There’s been a lot of debate in recent decades over what music, or the worship in church should sound like, but it seems that what’s known as the “contemporary” style of worship has pretty much triumphed over hymns in most evangelical churches. I here offer my viewpoint, for what it’s worth, and a suggested fix for the problems.
(This post is a greatly edited version of one I wrote a few years ago. It’s a little kinder than it was, but if you don’t like strong opinions, don’t read on!)
The evangelical church has been quietly burying or trashing hundreds of years of inspired hymn-writing (along with a lot of terrible hymn writing) in exchange for what it believes is modern music. This has been done in an effort to entertain and draw new generations. And perhaps that’s as it should be: times change and tastes change. Just a couple of decades ago electric guitars and drums were considered to be instruments of the devil. For a long time it was thought that 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 prefer the truly inspired hymns far over new “worship” songs, 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 sanitized version of pop, or light rock or country music which has been around for decades. If you really think you should “modernize”, you shouldn’t pussy-foot around with what the secular world has already been doing for some time. The Church never invents or explores or pushes the boundaries in worship or the arts, because that’s always considered to be “of the devil”, and consequently the world always does it first. Granted, we have to present some degree of familiarity in worship. But doesn’t modernization require doing something fresh and new, rather than just following the herd?
PLAYING THE WORLD’S GAME
By trying to be like the world, and trying to please a majority of younger people and those wishing to appear young, we select the lowest common denominator in music, and everyone in church is expected to smile, get enthusiastic, and go along. 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. What’s considered “new” by many is really not new at all. Yes, in this world of fast-changing, diverse tastes and styles, it’s difficult if not impossible to please everyone. Fashion, unlike worship methods of the past, changes rapidly.
The latest genres are not represented in church-what are you going to do about that? While you think that “most people like contemporary music so we’ll keep it this way”, you’re actually thinking exactly what the hymn-singing world was thinking thirty or forty years ago: you’re getting stuck in the mire of conformity. It’s a complicated business, being modern.
THE FORGOTTEN SOULS
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? 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 supposed to get excited about 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.
Another complaint I have is that sometimes the band on the stage is actually performing, and the congregation may see the church service as a show. Instead it’s meant to be a service in which God is exalted, in which we are instructed in the Word, and in which everyone sings with passion, with their focus on Jesus Christ and not the band.
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 lent 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?
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.
Either we should 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 letting the “stars” and their recording labels get a monopoly on Christian music, let’s give worship back to the worshipers.
Let’s give everyone a chance to blow their own trumpet; to sing to the Lord; 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. It kills spontaneity.
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 get 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.