Every new religious movement is met with resistance by outsiders. Contemporary praise and worship (CPW) today — and the prior movements from which it has coalesced— is no exception. Reformed writers have been contributing to a slow but steady public conversation about this tradition, beginning at least in the early 1990s in the Reformed Worship publication. That conversation is ongoing even now as a new multi-denominational task-force has been formed to evaluate the fittingness of the top songs on the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) for Reformed worshiping communities. “CPW” and “Reformed” are both monikers that act as umbrella terms for quite broad and diverse constituencies and worship practices. Which traditions or communities – and from which eras – should take precedent in holding these two side by side? Which doctrines or forms of unity are most relevant and essential to each one’s core characteristics? Is it possible to have a distinctly “Reformed” approach to CPW and, especially, its music?
“Contemporary Praise and Worship” is an umbrella term suggested by Ruth and Lim in A History of Contemporary Praise and Worship to name the present-day phenomenon of worship in many evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic churches. The term combines two, more familiar terms in popular use: “contemporary worship” and “praise and worship.” Depending on one’s networks or context, one or the other of these terms may be more familiar.
In recent years, some Reformed groups and their para-church associations have renewed their resistance to CPW by codifying a particular strain of the Reformed (and evangelical) tradition in opposition to the growth of Pentecostal and charismatic evangelical worship practices globally. A few musical examples include Reformed University Fellowship, Sovereign Grace, and the recent growth of The Sing! Conference centered around Keith and Kristyn Getty. That fear of CPW’s growth is not unwarranted, given the recent estimates by Ingalls and Yong that a quarter of the world’s Christians now practice some form of [contemporary] praise and worship. Because song is such a component of most worshiping communities, song has been a central site of conflict.
But these battlegrounds are not new, though the battle lines are continually redrawn around the most pressing issues of the moment. The early years of discussion over the Jesus People movement and its music were about the role of popular culture in Christian communities and the evangelistic possibility of congregational song. The more overtly charismatic worship practices of which Reformed folks became aware in the early 1990s caused concern over the relatively minimal content of song lyrics and the function of repetition in song form. Perhaps most recently, a new discourse has emerged over the question, “should we sing song songs associated with problematic sources?” This has sometimes simply meant sources with differing theological views. In other cases, there are deeper moral and ethical concerns.
A number of social media personas and their accounts have made it their responsibility to highlight these issues. Recent months have seen renewed attention to the leadership structures and moral scandals of the Hillsong Church and its network; Bill Johnson and Bethel Church’s connection to leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation and white Christian nationalist worship leader Sean Feucht; and some months ago, an Elevation Church pastor and co-songwriter was seen posing on social media with Mark Driscoll, disgraced former pastor of (now-defunct) Mars Hill Church in Seattle. These examples are relevant because they represent the leadership of three of the four most visible and popular sources for CPW music.
How should communities who consider themselves part of the Reformed tradition continue to engage with and respond to these concerns? What might a distinctly Reformed approach to CPW entail that engages with the core emphases of CPW and the charisms of the broad umbrella of Reformed traditions? While we cannot explore all of these challenges in the culture and context of CPW, we recognize the centrality of music as the primary act of worship. Indeed, the above mentioned concerns extend from the fact that music is the sine qua non of worship in CPW contexts.
We outline here three areas for conversation about music and its power that are required to generate a truly Reformed reflection on contemporary praise and worship. First, we offer a brief reflection on the centrality of music style to the conversation on CPW in Reformed contexts. Second, we explore the possibility and challenge of music as a sacramental vehicle for God’s presence. Finally, we explore how the CPW songs imagine God’s power and activity in and beyond worship. Throughout, we identify central questions that church leaders and theologians should continue to wrestle with when engaging CPW.
