Ever since I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. I was fortunate to pick up a copy at AAR/SBL, and I finished reading it in mid January. Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship is a short, readable and pretty impressive history of the practice, theology and explosion of the phenomenon that has come to be called ‘contemporary worship’. How do you know when a term or phrase means something? When both supporters and detractors refer to the same thing with the same words. Well aware of the ‘worship wars’ of the past, the continued divide in many mainline denominations, and the sheer scale of the industry that has grown up around this way of worshipping Jesus, Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth are well placed to engage this topic.
Kim and Ruth trace the sources and key themes of contemporary worship – using a framework of nine defining qualities that tie the book together well. By the end of the book their brief conclusion is echoing especially the importance of ‘authenticity’, which has been noted throughout, most poignantly in a brief reflection on multisite churches: where often a sermon is piped/broadcast in, but the musical worship and prayers are ‘live’, echoing primarily the importance of music as a social and embodied interaction, but also perhaps saying something (without saying anything) about the role of a sermon and the challenge of celebrity preachers. Hence, briefly, in the conclusion, Kim and Ruth mention some backlash and intent to return to more traditional forms of liturgy, the church year, and so on. Some of this is explored in Ken Stewart’s excellent In Search of Ancient Roots which would make an excellent companion to this book.
As a history, the actual historical chapters are relatively central – tracking the development of the term, the usage of time, the spaces where it takes place, and two chapters looking at the music and the way that has changed. As someone involved in a Vineyard Church, I was nodding along, smiling at various events, and occasionally caught off guard – not least when I realised that one of the most memorable songs from my childhood (in a wonderful church where the musical worship would not have been self-described as ‘contemporary worship’) was actually a pretty key example of contemporary worship. I use this personal example to make a wider point – since the 1960’s and before (there is a clever bait and switch around the origins of the kinds of prayers used in contemporary worship at the start of chapter six, that shows some fascinating historical roots) the ‘thing’ that has come to be known as contemporary worship is a richer, deeper and more surprising set of stories, personalities and movements with the same aim: to invite people to engage with, experience, and be transformed by the God of the Bible.
The penultimate three chapters deal differently with the role of prayer, the Bible and preaching, and sacramentality in relation to Contemporary Worship. Regarding prayer, the authors write: “prayer practices in contemporary worship are not entirely new, but belong to long trajectories in non-text-based worship traditions. Some aspects of contemporary worship are not that contemporary, and that includes many dimensions of prayer”. There is a brief nod to the practice of prayer ministry at the end of services, but also the observation that this is not as widespread as other elements of contemporary worship. The chapter on the Bible and preaching is particularly interesting – noting that whilst it may be true that there is less read Bible in some contemporary worship services, the Bible is instead infused through the songs, flow and design of the overall service. Similarly, preaching is important, though I would not with caution the tweaking of preaching as ‘inspirational messages’ rather than sermons: words matter. The chapter on sacramentality is fascinating. I’ve thought a little about this in both terms of being human, and the role of the Lord’s Supper in a Vineyard worship context, so it was good to see some of my concerns engaged with, and a strong discussion of the notion of ‘the presence of God’ in contemporary worship.
It is worth saying, by way of closing, that this book would be a rewarding read for someone involved in leading and producing contemporary worship. The chapters ‘Time in Contemporary Worship’ and ‘Space in Contemporary Worship’ are both technical – with the former being very musical, and the latter unveiling some of the complexity of modern worship services, particularly around what it means to meaningfully take part. I think that, due in part to the (occasionally hilarious) inclusion of some pictures from throughout the development of contemporary worship, that this book is an excellent introduction to the phenomenon. I would recommend it warmly to those wanting to think about the roots of the way a church worships, those sceptical about the thought behind it, and perhaps most especially to those who are involved in some way with serving the Church in worship ministry.