Let’s talk about food first. To be honest, my soon coming analogy fails a bit because I love canned corn and fresh corn. So if I was to write a blog article about how bad canned corn is compared to fresh, well, I’d be lying. Call it weird, but I’m fine with a can of corn. However, it does not compare with the fresh corn on the cob, with butter, lots of butter. So that’s my transparent portion of this post.
Growing up playing worship music in church was fun. I come from a very musical family, all of us could play or sing. I started out playing southern gospel and hymns, 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8 at Christmas time. (many Christmas hymns are 6/8) Fast forward to present day, church music has changed drastically. Many churches have discarded, or tried to discard hymns for more rock style K-Love Radio music. There are even ‘churches’ now that play secular music as well.
There are many articles written on the transformation of music in church, so this post will not be one of those historical explanations. What I will opine though is, that among many tragedies of canned music such as Bethel, Elevation, and Hillsong is that it destroys music development in Christ’s church. There is little to no musical discipleship.
The case is simple. Bethel, Elevation, and Hillsong, or BEH music and the type are mega church styles of music with very simple, almost elementary and repetitive chord progressions. And it can only be hypothesized as to the reason thousands of local congregations use them. Maybe people like the music, it tickles their ears, taps into the dopamine, it makes a church service fun, it resembles secular culture and so on. Maybe local churches are lazy and they don’t feel like putting forth any effort beyond what can be bought and thrown on a screen. But what I think is really going on is many local church congregations think that BEH and the like are a pathway to grow into a mega-church. It could be a combination of all three. But BEH music and the like is very popular, but does little to benefit the local church.
In his article in Patheos, Jonathan Aigner describes 7 Reasons Hymns are Better than Contemporary Worship. I want to pick on his first in his list.
1. We Should Honor Our History of Faith.
“To cut the church off from their sacred lineage can only create a narcissistic and self-referential church that doesn’t really care who it is. Worshiping in a contemporary vacuum is literally suffocating the church in a self-interested, masturbatory pursuit.”
It’s no secret that Narcissism is strong in modern church worship today. It’s the ‘look at me’ worship. ‘Look how cool I look in this hat’ worship. After all, it’s cool, I’m cool, you’re cool, let’s be cool together on stage! Out with the old, and in with the new. Churches progress right? Sure, but should they? Does God change? Many church controllers have adopted a worldly approach to music with all the lights, smoke, dance teams, and so on. There is a lot of effort put into making people in local church happy. As a friend of mine described it, some churches count heads and not hearts.
Josh Shands puts it this way: “When comparing more modern songs used in worship to their forerunner counterparts, you’ll find hymns tend to land more in a category of depth theologically while still holding the marriage of music and text well. This isn’t to say there aren’t outliers in each style, however. Respectfully, the motive behind congregational songs typically written today seems as if their primary importance is to cater to the singer(s) when, instead, that should be secondary or tertiary. To be more specific, most of these songs are treated as a performance to bolster the musician’s abilities while simultaneously aiming their attention at the congregation’s amusement. This, in turn, shifts the purpose away from a genuine worship of the Lord. What replaces this worship a vain one of sorts. Yes, it is worship, but the question has to be asked “who is being worshipped?” Songs will lend themselves to expansive keys and large vocal ranges. In essence, it becomes a concert. It’s not that a concert is inherently sinful, but that it does not belong in the Sunday morning service. This is a gathering of people who should be able to participate. If they can’t sing because of a song’s complexity or what have you, then they won’t. At best, those singing aren’t singing for the purpose of worshipping the Lord, but instead how the music effects them.
At the end of the day, singing praises to God via thanksgiving, confession to Him of our sins, asking for our needs to be met, or dedicating ourselves to Him in song is still a prayer but with music. Strip all the bells and whistles from the majority of today’s recently written options and what’s left is likely poor theological truths that are shallow and fall short; at best, it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. To quote St. Augustine, “when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.” What he was getting at is that sound can be beautiful, but that experience shouldn’t be the goal. The truth which the song conveys, the lyrics, are what should be driving the song. The reason why is because of Who it is directed to. The Lord wants worship and is clear throughout His word that He alone should get it.
