Monthly Devotional

Contemporary or Temporary?

By Warren Wiersbe

A certain word has become important in our evangelical vocabulary in recent years. It is the word contemporary. I hear about “contemporary music,” “contemporary preaching,” & “contemporary worship services.” Some of us who have been around for a few years are starting to feel intimidated, wondering if we are still contemporary!

It is my understanding that the word contemporary simply means “existing, living, or occurring at the same time.” In my library, I have a Dictionary of Contemporaries. The book lists the names of famous people who lived and worked in the same historical periods.

However, in recent years, the word contemporary seems to have taken on an additional meaning – “not traditional, recent as opposed to ancient.” It is this definition that disturbs me.

Take the matter of so-called contemporary music. Contemporary to whom? Most families have at least three generations living, and some have four. Is the music contemporary to me, my son, or my uncle? After all, we are all living at the same time! It is my guess [and I am not a musicologist] that contemporary music probably means “contemporary to whatever kind of music is popular in the secular world at that time.” Of course, I could go on and discuss the question “Which world of secular music? But I think you get the idea.

Consider, if you will, the so-called contemporary worship service. I participated in such a service one Sunday evening, and I came away less than satisfied, although I hold in high esteem the other people who participated in it. What made the service contemporary? In place of a pulpit we had a music stand. We added a guitar to the organ and the piano. Instead of hymnals we followed words flashed on a screen from an overhead projector. The song leader did not stand to direct the singing; instead he sat on a barstool and led us, between chatty little pep talks. It was casual and informal. For the life of me, I could not figure out what made it contemporary. Contemporary to what?

When I used to preach at street meetings, we used guitars and sometimes a small portable organ, but we did not talk about being contemporary. It was just too difficult to carry the piano and the organ all over northern Indiana! I see no reason why a local church cannot change its services and do something different, but why call it contemporary? If a preacher wants to dramatize his sermon, or even preach in dialogue with another minister, nothing in the Bible prohibits it. But why call such preaching contemporary? Contemporary to what?

I think we have confused novelty and change and have hidden this confusion under the guise of being contemporary. Change for the sake of change is simply novelty, and it does not last. Change for the sake of improvement is progress, and progress is what we need. The sad thing about the contemporary emphasis is that it may keep us from diagnosing the real sickness in the church and securing the remedy. We are rearranging the furniture while the walls are falling down.

The church must always minister to present generations. In order to do this well, it must understand what people are thinking, what they are seeking, and what authority they are respecting. But this does not mean we must become like the secular world in order to get a hearing. Identification with the world and its needs is one thing; imitation of the world and its foolishness is quite another. The Pharisees repelled sinners by their sanctimonious, while Jesus attracted sinners by his compassion and concern. Campbell Morgan said that the church did the most for the world when the church was the least like the world, and he was right.

Most honest believers will admit that some contemporary music carries a message that is not offensive. [After all, the songs we enjoy – the good old hymns of the faith – were once new and contemporary and criticized!] We do not want to get into the habit of rejecting everything that is new and praising everything that is old. But neither do we want to fall into the trap of mistaking novelty for progress and cheap imitation for creative change. No ministry can afford to become a museum that enshrines the past, but neither can it afford to become a chameleon that spends all its time adjusting to the present.

The roots of our ministry go deep into the past, whether we like it or not: the creation, the call of Abraham, the giving of the law, the death and resurrection of Christ, the coming of the Spirit. But the fruits of our ministry must be in the present to meet the needs of people today. In that fruit is the seed for more fruit, which guarantees our ministry in the future. Biblical ministry is both timely and timeless. We are stewards who bring out of our treasury “things new & old” [Matt. 13:52].

I suggest that we drop the word contemporary unless we are going to use it in its correct meaning. The abuse of the word has only created problems. I also suggest that we learn to distinguish between true progress and cheap novelty. I, for one, am tired of hearing immature Christian entertainers ridicule our spiritual heritage in the name of contemporary evangelism. Finally, I suggest that if the younger generation expects the older generation to appreciate their expressions of worship, they might try learning to appreciate the heritage that we senior saints hold dear.

The danger, of course, is this: What people think is contemporary may turn out to be simply - temporary.

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