Music is one of my favorite indulgences. Thanks to my parents, I grew up on a healthy dose of Motown, British Invasion, CCR and Abba. Being a child of the 80’s and 90’s, my ears were subjected to a melting pot of style and influence and I loved it all. This fondness of music eventually birthed a desire to write and play my own ditties. Upon learning of my newly acquired talents, my church’s newly formed worship team asked me to join. They needed another bassist for Sunday morning and since I was going to be there either way, it was a match made in heaven. The year was 2000 and I was 21 years old. As my abilities grew, I blossomed into a worship team leader as lead vocalist and guitar player.
With my American Evangelical upbringing, I was used to piano and organ as primary worship instruments. The songs were typically a steady mix of American Evangelical hymns and Maranantha praise choruses. But times, they were a changing, and thus a worship team was necessary to stay culturally relevant. Sonic Flood, Chris Tomlin and Matt Redmon were the cutting edge writers of modern hymnody that our service needed to help people “meet” with God week in and week out. Thus began my 13 year affair with the calculated lure, supposed relevance and overall ridiculousness that masquerades itself as contemporary Christian worship.
As one could easily deduce, I’m no longer supportive of this genre of worship. My change in position wasn’t rash, but slowly evolved over time. I know many of the arguments against Contemporary Worship (CoWo) have been made ad nauseam and I’m just a whisper in a sea of screams on both sides of this ongoing debate. I have no delusions of this post turning the tide of Christendom back to full time traditional, liturgical worship.
So why write this post?
My primary reason for writing this post is to give an accessible overview of my change in position since I get questioned on this very topic quite frequently. At current, I see many issues with CoWo, but most stem from 7 primary problems. These problems, as I see them, are defined as follows.
Problem #1 – The CoWo Music Factory The first issue that troubles me is the capitalistic nature of CoWo. I’ve met local and regional artists attempting to write that “one” praise song that would get them to the top. While their business model for success is perfectly on target, their spiritual motivation and reasoning behind writing “Christian” worship music couldn’t be further from the target . The CCM charts move the needle on what worship songs are performed in a CoWo setting. Pastors encourage their worship teams to play the songs they hear on K-Love or Christian Radio (in precise form) as a means to aid in corporate worship. Therefore if a band can write a well received CoWo song that garners both airplay and agent interest, they’ll not only go down in the annals of CoWo history (with an easier path to writing follow up CCM hits), but also receive major usage rights from multitudes of churches for many years to come. Think of the hundreds of thousands of churches that will play their potential hit worship tune in multiple services, multiple times per month. This is why so many churches (Hillsong, Elevation, Passion, etc) are so quick to crank out the worship tunes these days. It’s a lucrative business model that ensures royalties for years to come. Think back to the great Hymn writers of our History. What was their motivation? For the most part, the great hymns were written by pastors as theological gifts to their congregations. They were written to help aid corporate worship. If the song was good enough for another church body to utilize, then great! There was a catholic sense to worship, not only within congregations but between congregations. Neither Martin Luther nor Isaac Watts wrote hymns as a means make a name for themselves, build their bank accounts or launch a stadium tour. The songs were written to aid and encourage worship of the objective truths of God as revealed in scripture. These very themes were the motivation for penning their songs.
Problem #2 – Supporting heretical churches Whether your CoWo church serves 50 or 10,000 congregants, the music that the worship team is playing is copyrighted and therefore proper performance fees must be paid to the author and/or record label. This is provided to individual churches through web services like CCLI/SongSelect. This means that if you like the CoWo song “Mighty to Save” by Hillsong, the author(s) and Hillsong church will be legally compensated for your use through the various fees that your church is paying to legally play that song. This is a problem because even if you think the song is safely orthodox, the simple act of your church paying to legally perform that song sends usage fees to Hillsong Church in Australia which will go to fund heretical preaching through Hillsong’s fondness of the prosperity gospel and their numerous heretical conferences (Hillsong’s 2014 US Conference includes Joseph Prince, Jenetzen Franklin, Rick Warren and Mark Driscoll). Same thing goes for Elevation. Simply performing “All Things New” by Elevation worship will go to fund the heretical teaching of Steven Furtick and his newly built 16,000 square foot mansion. This is not the same as including a John Wesley or Robert Robinson song in the hymnal. Although, Wesley and Robinson have theology that I would oppose, they aren’t heretics. They are still in the wide stripe of orthodoxy. Including a Hillsong or Elevation worship song in your worship rotation would be no different than Augustine starting out service with a Pelagius tune or Athanasius closing service with the latest Arius hit. We wouldn’t let Arius or Pelagius any where near our hymnals, so why would we let modern day heretics into our modern CoWo song rotations. When selecting songs for the CoWo service, the worship leader or pastor must not only check the lyrical content of the song for errors, but also research the author and their beliefs to confidently assure themselves they are not unintentionally propagating false teaching. On the other side, if your church is not paying proper fees to utilize copyrighted songs, then your church is breaking the law and could be sued.
Problem 3 – Lyrical Content The lyrical content of the vast majority of CoWo songs are embarrassingly shallow and annoyingly repetitive. This is purposeful as shallow lyrics foster unity within a congregation that has only a cursory understanding of God as revealed in scripture. The repetitive nature of CoWo songs is mantra like and used to stir emotions within the congregant to allude to the presence of the Holy Spirit descending on them as they dial in to their spiritual side through song and musical atmosphere. In addition, the vast majority of songs are first person narratives instead of corporate declarations. Worship is supposed to be corporate. We are supposed to be united in what we are singing. If we are focused on singing songs about how we feel and what we are going to do for God (etc.), that by definition, cannot be corporate as everyone may not feel a certain way or wish to do the things the lyrics on the screen are telling them to sing they do. This creates an environment that encourages congregants to either lie and sing the lyrics they aren’t experiencing or to not sing and thus not corporately worship. When songs are objective truths about God as revealed through his word, suddenly corporate worship in song can happen without these manipulative strings attached. The only person that could not truthfully sing objectively about the trinity, Christ or our sinful state would be unbelievers. Another harmful side effect of first-person anthems is they can imply lack of assurance of salvation through the subjectivity of stirring emotion within individual action expressed corporately. Take Chris Tomlin’s “White Flag” for instance. When the congregation is corporately declaring “I surrender all to you” I am certain there are individuals, myself included, who begin to question whether they have indeed surrendered all along side others who haughtily think they have surrendered all. The truth is that none of us ever surrender all. Thankfully Jesus has for us in our place. Another major problem I have with modern lyrics is the creepy knack for turning Jesus into our romantic lover instead of the one who bled, died and rose again for us. I honestly cannot hear “Your Love is Extravagant” by Casting Crowns without feeling extremely uncomfortable and nauseated. If you don’t know what I mean, just google the lyrics. Jesus is not our big boyfriend in the sky who is “moving us to the rhythms of his grace…in his secret place” and it’s completely unhealthy to romanticize about him in that capacity. Yes, Jesus loves us, but that love is not defined by current cultural definitions of love, but instead by the Biblical definition of love. Jesus didn’t rise again to reenact the spaghetti eating scene from “The Lady and the Tramp” with us but to serve us by saving our souls from eternal damnation. Who God is and what he has done for us is what the lyrics of these songs should encompass, but the vast majority do not. Take Michael W. Smith’s song “Breathe” for example. Seriously. Read the lyrics (here). Now tell me if you can decipher what the heck that song is talking about and where it validates readily recognizable truths about our God. It’s readily noticeable that the subject of the song is “I” (as the chorus gives two whole notes, 8 full counts, just to sing the word “I” multiple times). A nondescript “God” and “Lord” does make an audible appearance near the end of the song in some versions, but there is nothing else in the song to convey any defining attributes of who that God is. The “Lord’ and “God” function as if they were last minute additions. What or whoever the being is that is acting upon the “I” of the song is never descriptively revealed; only implied based upon presuppositions of the audience and therefore has to be deciphered by the audience. It’s not the congregations job to fill in the blanks. This is not proper corporate worship. Even though the congregation is singing the same lyrics, the god that one person may be singing to may be completely different than the God that the person sitting in front of them may be singing about. This is why lyrics must center on orthodox, objective descriptive truths. Also consider whether this song could be sung in the house of worship of another faith. Could a Muslim, Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness sing this song without being excommunicated? I think they could. There is nothing within the lyrics of this song that makes it distinctly and clearly Christian; only spiritual. That is a problem. So why are these authors writing generic lyrical content? It goes back to my first two points…money. If lyrics can appeal to the full spectrum of the cultural term “Christian,” then usage goes up as the song is performed in more churches than if they were doctrinally specific. So now “Breathe” can be sung in the full range of churches that consider themselves Christian; even those that are cults and heretical. Cha-Ching.
Problem 4 – Song Structure The song structure of the majority of CoWo songs is blandly similar and typically utilize 3 to 4 chords played repetitively. If the guitar player gets fancy, a capo is added to mix things up in an effort alleviate the monotony of common sounding chord progression. The standard dynamic structure is to start slow and stripped down and steadily build to a frenzy by adding both instruments and dynamic intensity as the verses and choruses begin to whiz by and repeat more frequently with great resound. This is purposeful to elicit emotional response within the congregation in an effort to manipulate them into thinking the Holy Spirit is descending on them whilst they are singing. It may sound like I am against emotions, but I assure you that I am not. I love emotions. This is why I hate this tactic. Emotions often lie to us as we succumb to manipulation. Therefore what I am against is manipulation of my emotions. If a person gets emotional while singing objective truths about God as revealed in scripture, then AMEN! But being moved while singing Hillsong’s “Every Move I Make” simply doesn’t make sense in a corporate setting. It’s simply a nonsense song with pseudo Christian lyrics purposefully crafted to draw forth an emotional response and get you moving for Christ. The exact same could be said of “White Flag” or any number of CoWo songs. They are crafted with the intent of manipulating emotional response to make it seem as if you are connecting with God. For churches that do not believe in sacraments, this amounts to their unwitting creation of a “new” sacrament; the sacrament of worship (see a post I wrote about that here).
Problem 5 – The Setting and Culture The worship service is the place where God has told us that he will meet with us through word and sacrament. Many of the congregations that push CoWo would reject God through these means; however, they would still say that God is present in some sense at the service. This means that there should be a reverent air about the service. If we were meeting with earthly royalty, say Queen Elizabeth, cultural standards for a formal and reverent setting would apply. Should it not be even more so for our Heavenly King? Would Metallica or Kanye be appropriate entertainment for a formal dinner at Buckingham Palace? By no means. Metallica and Kanye have their place, but it isn’t in a royal or formal setting. The church is by nature counter cultural; not cultural. The church is timeless, not bound by the changing times. The message of the church is come and die. Rest in the work done by our crucified Savior. Die a death like his and be raised in a resurrection like his. Eat his body and drink his blood. Confess your sins. None of these things are or ever have been culturally relevant nor will they ever be. The reason is they deny self and temporal comfort in exchange for eternal comfort and security. It is only by the grace of God that we are drawn to him and thus can agree with him. Church service is not for unbelievers, but for believers. An unbeliever can come, but catering to them would be a disservice to both the congregation and the unbeliever. The unbeliever must assimilate to the church, not the other way around. The unbeliever, by all means, is welcome to attend in the service, but that doesn’t mean they are the star of the show. That title is reserved for Jesus in word and sacrament. Word and sacrament equal Christ’s presence. His presence equals necessary reverence per that society’s cultural norms for formal settings. Culture only plays a part in determining how to respond to the service and has no business redesigning the service to yield to cultural demands. To further explain, if I were to host a dinner for the president at my home, I would do everything possible to create an environment of reverence and class out of respect for the office he holds. What I would not do is leave my house a mess, answer the door in my pajamas, prepare ramen noodles with mountain dew while only partially giving him attention because I’m engrossed in playing Madden 2014 and listening to Pharrell. Just because the President is coming to my place doesn’t mean that I expect him to lower himself to my level, instead, I try my best, out of reverence, to honor him. Now, let it be understood that in a cultural sense, “formal” and “reverent” can look different while retaining the same meaning. In the US, a formal dinner is black tie, elegant music while eating filet mignon. In another country that might be a bright blue tunic, sitting on the floor eating goat. The point is, it’s not about showing off out of self righteousness, but truly attempting to revere the person who is choosing to grace you with their presence. Culturally, CoWo music is similar sounding to Top 40 pop/rock. The only reason that it has found its way into church is through the argument of cultural relevance. It’s my argument that if we are going to placate to cultural relevance, we should at least consider the setting of the church service and center everything on the reverence to be given to the one who wishes to grace us with his presence. That means we should attempt eradicate the common and replace it something of great excellence, properly befitting a king.
Problem 6 – Instrumentation So at this point, I suppose, it’s fair to assume that I’m an organ only guy. That is only partially true. I do like the organ. I think it fits the setting discussed in “Problem 5” quite well. However, that doesn’t mean I’m against other instruments (guitar, bells, harp, piano, bass, drums, etc.) being used with or in place of the organ or that we should force Indigenous Australians to use an organ over a didgeridoo. What must be considered, however, is that the players are “worshiping” through their instrument as an aid (not a means) to worship. Corporate worship should not be confused with a performance. Sure, anyone playing an instrument should be well versed and practiced so not to be a distraction, and in that sense it is performance-like, but what I am talking about is the potential for the artist to become the focal point. This is enhanced by placing the band of performers at the front of the congregation instead of off to the side or in the rear balcony. In addition, the more instrumentation that goes on simultaneously can be distracting if not handled carefully and tastefully The focus of the service is always what is being said and sung, to and about our Triune God. If instrumentalists or their instruments become a distraction through showmanship or strange/novel aspects of the instrument (such as odd sounds or pagan connotations), they should be removed.
Problem 7 – Functional Pelagianism Lastly, when proponents of CoWo bang the drum of cultural relevance they are exposing their soterilogical beliefs. No matter which side of the soteriological fence they confess, faith in Christ is what saves. All believers within the confines of orthodoxy can agree that faith comes by hearing the word of God and that our natural disposition toward God is unbelief. We can argue about how depraved we truly are and what role man plays in salvation once enlightened by the word, but we should all be able to collectively deny that mankind (post garden) is born in spiritual neutrality and thus chooses or rejects God apart from God’s grace. This is known as the Pelagian Heresy and was officially rejected at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. When the argument is made that the church should do CoWo as a means to draw unbelievers and seekers in the doors so they can hear the word, it starts with the wrong assumption. Even though these churches are claiming the “word” is what will convert the people, they are functioning in a manner in which they have the power to “culturally” move them to desire to come to church because of what music is being played. If this were true, then why wouldn’t K-Love be an international success rolling in the dough? Why do they, and all of the other local “relevant” Christian radio stations, have to constantly fund raise to stay in business? The fact is, there are no seekers. Romans 3:11 clears this up quite well. Couple this with the fact that orthodoxy (from Methodist to Baptist to Roman Catholic) agrees that an unbeliever cannot come to faith apart from the means of grace. When this is realized, the picture becomes clear that even though these churches may confess orthodox understanding of synergistic or monergistic soteriology, they are functioning and operating as Pelagians.
I’m sure that I have enraged some people with my comments. I am also sure that I will get statistics thrown at me to “prove” the effectiveness of “Mighty to Save” because 247 people came forward this year in Paris, Kentucky and made a decision for Christ because of it. Truth be told, my major issue isn’t actually with the evils of CoWo. That is not the underlying problem. It’s only a symptom. A symptom of a doctrinally illiterate church. Our culture and society has dumbed us down so far that our ignorance and apathy have followed us into our churches. If we were truly concerned about preaching nothing but Christ crucified for our sins, as Paul exhorts, then CoWo wouldn’t even be a discussion. We wouldn’t be singing heretical songs by heretical preachers thus funding their heretical churches to produce more novel and clever heresies. We wouldn’t care if we sang a song in 9/8 time that was hard as the dickens to follow. None of this would matter because Jesus would be at the center. We’d go to church because we wanted to receive the grace that Christ offers instead of getting part 4 in the latest “Be a Better You” series. CoWo is not the only symptom; there are many, many more. I just happen to know CoWo quite well because of my intimate involvement with it over the years. I’m not saying that CoWo is a death sentence to hell or that if you go to a church that has implemented it to run away. I’m only encouraging you to consider what I have said and keep your eyes and ears open. Then maybe, just maybe you’ll understand me when I say that CoWo makes me feel like I’m wearing jean shorts to a wedding.
Appendix 1 – I have created a “Worship Song Cruncher” to help determine whether a song is best used in a worship service, for private worship or not at all. Feel free to download it and use it. I’ll gladly take any advise on how to improve it. worship-song-cruncher-for-1-to-3-users