Worship is central to Christianity, yet it is a highly diverse form of expression. Across time, culture and history, God’s people have refined, debated, embraced and cherished worship music. It has been a point of unifying love and controversial discord. But why is this so?
Chessa Williams, director of Worship Arts, has expansive experience in worship ministry serving in various church traditions. She is a classical pianist with experience in gospel, pop, folk, classical and indie worship music.
Williams explained that worship can be found in many different forms because music is an expression of culture.
“Each musical genre has its own ‘superpowers,’” Williams said. “For instance, rap as a musical genre opens up opportunities for powerful storytelling, lyricism and dynamic delivery. Folk music as a musical genre embraces simplicity, authenticity and provides meaningful opportunities for participation. Rock opens up opportunities for musical expression that is intense, driving and energetic.”
Many people hold the common misconception that Christian worship began unified and evolved to disunity. Williams clarified that this is far from true. Expression of faith in worship has been diverse due to its immediate expansiveness since the time of Acts.
“Music in the church has always been the source of spirited debate throughout the history of the church,” Williams said. “There are two primary, contemporary debates on music in the church. Which styles of music are appropriate for corporate worship? This debate mostly comes down to cultural associations with different genres of music that could be seen as distracting in corporate worship. [Secondly,] can we sing songs that are written, recorded, and distributed by churches that we theologically disagree with?”
Williams commented on this debate by sharing what the gospel says about worship music.
“Scripture doesn’t tell us what genres to use, or what specific songs, keys or instrumentation. However, Scripture is clear that the goal of singing is to teach, admonish, and edify — Colossians 3:16 — but how we achieve that goal is part of the creative stewardship God gives to his people,” Williams said.
Timothy Craig, CBU alumnus and graduate student in music for worship arts and ministry, has had a passion for and a role in worship for most of his life. He currently serves as the music minister at New Life Church in Yorba Linda.
“Globally speaking, genre variety has undoubtedly always been there,” Craig said. “I believe that breaking out of our cultural norms and opening our eyes to the genres and languages used to worship God in other cultures can serve as a crucial reminder that our God is in fact a global God.”
Craig explained that variety in worship music often arises from denominational ideologies, cultural differences, personal convictions or preferences of church leaders. Not only is this variety present across Christianity in the present day, but we also find it throughout Christian history.
“In the realm of [American] Contemporary Worship Music, there has always been groups of people pushing the envelope musically,” Craig said. “The Jesus Movement of the ’70s introduced an entirely abnormal musical style and instrumentation to the congregational worship service at the time.”
Documentation of music used as a means of worship expression dates back to The Song of Moses found in Exodus 15:1-18. Craig noted that the Psalms are religious poems and songs used by the early Jews to worship Yahweh.
“The Medieval time period [is when] Latin became the official language of the church,” Craig said. “During the Protestant Reformation … [Martin] Luther desired for the church’s worship practices to be accomplished utilizing the vernacular of the congregation [rather than Latin] so that they may all participate.”
Fast forward to the 20th century, when the Jesus Movement in the ’60s and ’70s sparked a domino effect of the style of modern American worship.
“Labels such as Maranatha! Music were formed around [Christian Contemporary Music] that was artist-driven. This is where Christian musicians began to utilize the sounds of secular music in order to worship the Lord and deliver the Gospel message,” Craig said. “The folk-based stylings of Scripture Song, the youth-culture focused music of Praise & Worship, and the experimentation with musicals and theatre to promote the truth all began to take shape in the ’70s.”
Craig continued to explain the solution of worship moving into the following decades.
“Merging into the ’80s and ’90s, the rise of the megachurch and music that captivated the youth was prominent across the world. In the ’90s, Hillsong Church of Sydney, Australia blossomed musically as they released albums with congregational songs that were performer-oriented. The acoustic and electric guitars became very significant instruments in many CCM songs. Simultaneously, arena-style worship was established through the Passion City Church youth conferences in Atlanta,” said Craig.
In the 2000s, mega-churches such as Bethel and Elevation gained popularity and continue to be among the greatest leaders in the Christian Contemporary Music movement. However many styles, including older, more traditional songs are still used in various church contexts.
“Regardless of musical style, the goal is for the congregation to collectively participate in worshiping the Lord,” Craig said.