Five criticisms of contemporary worship music… answered!

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(Image credit: The Artistic Christian)

The debate about what kinds of music, if any at all, should be used in church services has always been a polarising one. Even now, a good 2000 years after the Church was born, some of us are still arguing about whether we should use pipe organs or acoustic guitars – or neither. As anyone in my immediate family will tell you, I’m traditionally from the camp that views today’s ‘praise and worship’ sound as, both lyrically and musically, subpar. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been exposed to this stuff for pretty much my whole life, but I’ve grown to view it as formulaic, cheap and in some cases, theologically aberrant.

However, since I don’t want this blog to be too consumed by negativity, and since devil’s advocate can sometimes be a fun role to play, I’m going to share five common criticisms of today’s worship music style – many of which, yes, I’ve been known to use myself – and examine them from the other side of the debate. Who knows, maybe by the time I’ve finished writing this, I’ll have become the Graham Redman Culture fan I was always supposed to be…

(N.B. I know the term ‘worship’ has a broader meaning than just ‘singing in congregation’, but I’ve used it thus here for convenience.)

#1: It’s too repetitive

In fairness, I can see exactly why people make this complaint about worship music. Songs such as Jesus Culture’s “One Thing Remains” and the Vineyard song “Jesus, Be the Centre” don’t seem to go too heavy on lyrical content, preferring instead to repeat particular lines or phrases with the apparent aim of sending worshippers into a trance. At least, that’s how the critics see it. I’m beginning to think there could be another reason for repetition in songs like this, though.

Check out this piece of music. There’s literally one line repeated throughout the whole thing (first in Hebrew, then later in English), which would make it a far worse offender of repetition than either of the songs I mentioned above. However, there is a reason for this. The song wasn’t written for the purpose of congregational worship; it was meant for people to internalise that one line, and think about what it means that Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord”. Jesus may have warned us against “vain repetition” (Matthew 6:7), but it’s inaccurate to say that all repetition is “vain”, when sometimes it does serve a purpose.

#2: It’s all about emotion

“He looooves us, ohhhh hoooww he looooves us…” The idea that today’s worship songs tend to prioritise spirit over truth isn’t entirely unfounded. Scan through any modern worship songbook, and you’ll be flooded by words like “love”, “comfort”, “passion” and the like. Then there are the songs that express love and/or admiration for God without actually naming Him, meaning that – depending on how ambiguous the lyrics are – they could just as easily work as a song for somebody else. One example that always comes to my mind is the Delirious? song “What a Friend I’ve Found”, which includes the line “I have felt Your touch more intimate than lovers’.” Holy amorous phrases, Batman…

What I’m struggling to understand about this argument, however, is this: if our worship isn’t meant to express how we relate to God (or vice-versa), what is it supposed to express? Nick Page, in his book And Now Let’s Move Into a Time of Nonsense (which is actually far less critical than its title might lead you to believe), writes: “If worship is a response to God’s love, we need to remember what God’s love has done for us.” (p. 28) I’ve seen several people arguing that worship should, above all else, be a recognition of who God is: His power, might, sovereignty and all His other attributes. However, it’s very hard to do that without acknowledging that He relates to us as a loving Father figure who created and sustains us. The practice of talking about one’s feelings towards God goes all the way back to the Psalms and other scriptural songs of praise. So no, we shouldn’t act like Jesus is our boyfriend (more on that in the next post), but we shouldn’t act like following Him is only an intellectual exercise either.

#3: It all sounds the same

My fellow worship music detractors and I have been known to harp on (pun fully intended) for hours about how easy it is to identify a worship song, because most of them sound like pale imitations of Coldplay or U2. It’s not just us lay churchgoers who have picked up on this, either. For instance, in this interview from the late 90s, veteran worship leader and songwriter Dave Bilbrough suggested that the Church would do well to use multiple different styles of music in Its praise and worship, instead of sticking to the ‘young white male with beard and acoustic guitar’ formula all the time. The line of argument that’s traditionally used here is that since we’re made in the image of the greatest Artist who’s ever existed, we’re selling Him short if we can’t make art that does justice to His creation. Yet I do wonder if ‘creatively brilliant’ and ‘congregationally compatible’ are necessarily the same camp, though.

