In a nutshell, the article traces the historical evolution of Christian worship music, from the early Gregorian chants in monastic settings to the diverse array of contemporary praise music heard in churches globally.
It highlights key moments like the introduction of polyphony, the influence of the Reformation on hymnody, and the incorporation of various musical styles and technological advancements that shaped modern worship music.
The article emphasizes the unchanging goal of this music: to glorify God and unite believers in worship.
Worship music has been an integral part of the Christian faith for centuries. As musical styles and instruments have evolved over time, so too has the music used to glorify God.
Join me on a journey through history, from the earliest Gregorian chants sung in monasteries to the contemporary praise songs heard in churches across the world today.
Music has incredible power – the ability to move us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Throughout history, followers of Christ have utilized music to connect with God, offer praise, and share the Gospel with others.
The types of music and instruments used in worship have developed alongside cultural trends and technological advances. What remains constant is music’s unparalleled capacity to unite voices in prayer and praise.
As we trace the fascinating story of worship music, we’ll travel from the middle ages to the YouTube era. You’ll learn about the impact of musical innovations like polyphony, the printing press, and amplification. We’ll see how Reformations and revivals have shaped worship music styles to this day.
The influence of African American gospel and soulful praise will also be observed. We may even uncover some obscure tunes and long-lost hymns along the way.
So come along as we tune into two thousand years of worship music history. Let’s pause to give an alleluia-filled round of applause for all the composers, hymnists, musicians, and worship leaders who have led the church in singing songs of celebration and lamentation through the ages.
- Gregorian chants were the first standardized form of liturgical music in church history
- The printing press enabled the mass production of musical scores and hymnals
- Reformations in the 16th-18th centuries gave rise to enduring hymns and worship music styles
- Gospel, blues, and soul music have been greatly influential in modern worship genres
- Contemporary worship music is globallyrecognized today through bands like Hillsong United
Now, let’s start our journey back in time as we seek to glorify our unchanging God “who was and is and is to come” (Revelation 4:8 NKJV) through two millennia of inspirational worship music.
The Middle Ages: Chants, Hymns and Polyphony (500-1400 AD)
In the wake of the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century AD, monasteries arose as centers of education, culture and religious life. St. Benedict established his famous monastic order around 530 AD with a Rule focusing on prayer, work and hospitality.
Eight times a day, Benedictine monks would gather in chapels across Europe to sing the divine offices – regular patterns of scripture reading, psalms, hymns and chants.
This sacred music was sung without instrumental accompaniment in a single melodic line that moved in stepwise motion within a narrow range of pitches. Known today as plainsong or Gregorian chant (after Pope Gregory I), these ethereal melodies became foundational to medieval Christian worship.
As notation developed later in the middle ages, troubadours and trouvères traveled around Europe singing ballads and polyphonic compositions. Polyphony refers to music with multiple independent melodic voices harmonizing together.
An early form of this was organum, which added a second vocal line usually a perfect 5th or 4th above or below the chant melody. As you can imagine, coordinating multiple vocal lines without a time keeping instrument required tremendous skill!
By the 12th century, composers were writing three and four-part polyphony. The grand Notre Dame Cathedral school in Paris became a focal point for this emerging compositional style.
Worship music started breaking out of monasteries and cathedrals through the hymns of St. Francis of Assisi and other traveling troubadour preachers around the 13th century.
Some hymns that endure from the medieval era are the great Easter sequence “Victimae Paschali Laudes”, Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Jesus the very thought of Thee”, and Thomas Aquinas’s “Pange Lingua” – still sung on Holy Thursday in many churches today.
Renaissance to Reformation (1400-1600s AD)
The Renaissance era brought significant advances in music notation, instrumentation like the pipe organ, and new musical forms like the mass, motet and madrigal. Sacred polyphonic works flourished under masters like Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in Rome.
The Protestant reformers in the early 16th century knew the power of music to convey spiritual truths. They put worship music front and center for their cause.
Martin Luther was a gifted musician and composer who believed congregational singing should be central in services. He introduced simple metrical psalm settings in German that average people could sing as chorales.
Can you imagine a church without his classics like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”? The Anglican church also produced enduring hymnwriters and composers such as Thomas Tallis during the English Reformation. His harmonizations of tunes for Archbishop Matthew Parker’s Psalter paved the way for future hymnals.
Moving into the 17th century Baroque era, great organ compositions for worship started flowing from German composers Dieterich Buxtehude and Johann Pachelbel (of Canon in D fame).
The father of oratorio, Heinrich Schütz, blended German texts with Italian musical styles. These Lutheran sacred music pioneers prepared the way for Johann Sebastian Bach in the coming century.
18th Century: Watts, Wesley & Revival (1700s AD)
The 18th century brought important musical contributions from England that still influence worship music today. In his landmark hymnal “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”, Isaac Watts gave churches enduring standards like “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”.
Charles Wesley penned over 6,000 hymn texts in his lifetime including classics like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”. Throw in Charles’s brother John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and you’ve got a worship music explosion!
Moving across the Atlantic, gospel songs arose during the First and Second Great Awakenings revivals in North America. Simple evangelistic hymns and spiritual songs with refrain choruses became popular camp meeting tunes.
They spread rapidly across frontier churches and campuses through traveling preachers and musical shape note tunebooks like Southern Harmony.
The classical giant Franz Josef Haydn devoted some of his prolific output to sacred works like the great oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons”. In the German speaking world, Vienna became the musical center.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed stunning Exultate Masses along with various liturgical works before his untimely death in 1791. Meanwhile, young Ludwig Van Beethoven studied under Haydn and received his musical call to arms through Handel’s “Messiah”.
