Make an adequate noise to the Lord: addressing the shoddy condition of modern worship

hillsong-conference-live

As much as I wish the majority of folks who happen upon this blog were non-Christians, undoubtedly the background of most of my “readers” is much like my own, which means they grew up in a large church where services went something like this:

  1. Worship band plays three Hillsong/Chris Tomlin songs
  2. Worship leader tells congregation to greet one another (respectable handshakes for Baptists, hugs for Presbyterians, kisses for Pentecostals)
  3. Baptism (if that’s your denomination’s thing)
  4. Church staff member tells a dad joke and gives announcements that everyone already read in the bulletin
  5. Worship band plays 2-3 more Hillsong/Chris Tomlin songs, with the last song being a super convicting-sounding song to calm everyone down before they have to sit down for 30 minutes
  6. A “stall for the stage crew guys to get the podium and/or props set up for the pastor” prayer by worship leader
    1. Worship leader is most likely a white dude who only ever plays guitar, and not only can you never hear his guitar unless everyone else stops playing, but also he sometimes just stops playing in the middle of songs so you start to wonder if they even turn the thing on or if he even knows how to play guitar (okay, maybe that was just me).
    2. This part is absolutely crucial: the keyboard player MUST play super convicting notes that sound like he’s recording the soundtrack for a National Geographic piece about whales, and he MUST play these notes for the duration of the worship leader’s prayer.
  7. Pastor speaks for 30 minutes, 35 minutes at the most
    1. If he goes on for longer, the congregation is legally permitted to lock the pastor in the baptistery overnight.
  8. Pastor prays long enough for the worship leader, whale song keyboard player, and the rest of the band to get up on stage
    1. Whale song keyboard player MUST get on stage first so that he can continue his recording in the middle of the pastor’s prayer, thus making the prayer twice as spiritual.
  9. Worship band plays one more Hillsong/Chris Tomlin song
    1. If the band plays more than one song, the congregation is legally permitted to storm the stage and smash every band member’s instruments.
  10. Worship leader dismisses the congregation to the second worship service, otherwise known as eating Mexican food and watching football (for Jesus, of course)

As fun as it was type that out, my purpose in this is not to critique the use of lights, smoke machines, or similar large church aesthetics (but seriously…WHY?!?). I want to ask a very important question that I feel needs to be answered:

At what point is “worship music” no longer worshipful?

I recently sat in a massive (in size, not length of time) worship service that felt more like a pop country concert: lots of on-stage action, very similar sounding songs, a semi-interested audience, and a lot of asking the crowd to get excited. I say I “sat” in this worship because that’s what I did: I sat the entire time. I didn’t sit to make a point like a rebellious high school kid or because I was tired or anything like that. I just didn’t see a reason to.

“Chase, worship isn’t about personal tastes. It’s about praising God.”

Yes. Absolutely. 100%. No one is more against the whole “I’m leaving my church because I don’t like the worship” thing more than me. If that’s the reason why you’re leaving, you were there for the wrong reasons anyways. Worship is about being in a state of complete humbleness, vulnerability, and thankfulness before the God of the universe who decided that YOU, a broken, weak human being, were worth saving. Don’t like that there are/aren’t drums? That’s fine, but it doesn’t matter.

My concern is that we’ve taken that concept too far. We automatically slap that “DO NOT QUESTION” tag on all worship because the people writing the songs are good Christian people, and the songs they write mention positive characteristics of or historical events in the life of Jesus. Look, it’s no secret that Christian music has always been behind the curve of musical trends and quality, and it’s fine that modern Christian artists are continuing to try to be more appealing to modern audiences, but that doesn’t automatically make their music worshipful!

“Well then do you have a list of rules as to what constitutes as worshipful music, O mighty Muse of God?”

No, and there shouldn’t be. Music is art, not science. There is no X + Y = worshipful song, nor is there a way to objectively state what is and what is not a worshipful song. I truly believe music is a thing created by God as a means of expressing our thoughts of Him that we can’t adequately express with written or spoken words. There is an inherent, indescribable beauty in the sound of musical notes harmoniously blended together, almost as if the notes represent the harmony of the nature God created, whether those notes come from instruments or singing. But what I don’t agree with is this idea that you are required to feel worshipful in whatever songs the worship leaders have prescribed for you for worship. Here’s what Paul tells the congregation in Ephesians 5:

…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ… –Ephesians 5:18-20

Paul doesn’t say “singing [insert popular 1st century hymn name here] and making melody to the Lord with your heart”, he just says “singing”. My point is that we are not required to treat music we’re told is worshipful as actually worshipful. And the music I’m referring to isn’t even blatantly heretical, but it just isn’t “enough”.

“For a guy who’s hardcore against any form of works righteousness, it’s kinda weird you think our worship has to be good enough for God.”

This is where I can’t quite figure out how to properly say what I’m trying to say. We could never ever make something that is good enough for God because He invented music. Our songs of worship are just like a picture drawn by a child that he gives to his father: the father loves the picture not because of its artistic quality, but because it was made out of love. But let’s continue this analogy even further. What if the child’s picture was not only presented as a symbol of the child’s love for the father, but also as a symbol of love for all his other brothers and sisters? The child’s siblings, who may be better artists than the child, would say, “Yes father, we love you completely, and there’s nothing we could to do sufficiently express that love, but I could draw a better picture than that to reflect my own love for you.” This is how I feel about modern worship.

