If you don’t like strong opinions, don’t read on!
There’s quite a debate in church circles over what the music, or the worship in church should sound like. Do we hang on to the hymns, or do we embrace a “contemporary” style of worship, which involves electric guitars, drums and dancing? The evangelical church has been trashing hundreds of years of inspired hymn-writing in favor of what it believes is modern music, in an effort to entertain and draw a new generation.
Just a couple of decades ago electric guitars and drums were considered to be instruments of the devil. Some people still see it that way: once you get the drums tapping in the church you’re all on the slippery slope to hell. Although I was raised to love the hymns and still do, I don’t see it that way. Biblical worship is both passionate and noisy, and there’s no hint that drums or electric guitars should be excluded. Rhythm is not evil: God, not Satan, invented the heartbeat. Musicians speak of an instrument’s “voice”, because all instruments, including the electric guitar, have one, and David said “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150). But there’s more to the consideration of contemporary music than that.
It seems odd to me that many in the church are saying that we should be moving with the times and changing our style, because what is presented as “contemporary” Christian music is really a Christian version of pop music or light rock or country music which has been around for decades, pioneered by the likes of REM and U2 decades ago. I heard and sometimes played in bands with all those same guitar sounds, licks and rhythms twenty-five years ago and more: the clichés are unbearable. And all those cookie-cutter “great” voices and all that theatrical groaning and heavy breathing makes some of us want to vomit. The secular world is not interested because they’ve heard it all.
It seems to me there’s a need for some focus and commitment – if you really think you should “modernize”, don’t pussy-foot around with what the secular world has already been doing for decades. The Church never invents or explores or pushes the boundaries, because that’s always considered to be “of the devil”, and consequently the world always does it first.
By trying to please a majority of younger people and those wishing to appear young, and the Christian musicians who are themselves a long way behind the times and not inventing, we select the lowest common denominator in music, and everyone in church is expected to smile, get enthisiastic and go along. What we now hear taking over in church and on Christian radio is the “great music” that anyone who is a “real” Christian and who isn’t ninety years old has to like or go home and watch TV instead.
And this brings to light a rather big problem: there’s a genie out of the bottle now. You’ve trashed the hymns (or stuck a rhythm onto them and cashed in), and now you’re claiming to be modern. Now you have to put up with what comes along in the future, and your music will soon be trashed. And if you really want to bring your music up to date, which kind of contemporary music are you going to regard as Christian? For all those who stand in church jigging and wiggling to the beat, I can assure you that there are also many who don’t like that kind of contemporary music-they much prefer a different kind. So, how are you going to reach out to them and make them feel relaxed and at home? How about some Christian Minimal/ Tech House, or some Christian Grunge, or Christian Electro, or Christian Breakbeat, or Christian Drum ‘n Bass, or Christian Leftfield? Even these “newer” genres have been around for a while, and by the time you get around to them, claiming to be “modern'”, they will be old hat too. The latest genres are not represented in church-what are you going to do about that?
And what about the many people who still love the hymns, and those who were raised with 60s and 70s style choruses and songs-don’t they matter to the church? Perhaps we should reflect the style of music and worship by suffixing the names of our churches:
“The First Presbyterian Church of mid 1970’s Progressive Rock”
Having been a pro musician for a time, and a music lover all my life, I for one resent being instructed or expected to clap and to writhe like a pop star, when the music I’m hearing is as predictable and clichéd as it can be. I’ve had one or two worship leaders all but point me out to the audience (I’m sorry-I meant “congregation”) because they were irritated that I was not dancing on the spot. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels like that, or the only one who is made to feel like I’m not spiritual or that I’m an un-cool relic of bygone days.
It’s also my experience that someone can be in rapture over the latest song by a contemporary Christian star, and still be living as worldly a life as anyone not professing Christ. Pop music has leant us a false feeling of spirituality: if we feel good while we sing those words, we must be good Christians, right? If the vocalist closes her eyes and shakes her expensive hair while she sings, she must be a good Christian, right?
“Oh-but the words are great..!”
Really? If I want good words I can go to the Bible, or to some hymns written by immensely gifted people who had a real experience which inspired them to put pen to paper, rather than to those who put plectrum to guitar for the aim of getting some limelight and avoiding going out to work for a living. Why do I have to have my musical tastes and my theology dictated to me for the sake of some lyrics which happen to have Christian-sounding content?
Why is it that the popular Christian artistes have to look and sound young, sexy and cool? We would all agree that a 75 year-old would not look right swaying and crooning into a microphone, being accompanied by electric guitars and drums and a driving rhythm, but why would he not look right? Could it be that we have been so influenced by our culture that we have also grown to expect pop musicians and singers to be young, sexy and confident? I don’t go along with the idea that drums or electric guitars are sinful or worldly, but selling music by making the performers young and sexy most definitely is. And what about all the older people who would love to use their talent and their gift past the age of thirty? Does the “gift of music” only apply to those below thirty?
If you’ve managed to read this far, you may be wondering what my suggestion is for the future of Christian music. So here it is.
Let’s either simplify and just have keyboard accompaniment to the songs, which would bring everyone down to the same level, turn the show back into worship, and allow us all to concentrate on the spiritual side of life (and not the sensual), or let’s have some real variety. Instead of shovving the older people out into the old chapel out of sight, lets all be real Christians and go for unity, fellowship and love (ha-some chance eh?). Instead of having one or two indoctrinated and processed worship leaders dictate to us how it should sound, (and it makes no difference how young a worship leader you can find: what makes you think he knows any better just because he’s younger?) let’s give everyone a chance to blow their own trumpet, to use their gift, to present a short application of their musical gift or talent. Let’s have Rap, hymns, guitars, brass – the lot. So what if it’s not polished? Producing music only in a tightly controlled manner greatly inhibits variety,creativity, imagination and participation.
If everyone had the opportunity to take part, I think there would be a lot more enthusiasm in the church. Everyone would be entertained and represented. The music and worship would not be stuck in a quagmire of clichés and propriety but would be fresher and more spontaneous and alive. Perhaps the Christian world might actually allow some originality to the fore, and something to make the world out there take notice. Perhaps our God would be blessed by what he sees coming from the heart and not from some “contemporary” prescription for what worship should sound like.