In the defense of “modern worship” Part 2
So, last post I gave a very non-specific and general overview of the history of worship in the church, mostly dealing with musical issues. If you haven’t read it, you may read it here.
Now, I’m going to give my actual defense of the music used in worship today and build my thesis that: no one has ever gotten worship right, and we never will until the return of Christ.
If there is one point to be taken away from my previous post, it should be that there is no one musical or lyrical style that has ever been consistently used by the church, and there is certainly no “right” music for the church either. Of course, my review only focused on western church history and I did not even reference the fact that cultures in Asia, Africa and South America have drastically different musical and liturgical traditions that, as long as they hold to orthodox theology, are no better or worse than a hymn, worship song, choir, organ, band, or liturgical calendar. In fact, we have seen many turn away from Christ in those parts of the world when western Christians attempted to put our traditions (and, let’s face it, all our music is just a tradition whether old or new) into their cultures.
In many ways, the progress of church music throughout modern history has mirrored (and at a time, led) the progress of music in general. It was during the Enlightenment that secular music began to separate itself most drastically from music of the church, and that continues today. I think it would be appropriate to say that much of today’s church music now attempts to imitate the music of the pop culture, but I’m not sure that’s all bad either. Remember, it’s ultimately text that’s important not musical content.
So, let’s address the text of modern worship music.
1. It seems like the rallying cry of the blogosphere lately is “I’m tired of singing Jesus-is-my-boyfriend songs!” Now, maybe it’s just our church (because I’m super picky), but I’m not sure we’ve sung a song that I would consider a Jesus-is-my-boyfriend song in a long time. In fact, there are very few songs along this vein that I have seen on any recordings in the last few years. If you want to go back to the 80s and 90s, there are plenty of examples, but in the last 15 years, that trend has been waning. I’m sure you can find examples, but again, I speak in generalities. In any case, I think a little of this is probably good as it is. The Psalms have some pseudo-romantic language from time to time, and many interpret Song of Solomon as a love letter between Christ and His bride, so it’s probably not far off base to sing those songs.
2. The other major issue people seem to make is the lack of theology in modern songs. To me, this complaint is just pure ignorance. I could spend a long time listing the songs being written today full of rich, poetic theology, but I will just name a few.
Grace Alone – Dustin Kensrue
In Christ Alone – Getty/Townend (this one goes without saying)
This I Believe – Hillsong – basically just a sung creed which is great because singing helps people remember it better
For Your Glory and For Me – Newspring Church
If you don’t have much theology in your church music repertoire, try one or two of these to start. Yes, you could list plenty with weak theology, but there’s plenty of hymns with weak theology and bad poetry as well. That’s why we only sing hundreds of them, not thousands, because the best of the ones written are the ones that are still around. I think my grandkids will probably be singing In Christ Alone, just probably in a different way than I’ve been singing it lately. The point is, the songs are there, our worship leaders just need to use them!
3. I’ve also heard it said that the songs in the past were written by pastors and today they’re not anymore. Again, this is just a lack of understanding. Yes, many songs were written by pastors in the past, and many were not. Probably one of the most prolific hymn writers in the U.S. was Fanny Crosby. She was not a pastor, but she could certainly write! Few would argue her contribution to the music of the church. Today, however, there are many pastors writing music. In fact, the majority of our repertoire at our church is from other churches. Hillsong Church, New Life Church, Gateway Church, Vertical Church Band (Harvest Bible), Newspring Church, Elevation Church, Austin Stone (who, by the way, have theology papers for all of their songs on their website). Even the leaders from Passion: Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, David Crowder, Kristian Stanfil, and others serve as pastors in their churches.
4. While there are more topics I could address, the last I will address is sing-ability. Again, there are plenty of songs written throughout history that are really hard to sing. As I mentioned previously, the introduction of polyphony really irked people because it’s really hard. Also, if Bach had not “fixed” Luther’s original melody to A Mighty Fortress is Our God, we might not be singing it today. Thankfully, Bach knew a great song when he heard one, so he contextualized it to his contemporary culture so they could still use it (sound familiar?). As far as this is concerned, my only response is: time will be the deciding factor. Songs that are hard to sing will cease to be sung, while the ones that are good to sing and have solid theology will stay around much longer.
So, here we are nearly 1,000 words in, and no mention of my thesis.
The reason we have never gotten worship right in the history of the church is evidenced in the smattering of blog posts bringing down judgement on modern music and even in my posts of response and, of course, in the brief history lesson.
We are idolaters.
Yes, we want to do the right thing and point people to Christ, but inevitably, we put the things that don’t matter – music, style, presentation – as the centerpiece instead of the God who lets us use those things to worship Him. It is too hard to honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from Him, and spending time arguing and judging other God-honoring Christians shows we just care more about the method than the message.
Fortunately, God meets us even in our idolatry.
I don’t know your church. I don’t know if the music is too old or too new, too loud or too soft, too lovey or too deep. What I do know is that the people who plan the music in your church, probably really care about you. They want you to know Jesus more through the music they work hard at presenting each week. Sure, the songs may have a side purpose of bringing in unbelievers, so what? That’s all the more people who can sing praises to the God of the universe! Sure, the songs may be older than your great-great-grandpa, so what? We have an amazing history of music in the church that should not be ignored!
- Just love each other. Going back to Paul in 1 Corinthians, if you don’t have love you’re just a blaring organ, a screechy choir, or a banging drum set (my translation). Can we stop the fighting and just focus on what we have in common – we all want the Lord of Creation to receive the praise of men through the glorious means of song.
- Love your pastors. Senior pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, children’s pastors, etc. These people work really hard to help you worship through the Word, song, story, and more. They need love.
- Get to know someone who likes different church music than you and teach yourself how to understand what they love. Maybe even visit a church that’s different from yours and see how God can work in so many different ways.
- PRAY for the idolatry of the church. Pray that we would always know our way is not the only or best way.
- SING. Even when you don’t know or like the song. We are commanded all over scripture to sing, but we are not given qualifiers on when or how or even to only sing when “they’re playing my song!”
Even so, come Lord Jesus, come.