When Worship Music Is Neither

Plugging in the amps has unplugged the purpose of musical worship

“Too many of us are going to shows, not church. We savor presentations, not prayers. We are presented with performers, and we are less concerned with seeking the Savior. People are encouraged to love the worship… but how often to love Jesus?”

 

My wife and I were a little late for church one Sunday in San Diego about 10 years ago. In the lobby we saw an elderly lady, frail and looking lonely, sitting against the wall. We paused to ask if she needed assistance.

“No,” she explained, “I always wait out here until that awful rock and roll stops. It’s always so loud, and I still can’t hear the words or sing along.”

That poor lady’s reply encapsulated something I had felt, myself, for a long time; and even more so in subsequent years. I have groused before friends and in speeches. I have listened to laymen and argued with pastors and worship leaders. These are not the words of a cranky music critic, but from someone who is concerned that church music in America has morphed from Worship to Watching; from Praise to Performance; turning the congregational worshippers into concert audiences.

It is not even a matter of wanting arbitrarily to preserve ancient music and traditional hymns – my readers know that I enthusiastically offer up Christian music from chants of the Middle Ages to Southern and Black gospel. Rather, the transformation of church music says something about the culture in general – not just our expressions of spirituality. It reveals something that should have us troubled.

The transformation of church music across the American landscape (not in every church; but every Christian will know what I mean) has been rapid and fundamental. It goes to the notion of corporate worship. It is essential to our identification as believers in God and followers of Christ. It is a manifestation of the nature of our faith, the validity of faithfulness, the object of our faith.

Well before I encountered that “orphaned” elderly lady a decade ago, I was talking about this general topic to Dr Bill Bright, founder of the mighty organization Campus Crusade for Christ. Agreeing with my critique, he referred to “7-11 music,” which I assumed meant the ubiquitous Muzak we hear in stores and elevators. But he said he meant church music that repeated the same seven words 11 times. That states the formula.

In formal terms, hymns are sermons in song, stating biblical themes or exhortations. Look at the words of traditional hymns: they describe the situation of the world and the position of Christians in it; challenged, threatened, but hopeful. The difference with songs – gospel songs, revival tunes, camp-meeting music – is more than the simpler harmonies and popular melodies. Gospel songs that live today in white Southern Gospel and Black Spirituals feature choruses to which singers return between verses.

The “contemporary” “worship” music we refer to here is similar to the earlier forms… but far different. Some of it purports to praise God, but its praise is diluted by the lack of focus or substance, characterized by those endlessly repeated lines. In truth, much of it is “me” oriented. Examine lyrics and see how often the first-person pronoun “I” is used. The emphasis is on the singer (more than God?), on how we feel (instead of worshiping or understanding Him), or what we receive from the musical experience.

None of these impulses is wholly bad. Of course. But the up-ending of church music does not end there.

In the Apostolic days of the young church, music was not particularly encouraged. Saint Cecilia reversed that attitude (and is honored as the Patron Saint of Music) and for a thousand years or so, music accompanied worship. Sometimes somber, sometimes joyously, eventually in certain liturgical orders. In Luther’s time the congregation was encouraged to sing, in ever-expanding portions of the service; beyond chanting and the liturgy, to hymns. For almost half a millennium, church music has included settings of the service; cantatas; anthems; choruses; and hymns. And it has been inclusive of worshipers… an integral part of our service, our worship.

But the new music that has overtaken traditions so quickly has done more than supplant Luther, Wesley, and Fanny Crosby with Pop, Folk, and Rock ‘n’ Roll. It has changed the essence of music’s role in Christian worship.

Plugging in the amps has unplugged the purpose of musical worship.

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