June 2017 Worship Seminar: Contemporary Worship

Dr. Lester Ruth returns to IWS for a June 19-20, 2017 seminar that will take place during our summer on-campus intensive: When the Music Fades (or Not): Exploring the Historical Origins and Development of Contemporary Worship. This event is open to the public, but requires registration.

Dr. Lester RuthLester Ruth (Ph.D. in Liturgical History, University of Notre Dame) is a former instructor at IWS where he taught the historical survey part of DWS 701 from 2001 to 2015. A former United Methodist pastor from Texas, for the last 19 years he has been teaching pastoral and historical approaches to worship at a variety of institutions: Yale Divinity School (1998-2000); Asbury Theological Seminary (2000-2011); and Duke Divinity School (2011-present). At Duke he is the Research Professor of Christian Worship (and perhaps the most avid fan of Duke women’s basketball on the faculty).

For almost 40 years he has been mesmerized by one question: what insights from history might be gleaned for churches to worship God more robustly and faithfully? Originally he pursued his liturgical education to answer that question for his own congregations. Since 1998 he has been pursuing good answers to the question for the benefit of the whole Church.

Lester has focused the bulk of his scholarly research on the worship history of American Evangelicals (although he loves the early church quite a bit, too). Often acclaimed for teaching students about early Shouting Methodists, more recently he has turned his attention to the rise of contemporary worship. Starting with forays looking closely at the theology of the most used contemporary worship songs, he has expanded into broader investigations. The most recent are Worshiping with the Anaheim Vineyard: The Emergence of Contemporary Worship (co-authored with Vineyard musicians Andy Park and Cindy Rethmeier; Eerdmans, 2017) and Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship (co-authored with Swee Hong Lim; Abingdon, forthcoming, April 2017). He continues his collaboration with Swee Hong Lim, presently researching a book under contract with Baker tentatively entitled We Love You, Lord: A Comprehensive of Contemporary Worship (forthcoming, 2021). After that he is thinking about working on a book entitled Worship in the City of Angels: The Los Angeles Area as the Epicenter of 20th Century Evangelical Worship. Follow the IWS Bookstore link below for additional titles by Dr. Ruth.

Bookstore Spotlight
Preview Dr. Ruth’s books in the IWS Bookstore.

Register now online or by mail.

Seminar Description

When the Music Fades (or Not): Exploring the Historical Origins and Development of Contemporary Worship

Based on the recently released books, Worshiping with the Anaheim Vineyard: The Emergence of Contemporary Worship and Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship, this seminar will survey the major strands of development in the history of contemporary worship. Except for the evolution of its music, the history of the emergence of “praise and worship” or “contemporary worship” has been little told. This seminar will attempt to do that. While acknowledging the importance of musical developments, this seminar will suggest that the history of the non-musical elements is just as interesting and just as important. Thus the seminar will be an interactive exploration of important musical and non-musical topics and issues in contemporary worship’s history, finishing with a pastoral and historical assessment of where contemporary worship stands as it enters middle age.

Seminar Objectives

  • To provide a bird’s eye view of the various cultural and liturgical factors that contributed to the rise of new forms of worship in the late 20th century;  
  • To describe the common features of this worship phenomenon that transcend use of terms like “contemporary worship” or “praise and worship”;
  • To explore the different motivations for adopting contemporary worship, the different spiritualities of its adherents, and the different models for implementing it;
  • To provide a history of the non-musical aspects for those who think first (or only) of contemporary worship in terms of music;
  • To ponder possible weak spots in standard forms of contemporary worship in light of the breadth of Christian worship history and to consider how contemporary worship might be enriched by this broader history.

Seminar Schedule

Monday, June 19 Tuesday, June 20
7:30 am Breakfast 7:30 am Breakfast
8:30 am Chapel 8:30 am Chapel
9:15 am Seminar Session 1
The Origins of Contemporary Worship
9:15 am Seminar Session 5
Anaheim Vineyard Congregation, Pt 2
10:30 am Break 10:30 am Break
10:45 am Seminar Session 2
History of the Term “Contemporary Worship”
10:45 am Seminar Session 6
Music As the New Sacrament (Ps 22:3)
12:00 pm Lunch (provided) 12:00 pm Lunch (provided)
1:00 pm Seminar Session 3
Changes in Worship Language
1:00 pm Seminar Session 7
The Role of Technology
2:15 pm Break 2:15 pm Break
2:30 pm Seminar Session 4
Anaheim Vineyard Congregation, Pt 1
2:30 pm Seminar Session 8
Evaluative Reflection on Contemporary Worship
3:45 pm Free 3:45 pm Free
5:30 pm Dinner 5:30 pm Dinner
6:30 pm Practicum Presentations 6:30 pm Healing/Communion Service

