An extended review of a 2021 book by Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong
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Book by Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong. Baker Academic, 2021. 368 pages. $54 (e-book $36)
For many of us, Sunday morning worship consists of guitars, drums, and video screens—a far cry from the way our grandparents worshipped. For anyone who has ever wondered exactly where this new way of worshiping came from, Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong’s A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship has answers. Ruth and Lim use the metaphor of a river to describe the current state of contemporary praise and worship, and the authors contend that this river’s headwaters are in, of all places, Canada.
Many of us have been told that the new way of worshiping began when some California hippies found Jesus in the late 1960s, but Ruth and Lim trace the origins back to 1946, when a pastor from British Columbia visited a revival in Saskatchewan and became convinced that continuous, extended times of praise were the key to experiencing God’s presence. The praise and worship movement was born.
For the praise and worship movement, the purpose of a worship gathering is to catalyze the presence of God through extended times of musical praise. During these extended times of worship, God fulfills His promise to inhabit the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3) so that the gathered church can experience God’s manifest presence. This style of worship emphasized the concept of flow and placed primary worship leadership in the hands of musicians, rather than the lead pastor. These musicians aimed to lead a seamless set of worship songs that would begin with joyful praise and culminate with intimate worship in response to God’s manifest presence. This movement, led by a new style of pastoral musicians, spread throughout North America, mainly among Pentecostals.
A second stream, that the authors refer to as contemporary worship, arose out of different concerns than the praise and worship stream. If praise and worship was concerned with God’s presence, contemporary worship was concerned with people’s absence – specifically, the absence of young people in church. According to Ruth and Lim, contemporary worship was seen as a way of bridging the gap between traditional worship and modern people, especially youth. While the origins of this stream are mainly within the United States, Canadians played a role in its development. For instance, the concern about dwindling church attendance was highlighted by Pierre Berton’s The Comfortable Pew (1964). Berton’s unforgiving critique of mainline church worship services stoked the fears of leaders that the church was out-of-touch. Proponents of contemporary worship also enlisted the ideas of Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, adapting his axiom that “the medium is the message” to argue that an out-of-touch form of worship implies a faith that is out-of-touch with modern people.
Contemporary worship was born out of the desire that the Church be relevant to modern people, along with the idea that one’s preferred choice of music was bound up with one’s identity. While contemporary worship began in the 1960s as a way to attract youth, it gathered steam with the emergence of the Jesus People in California in the late 1960s. A second wave of contemporary worship began with church growth innovators such as Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. For these pragmatic Evangelicals, contemporary worship music was a strategic tool to attract their target demographic. Eventually, the two streams of contemporary and praise and worship flowed together with the concept that God-inhabited praise would ultimately attract the unchurched. What could be more attractive than God’s authentic presence?
Ruth and Lim present an objective account in which they allow the proponents of contemporary praise and worship to make their case in their own words, leaving the reader to judge the merits of their arguments. The authors do not pronounce judgement on contemporary praise and worship, nor do they prescribe any actions. Ruth and Lim provide a thorough accounting of how we got where we are, paying particular attention to the theological, biblical and cultural ideas that drove the changes in church worship. The authors have carefully documented the journey from organs and hymnals to guitars and video screens. This book is essential reading for anyone wondering about that journey, or the journey that lies ahead.
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