As a person who grew up in the age of CCM and “contemporary” worship, I had little exposure to traditional liturgies and “liturgical music.” I think the closest we came to using anything liturgical was when sang the Doxology (the “Old Hundredth”) as traveling music for the ushers after the offering. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that was the original intention of Thomas Ken, who penned those words back in the late 17th Century.

It wasn’t until after college that I had my first really full experience of traditional liturgy in spoken word and song. I had always had this image of stuffy Catholic services where people were being brainwashed to mindlessly repeat prayers and creeds. I never imagined that what I would find would be this giant collection of the most thoughtful and beautiful expressions of faith I’d ever encountered. I had been missing so much. Now I want to help churches find what I found and see meaningful ways to incorporate these prayers and songs into their worship.

Tomorrow we’ll begin a new series of blog posts on different kinds of liturgical songs along with their history, meaning and ideas for how to use them in a contemporary services. Before getting into all that I wanted to share a few reasons why these songs should find their way into your church’s worship service.

But first a few definitions and qualifications: 

- By “contemporary” worship service, I mean one that does not utilize one of the traditional liturgical texts and outline as found in Catholic services, the Book of Common Prayer and other historic sources. 

- Every church has a “liturgy”, which is simply the structure of a church’s worship service. For the purposes of these posts when I say “liturgical music” I’m referring to specific Catholic, Anglican, etc liturgical pieces that have been used in corporate worship since the formation of Christian worship structures. For example, the Gloria, Kyrie Eleison, Sanctus and others. 

- This list is not exhaustive and I’ve just written a few words about each. The points below need much more explanation than afforded here, so if you’re interested in learning more I’ve included some good sources below.

1. Liturgical music is Biblical. The Bible is full of liturgical songs – “benedictions, prayers, creeds, eulogies, responses and doxologies” (Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music) to name a few. And the use of ceremonial music goes back to early Jewish worship in the original Temple. Jones writes, “the five divisions of the book of Psalms each conclude with doxological passages, and Psalm 150 in its entirety serves as a doxology to close the Psalter.” Though these songs have long been associated with Catholic mass and other formal liturgies, they are first and foremost Biblical expressions of praise and prayer.

2. Liturgical music helps us re-tell the Gospel story. In Christ-Centered Worship, Bryan Chapell writes that, “Christian worship is a re-presentation of the gospel.” The original purpose of the traditional liturgical music  was to help the church re-tell the Gospel story in a consistent manner. Much in the way church architecture was designed, these elements often correspond to specific aspects of the Gospel story. As part of a contemporary service, these pieces might allow deeper reflection and focus on the Gospel narrative. On a larger level, many liturgical pieces link up with the liturgical calendar, which walks through the Gospel story over the course of the year. The rhythms of the Christian calendar draw us into the Gospel story and can serve as a way of dwelling in it. A few examples — grasping the depth of our sin during lent, lamenting the brokenness of the world and crying out for a savior in advent, and rejoicing in the incarnation at Christmas. Taking advantage of these long-standing structures helps us go deeper in worship.

3. Liturgical music connects us to the Historic Church. Leslie Newbegin writes, “the thing given for our acceptance in faith is not a set of timeless propositions: it is a story. Moreover, it is a story which is not yet finished, a story in which we are still awaiting the end when all becomes clear.” We are a part of God’s story in the world, a story that began in a specific time and place. As the church has become more and more fractured, we’ve lost that direct connection with the ones who’ve gone before us in once united Church of Christ. When we sing songs from the earliest days of the church, we join the worship of the Church across the ages. It’s a way of remembering that we are part of a story that began long ago, one that we carry on today.

4. Liturgical music connects us to the Global Church. Growing up I heard little of the Eastern Orthodox Church. But as it turns out, there’s this huge other branch of Christianity that is not Protestant or Catholic. Here’s the crazy-simple story. A thousand years ago, Christians were all in (not so perfect) communion. A dispute arose about leadership between the East and West (roughly based on which side of the Mediterranean they were on). The result of that dispute was a major split in the church spawning the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. What’s the point of all this? Well, while that split caused changes in worship practices, the common liturgy of the early church remained partially in tact. One of commonalities is in the liturgical songs. Thus when we sing those ancient songs we also united with our brothers and sisters from all over the world. We also stand in protest of the divisions that have alienated Christians from each other for hundreds of years. We also proclaim that one day there will no longer be denominations and divisions, only one body of Christ. In the coming weeks, I’ll highlight songs that are still common to both the Western and Eastern Orthodox Church.

5. Liturgical songs complement contemporary worship songs. In many ways the move to “contemporary worship” threw the baby out with the bath water – starting completely from scratch in song and structure. Yet, hymns and liturgical elements still have much to teach us and enhance worship greatly. Incorporating a traditional piece or two can really add some theological depth to contemporary worship (and vice versa). And these elements may actually help refresh contemporary worship. Most contemporary services began in reaction to the monotony of traditional worship. Yet, these new and exciting services have become woefully formulaic — usually a chunk of worship songs followed by a long sermon ending with another song (with prayers, announcements and an offering thrown in somewhere). For contemporary services, traditional liturgical elements may actually help break us out of the patterns we’ve fallen into, giving your congregation a new way to participate in worship. When done with sincerity and understanding, liturgical songs are just as spirit-filled and edifying as the best of what we have today, so why not strive for the best of both worlds?

