I was thinking recently about what is often called “contemporary” worship music and I began to wonder what exactly is meant by “contemporary”? The obvious answer might be “Contemporary worship music is worship music that has been written/produced in recent years.” So a song that was written in the 1800s would not be “contemporary,” while a song written last year — or maybe as long ago as the 1990s? 2000s? — would be. “Contemporary” is new, “non-contemporary” is old, and the only question is what date marks the boundary line.
But two questions immediately come to my mind:
First, why should we call something “contemporary” based on the date it was written? What about its usage? Imagine that there’s a song that’s suddenly on the radio a lot, people are singing along to it, people are requesting it, and so on. You’d say that that song was popular. It’s popular at the time it’s being played. Now that song may have been written many years before it became so popular, but that doesn’t matter. It’s popular right now. In fact, not only is it popular; it’s also contemporary — an old song, sure, but one that is part of contemporary culture because people are singing, requesting, and playing it.
Apply that now to the church’s music. Some of the music that people view as “non-contemporary” or even as “traditional” is still being sung — and sung vigorously — by other people today. It’s a staple of their church’s music. It’s a song they sing several times a year. More than that, it’s a song that many people, including children in the church, love. Given the opportunity to pick a song, they request that one. Sure, the song wasn’t written in the last decade and may have been written a couple hundred years ago, but isn’t it still contemporary, not based on its date of composition but based on its being sung by congregations today?
Second, though, does “contemporary” in these discussions refer only to the date of the song’s composition or does it refer really to the style of music, and specifically to whether the song sounds like today’s pop/country/folk-rock/whatever hits on the radio? Take two songwriters. One is producing a worship song that sounds a lot like a hit by Coldplay. The other is, let’s say, working in a conservative Lutheran tradition and produces a song with a square melody that’s recognizably in the tradition of church hymnody. Both songs are completed on the same day, so in that sense they’re both “contemporary.” But that doesn’t really matter, does it? Only the first would really get called “contemporary.” The latter wouldn’t. In which case, “contemporary” isn’t really the best word to describe this sort of music, is it?