There’s a hymn movement that’s building steam in the church today. Musical believers are looking around at the songs they get to choose from for worship and are deciding they could do more. I mean, there’s a reason why John Crist’s recent satirical video of modern worship production has been so popular: he recognized a problem that tons of other people have noticed as well. Personally, I’m overjoyed with this movement towards simplicity. I love the old hymns not because their old and automatically better than anything today or some other pretentious reason like that. The old hymns, as opposed to lots of modern worship, cover a lot of theology. Look at a song like “In Christ Alone”. It’s hardly a surprise that congregations are so deeply moved by this song. The lyrics cover just about everything: the greatness of God, the perfection & love of Christ, our own sin (this is a BIG one that modern worship misses), and lots more. I mean, folks, that’s a DEEP song!

And not only are people reusing the old hymns, but they’re making “new” hymns out of the Psalms. I mean, it’s so simplistically smart. I remember learning about the book of Psalms in church as a kid and being told, “This is a book of songs written by King David. He used them to worship God,” but then reading the Psalms and having no idea how anyone could make a song out of them. Obviously I know now that ancient Hebrew music style was a bit different than today’s music style (though I bet King Dave would’ve KILLED IT on acoustic guitar), but this is where modernizing worship is okay. People are taking modern style and artistically applying it to Scripture.

I fear I still am not being clear enough. I saw a fellow brother in Christ comment on the subject quite well once on Reddit. Here’s how he put it:

Worship is an aesthetic experience. But it’s not only an aesthetic experience. If it were, there would be no difference between corporate worship and going to a rock show. And having been to some fine rock shows in my time, let me tell you, life is too short to waste it on crappy bands in sterile venues where they don’t even serve beer.

And believe it or not, the problem with a lot of contemporary worship music is that it is, at is core, pagan. The pagans were huge fans of music in their worship always have been. You know how it’s been said that the devil has all the good music? Well I don’t know about all, but there’s no questioning the “good” part. . . where by “good” we mean “effective at eliciting a particular emotional response.” Because that’s what pagan worship music is all about: eliciting a response, whether from the worshiper or from the gods. So in the ancient world you’d get massive percussion sections, tons of horns, all intended to either attract the attention of the gods (who were notoriously unreliable in their attentiveness) or stir up the worshiper to the desired emotional pitch. After all, the measure of the effectiveness of pagan worship is how it makes the worshiper feel.

But this is not what the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is supposed to be like. We do not have to make loud noises to attract his attention. And more to the point, it is the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of the faithful, not the phattness of the bass line, that lifts our hearts into the heavenly places. Because the bass line can certainly life your heart somewhere. . . just not to heaven, where it belongs.

That being said, there most certainly is a place for music, with instruments, in Christian worship. But to actually be Christian worship, rather than mere appropriation of pagan worship (i.e., something suspiciously similar to the Golden Calf), it needs to be appropriate for that function. When the people of God sing, this is to be a response to and outflowing of the work of the Spirit. It does not produce said work. And when the people of God sing, what else are we doing but praying together? We should watch what we pray when we sing no less than when we do not.

So when evaluating any particular instance of (purportedly) Christian worship, some questions to ask about the music:

  • What exactly is being said? Too often the answer is “Not all that much, really, no matter how many times we say it” or “Nothing I couldn’t repeat in conversation while keeping a straight face” and occasionally “Borderline heterodox if not outright heretical things about God.”
  • How well does the music fit together with the words? Because as has been mentioned, music is an aesthetic experience. If the words are pulling us in one emotional direction and the music is pulling us in another. . . come on now. That’s just bad art. And there’s no excuse for bad art anywhere, but especially in the worship of he who invented beauty.
  • How well does the music promote corporate singing? A glaring problem with the vast majority of contemporary music is that it’s performance music, written to be performed by a band, and often in the studio rather than live. Irregular meter. Hideously complex rhythms. Backing vocals rather than actual multi-part harmony. Key musical statements given to instrumental parts rather than vocals. And the house system turned up so loud that the musicians need monitors to hear themselves play. How are you supposed to be able to hear anyone singing but the guy with the mic? And when you look around in such services, what percentage of people are actually singing? Very few, in my experience, because everyone knows that when you go to rock shows, it’s all about the band, not the audience. Which is what most contemporary worship services are trying to emulate, however badly.
  • How well does the content and aesthetics of the music fit with the rest of the service? A lot of the time the two have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. Which is probably why so many people use “worship” to mean “music”: other than the fact that the music and the sermon happen in the same hour, there’s no way to tell that they’re even supposed to be related.
  • How broad an emotional and/or thematic spectrum are we covering? The majority of contemporary worship music has a laser-focused emotional and thematic band. It’s rare to see a song about anything other than some combination of “the cross,” vague statements about the impressiveness of God, or how the singer is supposed to feel while singing. And in terms of emotional content, it’s all U2, all the time. No, that’s not right. Even U2 manages a wider emotional range across its corpus. Really just U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” What’s glaringly absent is lament.

A shorthand question you might start with would be whether the music is really taking you to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, to innumerable angels in festal gathering, the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, to the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Because that’s what Christian worship music is supposed to do. And in my experience, most contemporary worship music just makes me want to look for the bar, wondering why I showed up to hear this crappy cover band in the first place.

 

Thanks for tuning in.

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