stained glass

Contemporary is Getting Old

from Tom Lawson:

Contemporary getting old? Well, certainly for some people this may be true. But there is another sense it which it is true for everyone. Contemporary music is increasingly tapping into the ancient history of worship to recover lyrics and thoughts the move beyond the “dating Jesus” lyrics of earlier decades.

The exciting song of both Christ’s resurrection and our spiritual rebirth by Matt Maher and Mia Fields, Christ is Risen, reflects Maher’s deep roots in the classic liturgy of worship. The song begins:

Christ is risen from the dead; Trampling over death by death!

At the Easter seasons, both Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches join in singing Christos Anesti (Christ is risen). The ancient song, with lyric still rooted in the Koine Greek of the earliest centuries of the church, begins:

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν; θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας!
Christ is risen from the dead; By death (is) death trampled!

From here Maher and Field turn the song is what some have found an unexpected direction:

Come awake come awake
Come and rise up from the grave
Christ is risen from the dead
We are one with Him again
Come awake come awake
Come and rise up from the grave

One person asked me, after singing this in worship, if we were trying to call Christ to wake up from the grave. I admitted this would make the song a little awkward. But, the lyrics make is clear, however, when asserting “We are one with Him again,” that the awakening called for is not His but ours. As Paul urges his readers in Ephesians, “Arise, sleeper, and rise from the dead! Let the light of Christ shine upon you.”

Matt Maher is one of a number of musicians increasingly bridging the divide between Roman Catholic and contemporary Evangelical worship. He has received numerous award from the United Catholic Music and Video Association since his first album, The End, was released in 2002. In Alive Again, he joins together with well known contemporary worship performers like Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Mia Fields.

Other worship music writers, like Brooke Ligertwood (formerly Fraser), with Hillsong, also represent this broadening of themes in worship music, often by returning to more classic language of worship, in songs like Beneath the Waters. In it, somewhat uncharacteristically of Evangelical lyrics, the song celebrates themes related to Christian baptism as alluded to in passages like Romans 6:3-4:

Now here my absolution
Forgiveness for my sin
And I sink beneath the waters
That Christ was buried in.

These are merely two examples of a tendency among some contemporary worship artists to expand what has been, up to this point, the limited themes of contemporary worship music. For many years, for example, How Great is Our God was the only contemporary worship song that made direct mention of the doctrine of the Trinity (The Father, Spirit, Son; the Godhead Three in One).

In other words, contemporary music is getting old. Old thoughts, ancient lyrics, portions of liturgy, and biblical phrases are increasingly make their way into recently released contemporary songs. A few years ago, if asked to incorporate contemporary songs that focus on repentance or resurrection or the Eucharist or baptism, most worship leaders would have to look for quite awhile for examples. Increasingly, however, contemporary praise music gives every sign of moving into a more mature and theologically rich voicing of the language the church has long used in worship.

In a conversation I had with Rich Mullins several years ago (and how he is missed), he talked about how much exposure to liturgy altered and enriched his own worship and the worship music he was writing in those last years of his life. Having been raised in the typically gospel style worship of Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell Movement) and then moving into contemporary praise style worship, Rich found in the language the church hammered out over many centuries a great deal of wisdom and biblically-grounded reflection.

It is an interesting journey to pick up a CD from a popular worship band from ten or fifteen years ago and compare the music and lyrics to one produced in the past year. There are noticeable changes in overall style. But, it is in the lyrics and subject matter of the songs that you can often most clearly see contemporary worship music moving beyond the giddy days of childhood into music worthy of preservation and reflection for generations to come.

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