How to transition from traditional to contemporary worship

In an era where many congregations are facing dwindling numbers many churches are turning to a more contemporary approach to attract and retain people. They see the success that churches such as Hillsong and Bethel enjoy with rock concert style music and seek to bring at least some of that style to their local setting.

People also attend conferences and festivals where they are exposed to contemporary worship music and are keen to bring those songs and sounds back to their home church.

As one of our Musicademy Worship Community members put it:

“They go to their grandchildren’s churches and really like the music  They just don’t know how to get Doris to play it on the organ.”

The purpose of this article is to look at the challenges and solutions for churches moving to a more contemporary worship style and hopefully provide a few ideas for Doris and her team!

I’ve collated the advice here from a discussion in our Facebook Group where I asked for practical ideas and experiences on the challenge of moving from traditional to contemporary approaches.

For the purpose of this article I am using “worship” to mean sung worship. Of course worship is far more than singing so please bear with the shorthand!

What is traditional worship?

We define traditional worship as something that is generally led by a single instrument (likely an organ or perhaps a piano playing a full musical score). The style of the service is likely to be that of a hymn-sandwich (with prayers, a sermon and other service elements interspersed with singing of single hymns, likely with a number of verses) without a concentrated block of singing. Songs are likely to be older hymns with perhaps the odd modern “chorus” introduced in the 1970s to churches that were progressive at that time but now might feel somewhat dated.

What is contemporary worship?

Contemporary worship music tends to be guitar-led drawing from rock and pop influences. It’s roots are in the charismatic renewal movement of the 1960s but many churches of differing theological persuasions have now embraced the style. Songs are led by a singer who is often also playing an acoustic guitar or keyboard. Backing singers provide vocal harmonies and other band members generally include bass and drums along with acoustic guitar and keys.

In more recent years the simple folk melodies of the 1960s have transitioned into more complex syncopated melodies sometimes featuring elements such as a ‘bridge’ and octave jump. Much discussion in worship forums centres around the suitability of octave jumps for congregational singing and there is some controversy over the choice of keys for songs. Worship leaders tend to select keys suitable for their own (often tenor) voices which can be too high for many women to sing comfortably.

I am certainly not saying that traditional equals bad and contemporary equals good. Both have their place and many people enjoy one over the other. It is not as simple as young people like contemporary and older people like traditional either. Many millennials enjoy aspects of high church and more traditional expressions of worship. We are, however, aware that many churches wish to embrace the contemporary but struggle to do so. Musicademy has served this market for many years equipping church based musicians to play better in more contemporary styles.

There are several areas to be negotiated for any church navigating the newer domain. These include transitioning from older material to newer material regardless of instrumentation and using more contemporary sounds in traditional worship.

Why do we want contemporary worship?

We don’t necessarily need to change, however we live in 2018. Around us is a constant stream of contemporary music from TV ads to songs played on the radio, film scores and music festivals. Many people both in and outside the church would like the musical styles in church to reflect that of contemporary culture. Popular songs played at weddings and funerals are frequently contemporary music that is meaningful to those individuals. It is 55 years since the Beatles released their first album and not much less since the Jesus Movement which kickstarted what we now know as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM).

Remember too that the Baby Boomers that make up many of our churches are also those that lived through the 1960s and quite possibly rather enjoyed a little rock and roll at the time. We are in a very different place today in introducing contemporary music than we were in, say, the 1980s where worship wars were a regular occurrence.

Churches embrace contemporary styles in part to attract people (particularly families and younger people) to their services, but also because many in their existing congregations enjoy singing songs written by the likes of Chris Tomlin, Michael W Smith, Hillsong, Bethel, Elevation, Jesus Culture, Worship Central and more).

Those coming into the church with no prior background often cope better with a less formal service style and music. The songs are helpful if they are more understandable and reflective of the culture. The older hymns are beautiful and poetic but sometimes more difficult to understand.

On a practical note it can also be really hard to get an organist nowadays too!

One contributor to this piece quoted from Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church: ‘Music is the primary communicator of values to the younger generation. If we don’t use contemporary music to spread godly values, Satan will have unchallenged access to an entire generation. Music is a force that cannot be ignored.’

General principles to use

Every situation will be unique but there are a number of strategic approaches that are worth considering. The following suggestions were made by our contributors who had all been part of the journey to embrace the contemporary:

  • Slow and steady, be patient. Steer the ship, set the course and let it happen naturally
  • Honour those who want the traditional. A blended approach with something like a 60% newer 40% older song choice can work well
  • Firstly make sure that your leadership go with you/teach alongside you so you as a team aren’t seen as breaking away from the norm. Then add no more than one song per week then make sure you repeat over the coming weeks so it is learnt.
  • Get all the team involved in leading them: stay away from “Organ songs” and “Band songs” and “Youth songs” etc. However, younger people introducing music are often better tolerated than others.
  • Make it “the new normal” and part of “what we do”.
  • Don’t make excuses for the newer songs, just do them well and with respect like any other song or piece of music.
  • Hire someone who has a foot in both camps, preferably someone older and with some history in that grouping or denomination, to lead a “new music day” so that the church can see how new songs will fit with their traditional songs and instrumentation
  • Be aware that songs that work well in a big conference or were arranged for radio play may be impossible to do well in a local church setting. So original keys, octave leaps, ad libs and lengthy intros should all be treated with extreme caution
  • And remember God’s got this, so try to be like him while you do it

Which aspects of contemporary music are the most challenging?