While there are Christian acts out there that try to carve out their own unique sound (among them Gungor, Sufjan Stevens, Falling Up, Demon Hunter and Five Iron Frenzy), for the most part these are exactly that – acts. Their primary aim isn’t to lead churches in praise, but to sell a product. When I’m ‘worshipping’, whether it’s to 300-year-old hymns in ancient church buildings or to fresh new songs in huge, packed tents, I doubt most of the people around me could honestly care less how the music sounds, because the words are the most important element. If the lyrics are scripturally accurate and give God the glory He’s due, what’s there not to like? This has allowed me to appreciate worship music that I wouldn’t otherwise listen to, knowing that it’s coming from a place of reverence before and focus on God.

Furthermore, there is the point that if our worship music is too complex, then it won’t allow everyone to worship to the best of their abilities – firstly because it’s too complex, and secondly because they’ll be distracted by its complexity. Jon Foreman, he of Switchfoot, agrees: “The communal nature of what happens within the church means that what would be described as worship music needs to be repetitive and simple by nature… If you write a song in 7 that no one can clap to, or if you have 35 verses that use words people don’t understand, it kind of defeats the purpose of communal worship.” So maybe, just maybe, it’s a good thing that our praise and worship doesn’t involve King Crimson levels of complexity…

#4: It’s theologically shallow

There are a few worship songs that I’ve known for years, yet hadn’t thought too much about their lyrical content until recently. I revisit them now and see that they don’t exactly burst at the seams with scriptural insights, but instead rely on simple statements that, critics argue, could be appropriated to just about any other context besides worship. Much like with the first two arguments on this list, these people will contend that the ‘classics’ are far richer in theology than anything written in the last 20 years. But is this necessarily so?

One quote that I often see being used in this debate is from the ‘modern hymn’ writer, Keith Getty: “If I’ve got non-Christian friends coming to church, I’d far rather give them four verses of comparatively heavy theology with some theological words which explain the Gospel, than give them twenty repeated words that could be said about your pet horse or your girlfriend.” I’ll admit, Keith does make a pretty good point here: if the songs we sing in church are indistinguishable from pop songs, what does that say about our faith? Having said that, it’s also important to get the balance right, so that what we sing doesn’t completely alienate those who might only recently have walked through our church doors. A song like Getty’s own “In Christ Alone” (co-written with Stuart Townend) is a fine example of this; it accurately retells the Christian message in four verses (!) without using words like “episcopate” or “propitiation” in every line, or delving into concepts that only theology graduates would understand. All that, and it was only written 15 years ago.

#5: It’s all about me, me, me

Certainly, many of the songs that currently feature in our Sunday morning services seem to stress an individualistic view of Christianity, making out that I am the one Christ died for while leaving the rest of the Church out of the picture. Critics use this as an example of how the Church’s theology has supposedly been influenced by the world for too long, given our current individualistic society. Not even Graham Kendrick himself can steer entirely clear of this trap, as this song proves (although the fact it’s meant for children does mitigate its ‘me’ factor by at least a little bit). There’s also the issue that some of our songs might focus too much on what God does for us and what we can get out of Him, when in actuality those should only be byproducts of following and obeying Him (which ought to be our main aims).

There are a couple of things to keep in mind here, however. First, the practice of writing worship songs from a first-person perspective is nothing new – just look at the lyrics to certain hymns like “Blessed Assurance” and “Before the Throne of God Above”. Indeed, many of the Psalms are written about an individual’s understanding of God. Second, it may be true that the Gospel message concerns the Church as a whole, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for individual worship. God relates to us one-on-one just as He relates to us all together as one body. If anything, we need to get the balance right between these two types of songs when it comes to choosing what to sing in church – we don’t want to undermine the communal nature of Christianity, but we also don’t want our congregations to feel there is something precluding them from worshipping on their own.

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