The perceived tension between CPW and more traditional styles of worship is not new. Many have viewed CPW music with skepticism. These criticisms tend to revolve around the issue of CPW’s musical style, which is cited as being primarily driven by emotion, rather than theology. In one of these reflections, Robert Meyering of Calvin College wrote that CPW music was useful in that it sought to involve emotional experiences in worship, but that it was ripe for abuse. He worried that CPW put too much focus on the emotional experiences of the worshippers and not enough on the glorification of God. In the same 1991 issue of Reformed Worship, during an interview with a Reformed pastor about contemporary worship music, the interviewer raised questions about the emphasis on individualism within CPW and how that might conflict with the Reformed emphasis on covenant theology. D.G. Hart, a professor at Westminster Seminary, wrote this scathing review of CPW in 1995:
Hostility to tradition, intellectual standards, and good taste; mantra-like repetition; songs from the 1970s, the decade of disco, leisure suits, and long hair; inability to make distinctions between good and bad poetry and music…what stands out about [Praise and Worship] is the aura of teenage piety; one searches in vain through the praise songs, the liturgical dramas for an adequate expression of the historic truths of the faith; as long as people are lifting up and swaying their arms, tilting back their heads and closing their eyes, then the Spirit must be present and the worship genuine.
For people like Hart, the rise of CPW offered very little to edify their churches, and instead was viewed as an immature attempt at spirituality that left congregations spiritually malnourished, in need of worship with substance.
How does this all relate to musical style? Hart’s thoughts on CPW illustrate that for these early critics of CPW, “musical style” served as a placeholder for hyper-emotive worship, individualism, and shallow theology. By catering the worship service around the experiences of the congregants instead of the glorification of God, CPW created a space ripe for the cultivation of its other shortcomings.
These questions concerning style were not merely an issue of the ’90s. As CPW becomes more popular, Reformed churches are beginning to revisit this issue and adapt. In fact, studies as recent at 2010 have shown that usage of CPW in Reformed churches is on the rise. The 2010 Faith Communities Today (FACT) report revealed that 25% of Christian Reformed Churches said they used innovative and contemporary worship, along with 22% of RCA congregations. That number has likely grown in the subsequent decade. In light of these trends, worship leaders and congregations around the Reformed world should engage with the question of style when it comes to their own ways of practicing worship. Can style be a distinctive of Reformed worship? Has it ever been so? And in what ways have concerns over style been a veil for other prejudices?
CPW has been built around the expectation that music plays an important role in the economy of God’s presence and action – both in one’s own life and tangibly out in the world. In many worship contexts, congregational music-making has become the primary site of the experience of encounter with God. Traditionally understood as the role that the sacraments play in worship — to unite the believer to God — music has taken on a sacramental quality. That is, more and more worshippers today look to the time of musical worship as the part of the service where they expect to experience God’s presence in a personal way.
It should come as no surprise that this is a challenge to many traditional understandings both of the role of music and the role of the sacraments. On one hand, many Reformed contexts emphasize the value of congregational music-making in providing the opportunity to glorify God by praising God’s work in salvation history and God’s character, as evidenced in the quote from D.G. Hart above. For some Reformed thinkers, music is understood to be a vehicle for communal proclamation, as congregants remind themselves of God’s faithfulness to God’s covenant people.
On the other hand, CPW worship seems to challenge a traditional definition of a sacrament: that God commanded the practice, promised to be present in it, and the disciples continued to practice it. Most contemporary instantiations of CPW don’t seem to follow from such a theoretical or theological position about music and presence but an experiential one. Yet, like a sacrament, many understand that God’s grace is imbued and tangibly felt through the power of the Holy Spirit in musical worship. It seems the gap here is that God in scripture doesn’t command the practice of music and promise to be present in it in a sacramental way.
But, for CPW practitioners, God does. The earliest praise and worship leaders understood that God did. Lester Ruth and Swee Hong Lim have described how a key interpretation of Psalm 22.3 developed into a kind of command that God will become present through praise (read: music). The idea that “God inhabits praise” remains key in mainstream CPW contexts. Early progenitors of the praise and worship tradition experienced God’s presence in musical worship with the understanding that doing so was an act of faithfulness to biblical commands in much the way other sacramental theology operated.