Again, songs with lackluster lyrics and emotive melodies can be found in both camps. The likely reason why hymns come across as timeless though is because of that foundation of truth in the words sang. Those words sang are crucial and need depth, but also need to be approachable by the average singer too as mentioned earlier. Today’s options of song in the church eerily resemble the problems that led to what we know as the Reformation. People then weren’t able to participate as much as God’s Word compelled them to. Christians weren’t given access to the Scriptures except through the one speaking it from the pulpit. It’s as if plenty songs that are written today are implying “this range and run of notes is for the musician and not you; sit back.” When looking at hymns, they will usually follow the same template. The song will have three or more stanzas and include a chorus or refrain. The melody, for the most part, doesn’t change and there is no bridge. The focus of the average hymn is to worship the Lord, but with biblical truths. In some ways, the songs are designed to be addressing the Lord and leave the singer (the congregant) with lyrics they can retain; ones that teach them something about the Lord and the relationship He has with them. A simple test that can be made between hymns and modern songs is to remove the band likely accompanying them. If the people can still sing the song without them, then half the battle has been won.
The last caveat to give about the songs, regarding outliers, is the depth of the lyrics. Depth does not necessarily mean lengthiness; take the Doxology for example. “Holy, holy, holy” are the words used. Because God’s Word is life-giving, that’s the standard. If you utilize theological truths found in the Bible, then they can be simple. God’s word is capable of piercing the soul of the singer even with the shortest of sentences. A song can say that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” and leave an impact on God’s people when they walk away from the corporate gathering. It’s the songs that are vague in their lyrics, such as the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ examples, that fall apart. It should be clear who is being addressed in the songs. Not that believers can’t address one another or creation or even unbelievers, but that the glory in these songs be given to God. At the end of it all, people need to be able to participate in the singing, but the One they’re singing to has to be the focus. To touch back on the concert analogy, God is the star of the event and He’s also the audience. God’s people are merely the participating actors. In this lens, both types can lend themselves to that end; those choosing the songs to be sung just need to do their due diligence into what lyrics are being sung, if the people can sing it, and more importantly if it is all for the Glory of the Lord.”
So back to the corn. Here is my simple analogy.
- Fresh corn costs more than canned. You betcha. And it takes more time, and churches just don’t put the effort into their music, it’s just easier to import it from a source that is attractive.
- Fresh corn you can trace the origin, canned, who knows.
- Fresh corn you can fix different ways, canned, it’s more limited. Let’s just play the music like Bethel! (I’m not Gordon Ramsey so don’t argue this point with me.)
Three is enough.
BEH music and the like-canned music, comes in one way. And the effort put into this music is minimal, besides, why play it any different than the mega churches? ‘Let’s just do it how they do it.’ And why do we do it like they do it? It’s easy? It entertains?
Fresh music, well that is s different story. There is a movement in Gospel music to start writing again. But much of it gets over shadowed by BEH music which is pushed on many popular ‘Christian’ radio stations. Many want what’s popular, what’s hot. Add that to the narcissistic “ME” generation who are in large part choosing the music selection in today’s church, and what’s popular is what gets played. Butts in the seats, more butts in the seats.
Here is the tragedy.
All across Christ’s church there are people with talent for writing music. I have friends who have written wonderful Christ centered music. It was music that fit our band, so we had a passion about it. Every word, every note, crescendo was special. These songs are timeless to us.
That can of corn, well, it’s a can. It’s pretty much the same every time you buy it. And the canned music from BEH and the like is just that, the same chord progressions, same flow and so on. And if someone is sitting in church inspired to write music from their heart, what would happen? They would have to go somewhere else to express that gift. Why? Because it’s not canned, it’s not popular.
Another point Jonathan Aigner makes is that hymns aren’t popular or marketable. And in today’s flashy dopamine filled social media worship, I’d agree. But Christ wasn’t flashy or marketable, He was humble and served. But that’s another post.
Many music programs in the modern church are performance driven and not avenues for discipleship. Do churches invest time, money and talent into developing musicians in their church? I don’t see it. So canned it is. And BEH music is at best, elementary in musical structure and clunky in lyricism and largely devoid of sound scripture.
The popular satirical website Babylongbee.com has a worship song generator. You can plug in words and come up with a song.
But is that writing to God a Biblical love song? Of course not. So to wrap up the analogy, why would anyone in church, especially our youth, want to put in the effort to write songs to God if there isn’t an avenue to express it? If all a local church is wanting is the same canned corn every Sunday. If there is no development and discipleship of musicians, then we are really just performers, we are lazy and aren’t giving God our best sacrificial gift.
In other words, if all Christ’s church demands is what is musically popular, despite the questionable theological or edification value, then that’s what we are offering to God is the same can. And that’s a tragedy of generational and cosmic proportions.
Steven Davis is a musician, media producer, burnt out preacher’s kid, and former youth minister.
Josh Shands, BA ’17, Worship Arts at Missouri Baptist University. Musician who serves in liturgical planning at Mid Cities at Maplewood STL.