A Defense of Modern Worship Music in Liturgy

A black and white photo of people at a praise and worship concert

I’m just gonna come out and say it:

Modern worship music is appropriate for Catholic liturgy. 

Boom. Thesis! There. I wrote it and it’s on the page.  DEAL with it! 

I jest of course but you wouldn’t know that from the way Christians often discuss the propriety (or impropriety as the case may be) of using modern styles of music in liturgy.  The debate is one of the most contentious in modern Christiany. So before the comments section explodes (shattering the molds), let’s make a few disclaimers:

  • Modern worship (for brevity’s sake, MW) music can be and often is done very badly and/or unliturgically.
  • It should not be used exclusively or in all situations.
  • Gregorian chant, hymns, and other more traditional styles of liturgical music are a rich and beautiful part of our history and we should continue to use them frequently.
  • Some (otherwise good) MW songs are unsuitable, or at least problematic for liturgical use either because of their lyrical content or musicality (ie. they are unsingable by a congregation).

There are valid reasons to be concerned about the use of MW music in liturgy, and we should discuss those.  However, MW also has a lot to offer to our Church that squares cleanly with our traditions.

I will attempt to enumerate a few of these right about now:

Diversa sed non adversa: diverse, but not adverse

One of the beautiful aspects of the Catholic tradition is the diversity (without adversity) of cultural and liturgical expressions.  Christianity did not come ready made with a culture it sought to impose on the world.  On the contrary, the apostles at the first Church council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) definitively decided not to impose their Jewish culture (circumcision, kosher diet, Sabbath laws, etc.) on Christians from other cultures (gentiles).  Rather than attempting to replace a native culture with its own, the Church evangelized by adopting and subsuming what was good and holy within the cultures in encountered.  This is why the small Jewish sect of first century Christianity soon grew to write its creeds in the language of Greek philosophy and celebrate its Eucharist using elements of the ancient Roman cult.  It’s what the second Vatican Council called “inculturation.”  Romans citizens were used to celebrating their gods & goddesses with long processions, priests in fancy vestments, large choirs, and genuflecting for the emperor, so when they became Christian, they used many of the same symbols and gestures to express their devotion to Christ.  Even the fact that the western Church adopted Latin as its official language was a move to make itself more accessible to the common people who didn’t speak Greek like the educated elite.  Hence St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the bible is called the Vulgate because Latin was considered a common, vulgar language.  This “diverse but not adverse” mentality is part of the reason we have different rites within the Church (Orthodox, Coptic, Latin, etc.)  

Even within the Latin (or Roman) Catholic Church, one finds diversity in liturgical expression down through the years.  For example, the 12th century saw a liturgical revolution within monasteries that manifested itself in varied celebrations.  Cluniac monasteries favored huge choirs singing complex polyphony, many large, ornate candlesticks, incense, and golden vessels while Cistercian monasteries celebrated the liturgy with simple chants, a few modest candles, minimal incense, and wooden or copper vessels.  Similarly today, good and appropriate elements of modern music can and should be incorporated into the liturgy to speak to modern Christians (of course without marginalizing or replacing traditional music.)  The two can peacefully coexist.  In fact, way back in 1947, Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote, “It cannot be said that modern music and singing should be entirely excluded from Catholic worship. For, if they are not profane nor unbecoming to the sacredness of the place and function, and do not spring from a desire of achieving extraordinary and unusual effects, then our churches must admit them since they can contribute in no small way to the splendor of the sacred ceremonies, can lift the mind to higher things and foster true devotion of soul” (MD 193).  This brings me to my next point.

