WHAT SHOULD CHURCH MUSIC SOUND LIKE?

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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.

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19 thoughts on “WHAT SHOULD CHURCH MUSIC SOUND LIKE?

  1. Thanks for your comments everyone, it seems that despite the presence of cliquey church music factions on the media, and personal preference for “youth” or “oldie” church music genres, we’re all on the same page re our Christian faith and worshipping well. As a Cantor, when singing some texts in contemporary hymns and psalm settings, I’ve found it necessary to go back to the Greek and Hebrew sources to check the translation and request correction of church music lyrics at times. I need to be sure that what I’m singing is actually what Jesus taught, and that the music I perform is not promoting an anti-Christian ideology, by leaving out Christ’s teaching that self-glorification, and inciting hatred, vilification and violence against anyone, is inconsistent with the Christian faith.

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      1. I’ve decided to write a short summary of thoughts here, then if you would like I’d be more than happy to chat with you on the old dog and bone (phone) or by messenger or text, or other. I’ve actually written a post called “Why I believe in God”. You could search for that. It might help. So the first thing is that either we evolved or we were created. There is no viable sensible alternative. I have seen no real evidence for evolution, and I suggest you haven’t either. Evolution is a belief, a faith for those who do not want to know God. There is no evidence for the Darwinian tree of life etc. The fossil evidence does not show one creature turning into another one. You cannot see things evolving, only changing within a kind, For example, you get different breeds or species of cats, but it’s always a cat-never anything else. My most recent post “Seeing Design” is about a guy who was curator at Germany’s most prestigious natural history museum, a world-renowned paleontologist, who one day read some books on design and discovered that we didn’t evolve at all. The Bible says that the evidence for God’s existence is all around us, and I totally agree. The world is incredible and beautiful, and the product of a master artist and scientist. Look in the mirror and ask yourself if you really believe that what you see and think came about by chance plus time. I cannot believe that, I would need more faith than I need to believe in God. We love, we create, we think, we learn, we feel. Our brains are immeasurably more complicated than any computer, and computers, as we know, are designed. They did not evolve. Information needs an input-it cannot come out of thin air. Hope that helps. I would be very happy to chat with you if you like. Love

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      2. I believe in a spiritual world where energy is stored and created. I have not had any evidence of a “God” just the universe working for itself, like an ecosystem. I believe humans have lost faith in taking care of our beautiful planet. And now we are dealing with wild fires, and Bees dying etc.. every time I’ve tried to believe in “God” I find myself disappointed. And asking more questions? Now I don’t believe in evolution but I believe in a ecosystem. Do you think humans really belong on this planet? I have a crazy idea we came from another planet and that there are more beings in the universe.. maybe it’s silly? Or maybe I plagued my mind with too much science. I suppose I believe in quantum physics. I just am curious what moment of inspirational faith led you to to believe in God? I’m always searching for my souls purpose? And I sadly have not conformed into a religion or faith. 

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      3. Thank you so much for your thoughts Emma. My reply might be rather bitty and patchy-a sign of the state of my brain. Quantum physics is true science-real and factual. Yes we belong on this world for now-it’s perfectly suited for us. Of course there is an ecosystem-all designed beautifully. Yes we humans are making a bit of a mess of it, but what don’t we make a mess of? The universe working for itself is like saying a supercomputer works for itself. If humans came from another planet, how did they get there? If there are alien populations out there they may be like slugs, or they may be disasterously violent. I don’t think there are any. I think this planet contains all the life there is, and that the size and power of the universe refle

