Contemporary Music for Traditional Congregations


"We need to keep up with the times!""We need to preserve our history!""We need to attract more millenials!"

Contemporary vs. traditional. It's enough to spark debate (or cause a war) in some congregations. But why does it have to be one or the other? Why does including contemporary music mean that we can't have a choir or use the organ or sing hymns? I believe there is a place for both in modern worship.

Emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was influenced by the Rock 'n' Roll of the 1950s and popular styles of the times (source). Today, contemporary worship often refers to musical style (rather than date of composition), incorporating popular song forms (verse, chorus, bridge), style (hip-hop, rock, acoustic, country, etc.), popular instruments (guitar, drums, keyboard, electric bass, etc.), and simple lyrics written in modern language. 

The big question is, can all musical styles be considered sacred? Here's what I think:

"Music has sacred significance and purpose within the liturgy whenever it brings sacred associations to the minds and hearts of the worshipers. Does all music have the potential to acquire sacred meaning? Swain (2012) wrote, 'As long as the music is a means of proclaiming the Word and is not the Word itself, it is theoretically possible for any kind of music to acquire a sacred semantic' (p. 196)." - On Musical Meaning

I believe it is important to honor the different ways that people encounter and worship God. To create worship experiences that invite and draw people in. To find new ways to express our thanks and reaffirm our faith. "Diverse styles of music . . . can draw us into God’s presence, proclaim the Word, surround the sacraments and equip us for mission" (source).

Here are a few tips:

1  |  Start with something familiar.

There are lots of accessible contemporary settings of traditional hymns. Most preserve the original text and many incorporate the original tune, as well. Some settings keep the hymn as is, adding in a more contemporary chorus between verses. This is a great way to introduce more contemporary music into your services.

2  |  Look for good text and singable melodies.

This is a big one. Good text is vital, no matter what genre or style of music you're looking at. Jackson Henry, Director of Music at Discipleship Ministries suggests looking for song texts that are theologically sound (scripture-based, prayers, creeds, or texts that address theology in the context of the modern world).

"The purpose of music in worship is to create shared experiences, speak to the emotions present in the liturgy, and impart a sense of deeper theological understanding." - On Musical Value

Singable melodies is another important consideration. Look at the vocal range (consider transposing, if needed) and melodic rhythms (avoid songs with lots of syncopation in the beginning). Repetition is good (easier to learn and more memorable), but look for opportunities to be creative with it. Add in different instruments or play an instrumental verse. Vary solos vs. small group vs. congregation. Vary the keyboard accompaniment style.

3  |  Be creative with instrumentation.

Just because you're singing a contemporary worship song doesn't mean you need a whole praise band. Use what you have. Invite and involve instrumentalists from within your congregation to participate. Consider using piano (and organ!), acoustic guitar (if you have it), djembe, strings, flute, trumpet, or saxophone.

4  |  Connect with the liturgy.

Sing "The Lord's Prayer" instead of speaking it (we do this on Communion Sundays to conclude the service). From Jackson Henry: Use a contemporary song like "This I Believe" in place of a spoken creed. Use a song like "Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul" (text from Psalm 103) as a sung response with the psalter reading.

5  |  Take time to teach it.

If you're going to take time to choose and prepare music for worship, you need to take time to introduce it to the congregation. Identify someone as worship leader or recruit a small group to lead it. Teach it to your choir and have them sing it alone, then with the congregation.

If the song has multiple sections, consider inviting the congregation to sing the chorus and have the worship leader, small group, or choir sing the rest. Next time you sing the song in worship, invite the congregation to sing the whole thing.

Ready to incorporate some contemporary music in your worship services? Here are 20 accessible contemporary songs:

1. Forever (Chris Tomlin)
2. Hear Our Praises (Reuben Morgan)
3. How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (Townend)
4. How Great Is Our God (Chris Tomlin)
5. Fairest Lord Jesus (Christy Nockels)
6. In Christ Alone (Stuart Townend/Keith Getty)
7. I Will Sing (Don Moen)
8. Take My Life (Chris Tomlin)
9. Rock of Ages (Chris Rice)
10. A Mighty Fortress (Christy Nockels)
11. Sing for Joy (Don Moen)
12. You Are My King / Amazing Love (Chris Tomlin)
13. The Potter’s Hand (Darlene Zschech)
14. 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord) (Matt Redman)
15. Lord I Need You (Chris Tomlin)
16. Grace Flows Down (Christy Nockels)
17. Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) (Chris Tomlin)
18. Here Is Love (Matt Redman)
19. All I Once Held Dear (Knowing You) (Graham Kendrick)
20. This I Believe (The Creed) (Hillsong)

*Special thanks to my friend, Deb Carraway for helping me put this list together!

Also, UMC Discipleship just launched a very helpful tool - the CCLI Top 100 - featuring the top 100 contemporary worship songs in rank order, rated on theology, language, and singability. Take a look!

Do you incorporate contemporary music in your traditional services? What are your favorite accessible songs?

Read more:
What does 'contemporary worship' really mean?
How is worship traditional? How is worship contemporary?
Traditional vs. Contemporary Worship

Source: Swain, J. P. (2012). Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music. Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN, 175-198.