Is Contemporary “Praise and Worship” Killing True Worship?: An exercise in irony – Roman Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals and Brethren may have more in common than we realise.

Dwight Longenecker has done it again. He’s written an article that has its finger on the pulse of a widespread and important issue. For those who don’t know, Longenecker is a Former Anglican Priest, with evangelical fundamentalist roots who converted to Roman Catholicism.

Longenecker’s latest piece focuses on an issue that has been well covered – particularly in reformed contexts. The issue of contemporary “praise and worship” music – in other words, the praise-band model which was pioneered by Calvary Chapel, and exported and imported via the charismatic movement to almost every denomination in the world.

What is Longenecker saying? A few things.

He kicks off his blog with the following introduction:

A tweet I posted has garnered a wide response. I stated that praise and worship was okay for praise and worship events, but not for the liturgy of the Mass.

Why not? What’s the issue with “praise and worship” at Mass?

He tells us:

The fact is, the divine liturgy is not less than praise and worship. It is more than a praise and worship event.

When I say Praise and Worship event I mean essentially a kind of sacred singalong–in which contemporary musicians lead the faithful in an inspiring and rousing sing song or concert. This might be interspersed with testimony and inspirational reflections.

This is all well and good as far as it goes, and it is the kind of default setting for most Protestant worship in one way or another.

However, this is not essentially what the Divine Liturgy is about. Praise and worship are part of the Divine Liturgy, but not the essential part.

It is best first of all to remind ourselves what the liturgy is for. The liturgy is the re-presentation of the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the liturgy we bring into the present moment Christ’s sacrifice and apply its benefits to the needs of this present moment.

It is through this action that we also offer ourselves, our souls and our bodies as a living sacrifice, and it is through this that we offer praise, thanksgiving and worship to Almighty God.

There are number of issues here that Longenecker is touching on – and they have a deeper relevance than the relationship between “praise and worship” and Roman Catholic Mass”. The issues actually relate to the deeper issue of what is true worship? Longenecker’s concerns are not just Roman Catholic concerns, they are Christian concerns – and this is why conscientious Christians of diverse denominational stripes have the same concerns about the impact of contemporary “praise and worship” upon liturgy.

Just this week, a brother-in-the-Lord gave me some literature on Exclusive Psalmody. He is exercised about this issue, and is part of a wider group of people who are concerned about a perceived downgrade within some Scottish Reformed Presbyterian denominations. I read the two books he gave me – and they had the unique ability to cause me to be simultaneously sympathetic and frustrated towards the authors and their concerns. On the one hand I understand and empathise with the issue. The reformation was about stripping away anything that distracted from Christ. It was a purging of all that was human and restoring that which was divine. Why would anyone want to replace heaven-borne psalms with earth-bound hymns?

I get it. Kind of.

But I also find the whole thing frustrating. Both books made the point that hymns were okay to be sung in other contexts – just not public worship. They are okay for personal devotions, they are okay for family devotions, they are okay for informal fellowship contexts – just not public worship. Why? Hymn singing is not worship – because God has only commanded that we sing the psalms – and true worship is only that which God has commanded. We are not free to worship God in the way that we choose or prefer.

In a strange way – the reformed guys are saying almost the same thing as the Catholic Priest – or the Catholic Priest is saying the same thing as the reformed guys. When Longenecker says, “praise and worship was okay for praise and worship events, but not for the liturgy of the Mass.” And again, his justification for this is not all that different to that which is argued by the Exclusive Psalm proponents.

 However, this is not essentially what the Divine Liturgy is about. Praise and worship are part of the Divine Liturgy, but not the essential part.

It is best first of all to remind ourselves what the liturgy is for. The liturgy is the re-presentation of the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the liturgy we bring into the present moment Christ’s sacrifice and apply its benefits to the needs of this present moment.

How on earth can the Regulative Principle have anything in common with the concept of Mass? Well, in some respects, Longenecker’s definition of what the Liturgy of Mass is all about is not all that different to what we Reformed believers say the Holy Spirit does through Word and Sacrament. What is the preaching of the gospel, the breaking of bread, and weekly worship of God all about if it is not a recalling of what Christ has accomplished – and the trust that the Holy Spirit is “applying its benefits to the needs of the present moment” through preaching, sacrament, and prayer?