References and Further Reading:

Christ-Centered Worship by Bryan Chapell

Singing and Making Music by Paul S. Jones

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin


12 Responses to 5 Reasons to Use Liturgical Music in Your Contemporary Worship Service

  1. Zach says:

    I completely dug this. Aside from being set to beautiful, traditional tunes, the lyrics of many liturgical hymns teach excellent theology without being clunky or, so to speak, too preachy. I’ve greatly enjoyed HSH adapt and develop a hymnody with one foot in the church’s history and another in it’s future. Keep up the good work!

  2. [...] liturgy in our services every Sunday. It is always good to be reminded of why we use liturgy and High Street Hymns blog has written a great post on the benefits of liturgical music. 1. Liturgical music is Biblical. The [...]

  3. Dan Wallis says:

    It strikes me as amusing when some people ask for the good ol’ songs, meaning “I’ll fly away” or others of that ilk. I love the effort that so many are making (Indelible Grace, Sojourn, Red Mountain Music and, of course, Alex Mejias etc) to resurrect the good OLD songs.
    We’ve started singing a couple of Indelible Grace songs “Arise my soul arise” and “Jesus I my cross have taken” in our congregation, and the force of emotion that these rock solid words elicit is powerful. Similar to “In the cross of Christ” from your “Hearts and voices album”. These songs aren’t written as “emotionalist” songs, yet they well up a depth of feeling I rarely experience as my heart resonates with the words. Admittedly, these aren’t terribly old, and are post Catholic / Orthodox split, and probably post-Reformation.
    I’ve realized something as I sing both the “contemporary” and historic songs. While this is a awfully general statement, I believe that many of the modern worship songs state “I love you God” while most of the historic hymns say “This is WHY I love you, God”.

  4. highstreethymns says:

    Good point Dan — the whole orientation of many of the older hymns seems to be on who God is and what He’s done, not just how we feel about Him. And I love what you said about “the force of emotion” that many of those lyrics have (Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken might be my favorite of all…). When the Gospel is spelled out beautifully in lyric and song, there’s nothing more powerful…

  5. [...] via High Street Hymns As a person who grew up in the age of CCM and “contemporary” worship, I had little exposure to traditional liturgies and “liturgical music.” I think the closest we came to using anything liturgical was when sang the Doxology (the “Old Hundredth”) as traveling music for the ushers after the offering. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure that was the original intention of Thomas Ken, who penned those words back in the late 17th Century. [...]

  6. [...] From High Street Hymns comes a new series on liturgical music: [...]

  7. Dean Byler says:

    You say, “In many ways the move to “contemporary worship” threw the baby out with the bath water – starting completely from scratch in song and structure.”

    I say, “Bah!”

    Trumping both of us, God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing… do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18, 42:9

    To assert that “contemporary worship” threw something out (oh so cliche’… and what, exactly, are you suggesting was disposed of? “song and structure”?? c’mon, really??) and started “from scratch” (hmmm… you think I-IV-V with minor VI for flavor is new? nope again.) strikes me as a ridiculous generalization. To state such directly contradicts the privilege of the Holy Spirit to release something new, something that, in fact, would not at all need to resemble (i.e. follow the form of) something known.

    ‘Worth noting, too, that what Ken and others penned was as contemporary in their day, as what’s written today is contemporary for us. Moreover, many times it flew in the face of their “historical” or “acceptable” music – liturgical or otherwise.

  8. Alex Mejias says:

    Dean — thanks for your comment. the point of this article is to affirm both the “traditional” and “contemporary” styles, practices and songs. Of course what we consider “traditional” was once contemporary, that’s not the point. I don’t see anything wrong with new music and liturgy, and I’ve even contributed to that new body of work. It’s a good thing. I’m simply trying to affirm the song, liturgy and structures that came before us — because we are all part of the same body of Christ and we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters who lived in a different time, culture, etc.

    When I say that contemporary services threw the baby out with the bath water, I’m speaking from my personal experience. I don’t mean to say that contemporary services are totally different — Christian worship has followed similar patterns for the entirety of church history. All I’m saying is that some churches (such as mine) stopped using hymns, liturgical music (i.e. kyrie eleison, gloria, etc…) and service structures commonly found in Catholic and Anglican churches. My church abandoned these things, and I think many others did as well. These elements are not better or “the right” way to do church, but they do have value. In this post, I’m just trying to highlight that value and present a complimentary vision of worship.

  9. Pastor Bob Rainis says:

    I gather from this blog that the poster understands that Martin Luther’s contribution to the hymns of the Church Catholic are in fact “contemporary”. And so would Bach, the good Lutheran that he was. And yet, I can not imagine a Western Christian Tradition not regularly singing these hymns.
    “Catholic” hymns……I guess you mean Roman Catholic as Lutherans are most certainly “Catholic”, we profess the Catholic Faith weekly in the Creeds of the Church.
    In the congregation which I serve in an inner city neighborhood in the bronx, we raise our voices in praise and Worship by “blending” different styles/cultures. It works well….A Mighty Fortress or Praise to the Lord can be followed by a rousing “Soon and Very Soon”……as we distribute the Body and Blood of Christ, chanting may be heard…….
    just a thought from a lutheran pastor who grew up in the RCC and was “trained” in the Episcopal (Anglican) seminary

  10. highstreethymns says:

    Bob, thanks for your comment. Can say more about why Martin Luther and Bach’s work ought to be considered contemporary? And yes, when I said “Catholic” I was referring to the Roman Catholic tradition, good distinction….

    I love blended services and also currently serve in an inner city context (as is reflected in our newest recording). I hope more churches press into the wide variety of music styles as your congregation does…

    Alex (HSH Director)

  11. [...] Republished with permission from Alex Mejias. Originally published at [...]

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