. 384–413. Brian Spinks's chapter in The Worship Mall thus stands out as a welcome and much overdue contribution, but is largely restricted to description (perhaps inevitably, given the lack of scholarship on which to build an interpretation).

3 Warner, Rob is trenchant in expression, but hardly unusual in position, when he writes ‘Christian music becomes a sub-genre of contemporary pop, uncritically dependent upon a narrowly contemporary frame of reference and shaped neither by biblical literacy nor a coherent theological framework’, Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966–2001 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), pp. 72–3Google Scholar. Philip Greenslade appears to be striving to find a charitable account of contemporary worship when he writes, referencing Jonathan Wilson, that ‘much evangelical worship is so “user-friendly” that it reflects the therapeutic needs and entertainment expectations of consumers . . . Mindless praise is the cannabis, if not the opium, of the people. This re-enforces the church's stance as affirming the culture rather than being counter-cultural.’ Worship in the Best of Both Worlds (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), p. 141. Dawn's, MarvaReaching Out without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn of the Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995)Google Scholar is significant and insightful in its theology, but badly misunderstands contemporary worship at every turn, and so extensively criticises the tradition for ‘dumbing down’ worship; see esp. pp. 165–202. White's, Susan J.Groundwork of Christian Worship (Peterborough: Epworth, 1997)Google Scholar, gives a single page (p. 201) to a dismissive note about ‘charismatic’ worship, which is almost stunning in its theological naivety: ‘these debates about charismatic worship hinge on a debate about the nature of the Holy Spirit itself [sic] . . . Can the Spirit be given voice in bureaucratically-produced rites and texts, or must it always work through extempore prayer and praise?’ This is of course just the wrong question, and even if it were not, the question presumes a binary opposition that has been comprehensively dismantled repeatedly in the theological tradition, including precisely in relation to liturgy in seventeenth-century English dissenting debates. These examples could be multiplied without difficulty.

4 To take only one example, Forrester, Duncan B., McDonald, Ian M. and Tellini's, GianEncounter with God: An Introduction to Christian Worship and Practice (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996 2)Google Scholar was substantially updated in 1996, when contemporary worship was already prevalent, yet ignores the tradition entirely in its extensive discussions of the changes being made as Christian worship attempts to find a way of negotiating secularisation. (There is, to be fair, a single oblique reference to ‘small groups . . . developing a variety of experimental forms of worship for themselves’ on p. 228; 70,000 people had attended Spring Harvest, a flagship British event for contemporary worship in 1994, which seems to me to be stretching the definition of ‘small group’ somewhat.)

5 So e.g. Dawn, Reaching Out, repeatedly, but see e.g. pp. 108 or 173. From within the Evangelical tradition, Davis, John Jefferson similarly sees contemporary worship as the crucial problem to be overcome, quoting Boice approvingly: ‘[t]oday's songs reflect our shallow or non-existent theology and do almost nothing to elevate one's thoughts about God’. Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP, 2010), p. 12Google Scholar. Keck, Leander, The Church Confident: Christianity Can Repent, But it Must Not Whimper (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993)Google Scholar offers the memorable comment, ‘we have sung ditties whose theological content makes a nursery rhyme sound like Thomas Aquinas’, p. 42.

6 Ward, Selling Worship, asserts that ‘[c]harismatic worship has become the default setting in most evangelical churches in Britain’ (p. 1); Koenig speaks of the ‘far-reaching influence in both evangelical and non-evangelical liturgical traditions’ of ‘praise and worship’, and asserts that it has ‘transformed the evangelical (sub)cultural landscape’ ‘This is My Daily Bread’, p. 142. Neither claim is backed with statistical data, but both seem extremely plausible.

7 See works already referenced by Warner, Dawn, and Keck, for this criticism in various forms.

8 Of course, they can also be inappropriately placed; what liturgical element cannot?

9 The general failure to consider this practice of liturgical construction is particularly strange given the recent influence on liturgical studies of Lathrop's, GordonHoly Things (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993)Google Scholar, which argues precisely that liturgical elements only have meaning in relationship to one another.

10 Matt Redman, Facedown (CD and DVD, Survivor Records, SURCD5113, 2007).

11 Tim Hughes, Happy Day: Live Worship, London (Survivor Records, SURCD5132, 2009).

12 During the first song, a shower of confetti descends onto the stage; this is present as the preacher (Mike Pilavachi) comes on to stage (the sermon is included as an ‘extra’ on the DVD); further, the preacher ends by making reference to the set list he can see taped to the stage, which reference establishes the position of one song in the ensuing set. It seems likely that more than one song had been sung prior to the sermon, although only one was included on the DVD recording.

13 I believe his first airing of this idea was in a seminar at Spring Harvest in 2000; it is an idea he has invoked regularly in writing and speaking since, often in passing, as when writing ‘lead worshippers’ when ‘worship leaders’ would have been the expected phrase. Matt Redman, ‘Leading Worship: Worship Leaders or Lead Worshippers?’ (CD recording from Spring Harvest, 2000, Essential Christian, SWP0633D/3).

14 Tim Hughes, ‘Worship Central: Encounter’ (MP3 recording from Spring Harvest, 2010, Essential Christian, SHAM05310).

15 Such as the emphasis on the event of crucifixion, and the appropriateness of emotional exuberance in the expression of devotion. I am of course aware of, if profoundly unconvinced by, the scholarly objections which have occasionally been raised to both these points; however, criticising a liturgical event because one disagrees with its underlying theological commitments is the stuff of confessional polemics, not responsible scholarship.

16 Pete Ward has suggested that charismatic worship serves to mediate an encounter with God, in a comparable way to Catholic sacraments or Protestant preaching: Selling Worship, pp. 198–206. This seems to me potentially unhappy: all three traditions would reflexively insist on divine omnipresence, which problematises the trope of ‘encounter’ considerably, and the theological accounts of divine action in Roman sacramental theology and Reformed preaching are sufficiently different to elide what is happening into a broad category of ‘encounter’ which is likely to be misleading. Pentecostal, Judson Cornwall'sjourney into the temple’ motif is, I think, a more adequate explanation of the peculiar intensity of encounter aimed for and experienced in contemporary worship; see his Let us Worship (Plainfield, NJ: Bridge, 1983), pp. 155–8Google Scholar. If an analogy is to be sought in the wider tradition, the practices of contemplative prayer would be a happier place to start than the sacrifice of the Mass.

17 Wannenwetch, Bernd, Political Worship: Ethics for Christian Citizens (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 189206.Google Scholar Wannenwetch is of course responding to Hannah Arendt's famous thesis that the medieval Christian separation of the vita activa from the vita contemplativa was decisively destructive of proper political engagement. See Arendt, The Human Condition: A Study of the Central Dilemmas Facing Modern Man (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 13–18.