He must increase

Praise and Worship Songs: Traditional vs. Contemporary Worship

Knowing which songs to sing (and which ones to postpone for later) for praise and worship is key to healthy worship leadership. What are some of the things that you should be considering when deciding which ones to use this Sunday and which ones not to?

More than likely you have a general sense as to which direction you need to go; it’s getting specific that usually poses a challenge to the worship leader.

A team member once told me that my list was too long.  At the time, I would list about 5 songs that I was pretty sure we would do, and then I would list ‘alternates’. I got into the habit of having more alternates than my actual song list! 🙁  I had to admit that he was right, and that I needed to pray more and be more sure of the songs that we would incorporate into the song service. Changing this approach caused less frustration to, and respected the hard work of my team – who with their commitment volunteered their precious time week after week.

silhouette of woman raising hands to praise and worship


What exactly is music and it’s effects on people?

Music is to the soul what speech is to a thought. OR we could say: music provides a means of communicating deep emotion and experiences – not by mere words, but through melody, harmony and music instrumentation supplemented by rhythm. It acts as a type of conduit for celebration, or to connect with someone in pain. It can serve as a way to teach something on it’s unique platform. Words – plus the emotion of the melody – reach to another person as a type of spiritual connector.

Music has long been a part of the Judeo/Christian experience. As early as 5 generations after Cain, we read about Jubal, “the father of all such as handle the harp and organ” (flute) – Genesis 4:20. And of course, we are well aware of king David – beloved of God, and what he brought to the Hebrew praise and worship experience.

The hymns that we have come to know and love began to be introduced during the time of the reformation (the 1500s). Prior to the singing of hymns, the congregation didn’t really participate in the singing (for various reasons). Many couldn’t read, so it hindered their ability to participate. At first, hymns weren’t accepted very well (a typical response to change). But, in time, congregants began to enjoy them, and to learn about scripture and christian doctrine.

According to Wikipedia, just before 1800, America began to experience the second Great Awakening. It was at this time that a style called ‘gospel’ began to emerge. The main difference between it and hymns was that gospel incorporated a chorus, and the songs tended to be faster than hymns.

The next major music change was during the 1960s, when christians used popular music of their day to promote the christian message, and music in churches began to adopt this form. The contemporary praise and worship music that we have today was born from this change.

Rich Song Content

Many years ago, I played a Keith Green song for a friend. This person quickly remarked that they couldn’t listen because his voice bothered them. As I later reflected on this incident, it brought about a certain disappointment. Why?  Because Keith Green, while not having a ‘the voice’, was full of zeal, fire, and conviction. His lyrics were very challenging to the spiritually lethargic.  This person allowed their personal likes/dislikes to hinder spiritual growth from the content of Keith Green’s great lyrics.

It’s unfortunate that any of us would allow ourselves to judge a song by it’s ‘appearance’ rather than it’s content. I have my style preferences just like the next person, but the sustenance/nutrition of my spirit man should/must take precedence over my style choice (which could very well be driven by carnality).  I have learned – and disciplined myself – to listen to just about any style, providing the heart and lyric content are spiritually rich and inspiring.

Worship Songs About The Word of God

The richest lyric content available to us is The Word of God.  In the history of the church, there were times when leaders specified that only scripture be sung . With progression of time, a more lenient approach was applied, and scripture paraphrases and experiences entered into the lyric content.  Many of the hymns that we know today were written and sung in churches across continents and maintained a rich scriptural content. Pastor Michael Cooper:

…” Hymns…can profoundly inform a worshiper in rich theological reflection and engagement. .. singing hymns can be a means of catechesis…(the ancient creeds and confessions of the faith)… why wouldn’t we declare the rich theological reflection of the hymns as a means of personal spiritual transformation?” (https://factsandtrends.net/2019/04/16/5-reasons-to-resurrect-the-hymns/)

[It’s nice to be able to report that there are artists who are doing re-makes of hymns, and providing us with beautiful song content – kudos!]


close up of open bible

Why is The Word of God the Richest Content?

It's the best content for several reasons:

The Word of God is Light in our darkness – it illuminates our spiritual way (Psalm 119:105)
The Words of God are Life (John 6:63b)
The Word causes purity (“clean” – John 15:3); The pure in heart are blessed and shall see God (Matthew 5:8)
The Word establishes balance in our life through sound doctrine and accountability (2 Timothy 3:16)
The Word of God embodies All the Promises of God (is The Source of Encouragement)

Brothers and sisters, we are such a privileged people to hold in our hands The Very Words of our Creator and Heavenly Father.  May we always revere His Word and insure it’s quality influence in our songs of worship and praise.