Aspects that people find it hard to like or adjust to tend to include the following:

  • Volume
  • Repetition
  • Length
  • Lyrics and theology
  • Key: make sure it is singable by the congregation and not simply best suited to your worship leader

Be aware of these aspects and don’t kick off with 45 minutes of ear-splitting drum-led worship featuring bland and repetitive choruses with questionable lyrics in a key that only dolphins would attempt to sing.

One essential aspect that underpins all contemporary music, but that musicians steeped in the traditional intuitively struggle with is “groove”, particularly the importance of being able to play syncopated phrases comfortably and incorporate the influence of offbeats. This is not something that is easily overcome, especially if your congregation is used to singing hymns which have almost all phrasing strictly on the downbeats. People have to be coaxed into this style, need to be able to relax and move a little. It will often come more naturally to younger people more immersed in pop music than the older generation. Those choruses from the ’70s were nowhere near as syncopated as the songs we are singing now.

worship_team_workshop-practical-trainingIf your worship team is struggling with groove then spend an evening with them working through one of our Worship Team Workshops. One of these looks specifically at understanding groove with lots of practical exercises to help them get it into their playing. The workshop covers:

  • What is groove and why it’s important
  • Rhythmic mistakes that worship teams typically make
  • How to find a consistent groove within any song
  • How to find your instrument’s individual role within the groove
  • How to create rhythmic and textural balance in the overall sound

Which musicians do you need?

In our experience traditional churches that have made a transition to incorporate contemporary music often have a strange array of musicians. We’ve seen tubas, flutes and violins alongside drums and electric guitars.

In an ideal world you would have the following as a minimal band:

  • Lead and backing vocals
  • Acoustic guitar
  • Bass guitar
  • Drums
  • Keyboard (but don’t play all the parts – you have other instruments for that and vocalists for the melody)
  • Other nice to haves include electric guitar and even brass, strings, woodwind etc but these really do need to be used in a contemporary style

Of course for a more acoustic feel then the following can work:

  • Lead vocals
  • Acoustic guitar
  • Piano or keyboard playing textures and chords rather than the melody
  • Cajon instead of drums


In reality you are likely to have a very mixed bag of musicians though, particularly in a more traditional setting where, for whatever reason, more classically trained musicians seem to congregate. Use them – perhaps not all at once but pull teams of musicians together perhaps one week with a string section, another week with brass.

Crucially those that are classically trained (and I’m thinking mainly brass, woodwind and strings here) would benefit from working through our Orchestral Instruments course (that’s currently half price so great value to unlock all that classical knowledge and pour it virtually overnight into contemporary approaches as well as losing the reliance on having to have a musical score).

And of course ANY of the Musicademy courses are suitable for musicians wanting to improve their craft. Every course is designed with contemporary worship styles in mind. For a team the best way to access it is via a team subscription. This can be as little as $9 per month per user.

What if you don’t have the musicians?

If you are transitioning from organ to contemporary band one essential ingredient will be musicians that can play in a contemporary style. Organists often struggle with a chords-based approach where suddenly they are providing rhythm and texture (on a keyboard) rather than playing ALL the notes and the melody line.

You may have a small core group that can gradually integrate others or alternatively we’d suggest using Worship Backing Band’s backing tracks. You have a choice between simple Split Tracks (on-screen words and “karaoke” worship with or without lead vocals) or MultiTracks which let you fill in for missing musicians. With MultiTracks you can use them in the background alongside your musicians which will give them confidence and also very much keep them to the contemporary sound.

Worship Backing Tracks

MultiTracks will also enable you to change the mix of the song so you could take out the electric guitar and drums so making for more of a gentle, acoustic sound. They will let you change the tempo and key as well as repeat song sections (a technique much beloved of contemporary worship leaders) which all feel much more like a live band than perhaps singing along to CDs which some churches do as a first step in their journey.

A recent Worship Backing Band customer from Indianapolis told us: “We appreciate simple and affordable – thank you! Enjoying the MultiTrack program and the chord charts look awesome for any musician who might stroll into the church. We are a traditional church which has just moved to blended and we feel the custom designed song in the MultiTrack is better for us (we also like the feature to change tempo and keys).”