But my point is not simply to argue that what takes place at Mass and a Reformed worship service is the same – it’s not – my point is that serious-minded Roman Catholics and Protestants have similar concerns about contemporary worship – what are those concerns? Quite simply that contemporary Praise and worship detracts from the deeper aspects of “divine liturgy” – or in terms more accessible to normal Christians – “praise and worship” can be a substitute for true worship.

Here is where things get really interesting. For me anyway. In my experience,  I have heard the same arguments made by people of contrasting convictions and denominational allegiances. I’ve heard the same argument made by people whose worship style could not be more different. I’ve heard the same argument made by Brethren folks, Classical Pentecostals, Reformed believers, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholics.

Why is that?

Quite simply, each of these groups have a rich, distinctive, and theologically grounded liturgy – granted the Pentecostals and Brethren don’t like that phrase – so for their benefit I’ll use their language. Each of these groups believe that their form of worship is the true way of worshipping God as revealed in the scriptures. For the Brethren, true worship centres around “the Table” – that is the Breaking of Bread. In original Brethren circles you will find a well-developed theology of the priesthood and the deep significance of the Remembrance service. For Pentecostals, it’s about worship in “Spirit and Truth”. 1 Cor 14 is the model. There should be freedom for the Spirit to move, and believers to exercise spiritual gifts and an expectation that they will encounter God’s presence. In Reformed circles, it’s about the Word-preached. Here it is expected that the Holy Spirit will manifest his presence through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. For the Roman Catholics and Orthodox it is about the faithful preservation of the traditions of the church – and the Mass.

Whilst each group is uniquely different, it is fascinating that the purists in each group interpret the contemporary praise and worship movement as a threat to their way of worship. This is fascinating. Why is that? The contemporary Christian will probably just see it as a commitment to dead tradition. They will see the purists as die-hards who need to move on and embrace the new way of worship.

Those who are concerned about the contemporary praise style, on the other hand see it as a shallow cultural phenomenon which detracts from true worship. They see it as a dilution. It’s a downgrade.

Is this fair? Surely the charismatic/contemporary praise and worship movement has done more to unite the church than any other ecumenical project? What committee has been so successful? What ecumenical working group can claim to have united so many different denominations in song? And what about the spiritual renewal that many Christians have testified to experiencing as they have experienced God’s presence through the singing of new songs?

Should Catholics, Protestants etc. just let their old divisive liturgies die and jump in the river of the contemporary praise and worship renewal? Or, is the church losing something by sacrificing its core convictions and chasing the passing fads of the day?

I see trends. I see that the Brethren church where I got saved has this tension in its ranks. The Pentecostal movement, where I’ve spent most of my Christian life – kind of has this tension – but for the most part they have just jumped in the river and went with it. The Reformed denomination that I’m apart of – The Free Church – has opened its doors to allow local churches the freedom to determine how they will worship. Some sing contemporary praise songs, with accompaniment – and some don’t. Some see this is a great movement towards contemporary relevance and freedom, and others see it as symptoms of downgrade.

I also see another trend. For the most part, churches that want to hold on to their historic worship approaches are dying. Most Brethren churches who refuse to embrace the contemporary praise expression are dying out. Classical Pentecostals who think drums are of the devil are rare these days. Exclusive Psalm singing reformed churches – excluding perhaps Lewis and Harris – are a dying minority. I presume the purist catholic position is also struggling against the popularity of progressive approaches to worship.

So, what’s going on? Is the contemporary approach to praise and worship a move of the Holy Spirit? Are those who cling to traditional puritanism – Roman Catholic or Protestant – simply the living relics of a dying religion?  Or are the churches who throw in their lot with the contemporary praise and worship selling their birth-right? Are they forsaking the fountain of living water and drinking instead from broken cisterns?

I’m still working through my own thinking on this. And this blog post is already too long. One thing is for sure – with the 500th anniversary of the reformation coming up – questions of worship and reform are still as relevant as ever.