Traditional vs Contemporary Worship

In our current culture and environment, it is wise to be very careful about what is influencing us as christians. While we still have very good christian lyric writers (like Phil Wickham – Living Hope, Brooke Ligertwood – What a Beautiful Name, Chris Tomlin – Jesus), there’s no doubt that a cross section of christian music lyrics will reveal weaknesses – where culture has made an unfortunate in-road into our ranks. Please be diligent to feed your spirit a healthy diet of ‘content over style’, friends. To say it another way: Just because the song sounds good, this is not the best criteria in choice of a song for spiritual sustenance or for our praise and worship list. Remember the words of the apostle Paul: “to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace….the carnal mind is enmity against God..so then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)

Worship vs Praise

What is Worship? What is Praise?

The dictionary definition of praise includes the act of expressing approval or admiration. One source says that “when you’re on the receiving end of it, you feel great!”

According to scripture in the original language of Hebrew, we find praise to mean:

man in red shirt raising hands to praise and worship in congregation

This is the Meaning of Praise

rejoicing, celebration, merry
make a show, boast, be clear, to shine
be clamorous/foolish, rave
extended, open hands, giving thanks
to kneel, bless God, congratulate
play an instrument/make music accompanied by voice, celebrate in song, sing praise

In Greek, we find praise to mean:

to applaud, commend
hymn, celebrate in song
Glory, Dignity, Honor

According to scripture in the original language of Hebrew,

reverent man on knees and elbows to praise and worship

This is the meaning of Worship

we find worship to mean:

to prostrate oneself/fall down in homage
depress, crouch, humbly beseech, make obeisance, reverence, stoop

In Greek, we find worship to mean:

Pious to God, respect
in the face/presence of
to minister/serve
unwarranted piety, worship of the will
kiss like a dog licking his master’s hand
to revere, adore, devout worship
How do you Worship?

 This statement made earlier: “when you’re on the receiving end of it, you feel great!” is very appropriate for our discussion. Let me explain —-

Always Remember that God Is A Person

As we read scripture, we discover that God is a Person – so it’s reasonable to say that He has feelings. Did you ever read the passage – “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”….. (Ephesians 4:30)?  Is grief an emotion?

So, we see here that God (in the form of The Holy Spirit) experiences grief – demonstrating that He is a Person. (By the way, by having feelings, He is NOT like us; no, we’re like HIm – made in His Image – We have feelings because He does!).

I have made many deliveries in the jobs that I have had.  I usually encounter one of two attitudes when I walk into a store or restaurant:

–everyone is so busy that when I enter the door, they don’t even notice me

–when I walk in, several of them will smile and say, “hey, Charlie’s here”.

I have to admit that it’s nice to not be ignored and instead recognized whenever I go somewhere on the job.

In a similar way, we can see that if we ignore God, or are too busy to acknowledge Him, He, being a Person, can feel left out – grieved.

But….If we acknowledge Him, and welcome Him, praise Him, He will be open to us – relational with us, have favor toward us. Why? because He is a Person!

So, we can see that praising God – acknowledging His Great Attributes and Accomplishments – demonstrates our acceptance of Him. Acceptance and commending someone for their accomplishments or honorable attributes is a way to draw near to them. And if we draw near to God, we have a promise in James 4:8 that He will draw near to us.

I think it’s not possible to praise someone and at the same time, be critical of them.

We see a difference in the definitions from Hebrew and Greek, that to praise is done generally in an upright position – a celebration. We also see that the references to worship in Hebrew and Greek is a prostrate position or that of reverence. So here we see one main difference between praise and worship.

The praise service in our present day churches should advance a joyous, vibrant attitude of victory and joy. Burdens are released (“Save us O Lord, our God…to give thanks to Your Holy Name, and to triumph in Your praise” Psalm 146:47). [Learn more about these dynamics in my eBook called ‘The Worship Leader‘ at WaterfallWorship.com]

The worship part of the service will have a much more somber tone to it, as the attitude of celebration slows and softens to offer passage to a worship environment, and the congregants have the opportunity to begin to bask in The Presence of God in Sovereignty .

The dynamics of the Praise and Worship Service

Understanding the dynamics and flow of praise and worship greatly assists the worship leader in navigating this part of the church service.

