Corporate Reverence

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The church growth movement mandates “contemporary worship” styles, which means, in practice, replacing hymns with “praise songs.” These consist of simple lyrical phrases, often repeated, set to a simple tune in the style of pop music. The problem with such songs is not that they are “contemporary.” In fact, the songs are often not all that contemporary. Many of them date from the 1970s. That is over three and one-half decades ago. Some go back nearly a half-century.

These songs belong mainly to their parents’ generation. The specific set of praise songs a particular church-growth pastor chooses is often based on the musical style of his adolescence. But young people often do like praise songs. Not usually because they listen to this style of music at home, but because it is “church music.” This is likely the only kind of church music they have known, the kind they grew up with. For these young people, this kind of music has become “traditional.” 

Baby boomers seem to be the first generation to demand that the music they listen to in worship be in the same style as the music they listen to for entertainment. In the 1940s, it never occurred to anyone to insist that worship services incorporate the big band style of Glen Miller and his orchestra. The hymn styles of earlier eras bear the marks of the century in which they were written, but they are nothing like the eighteenth-century opera scores or nineteenth-century musical theater. 

Again, the issue is not “contemporary music.” New hymns are being written and published every day. Music by hymn writers such as Steven Starke or James Boyce is more contemporary than the praise songs coming out of the Jesus Movement of the 1960s. But these contemporary hymn writers are writing hymns.

Hymns are written to be sung corporately, with many people with many different kinds of voices joining together. The praise songs that come out of the contemporary Christian music genre were originally written for solo performance. An Amy Grant needs a tune she can color up with vibrato, runs, key changes, and big swelling emotional crescendos. But a congregation of lots of people trying to sing together just cannot sing like that. 

Hymns are written with a regular rhythm, making it easier for groups of people to sing together. They are typically written to accommodate high voices, low voices, and the voices in between. Thus, basses, tenors, baritones, altos, and sopranos can sing the same song, creating not discord but a wonderful and meaningful effect, namely, harmony. Praise songs, in contrast, usually have a single melodic line with lots of performance-based variations and are thus very difficult to sing well in a large group.

Hymns are also written out, so that anyone who can read music — and this is still taught in school — can sing along even if it is unfamiliar. Praise songs, for some reason, tend to have their lyrics projected onto a screen. If you do not already know the tune, you are out of luck.

The praise songs often project a level of intimacy with God that “unchurched” people — also known as non-Christians — will have a hard time relating to and that even Christians can find bewildering. They are mostly in the form of secular love-songs to Jesus. They are often from the feminine point of view, singing “Jesus, I am so in love with you” in a way that makes men squirm. Sometimes, “Jesus” is never mentioned, with the song being addressed to a “you” who could just as easily be a human lover. 

These “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” types of songs can be sacrilegious or profane. While it is true that Scripture portrays the church as the bride of Christ, that imagery is collective, apocalyptic, and creational. It is not romantic, erotic, or sentimental, as such.

Another test for praise songs is whether or not there is anything distinctly Christian about them. Such songs tend to be full of emotion and directed to a deity, but with little objective doctrinal or biblical content. A friend suggested a good rule of thumb: If a Muslim would have no problem singing this song, it is probably not good to use it in Christian worship. 

The question is not whether or not we should make use of contemporary music in church, but whether we should make use of pop music. By its nature, pop music is catchy, entertaining, and thus “likeable.” It cannot have much content, much less complexity or depth. If it did, it would cease to be pop art. The art of the folk culture, with its traditions and communal experience, has such things, as does the consciously-crafted art of the high culture, with its challenging content. 

The more important issue is whether we should create the impression in our worship that the Christian faith is a “pop religion” — void of depth, complexity, and demands — or whether it is traditional, communal, and challenging. 

I am not saying that praise songs are necessarily all bad, nor am I criticizing the spirituality of those who like them. They can have their place in personal devotion or in singing with a youth group around the camp fire. But I am arguing that they do not work well in church, when they are used for corporate worship. This is because of their innate but objective limitations and is not just a matter of “personal preference.”

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