In addition to concerns about the theology of any given song text (or musical patterns) Reformed communities need to grapple with this fundamental presumption about the theology and practice of CPW music. Can CPW practice be defended under agreed-upon theologies of sacramentality or broader commitments about the Spirit’s work in the world through multiple means? Can the songs emerging from this tradition be used without cultivating the accompanying sacramental expectations? To neglect this core issue of sacramentality in CPW practice would be, proverbially, to “miss the forest for the trees.”
Individual or Communal?
CPW songs have senses of style and sacramentality that can be challenging to hold in tension with the Reformed paradigm for worship. Considering this, it should not come as a surprise that the texts of CPW songs imagine God’s actions in and beyond worship in ways that differ from some Reformed perspectives. For example, Abraham Kuyper described worship as primarily an exchange between God and God’s covenant people. Although personal worship and devotion is important, “the service of God for the congregation does not come to full expression until the congregation assembles in worship for the express purpose of bringing God honor, praise, and prayers.” God’s power is not primarily known through individual encounters, but rather through communal ones. As we remember salvation history throughout our worship, we remember that God’s acts of salvation were directed towards a community. In the Reformed view, music is not considered part of God’s saving acts. As discussed earlier, Reformed theologians tend to speak of the sacraments as being the worship acts where God becomes present and reminds us of both the story of our salvation and our future hope. The timeline here is cosmic; God has set aside a people from the foundation of the world and God’s plan is to redeem them.
In contrast, the ways in which CPW imagines God’s power within worship is directed in and through individuals. For instance, consider the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) Top 100 list from 2022. The top 10 CPW songs sung in congregations included “Goodness of God,”, “Build my Life,” and “Graves into Gardens.” In all of these songs, the focus of God’s power and activity is through individual believers, rather than through a corporate body. In “Goodness of God,” God’s goodness is “running after me.” The bridge section of “Build my Life” is very clear that the central actor building my life is myself. “Graves into Gardens” speaks of salvation history, but the history being portrayed is one of a lost and broken individual who is found by God and put back together, rather than of a covenant community brought near to Christ.
God’s power within CPW is also immediate and can be combative. “What a Beautiful Name” speaks of how heaven has already been brought down to earth by Christ in some sense. “Way Maker” imagines God’s power to be active through worship through deliverance or victory. A similar sense is given by “Battle Belongs,” where God’s deliverance is seen primarily as combative with the forces of evil in the world (or whatever the congregation thinks it is opposed to). The connections of CPW to spiritual warfare or deliverance theologies are not hard to find. These connections are often actualized by the Christian Right through people like Sean Feucht, who was mentioned above. Feucht is currently leading a series of worship music concerts backed by the polarizing right-wing organization Turning Point USA, visiting all 50 state capitols and using CPW music to share his brand of white Christian nationalism. Other Christian nationalist events, such as the Reawaken America tour, also use CPW music as a catalyst for their combative political and religious aims. In his accounting of a Reawaken America tour rally in Branson, Missouri, Baptist minister Brian Kaylor observed that “both days started with congregational songs…the chosen songs for this service included ‘How Great is Our God,’ ‘Our God Reigns,’ ‘Lion and the Lamb,’ ‘Goodness of God,’ and ‘Shout to the Lord’”—core songs in the broader CPW repertoire. In reflecting on CPW, it is worth asking whether or not Reformed churches want to be associated with the combative and polarizing ways that these songs have been utilized.
And yet, more and more Reformed churches are using these songs. In the process of wrestling with CPW, Reformed worship leaders should keep in mind that despite their theological differences with these songs, to merely dismiss them as having “bad theology” and then ignore them would also brush aside the experiences of congregants who may find these songs to be personally meaningful and fitting vehicles for communal testimony. Are these songs worth saving? Is it possible to save them? Are there ways in which CPW songs could be utilized for portions of a service without compromising the priorities of Reformed worship? While engaging with CPW presents significant challenges for Reformed churches, it also offers opportunity that should be explored further by Reformed worship leaders.
