The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music

I read this article several years ago. I’ve read a number of articles like it but I found his first argument to be different than any I’d heard before and found it compelling and broadly applicable. In some ways, it’s a great argument for much of the content of C&C education. T. David Gordon was one of the speakers at the last MHA Worldview Summit. See what you think …

The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music

Youth Ministry for Liturgical Animals

“First, we have stratified the body of Christ into generational segments, moving children and young people out of the ecclesial center of worship into effectively “parachurch” spaces, even if they’re still officially in the church building. By doing so, we have tacitly denied the unity and catholicity of the body, worshipping in ways that run counter to Paul’s remarkable proclamation that ‘there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph. 4:4-6). More significantly, given our concerns about formation and the rehabituation of our loves, this segmentation of the body of Christ into generational castes eliminates one of the most powerful modes of habit-formation: imitation. If young people are always and only gathered with and by themselves, how will they learn from exemplars, those model saints in the local congregation who have lived a lifetime with Jesus?

Second, we have turned youth ministry into an almost entirely expressivist affair, surmising that what will ‘keep’ young people in church is a series of opportunities for them to sincerely exhibit their faith. Instead of embodied worship that is formative, we have settled for a dichotomy: an emotive experience as a prelude to the dispensation of information, thirty minutes of stirring music followed by a thirty minute ‘message.’ While you might not immediately guess it, such dominant paradigms in youth ministry are actually held captive to thinking-thingism: the anti-intellectual fixation on entertainment is really just a lack of confidence in formation. While we might assume that the emotionalism of contemporary youth ministry is anti-intellectual, in fact it is tethered to a deeply intellectualist paradigm of discipleship: the whole point of keeping young people happy and stirred and emotionally engaged is so that we can still have an opportunity to deposit a ‘message’ into their intellectual receptacles.

But we need to face a sobering reality: keeping young people entertained in our church buildings is not at all synonymous with forming them as dynamic members of the body of Christ. What passes as youth ministry is often not serious modes of Christian formation but instead pragmatic, last-ditch efforts to keep young people as card-carrying members of our evangelical club. We have confused keeping young people in the building with keeping them ‘in Christ.’

In many cases we have already ceded their formation to secular liturgies precisely by importing those liturgies into the church under the banner of perceived relevance. So while young people might be present in our youth ministry events, in fact what they are participating in is something that is surreptitiously indexed to rival visions of the good life. The very form of the entertainment practices that are central to these events reinforces a deep narcissism and egoism that are the antithesis of learning to deny yourself and pick up the cross (Mark 8:34-36). While we might have many young people who are eager participants in all the entertaining events we stage for them, such participation is not actually forming their hearts and aiming their desires toward God and his kingdom as long as the default liturgies of such events are built on consumerist rituals and the rites of self-concern. Indeed, in our eagerness to keep young people entertained, we might only be swelling the ranks of those who cry, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we attend every lock-in and campout and beach volleyball event in your name?’ (cf. Matt. 7:21-23). In other words, we shouldn’t be fooled by those who stick around merely to be entertained. Effective Christian formation of young people might look like failure for a time.”

You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith