Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Modern Worship Revolution: Did It Help Us or Hurt Us?

In the mid to late 1990s, the "Modern Worship Revolution" was in full swing. I was finishing up college and the very first Passion album (Live Worship from the 268 Generation) was being released. Rock bands were becoming increasingly common in churches and the church music landscape was evolving significantly. We were being introduced to the likes of Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Charlie Hall, Lincoln Brewster, and Hillsong. It was a good time to be an aspiring worship leader.

Fast forward a few years. EVERY mainstream Christian artist was releasing a worship album. The market was being saturated with church music. At the same time, the accessibility of technology was (and still is) making it much easier (and less expensive) for artists to record albums. Church worship bands like Gateway, Elevation, Bethel, and many others (ours included) have become artists who write and record their own original music, adding to the cacophony that continues the modern worship revolution.

Today, I can visit ten (or a hundred) different churches on any given weekend and never hear a single common song. "Contemporary" is ambiguous and churches search for the next descriptive word to describe their "all-together-really-cool-and-the-most-current-relevant-style-to-your-life" sound. Right at the moment, everyone wants to sound like Mumford and Sons, but soon it'll change and we'll move on to another influence.

Before you think that I'm having a mid-life crisis of musical philosophy, let me assure you I'm not. I find myself fully immersed in the very same activity - searching for relevance and desiring that our church would be a place that people would want to come to worship. But as I grow older, I'm beginning to realize that the "modern worship revolution" may have done more harm than I would have once liked to admit. And here's how I know ...

A funny thing has happened over the last few years. We're seeing the resurgence of hymns in our worship experiences. Sure, we write our own new arrangements or add a new chorus, but churches are once again using the time-honored songs of the Christian faith with increasing regularity. It's certainly happening here at Constance Free Church. A few weeks ago we actually used two hymns in our weekend services (probably the first time that's happened in the ten years that I've been here) and I joked with our teams that I'd be installing a pipe organ the following week. All kidding aside though, there's a reason why it's happening. Why? Because those songs are among the most well-known for the church and people connect deeply in worship with familiarity. We're even starting to write new songs now that feel like hymns (Matt Redman's 10,000 Reasons and even my own Quiet Voice among many others).

Additionally, bands and contemporary Christian artists that were once dedicated to recording their own original songs are becoming cover bands. Newsboys is singing "Your Love Never Fails" and "God's Not Dead" (which they didn't write as originals) and I could go on with countless other examples. While I'm always a little (ok, a lot) bothered that the original artist isn't the one who's able to get their song on the radio charts, I think it's indicative of a trend: the Christian community is hungry for more common music and thus, the modern worship revolution is entering a new phase.

The way I choose new worship music for my church has become more of a middlebrained art and science than it ever has been before. The days of flippantly choosing a song because I liked it are gone. Now, I have a multifaceted system and review process before a new worship song ever makes it into one of our worship experiences. I check the Christian radio charts religiously and I follow several churches who post their worship sets online. When I see a song that at LEAST two other churches are doing, I'm willing to consider it. This obviously doesn't apply to our original music. Thankfully, I'm part of a church community that values creativity and the opportunity to sing songs that we've written but we balance those with the rest of our repertoire. If I'm introducing a new original song for the very first time, I make sure that the rest of our worship set includes a lot of familiar tunes. The result for us has been a dramatic increase in congregational connectedness during our worship gatherings and that's worth it for me.

So did the modern worship revolution help us or hurt us? Yes.

17 comments:

  1. Food for thought: Is it possible that a large part of the desire to get back to hymns (with "contemporary" bands backing them) has a great deal to do with the content (the words themselves) being not only familiar but also theologically deep and enriching? I agree that the modern worship revolution has both helped and hurt the church. The music itself is so much more appealing to generations of Christians, but I think that too often the lyrics are vacuous and self-centered. This isn't surprising given the vacuous and self-centered nature of the culture in which (and, frankly, for which) they were written. It strikes me that the modern worship revolution (probably dating back a little further than the 90s) marked the first major demarcation between the pastors & theologians who speak in our churches and the musicians who play in them. The requirement for worship pastors & leaders became largely focused on musical abilities and not theological ones. But some of the hymns that the church still cherishes, some of the greatest songs ever penned, were put together by those who were well versed in both. Men like John and Charles Wesley, John Newton, Robert Robinson, & even Martin Luther among others were brilliant theologians who also wrote terrific songs with terrific theology. Maybe the best way forward is musicians and theologians working together to write songs with lyrics that are as profoundly deep and beautiful as the tunes they're sung to.

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    1. Anonymous #1: I don't disagree at all. There is a richness about the hymns of our faith that is often unparalleled. I wouldn't go so far as to say that there are no modern worship songs that achieve the same depth, but you're right - there's certainly a different quality about the hymns. I'm very mindful of lyrics when I'm evaluating songs (and writing them). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Anonymous #2: it is not normally my practice to delete comments from my blog because (as a general rule) I appreciate the opportunity to have a good, open, and honest dialogue. However, I've chosen not to allow comments which only offer anonymous and disrespectful criticism based on a personal stylistic preference. If you'd like to contact me directly, I'd be happy to talk with you further.

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  3. As always, you have made some very valid points in this post. Eric and I recently attended a Dino concert at a local church (Don't judge. It was free). The church was packed, and we had to laugh because we were two of the very few people there under the age of 60, but we didn't care because it was a free concert with great music. At one point during the evening, he played a series of hymn arrangements. EVERYONE sang along. It sounded incredible! The sanctuary was filled with people offering their voices to God. I realized that I didn't remember the last time I stood in church and could actually hear the congregation participating to that degree, even on the weekends when I'm not scheduled to sing and I should be able to hear those around me singing. I've been thinking a lot about that for the past few weeks, desperately wanting to hear God's people worship and connect with Him. I find myself wondering if it is a universal problem that centers around the lack of unity in worship styles, or if it is a problem that goes deeper within our own congregation. I have much more that I could say because I've been deliberately searching for an answer, but I don't want this comment to turn into my own blog post. ;)

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    1. Hey Kendra - thanks for the comment. Dino eh? :-) I'm sure it was great! And I'll look forward to your post about it in the future.

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  4. Thank you for the thought-provoking article! I'm quite encouraged by the trend towards "renewing" hymns. I think it's valuable for all generations to feel comfortable worshiping together, and it seems that hymns may have a significant role to play in that process. Perhaps this is even more the case in smaller churches with slightly older congregations, I'm not sure.

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    1. Hey Andy - thanks for your comment. I love the term "renewing" of hymns.

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  5. I appreciate your comments. I worked for 17 years in the national office of a mainline church denomination. What I cherished most were the devotionals at ecumenical meetings where there was rich singing of hymns by folks of different denominations, and from different countries. Many of the older hymns make such worship experiences possible.
    I agree with Kendra that a key part of worship is the community singing together. I find that often when I visit mega churches with big bands that it feels like a concert and I leave "hungry" for that singing together which is the communal part of worship - the work of the people that only the congregation can do. When a praise band does it on their behalf a huge chunk of the worship experience gets lost for me.
    I also like church music from other countries as often it carries a different perspective on the gospel. Our own congregation has a number of members that really get vocal when we do music from other countries, preferring all things "American". It always makes me sad.

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    1. Susan - there definitely aren't any easy answers. I'm still a proponent for "modern" music but I'm also an advocate for that which facilitates the best worship experience for a church community. Each church has its own unique personality and finding music that best facilitates worship is certainly no easy task. It's taken me ten years in my current ministry role and I don't think we're there yet. With God's continued guidance though, I think we're getting closer every week. :-)

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  6. Great question. I'd say it's hurt more than it's helped. I'll start with how it's helped. It has given us many great songs and focused Christian artists' lyrics more on glorifying God and making it all about Him at a time (late 90's) when many Christian artists were ostensibly trying to build bridges with worldly music. Some negatives have been the unfortunate development of the "superstar" worship leader (we don't need more superstars in the church), the overall lack of poetry and depth in the worship lyrics in comparison to hymns (as the article points out), and most importantly, the lack of discernible progress in discipleship since the movement started. I've seen a lot of young people far more obsessed with seeking out a great "worship experience" than engaging in spiritual disciplines that will actually transform their worldly habits and character. As much as I love singing worship songs with God's people, it's not nearly as challenging, transformative, sacrificial, nor maturity-building as spiritual disciplines like fasting, study of the Word, prayer, solitude, service, fellowship, giving, etc. I wonder if many people have fallen into the trap of seeking a worship high and mistaking that for true holiness and obedience in every area of life. Holiness and discipleship are costly. Singing along to great worship music is (in comparison to what Jesus is really calling us to) not very costly at all, which may in part explain its enormous popularity in relation to the other spiritual disciplines.

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    1. Moolander - very interesting insight. I appreciate your focus on discipleship, spiritual disciplines, and holiness. If we believe that all of life is intended to be an act of worship (which I do), then you're definitely on to something. It seems to me that the corporate worship experience is intended to complement the disciplines to which you're referring. Very thought provoking ... thanks for sharing.

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  7. My biggest problem with modern worship music is that I read music, so if you hand me a hymnal (from hardback denominational to paperback Southern Gospel), I can quickly pick up a song and know where the music is going next. With the modern trend of lyrics only on the wall, who knows where a new song is going? Up? Down? Long hold? Quick burst of words together? I get very frustrated at being disenfranchised from singing along because I don't know the song and can't anticipate what's next.

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    1. Anonymous - you're not the first person from whom I've heard these thoughts and they definitely have merit but I'm at a loss as to how we fix it. It's probably naive for us to think that modern worship won't progress further in that direction and I don't see notated music being "projected" any time soon.

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      1. This is why I'm really picky about music. In my opinion, worship music needs to be singable - it should have a catchy melody that gets stuck in your head.

      2. Repetition is key. With the saturation of music in the market now, the temptation for worship leaders (particularly younger ones) is to use too much new music and neglect the need that churches have to learn the songs their being taught. It's only been in the last few years that I've come to this realization myself. I don't particularly care if our church is singing every brand new, super cool worship song that's being recorded (I do want our repertoire to stay current though) so I try to pick the best of the best and when we introduce a new song, we use it for at LEAST three weeks in a row.

      3. The ability to read music is become less and less common. It's sad but this is another entire blog post waiting to be written. My wife grew up in a Mennonite church and learned to sing four part harmony practically before she could read. Now, music programs are being cut from schools and interest in fine arts is waning. I suspect you'd be surprised at how few people would actually even be helped by seeing the melody lines to our worship songs. It would just look like another language to them ... because it is - and one that they haven't ever learned.

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  8. I've always used hymns in services in which I've led, so I appreciate those comments. However, I'm really glad to see someone making the argument for singing common worship songs. It seems to me that visitors (from other churches) will rarely feel connected in a church that exclusively sings original music. I think that helps the church universal. On a side note, while there are some contemporary songs with empty lyrics, there are also those with very good biblical inspiring lyrics. Of course, the same can be said with old hymns.

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    1. Great thoughts anonymous. We're always mindful of guests when we plan our services. With that in mind though, it's also important to remember that guests probably don't know ANY Christian music (if you presume that they're unchurched, which many of ours are). They're not listening to Christian radio and wouldn't know one of our original songs from "How Great Is Our God." It still drives home the point that common music is important but for me it also helps me to remember that I have to teach EVERYone our music well.

      I appreciate your defense of worship song lyrics too - people forget that when they generalize "hymns," most are thinking of the best of the best. Believe me, I could show you hundreds and hundreds of pretty terrible hymns - both from a lyrics perspective AND music/melody/structure point of view. :-)

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  9. Good thoughts. I do think it is important that we try to find songs that the global church knows. Using CCLI's top songs can be a decent way of finding some of those. Some big ones right now include: How great is our God, Our God, 10,000 Reasons, In Christ Alone, Revelation Song, Forever Reign.

    I also believe a reason we are gravitating toward hymns does have to do with the depth of the lyrics. I have noticed that many of these newer songs that are touching people have very deep lyrical content. About half of the songs I just mentioned are written very similar to a hymn as far as lyrical depth and content.

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