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Task and Context

A few posts ago (Thai Duck and the Impending Doom) I made a commitment to disseminate many of my research findings through my blog; highlighting the various unique facets of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I am still committed to that promise but alas I have not yet received my examiners results. It is therefore prudent that I exercise restraint and only present a brief introduction to my work at this time. I maintain my commitment to release the body of the work once the examiners have had their say and I have responded to their requested changes.

The Task

What’s so special about the Contemporary Worship Singer? Good question. At first glance it appears that the modern church singer is like many other vocalists who sing repertoire that is categorised as ‘contemporary’. Prior to the study I had contented myself with the misnomer that today’s church singers predominantly sing choruses. The modern church chorus stylistically vacillates between pop/rock to pop ballad and rarely strays to other genres. My research has revealed that the minority of churches (18%, n15/83) use only choruses. The majority of my research participants indicated that their church use a balanced amount of choruses and hymns. This is perhaps the most fundamental (but certainly not the only) challenge facing the Contemporary Worship Singer: the vocal task must address repertoire that is technically different. Hymns are best sung with a classical discipline, while the modern chorus is best served with a pedagogy that is contemporary. This poses the question: Can a singer learn to do both? Moreover, can the singer learn to switch between the different styles (classical and contemporary) all within the confines of one worship service? As many of my vocal students would tell you, it’s difficult enough to learn proficiency in one discipline without the heightened task of freely activating either/or. For the volunteer church singer who has little to no vocal training the modern church environment creates a difficult vocal task. I can hear many of you sighing, “Sure, that’s an interesting feature of the modern church singer…but it’s not enough to declare them unique!” I agree. I made the same observation at the conclusion of my Master’s Degree. The vocal task in and of itself does not separate the Contemporary Worship Singer from their vocal peers in the wider community of singers. So what does?

The Context

Reviewing the singing task of the Contemporary Worship Singer reveals what the singer does, but it stops short of identifying who they are. Herein lies the challenge facing my research. The context of the Contemporary Worship Singer has a multiplicity that other singers do not need to grapple with. At a superficial level it is helpful to separate the contexts into traditional and contemporary. The traditional church environments are typically conservative in their theological orientation. This conservatism is observed in the architecture of the worship space, the manner in which modern equipment (PA and Video projection) is used and the presentational modes of those presenting the worship service. The alternate mode of church presentation is as its namesake suggests: contemporary. The Contemporary Worship Singer who practices their craft in the contemporary environments are more exposed in their presentation with both PA and video projection used to enhance their audial and visual leadership. This heightened exposure can lead to a cultural dilemma: if the general purpose of worship is to corporately direct adoration to God, how then does the Contemporary Worship Singer ensure that they are striking the balance of necessary encouragement to the worship participants without drawing undue attention to themselves or their performance? This is a unique feature. No other singer in the wider community has to draw attention to their task without drawing attention to themselves. This has broader ramifications for such considerations as excellence and how the individual singer might develop their craft. Again, I need to stop short of unpacking this until I have been given the ‘all-clear’ by my examiners…but I think you can gain the general picture. What makes the Contemporary Worship Singer unique is both the task and the context combined.

I’m looking forward to delivering a more in-depth account of my work and its findings in the coming months. I can assure you no one wants the examiners comments more than I do, but wait we shall. Once I have a definitive indication of the work and it’s approved finality I will step us through the outcomes/findings of the research and disclose the conclusions including the ‘Contemporary Worship Singer Assessment Tool’ accompanied by the nineteen distinctive features which collectively form a detailed role description of the Contemporary Worship Singer. I can’t wait to reveal all.

Worship Performance

So let’s tackle the controversial subject of Performance in Worship. For some the subject immediately raises red flags of concern while others readily admit that performance is a necessary aspect of their worship; both in presentation and participation.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines performance as “a person’s rendering of a dramatic role, song, or piece of music” (p. 1064). The definition elaborates on the term stating that performance is “the action or process of performing a task or function” (p. 1064). Given our context we will centre the discussion on the task of the church musician and singer (from hence forth ‘musician’); and in doing so acknowledge, according to the dictionary definition, that each Sunday (and besides) church musicians regularly perform songs in the role as worship leaders. Of course our consideration of the topic cannot stop at the sterile dictionary meaning. To do so would heavily dilute the cultural considerations which fuel the debate.

James White (2000) observes, “In worship, all are performers” (p. 115). According to the dictionary definition White is justified in his summation. Culturally however the issue is not performance – the issue is entertainment! Again, in contemplating the Contemporary Worship Singer’s task, does the individual orientate their performance towards entertaining the audience or is their intent directed toward ministering to the congregation? And herein lays the crux of the matter – entertainment vs. ministry.

Gary Gilley (2005), in his book This Little Church Went to Market, laments “The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them” (p. 47). Of course in some instances Gilley’s appraisal is accurate. Nonetheless, the difficulty facing those who wish to discern the line between entertainment and ministry are often confronted with the dilemma of questioning another person’s intent. Advocate of Emerging Worship Dan Kimball writes “We want to honor God in all we do, but some worship gatherings do feel so much like a performance that it comes across as being inauthentic, even if the hearts of those leading it are authentic” (2009, p. 312). Indeed, how is authenticity determined when the individuals under scrutiny, in our case the musicians, are not able to sufficiently ascertain their own position? As Mark Evans suggests, it is difficult. Evans (2006) observes, “Similarly, how does the music team of a church distinguish their functionality, being simultaneously performer desirous of quality,… and ideally, humble servant leader of the congregation” (p. 13).

