A few years ago, I wrote a post at Patheos finally just being honest about what I thought about modern church worship music in evangelical circles. It struck a chord as I discovered I was not alone in my frustration.
I wanted to sing—and to sing in a way that didn’t make me feel as if I were back in grade school—and a lot of other people did, too.
Many people came out of the worship closet then, saying they had left the church entirely because of the pathetic state of music.
As a former pastor, I don’t endorse that decision, although I can understand it.
Others took offense, criticizing me for daring to speak an opinion on the matter, claiming that if I only knew how hard it was to be a worship leader I would never dare to critique any of it.
They claimed I was reigniting the flames of a “worship war.” Let me tell you, if there was a war, it’s been over for a long time.
And the Christian Church did not win.
Checking Out of Worship
I realize that my worship experience may be suffering from too little exposure to what passes for Christian radio Top-40 these days, but whenever I do tune in, I hear exactly what I’ve been hearing for the last decade and a half. No, the worship music industry hasn’t done the church any favors. In fact, it may have a lot to answer for some day.
So I still struggle with what passes for singing in church these days, and perhaps more so than ever, as I have come to realize that the church in America is about to be sifted as never before.
The new book by Erick and myself You Will Be Made to Care not only challenges pastors and priests in the pulpits to speak up, it offers practical solutions for then to find a way forward. One of those is The Resurgent Church, a body of believers who actually live what they say they believe in a secular culture that is becoming increasingly intolerant.
Yet here we are in most churches all crooning endlessly: “Oh, how He loves us so” with our best faux Australian accents (because that’s what all the best worshipers use, don’t you know).
I know, I am painting with a broad brush. One must when discussing issues on a grand scale. There are always exceptions to every rule.
But let’s face it, much of what passes for evangelical worship music is empty. And here’s the thing: a lot of people in the pews agree with me but don’t want to say anything for fear of seeming harsh or, worse yet, “not right with God.”
The truth is that they check out when the “band” checks in.
Dumbing Down the Church
One of the main reasons the Church has lost so much of its influence in culture is that Christians no longer understand much about the faith “once for all delivered” (Jude 3, ESV).
The anti-intellectualism that swept through American culture swept through the Church as well, leaving a bunch of sincere folks focused on personal piety, but not at all certain of what they believe or why.
I lay the blame ultimately at the feet of pastors for their insipid sermons (another topic we address in the book).
But music has always been a powerful teaching tool in the Christian church. And it is here that we are paying a high price for our vapid attempts to sing in church, because the music has been teaching us that truth doesn’t matter all that much anymore.
Add that to the sermons, and it’s no wonder so many Christians can’t defend the truth.
Both sermons and songs have been dumbed down to offend as few people as possible and appeal to as many as possible.
In the process, Christians have lost their way on issues of doctrine, having little idea how to apply truth in their private lives and how to declare truth in the public square.
3 Things that Drive Me Crazy
I mentioned other concerns in my post then [See my post Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your Church], all of which remain relevant and largely unaddressed.
But if I could sum up my concerns now I would say the evangelical Christian church is still guilty of doing three things:
- Dumbing down worship. Yes, some truths are simple and should be expressed in that way. But not everything. The Apostle Paul tells us that there is milk (for young believers) and meat (for mature believers). Today’s modern worship music isn’t just all-milk all-the-time, it’s gluten-free, organic, soy milk. In other words, it’s so watered down it gives milk a bad name. We seem eager to make music in church that appeals to everyone, even the occasional visitor or the”seeker” who stopped in for the free coffee. Now don’t misunderstand; I’ve been in churches where the music is so horrifically performed that it drives people from the pews. But what most churches do is dumb down the lyrics to keep them accessible to everyone, thereby stripping the church of its deep doctrinal roots and preventing the people from understanding biblical truths they need to navigate the cultural storms ahead.
- Repeating everything. Again and again and again…. oh, sorry. Tuned out for minute there. But seriously, when you make the words super simple and then repeat them 7 or 8 times, I can’t help but be insulted at what you must think is the intelligence level of the people in the pews. And no, changing the volume levels or adding more “feeling” doesn’t help. It makes me want to sit down or google something until it’s over. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for repetition. I repeat, there is a place for repetition. I repeat, there is a place — see what I mean? Once you go beyond that place, it just gets annoying and becomes a barrier to worship. If I had wanted to chant, I would have stopped off at the yoga class for a session of transcendental meditation to clear my mind. I don’t come to church to empty my head, but to have my head and heart renewed by God’s Word.
- Performing, not singing. It used to be that the choir would stand to the side or even up and behind the congregation so as not to distract everyone from the true purpose of signing together. Somewhere in the last century, most evangelical churches adopted more of a concert model (or perhaps a tent-meeting model) for church music in which the choir and a few musicians would adorn the stage, facing the congregants. I have no doubt this trend started out for good reasons, but the end result has been less of an emphasis on people singing together and more focus on the performance of a select few. And when the majority of songs being sung are written for radio air-play and concerts in the first place, there is now little room for the typical believer to join in unless they have been blessed with vocal talent and forced to endure Christian pop radio throughout the week. Scripture calls us to sing together, not watch a handful of people do it for us. It’s like we outsourced worship to the “worship band” (a fundamentally flawed entity whose existence we can discuss at another time), instead of singing together with one voice.
The church is sitting on a treasure trove of songs from ages past (and some good ones from today). They lie neglected, spurned in favor of shallow jingles that make you want to either wave your smartphone and cheer or walk out.
We need to quit trying to create a mood and start trying to equip the saints.
The church in America is about to be sifted as never before.
It’s time for the church of Jesus Christ to quit playing around with mindless ditties and start worshiping in spirit AND in truth.
We’re going to need it.
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