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      4. OH i hate writing in this stupid wordpress box-it has a mind of its own. Yes the spirit world is far more substantial than the physical world. Of course energy is created there because God is the source of all things including energy. ON the subject of moments of inspirational faith, I must say that faith is not necessarily born of emotion, though that can play a big part. So for me, it’s always been clear from the world around me that there is an incredible creator. If aliens brought us here, where did everything else come from? Matter and energy had to come from somewhere, and the God of the Bible claims to be that creator: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” . In that verse is spirit-which is eternal- and physical matter,which had a beginning, and which is so inferior to spirit that we are not able to easily detect the spirit world. So I’ve always seen God in nature, and I’ve always known that such a God would have to be an artist, a mathematician, a scientist, in order to create such a universe, but also a lover to make us the way we are. God has been near me at times. But we have a part to play, because God has said “draw near to me and I will draw near to you”. If we search for God he will allow us to be found. If we don’t we’ve missed out. If we cannot love the Lover we cannot know him. Yes I’ve had many moments in my life when I’ve sensed the presence of God, and it’s the most amazing thing in life. But like any relationship it can’t be one-sided. We can’t ignore God and expect to be rewarded. Now, your soul’s purpose. You won’t like what I tell you, but I’m going to tell you anyway, and it’s up to you what you do with it. Your soul’s purpose is to seek the true God-not all the fakes, and to know him, and to live in his presence and in his love, and to love him, and his son Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of life Emma. Finally (I think) the God I follow does not require “religion”. The only people Jesus Christ ever got angry with was the religious leaders of his day, calling them hypocrites. Religion is following a set of rules and rituals. Knowing and loving God is spirit and life.
        Very happy to hear from you, and don’t mind your questions or doubts at all. Love you M.

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      5. PS fires have occurred throughout the history of the world. Animals have been going extinct all along-just look at the dinosaurs. At the same time, I always did wish that we could leave huge areas of land wild and natural. Humans are destructive.

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  2. It is a delicate balance isn’t it? You want to minister to everyone, but see it is impossible and yet you don’t want to seem stuck in a time warp at church (in music or otherwise). I think it is good to mix it up as much as possible without sounding terrible. For example, it just doesn’t sound good to throw in the sing songy style of “Be Glorified” with a group of powerful modern ballads like “Inside Out” or “I Surrender”. I am pretty eclectic in my tastes, but I do find it easier to focus when the musical style is more contemporary…although I’m sure those who prefer Gaither find it easier to worship to that style of music. The hymns are wonderful though and certain hymns seem to transcend trends (“Holy, Holy, Holy”, “It Is Well”, etc.) but do not necessarily mix well with every style.I do think the idea that hymns were written better or came from a holier place in the writers is not fair. Look at current hymns/songs like “In Christ Alone” or “Revelation Song”. Those are powerful lyrics and will most likely stand the test of time because of their timeless, biblical truth.

    I’m not sure there is a fixed solution for every church, but the need to focus on the vision of the church, who the congregation is and who the future congregation will be should be considered when deciding how to best minister in song. Ultimately, the depth of songs and how biblical the lyrics are is what matters most. If it is shallow, it is shallow in just about any style.

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  3. Sounds like a good compromise strategy to me. A little genuine respect and hospitality towards the older generation (but please, not pitying patronage) would go a long way. Many faithful Church oldies feel unwanted at youth services, where the music they know is rejected, and only bright and shiny young crooners fit in. Of course you would have to watch out that the oldies don’t eagerly reassert dictatorship over the repertoire!

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    1. I agree completely. I was attempting in a sneeky way to be rather more critical of the determined shift away from traditional music, parrtly because the proponents of “contemporary” music are only going half way to the current ideas themselves, all the time priding themselves on moving with the times. I think that as long as all things are done in an orderly Christ-honoring way, no musical style is “ungodly” or sinful, but give me the hymns any day, and give me those “oldies” who tend to have a lot more humility and comittment.
      Thanks for commenting.

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  4. An excellent, thought provoking and funny read mate, well done.
    Interesting you talk about ageism in contemporary music……especially as the Rolling Stones are currently active, all in their sixties and seventies, and David Bowie at 66 has just released his first single in 10 years, which pretty much wipes the slate clean of these silly X factor “celebrity because they’re a celebrity” twits.
    It’s more brainwashing, whether it be in the church or the charts. Our materialist society likes to program them young, to be good little consumer robots all their lives, and I’m afraid that can be applied to the church too.
    But look at music history, most of the musical greats worked until they died, but of course we, as 55 year olds are deemed to be redundant, on the scrap heap. Sorry but I ain’t going gently into the night, I’m going to make as much noise as possible!
    And you read it here first: Christianity is the new Punk!
    Who’d have thought ay? Jesus causing as much offence as Johnny Rotten! Bet he likes that……

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