Practical suggestions for moving from traditional to contemporary worship music

A selection of very practical suggestions that our contributors (who have been there and got the t-shirt) offered:

  • Have two different services – one traditional and one contemporary
  • Start by using contemporary hymns (Townend/Getty style) rather than jumping straight into other CCM or use songs in the Graham Kendrick vein which is a bit of a halfway house
  • Use the “tamer” CCM songs with a singable melody rather than those that are barely congregational or so upbeat that the congregation simply won’t be able to access them
  • Use the many traditional hymns that have had a contemporary bridge or similar added to them such as Tomlin’s Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone) or use contemporary settings to traditional hymns. Worship Backing Band has a wide selection to give you some ideas.
  • Choose songs with theologically sound lyrics that are not too “gushy”
  • Avoid songs that are overly repetitive and don’t do too much repeating of song sections with a congregation new to that approach
  • Go for songs that work with simpler instrumentation (especially if musicians are not that skilled) and perhaps phase in the full band over a number of weeks
  • Maybe introduce more contemporary songs during communion first using songs that could be introduced into the service itself later
  • Take the hymnals out of peoples hands. Get all words on Powerpoint. Even the hymns.
  • Play songs before or after the service to help people become familiar with them
  • Set up a playlists on something like Spotify for people to listen to
  • Look for blended versions of new songs like acoustic, live lounge, meditation, and classical versions. One person that commended on our thread said that they use an “Orchestras and Sinatra” CD of Vineyard songs…
  • Do not just do choruses. Include the verses. One thing people dislike about more modern praise music is they leave out the verse that give the chorus meat. It also stops it from being so repetitive
  • Take the songs that move you and are suitable for your own context and introduce them gradually

Some helpful quotes from our contributors

“There will be some people who will never get it. If they are critical to the rest of what the church does, then maybe hold off. Its the loud stuff that very trad folks dislike (massive generalisation there!). But we are happy to sing ‘Spirit of the Living God’ which is a chorus…just happened to be written a long time ago. Find some quieter, more “hymn-like” songs to lead in with – Getty’s, Townend for example. Finally, accept that you are not going from the hymnal to Jesus Culture/Hillsong…probably ever. If that’s what you (the person trying to make the change) need, then you are likely in the wrong church…even if you are the Minister there!” (Andrew Grant)

“I think churches have a centre of gravity – a comfortable place. And that is a good thing. We do not all want or need to be Bethel. We are a Vineyard church. We have our comfortable place. There are lots of churches, not a one size fits all. Some movement and modernisation may be right for a church, but not all.” (Andrew Grant)

It also is a big commitment, we have transitioned over many years & were doing quite well to start with, but trying to change the leadership style of planning and organisation (last minute) has reached a point where it has become a struggle to get musicians/worship leaders etc to commit with not having enough time to organise/plan/practice etc. It can be quite an easy task for a single organist with a decade of similar repertoire to play with last minute notice. As soon as you introduce more people/instruments & more (new) songs/arrangements the time & effort (stress) that is involved is multiplied quite considerably!” (Andi Moore)

“With a multi generational church there should be a mix of song eras because they tell of the different seasons of the church. Older songs tell people we respect the past, newer songs tell people we are journeying forward and not dwelling in the past.” (Mel Goldfinch)

“I would say the transition has to start long before the music changes.  In changing music, I would start with changing the presentation of familiar hymns before changing or introducing new songs.” (Evron Sampson)

” ‘Trad’ people don’t usually object to there being contemporary worship at their church, they just find it hard to engage in worship in that style. Showing the folks that a band can be sensitive and that more modern songs can be respectful and worshipful makes a lot of sense.” (Gill Marris)

“I’ve said to my team “you can’t sing modern songs while standing at attention”. This was something our long-serving, classically-trained pianist / organist musical director never really got his head round. He liked modern worship songs, and wanted to introduce them, but could never “get the feel” and didn’t realise that almost everyone else was following his rather mangled attempts. Meanwhile the rhythm section were “weeping and gnashing their teeth”. Funnily enough one of the ways to get round this is to adapt hymns to modern styles, as others have mentioned. Casting Crowns’ “Glorious Day” and Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace” are good examples, a well as being good case studies for looking at the impact of time signature change and anticipation with your music team.” (Nigel Cato)

I am sure there is very more to be said so please add your own thoughts to the comments below or within our Facebook Page or Group.


I am deeply indebted to multiple contributors on the original discussion thread within the Musicademy Worship Community. 95% of this article is taken from the very wise advice they gave there – I’ve simply compiled it into a single, hopefully coherent, piece. Thank you all for your time in writing. I’ve quoted many of you directly (some with and some without acknowledgement). I am very grateful to you all for this crowdsourced article as I hope our readers here will be too.

Marie Page MusicademyMarie Page is the co-founder and now Principal of Musicademy and Worship Backing Band: organisations which exist to resource, train and inspire worship musicians all around the world.

You’ll find Marie active in the Musicademy Facebook Group and also working as a consultant and trainer for The Digiterati where she also runs the online Digiterati Academy teaching people how to improve their use of social media and digital marketing.