One solution to the challenges named above in reconciling a Reformed view and more modern musical styles may be to turn to the modern hymn writer movement. However, recognizing that CPW music continues to be adopted and adapted in Reformed contexts, critical and charitable engagement can still yield good fruit. Indeed, with the growth of Christianity in the Global South and the concomitant growth of CPW in those contexts, it may be ethically and ecumenically advantageous to continue to engage with this musical repertoire. Indeed, Sarah Johnson and Anneli Loepp Thiessen have recently made an argument toward this end while reflecting on their work compiling the new Voices Together hymnal of the Mennonite church.
Acknowledging the diverse contexts from which CPW has emerged and in which it is currently in use should also prompt Reformed thinkers to remember the degree of diversity that constitutes the Reformed community as a whole, both in its theological forebears and its current cultural instantiations. In the present context, is entrenchment around theological or stylistic commitments the form of identification from which we Reformed folks wish to live out a shared identity within the tradition?
Engagement with CPW is perhaps inevitable and local worship leaders are already doing this work on a weekly basis in many (if not most) Reformed churches. Yes, CPW practice and the legacy of Reformed worship theology have points of difference in each one’s approach to worship, but navigating a way forward requires honesty and understanding —not caricature and dismissal —about the challenges CPW music presents to Reformed contexts.
 For more on the use of this particular term as an umbrella for multiple streams of traditions, see Ruth and Lim, A History of Contemporary Praise and Worship: Understanding the Ideas that Reshaped the Protestant Church (Baker Academic, 2021).
 Monique Marie Ingalls and Amos Yong, eds., The Spirit of Praise: Music and Worship in Global Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).
 Adam A. Perez, “‘It’s Your Breath in Our Lungs’: Sean Feucht’s Praise and Worship Music Protests and the Theological Problem of Pandemic Response in the U.S.,” Religions 13, no. 1 (January 2022): 47, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13010047.
 Worshipleaderresearch.com. See also, Bob Smietana, “There’s a Reason Every Hit Worship Song Sounds the Same,” ReligionNews.com April 11, 2023. https://religionnews.com/2023/04/11/theres-a-reason-every-hit-worship-song-sounds-the-same/
 Robert Meyering, “Initial Reactions: a Visitor’s View of Praise and Worship.” Reformed Worship Journal vol. 20 June 1991, https://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-1991/initial-reactions-visitors-view-praise-and-worship
 Emily R. Brink, “Reformed Order with Charismatic Ardor: An Interview with Henry Wildeboer.” Reformed Worship Journal vol. 20, June 1991. https://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-1991/reformed-order-charismatic-ardor-interview-henry-wildeboer
 D.G. Hart, as quoted in Harry Boonstra, “The Best of Times? The Worst of Times? Snapshots of Worship Styles,” Reformed Worship, March 1998, https://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-1998/best-times-worst-times-snapshots-worship-styles.
 Marjorie H Royle, rep., FACTs on Worship: 2010, American Congregations 2010 (Hartford, CT: Faith Communities Today, 2012), 16.
 Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 27 and Belgic Confession Article 33.
 Abraham Kuyper, Our Worship, ed. Harry Boonstra (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 18.
 “CCLI Top 100® (United States),” PraiseCharts, December 1, 2022, https://www.praisecharts.com/song-lists/ccli-top-100-united-states.
 Tim Dickinson, “Maga Pastor Says Christians Must ‘Be the Ones Writing the Laws,’” Rolling Stone, April 22, 2023, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-features/maga-pastor-sean-feucht-trump-christian-nationalism-1234721527/.
 Brian Kaylor, “The Reawaken America Worship Service in Branson,” The ReAwaken America Worship Service in Branson, November 8, 2022, https://publicwitness.wordandway.org/p/the-reawaken-america-worship-service.
 Sarah Johnson and Anneli Loepp Thiessen, “Contemporary Worship Music as an Ecumenical Liturgical Movement,” Worship 97 (July 2023), 204–229.