Session Descriptions


Session 1—
The Origins of Contemporary Worship: The Multiple Headwaters and the Myriad Channels of a New Liturgical Reality

This session will provide a quick historical overview of the entire phenomenon, detailing the multiple points of origin as well as suggesting ways in which those origins have contributed to the DNA of the whole phenomenon. The session will also describe the multiple tracks within the phenomenon over several decades and how they overlap (or don’t).

Session 2—
What’s in a Name? What the History of the Term “Contemporary Worship” Tells Us

Although the liturgical reality of “contemporary worship” is larger than its name, understanding the initial surge of the name in the 1960s and its resurgence in the 1990s tells us much about the historical ebbs and flows of the phenomenon, the different motivations congregations have had in adopting a new style, the various spiritualities that have marked its adoption, and the standard models for implementing it.

Session 3—
Escaping the Thee’s and Thou’s: Language as the First Domino to Fall In the March to Contemporaneity in Worship

Although a new style of music draws all the attention as the fundamental aspect of contemporary worship, it’s actually the overhaul from archaic to colloquial English from the late 1960s to mid-1980s that provides the foundation for a new style of worship to “speak” contemporary people’s “languages” of music, art, technology, etc. When congregations said “we have contemporary worship” in the late 1960s, the fundamental thing they meant was that the English used was contemporary and up-to-date. This session will explore how the Bibles we read in worship and language we used to pray changed more in less than a generation than they had in the previous centuries.

Session 4—
The Anaheim Vineyard Congregation as a Case Study: Part 1

By the late 1970s and early 1980s a new style of worship was congealing. This session will begin taking a close look at the congregation associated with John Wimber in Orange County, California as an example of what was starting to emerge. The session will also explore how this congregation helped promote “classic” contemporary worship across the nation and world.


Session 5—
The Anaheim Vineyard Congregation as a Case Study: Part 2

This session will continue the close look at the Anaheim Vineyard congregation by examining what an experience of one of its services was like. We’ll listen to an entire worship set from the early 1980s and reflect on the differences and similarities to later forms of contemporary worship.

Session 6—
The Role of Psalm 22:3 in the Making of Music as the New Sacrament

This session will examine the role of Psalm 22:3 in the development of a new biblical theology of worship that associated praise with God’s presence. First originating and used as a mandate for God’s people to focus on praise in whatever form, over time the text was used as the linchpin of a liturgical theology that highlighted a difference between praise and worship. Although not as recognized today, the text was critical in the development of the propriety, theology, and practice of music sets.

Session 7—
No Plug, No Worship: The Role of Technology in the Space and Time of Contemporary Worship

Perhaps no form of worship in Christianity’s entire history has been as dependent on electricity as mid- and late forms of contemporary worship. This session will survey some of the significant technological developments in contemporary worship over the last 40 years and what these developments have meant to liturgical architecture and the approach to liturgical time.

Session 8—
And So? Reflecting on the Strengths and Weaknesses of Contemporary Worship in Light of 2,000 Years of Christian Worship

This session will be the most evaluative of the eight sessions as the speaker suggests some ideas about what contemporary worship has contributed to liturgical renewal and where it possible Achilles heels might be. He’ll bring his pastoral and historical sensibilities to bear to offer some ideas on historical enrichment of contemporary worship as well as dabble in where the phenomenon might be headed.

Make it a Spiritual Retreat

You are welcome to craft your own schedule to incorporate additional time on campus to take in chapel sessions, visit classes, read and research in the library, or spend time alone with God. You may plan to come early and stay longer if you’d like. Contact the IWS office. Let us know how we can help.


Cost: $175 ($25 early registration discount applied before May 1)
Includes lunch on Monday and Tuesday

Register now online or by mail.

About the author

Alumni Director, Practicum Professor, and DWS graduate.