One cannot escape the cultural notion of ‘giving God your best’. For church musicians this means developing their craft to a point of excellence. Christian artists seek to do their best with the talents God has bestowed upon them. Sadly, as Marva Dawn suggests, it is what we then do with those honed skills which creates the tension. Dawn (1995) writes “sometimes congregations who feature lead musicians and singers are tempted to put them on pedestals, with the result that worshipers simply let them perform and no longer participate in communal singing” (p. 51). Warren Wiersbe (2000) agrees. He states, “If the worship service is platform–centered, then we will be only spectators at a religious performance” (p. 88).

So is the challenge of worship as entertainment found only on the platform? I don’t think so. It is my view that for decades (possibly centuries) the accusation of performance and entertainment has been laid at the feet of church musicians; all while congregational members wipe their hands of the role that they as fellow participants and, by White’s earlier definition, performers play in the theatre of worship. Of course our musicians and singers should be conscious of their heart’s sincerity when taking up the responsibility of leading their brothers and sisters in congregational singing. Additionally I contend that congregational members – participants in worship – should be mindful of the subtle, but ever-present, temptation to consume worship. Being a worship consumer transforms worship performed as ministry into worship consumed as entertainment.

The discussion of ‘where did the problem originate’ is now moot and falls into the category of ‘the chicken and the egg’. Every worship participant must take responsibility for their part to play. Ultimately we all have a responsibility in the corporate activity of worship. Whether we stand on the platform or stand in the pew our performance of worship should be presented with a sincere heart before God for the encouragement of all.


Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Evans, M. (2006). Open up the doors: Music in the modern church. London, UK: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Gilley, G. (2005). This little church went to market: Is the modern church reaching out or selling out? (2 ed.). Webster, NY: Evangelical Press.

Kimball, D. (2009). Emerging worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 288–333). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2008) Concise oxford english dictionary (11th, Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.


In a Word…Theology!

For many the word theology is an intimidating term. It conjures thoughts of highly trained professors (in suede jackets) pouring over Hebrew and Greek text, unearthing the mysteries of God’s word which lay hidden to the lay person’s reading. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) does not form such an intimidating picture when it defines theology as, “religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed” (Soanes & Stevenson, p. 1495). Theology is what we do. Essentially, every Christian is a theologian. The challenge is whether, as Bob Kauflin (2008) states, “am I a good theologian or a bad one?” (p. 28). Before theology – that which is practiced; is doctrine – that which is taught.

There are two widely practiced approaches to the study of Christian doctrine, systematic and biblical (Bryant, 1982, pp. 616–617). Simply, biblical theology commences its study of scripture objectively allowing scripture to reveal its themes. Systematic theology approaches Scripture subjectively extracting text in order to define a theme. It’s from these two principles that we might draw some insight into the differing approaches when selecting material (songs) for Sunday’s corporate gatherings. For some believers it’s a matter of the means needing to justifying the ends. I.e. the lyrical content (doctrine) should determine the manner in which we worship. For others the end point validates the means. I.e. the worship expression (theology) and experience form the foundation on which to structure the choice of songs; both lyric and melody.

Paul Zahl (2004) in his apologetic for Liturgical worship further defines the two different approaches in his thoughts on the construction of liturgy for corporate gatherings,

The Latin phrase that covers the philosophy of worship I am presenting here is this: lex credendi lex orandi. That means: What we believe determines how we pray. Quite a few liturgical scholars and theologians today want to reverse the order and write: lex orandi lex credendi, or how we pray (i.e. worship) determines what we believe [emphasis in original]. (p. 25)

Kauflin (2008) makes the statement, “Songs are de facto theology…‘We are what we sing’” (p. 92). Many would agree with Kauflin’s statement (Basden, 1999; Carson, 2002; Dawn, 1995; Peterson, 1992; Wiersbe, 2000). Warren Wiersbe in his book Real Worship: Playground, Battle ground or Holy ground? (2000) takes the thought a step further warning, “Naïve congregations can sing their way into heresy before they even realize what is going on” (p. 136). In observing the vast array of worship styles I find Wiersbe’s warning to be a sober reminder that what goes in generally comes out. At this point I must stress that this discussion does not centre on the prejudicial war waged between those who preference hymns over modern choruses or vice versa. It goes much deeper than an individual’s partiality to one musical style over another.

So how does this affect the garden variety Contemporary Worship Singer? The first question to be asked is do you think about the lyrics that you sing? Secondly have you considered that by virtue of your being on stage you inadvertently support the doctrine and resulting theology of what is being sung? Singers love to give voice to flowing melodies, but is a beautiful melody enough qualification for the use of a song in the corporate gathering? I agree with Marva Dawn (1995) when she writes “It is crucial, then, that leaders of the Church study carefully our underlying theology of worship and the specific worship practices that result, for they do, indeed, determine who we are” (p. 106). Here I reveal my own view. The means must justify the ends. Like Wiersbe (2000) “I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear” (p. 136). However (and on this point I close), this does not mean that we can focus so heavily on the lyrical content that we forget to develop melodies and arrangements thereof that best deliver the doctrine. It must be sing-able! Sadly, too many ‘great lyrics’ have been set to ‘sub standard’ music – surely we can have both. I think that if we were to apply this rule to the repertoire list of most churches it would result in a significant cull of songs, but what would be left would be rich in doctrine and produce good, in a word – Theology!


Basden, P. (1999). The worship maze: Finding a style to fit your church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Bryant, T. A. (Ed.) (1982) Today’s dictionary of the bible. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

Carson, D. A. (Ed.). (2002). Worship by the book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kauflin, B. (2008). Worship matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Peterson, D. (1992). Engaging with God: A biblical theology of worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2008) Concise oxford english dictionary (11th, Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Zahl, P. F. M. (2004). Formal-liturgical worship. In P. A. Basden (Ed.), Exploring the worship spectrum: 6 views (pp. 21–36). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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