We live in mission territory

Christians through the millennia have adopted and/or adapted aspects of other cultures especially when attempting to evangelize those cultures.  The second Vatican Council confirmed this approach in its Constitution on the Litugy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC 119-20).  Ever since Pope St. John Paul the Great’s call for a New Evangelization (which has likewise been a key focus for his successors, Benedict and Francis) Catholics across the world (but particularly the western world) have been tasked with re-evangelizing ourselves and our cultures.  We western Christians are missionaries living in mission lands. As such, we need to find effective means to speak the good news to a nominally Christian but increasingly secular society.  Given, some churches (including some Catholic parishes) have gone off the deep end in the quest for that 21st century idol, “Relevance.”  However, some have likewise secluded themselves behind an equally insidious idol, “tradition” (note the small “t” before you get too worked up).  And if we apply Jesus’ “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:15-20) litmus test to MW music, we find a great many Christians and Catholics drawn deeper into the spiritual and sacramental life of the Church by the pseudo-charismatic spirituality of “praise & worship” music.  Moreover, the simple, catchy melodies and familiar style of MW music can be a great tool in the belt of liturgical ministers trying “to promote active participation” of the congregation (SC 30, 121). 

King David would approve

MW music shares much in common with the psalms.  For starters, praise & worship songs are characterized by simple, emotive, personal (often first person) lyrics that reflect an intimate relationship with God.  They tend to focus on the great joys and great struggles of the spiritual life.  This is also characteristic of the psalms.  It’s no coincidence that MW songsmiths often work the psalms into their songs (Better is One Day, Your Love Oh Lord, Forever, Whom Shall I Fear).

King David played guitar

Well, not exactly, but he did play a psaltery (which is why we call them “psalms”) or a lyre which were harp-like string instruments played by strumming and plucking not unlike the modern guitar.  Dig deeper into the psalms and you’ll find phrases like “clap your hands” (psalm 47) or “give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre, . . . tambourines and dance, . . . strings and pipes, crashing cymbals,  . . . sounding cymbals.” (psalm 150).  This is all to say that much of the instrumentation used in MW is basically equivalent to what Jews and Christians used to celebrate their liturgies millennia ago (SC 120).

Sing a new song to the Lord

We Catholics love our Tradition and our traditions, don’t we?  And we should!  It gives us a link to our history and a sense of the ancient beauty of our faith.  However, how many places in the psalms does the psalmist delight in singing a new song?  How many times in your life have you heard a new song and you just can’t get it out of your head and it speaks to you in powerful and mysterious ways.  Old songs, of course, can affect us similarly but how wonderful is it to discover a new song, with new lyrics, new sounds, and new rhythms you’ve never quite heard assembled in that way before.  It draws us in and captures us like few other things can.  The power of a new song is one that the writers of the psalms (as well as Isaiah and John) knew well and they celebrated it.  Old is not always better than new in liturgy.  Even Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century celebrated a novel liturgical practice called Eucharistic Adoration when he penned his beautiful hymn Tantum Ergo: “over ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail.”  As modern evangelists in a secular world, we forsake the power of the new at our peril.  I pray that we do not neglect good and holy means of evangelization and spirituality simply because it is new.   Jesus himself warned us against being too cautious in working for his kingdom (Matthew 25:14-30).

Closing Time

Two final thoughts:

I do not advocate unilaterally replacing more traditional forms of liturgical music and worship with modern ones.  On the contrary, I think by incorporating some modern musical elements we can actually educate and rehabilitate ourselves and our congregations to meaningful use of traditional practices like Gregorian chant.

There are some artists doing really excellent work in writing great worship songs, many of which capture some of the best of the old along with the new.  Here are a few of my favorites:


Matt Maher & Matt Redman’s Remembrance is a beautiful communion song which incorporates words from the Eucharistic Prayers of the mass.

Hillsong’s Cornerstone strikes a near perfect balance of a modern song with hymn like sensibilities. 

The Capuchin Friars of the Renewal chant the divine office over an acoustic guitar at their Catholic Underground events.  Here is Tom Lelyo from the Catholic Worship Blog with a step-by-step on how they do it.

Chris Tomlin’s Jesus Messiah is based off 2 Corinthians 5 and the ancient Christian hymn found in Philippians 2. This version by the group Heartsong at Cedarville University does it beautifully.

Matt Maher’s remake of the Tantum Ergo called Adoration is another chant/MW hybrid.

Reawaken Hymns has acoustic guitar versions of many traditional hymns.

Indelible Grace is a well-known protestant movement in Nashville that writes new music to the lyrics of old hymns.  My favorite of theirs is(Thy Mercy, My God) as recorded by Caedmon’s Call.

Written by the Holy Rukus