A History of Contemporary Praise & Worship, Understanding the Ideas that Reshaped the Protestant Church

The stated purpose of this informative book is that it is “a history of how two liturgical theologies—two ideas—reshaped Protestant worship in the second half of the twentieth century” (p. xiii). Using the metaphor of rivers, the authors liken these two liturgical ideals to two separate rivers, emerging from distinct sources, and for distinct purposes, which ultimately merged in the 1990s to form what we call today Contemporary Praise and Worship (pp. 291-292, 309). In the process, corporate worship in most Protestant churches has been so radically transformed that few believers in the 1960s would recognize it as worship. That this metamorphosis transpired over several decades, and because the present generation of Christians have never known anything but Contemporary Praise and Worship, adds to the immense value of Ruth’s and Hong’s study. It is a comprehensive history of two philosophies of worship, primarily wrapped around musical styles and methodologies, which have reshaped not only worship but the church itself.

The first river is identified by the authors as simply Praise & Worship (P&W). It began among Latter Rain teachers, especially Reg Layzell in 1948 (pp. 9, 14). Latter Rain was and is a Pentecostal movement so extreme in its theology and practice that even the mainline Pentecostal denominations, such as the Assembly of God, openly opposed it (pp. 16-17, 35). Nevertheless, Layzell believed he had discovered a deep but unrecognized truth in Psalm 22:3: that God “inhabits the praise of His people.” To Layzell this meant that through loud, exuberant, lengthy musical singing, God’s people would experience the presence of God. Psalm 22:3 would serve as the key verse of the P&W emphases and ushering in the presence of God would be the key theme and goal. Later, bigger names such as Oral Roberts, Demos Shakarian, and Jack Hayford would help popularize both Latter Rain theology and P&W (p. 34), but Layzell was the originator of P&W and numerous others, whose names are unfamiliar to us today, would spread its concepts and methods. Most today, however, would recognize the Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) that was created out of Dick Iverson’s (a Latter Rain pastor) church (pp. 45, 152-153), and replacing “song leader” with “worship leader”—also a Latter Rain shift—which is more important than it seems, for now the musical leader is the primary instigator in regards to worship and responsible for connecting the congregation to the manifest presence of God (pp. 64-65; cf. pp. 45-46, 48, 54-56).

The theology of P&W drew on the Davidic worship pattern as the typological interpretation of David’s Tabernacle (pp. 46-57). In the early days, Latter Rain teachers claimed Praise and Worship were distinct from one another: “Praise is specifically the act of worship or service unto God in which we audibly render thanks to God with the lifting up of our hands. Worship in the specific sense involves a humble adoration, a bowing of the spirit before the Almighty God” (p. 56). “Praise prepares us for worship” (p. 71). The association of P&W with the Latter Rain hindered its spread, but slowly other Pentecostal churches adopted it. As its popularity increased, and bled over to non-Pentecostal churches, the connection with Latter Rain diminished and eventually faded away entirely, and its roots evaporated from view (p. 85). Aiding in this process was the praise movement and the “pace-setting praise albums of Maranatha! Music” (p. 85). Popular songs such as “The Lord Inhabits the Praises of His People” and “Praise the Lord” began to bridge the gap between Latter Rain and evangelicalism (p. 87; cf. pp. 90-91, 102, 123, 125). Anne Murchison published her book Praise and Worship in Earth as It Is in Heaven by Word in 1981 rather than through a Pentecostal publisher, resulting in rapid infiltration of P&W among evangelicals (pp. 118-119). At this point, the “Praise to Presence” emphasis of the Latter Rain was intact, but that was about to change with the advent of the Contemporary Worship river.

Whereas the P&W emphasis had been on closing the gap between the Christian and the presence of God via music, based on Psalm 22:3 and Hebrews 13:15, Contemporary Worship was designed to close an entirely different gap—one between the church and the unbeliever. Keying off 1 Corinthians 9:22b, “To all people I have become all things in order that by all means I might save some,” those involved in this second stream sought to draw people to Christ and to the church by modernizing their music. P&W taught that “if we praise Him, God will come;” Contemporary Worship leaders had a different idea—“If we change it (meaning worship), they (meaning other people) will come” (p. 166). Thus was born pragmatic Christianity with a strong emphasis on evangelicalism, a minimizing of theology and Bible teaching, and a devotion to “whatever works” methodology. Contemporary Worship was the perfect vehicle to be adopted by the rising Church Growth Movement. Pioneered by Robert Schuller and perfected by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Walt Kallestad, and Mike Slaughter (p. 259), CAMEO (Contemporary Approach to Ministry, Evangelicalism, and Organization) churches (p. 246) became the fad because their methods, which incorporate Contemporary Worship, worked—as gauged by numerical growth. Numerous musical artists, publishing houses, seminaries such as Fuller, and a growing list of ministerial entrepreneurs spread the CAMEO ideology and Contemporary Worship along with it. By the conclusion of the 20th century, pragmatic church growth philosophy and Contemporary Worship had virtually won over the evangelical church. In addition, the two rivers of P&W and Contemporary Worship had merged and were no longer distinguishable. They now formed one river, which could be called Contemporary Praise and Worship (p. 292).

A History of Contemporary Praise and Worship is a fascinating study into the birth, emergence, and growth of Contemporary Praise and Worship. My only disappointment is that the authors ended their history at the turn of the 21st century. A lot has happened in the last 20 years that needs to be explored, but perhaps that would take another book. One insightful observation is that the new centers of influence within Contemporary Praise and Worship are Hillsong Church, Passion Conferences, Bethel Church, The International House of Prayer, and Elevation Church (p. 305). These five leaders in Christian music represent some of the most theologically errant voices in Christianity today. Two generations after the birth of Contemporary Praise and Worship, joined with the pragmatic church growth movement, has resulted in heretical church leaders setting the direction not only musically but also ecclesiastically. If we reap what we sow, as Scripture promises, the modern harvest says much about the historical seed.

Ruth and Hung do not actually engage in the theological premise behind these two rivers—perhaps that is not the objective of historians. But P&W pressed into service a misunderstanding of Psalm 22:3 and in the process reduced the importance of God’s omnipresence and promoted a promise of experiencing some sort of mystical presence of deity if correct methods are followed. Contemporary Worship wrapped the whole New Testament around 1 Corinthians 9:23 to baptize their distorted ecclesiology. The end results are modern churches, many of which are being led by false teachers who produce appealing music.

by Lester Ruth and Lim Swee Hong (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 350 pp. + xvii, hard $30.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-teacher at Southern View Chapel