The Rise of the New Pietism

What we identify as “celebration” today may be partly a reaction to the traditional movements of yesterday. Laypersons who are expected to take a larger part in worship may well insist that it should consist of activities they enjoy. For this reason we may call the contemporary style “the new pietism” (the emphasis is on religious experience). The resultant expressions in contemporary worship are:

  • Emphasis on celebration—a total experience in which there is appeal to all the senses by means of new worship forms and expressions, more emotional music, multimedia, drama, new symbolism, physical movement, etc.
  • Updated translations of Scripture; fresh, more personal language in hymns, prayers, and sermon.
  • Congregational participation not spectatorism.
  • Renewed emphasis on Christian fellowship in worship (in the tradition of the “kiss of peace”) and in daily life.
  • Cross-fertilization of the sacred by the contemporary, in text as well as music.

“The new pietism” appeared first among the most tradtional churches, and its total impact may have been more revolutionary among them. After all, the movement simply validated the ancient heritage—of joy in worship and in fellowship with other persons. Furthermore, it was moving counter to the interest of some evangelicals who were seeking to develop a greater sense of reverence in public worship.

One of the first expressions of the new music in contemporary worship was Geoffrey Beaumont’s Twentieth Century Folk Mass, which appeared in 1957. As a member of the Light Music Group of the Church of England, he stated their philosophy succinctly and boldly: "Worship should include not only the timeless music of master composers, but also the popular styles of the day, which are so much a part of people’s lives."

Soon thereafter, youth musical ensembles were appearing among evangelicals in Great Britain, patterning their styles after those of the Beatles and other folk and rock groups. Their objectives were to communicate the gospel and to express Christian response in word/music languages that were comprehensible to young people, both inside and out of the organized church. Before long, traditional denominational bodies in America were following these examples in an endeavor to make worship services more relevant and celebrative.

Among typical American evangelicals, popular expressions in witness music had not changed dramatically since the advent of the gospel song about 1850. To be sure, there had been modest variations in style in the mid-twentieth century—including “Southern quartet” forms, “western” hymns, a few songs in a mild Broadway-musical style, and the beginning of a country ballad hymnody. But, by and large, evangelicalism had not shown great interest in new music since the days of Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver.

There was, however, considerable awareness of the need of fresh expressions in the church, and considerable (but not universal) support for new translations of the Bible and new phraseology in prayer. Evangelicals used the available new Scripture versions and even sponsored some of their own. The musical breakthrough came with a few gospel folk songs by Ralph Carmichael that appeared in Billy Graham films and with the youth musical Good News, released by the Southern Baptists in 1967. The latter was soon followed by a flood of similar works, written for various age groups, using contemporary popular music forms and frequently performed with the recorded accompaniment of a full professional orchestra.

Soon shorter musical works began to be published in the same idioms. Older titles (and even new works in older forms, like Bill Gaither’s gospel songs) continued to appear, but in upbeat arrangements—with strong syncopated rhythms, a goose-bump-raising orchestration, and a series of “half-step-up” modulations—which added up to strongly-emotional expression.

In the last twenty years, we have also seen an unparalleled rise in the number of professional performances of popular religious music by traveling artists. Many of these young performers write their own songs and perform them almost exclusively. All of this activity has been a great boon to the religious music publishing and recording businesses and has created a multimillion dollar market centered largely in Nashville, Tennessee. It is safe to say that we have just witnessed the most significant new development in Christian witness music since Ira Sankey popularized the gospel song more than 100 years ago.

No doubt there is much that is good in the new spirit and expressions of worship. But, as in so much of life, every plus is a potential minus if we do not maintain a healthy balance. It is well to give vent to emotional expression, providing it does not lead to emotionalism and irrationality. The new humanism is good when it helps us be more aware of ourselves and our neighbors in full-orbed worship and fellowship, but bad if we substitute transcendent human experience for a full understanding of the transcendence of God.

The creativity that new forms offer may lead to a loss of meaning and identity if we forsake completely the historic expressions that are part of our religious roots. Finally, the “new enjoyment” may lead to a worship hedonism that is another form of idolatry—worshiping the experience instead of God.

Adapted from Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing Group. Used by permission.