Beethoven would go on to revolutionize Western instrumental music over the next few decades. His glorious Missa Solemnis and Symphony No. 9 included setting texts of biblical psalms and Christian hymns to some of the most incredible music ever written!
19th Century: Gospel Song, Fanny Crosby & Revivalists
The 19th century exciting innovations raised worship music to new heights. Advances in instrument construction led to pianos and pipe organs with incredible sonic capabilities. Brass instruments were outfitted with more complex valving systems.
These technical improvements allowed instruments to play in diverse keys and harmonize in creative ways.
In the first half of the 1800s, Lowell Mason promoted congregational singing of masterworks and simple gospel songs through his popular tune books. New services like Sunday School and evangelistic crusades drove demand for Spirituals, gospel hymns and revival music.
Prolific hymnist Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) was the sightless singing sensation of the century. She wrote the words to over 8000 gospel songs and hymns after going blind in infancy.
Her hits include famous revival tunes like “Blessed Assurance”, “To God Be The Glory”, “Praise Him” along with 2000+ bold cantatas on biblical stories and texts. Fanny’s advocacy and hymns were a catalyst for sacred music flowing more freely between black and white churches during Reconstruction.
The century’s most prominent revivalists like Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey incorporated many of her gospel songs and hymns to win souls for Christ.
Moving to the end of the century, American Christmas songs started jingling their way into churches and culture. In 1865 James Lord Pierpont’s hymn “One Horse Open Sleigh” was republished as “Jingle Bells” and became a seasonal favorite.
Pennsylvania organist Edwin LeMar wrote the timeless children’s anthem “Jesus Loves Me” in 1860 which is still sung globally today. Pastors Robert Lowry and John Newton brought us the perennial descant carol: “Joy to the World”.
Early 20th Century (1900-1960s AD)
At the dawn of the 20th century, worship music became invigorated through the Holiness movement and Azusa Street revival.
Led by black preacher William Seymour, the multi-ethnic Azusa missions experienced a powerful Pentecostal outpouring between 1906-1909 accompanied by praise music ecstatic singing, harmonized Spirituals and spontaneous gospel songs.
These expressions of musical jubilation reflected the revival’s message that God’s Spirit was being freely poured out on all peoples regardless of race, gender or economic status. Azusa Street sparked a flame still burning today through Pentecostal and Charismatic churches worldwide.
In the following decades, gospel music developed into a beloved style as Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Rosetta Tharpe and others popularized the genre through records and radio.
Revived interest in historic hymns like “Just As I Am” and Fanny Crosby’s recently discovered “Blessed Redeemer” tuned worshippers hearts back to Christ amidst Depression and War era uncertainty.
New gospel songwriters emerged across denominations like Methodist minister Dr. Haldor Lillenas (“Wonderful Grace of Jesus”) or the “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” Southern Baptist minister M. B. Henry who penned the 1944 classic “Lily of the Valley”.
These hymns ministers knew that whatever storms life may bring, Jesus remains constant yesterday, today and forever!
Mid 20th Century: Revival Fires and Contemporary Worship (1960-1980s)
The mid 20th century brought folk and rock rhythms into church music as ecumenical revivals spread internationally from 1948 onward. The charismatic movement renewal significantly impacted many mainline Protestant and Catholic groups.
Youth oriented evangelistic rallies lead by Billy Graham sparked spiritual flames through renditions of classics like “How Great Thou Art” and new blood bought gospel anthems by Graham’s musical director Cliff Barrows.
Seeking cultural relevance, many churches started blending worship styles through updated hymns, scripture songs and choruses by pioneers like Keith Green (“O Lord, You’re Beautiful”) and Ralph Carmichael (“He’s Everything to Me”).
By the 1980s, a full fledged contemporary Christian music industry arose with breakout bands like Petra and Amy Grant bringing a pop-rock sound to praise & worship music. This built momentum for even wider invited worship expressions in the coming decades.
Late 20th Century: The Modern Worship Era (1980s-2000 AD)
Over the past few decades, we’ve entered an exciting new season of globally recognized worship music fueled by rapid cultural changes. Contemporary worship bands like Vineyard and Hillsong united the strength of rock and pop musicality with a hunger for God’s presence.
Propelled by youth movements and publishing platforms like Youth Conferences, Passion Conferences and Hillsong Worship albums, tens of thousands of powerful anthems have poured out through composers like Matt Redman (“Heart of Worship”,”10,000 Reasons”) Chris Tomlin (“How Great is Our God”), Darlene Zschech (“Shout to the Lord”), Paul Baloche (“Open the Eyes of My Heart”) and many more.
From Johannesburg to Jakarta, these songs resonate in churches worldwide through ever-evolving soundscapes, multimedia lyric presentations and global distribution systems.
The widespread adoption of praise bands with drums, guitars, keyboards and vocals has given worship music boundless energy.
Today’s Spotify playlists allow us to freely mix songs from Passion Conferences, upper room style spontaneous anthems, gospel choirs and favorite hymns together as one unified offering to God. What an incredible privilege to lift heartfelt praise and soulful worship alongside the diverse, global Body of Christ!
Present Day and Beyond
May we honor the past even as we prayerfully pioneer Spirit-led roads ahead.
Joining the heavenly chorus, let’s declare Christ’s goodness to every nation, tribe and tongue through worship bands, hymns ancient and modern, chanting choirs, exultant hallelujahs and joyful Alleluias resounding in cathedrals and house churches everywhere! Soli Deo Gloria!