Don’t overthink it – the Praise and Worship service is laid out fairly simply :

**A celebratory introduction praise song – uptempo music should engage congregants, and begin a process of ‘baggage release’, greetings to one another, clapping, etc.
The leader determines how many praise songs are appropriate (which is possible to change as the service gets underway).  There are usually 2 or 3.

**A segway song – of surrender or consecration – will help to slow the music service down, providing the beginnings of the ‘landing runway’ toward worship (this song – surrender/consecration – is not necessity, but rather only a suggestion).

**Begin to enter a worship time – Bear in mind that in a healthy worship environment, songs will generally be less wordy. This is because as Attributes of The Father are put into song form, congregants are reminded of His Promises with each Attribute proclaimed. There’s not much more that needs to be said or sung than His Beautiful Attributes.

If we clearly hear The Voice of The Holy Spirit while leading, then He truly is the Leader of the service. The praise and worship leader acts as a vessel of The Beautiful and Divine Will of The Holy Spirit. (After all, He knows how to minister to every heart in the congregation).

So a song list may look something like this:

pen and paper with praise and worship list and coffee

**This is Amazing Grace  (Phil Wickham)
                              **You are Holy (Michael W Smith – Oldie but Goodie!)                              **Jesus (Chris Tomlin)
                               **What a Beautiful Name  (Brooke Ligertwood)                                                                             **Is Anyone Worthy (The Gettys)                                                                         

One thing that I used to do is choose 2 or 3 songs with the same tempo (and maybe the same key – not necessary), and I would lead them without stopping. This is helpful to promote ‘Praise momentum’ which could potentiate – or result in – “The High Praises of God”  (Psalm 149:6).  I personally believe that there is a difference between praise and high praise.  Sometimes in our services, we have experienced high praise (it’s glorious!).  Something else that is effective is to use a praise song as the first worship song (the lyric content of some praise songs is appropriate for this).  Songs like You are Holy (MW Smith), Jesus (Tomlin), Our God (Tomlin)

Appropriate Placement of Songs

Think about this for a moment – you’re at a pro baseball game when the pitcher is hit with a line drive and knocked out. There is no back up pitcher for the team, but someone tells the manager that there is a professional quarterback in the stands.  Is he a good substitute for the injured pitcher only because he’s an athlete?  After all, he is a professional athlete just like the pitcher, right?

It’s extremely doubtful that a quarterback could quickly sub for a pitcher.

In the same way, there are some excellent songs on the airwaves, some great lyric content, etc.  But does that qualify them for a very meaningful worship song?

I broach this subject, because before I gained experience as a worship leader, I had services that I felt had failure because I used a ‘misplaced song’.

I have seen well written songs used at the very end of a worship service that ‘bombed’ because their placement was incorrect.  When a worship leader has succeeded in the praise and worship service to establish a beautiful worship environment, and then wrongly places a song that is about consecrating oneself to Jesus, or about communion, or is more of a parable in content, I have seen a shift in the congregation – who are ready for very vertical lyric content to worship God in His Beauty.  One of the most common examples is using “The Heart of Worship” or “The More I Seek You” to finish the worship service.  Can you see how singing  Brooke Ligertwood’s “What a Beautiful Name” finishes out a worship service with a more appropriate vertical attitude.  I’ve personally experienced stumbling through a misplaced song in a healthy congregation – brethren who are  primed to worship, but instead uncomfortably follow my misguided leadership

If you follow the simple format that I gave you earlier for the praise and worship service, it will help to keep you from finding yourself in an uncomfortable situation.

Take heart, though.  We all make these common mistakes –  the one nice thing about leading worship is that you will get another shot at it Wednesday and then again next Sunday!


Charlie, a former worship leader, now creates content on the website WaterfallWorship.com to assist today’s worship leaders – to increase their understanding and depth of worship. Also find his music instruction at Udemy Online Courses Part 1 (Basic/Foundational guitar), and Part 2 (Intermediate Level)

[*Note: excerpts used do not necessarily endorse the author or publication]

12 thoughts on “Praise and Worship Songs: Traditional vs. Contemporary Worship”

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    But, what concerning the bottom line? Are you sure concerning the source?

    1. the chief musician

      Tyrone (?), this is a pretty lengthy article tacking various perspectives of praise and worship as well as various styles with historical content. It’s researched fairly broadly and I list references where appropriate, trying to be as accurate as possible. It’s difficult to state a ‘bottom line’ – there are different approaches, different attitudes, and different styles of worship leadership. Thank you for visiting and I hope that I can continue to be a help to you! Charlie

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