Is Modern Worship too Simplistic?

Earlier this week, a discussion among the worship band members at my church pointed to this article where Bill Blankschaen describes his frustration with worship songs sung in churches on Sunday mornings and tells us “Why I’ve stopped singing in your church.”

As of this writing right now, he has 241 comments, and he only wrote it three days ago (July 15). Clearly, he has struck a nerve—a nerve deep enough to get my worship band talking about it, and a nerve deep enough to make me blog about it.

Here’s an excerpt from his post:

I love music. Truly I do. I love to sing. But you wouldn’t know it on Sunday morning when I’m visiting your church.

I’m not talking to all of you, of course. I’m sure many churches, maybe even yours, get it right. I just haven’t been there that often, I guess. My experiences with modern worship music in evangelical Christianity often leave me not just silent, but wondering if I should be joining George Bailey in making a quick exit from the agony.

In the article, he makes the following points about what he calls “the worship music in many Evangelical Christian churches today”:

  • They’re really, really simplistic
  • They’re all pulled from the latest Top 40 Worship channel.
  • They repeat (and repeat. and repeat. and repeat)

Instead, he says “So here’s what I’d like songs in church to be”:

  • Truthful (truth that grows my understanding of God)
  • Written for adults (We’re not giddy camp attendees & we’re not seekers anymore)
  • Timeless (reaching back into the archives of proven songs)

At the end, he asks the question: Am I the only one to have this problem or have some of you been faking it too?

What’s good about what he says?

Modern worship is often simplistic and repetitive

He’s right. There’s a song I nixed from our church repertoire that had a lyric encouraging people to experience God’s presence by saying: “If you want it, come and get it, for crying out loud. Let go of your heart, let go of your head, and feel it now.” I felt that line was not only simplistic, but a bit crass, and a shameless ripoff of David Gray’s Babylon. (I have a huge pet peeve of people taking secular songs, leaving the lyrics the same, but pretending they are somehow spiritual because they are being sung by spiritual people, but that’s another blog post.)

That song was too simplistic, and I removed it from our church repertoire.

However, there’s another song we still have in our repertoire that is even more simplistic. The lyrics to that song say this: “In the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, in the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus.” That song is not only simplistic, but it’s also repetitive—incredibly repetitive, in fact.

Another song we sing, has the words “His love endures forever” after every single line of every verse. In an average worship service where that song is used, that line will be sung perhaps 10 times!

The question, of course, is whether being simplistic or being repetitive is a good or bad thing. I’ll come back to that later.

Modern worship forgets the past

The article is also right that most worship songs are pulled from a “Top 40” repertoire that is governed primarily by the Christian music labels and the Christian radio stations. I have my own issues with how the Christian music industry is run, but that’s neither here nor there. Bill is right that most white evangelical churches doing modern worship are pulling from a rather small pool populated by the likes of Hillsong, Tomlin, Redman, Crowder, Bethel, Riddle, Jesus Culture, Phillips, Craig, and Dean, Michael W. Smith… etc. (There’s actually a rather large list of artists when I start to think about it.)

However, the criticism isn’t that songs are coming from a small pool but that most songs are coming from a RECENT pool. Bill asks about the songs from two decades ago or the songs from the past 2000 years of church history.

Again, he’s right. Most songs sung in modern worship churches come from our very recent past, meaning the past 10 years or so. The danger of this is that Christians forget they are part of history. We forget the doctrinal battles of the past and wage the same wars all over again. The other danger is that the language of times long past reminds us that there is a uniquely Christian language and to some extent a Christian culture that is different from the culture of the world. Though every song of every age reflects the culture of the age, there is a thread connecting them all that is uniquely Christian.

This brings me to my first point of criticism as I begin to address what I think the article fails to address.

What’s missing in what he says

Bill ignores the “cultural” issues

Let me illustrate by going back to the simplicity critique. Simply put, simple songs are easier to write and easier to sing. Therefore, there will always be more songs that are simple and easy than there will be songs that are complex and profound. This has always been the case. There are many more songs out there in the wild like Row, Row, Row Your Boat than like Handel’s famous Hallelujah. There will always be more Maroon 5’s and Beatles than Bachs and Mozarts.

This, however, is not an observation about “modern worship” as much as it is an observation of the difference between what has been called folk culture and what we call high culture. Folk culture is always a culture that is born from the everyday experience of the people who live in it expressing hopes and dreams in light of harsh realities. Folk culture gives rise to the Blues, to Jazz, to Rock and Roll, to bar songs and jump-rope chants.

On the other hand, high culture is always a culture that is born from the luxury of wealth and education to express the highest ideals of society. When the stresses of life are all met and people are free to think important thoughts about the nature of God, the role of the church in society, and how those should be communicated, we get men like John Calvin and his commentaries or men like Jonathan Edwards and his disciplined theology. When artists are paid to push their art to the limit within strict confines, we get musicians like Bach and Handel.

Now, here’s the point that the article failed to address. Most music of all kinds comes from folk culture. Folk culture is more predominant, more accessible, and more meaningful to more people. High culture demands a level of education and sometimes wealth (Bach’s music requires an expensive organ in a cathedral to be done properly) which makes it less accessible and thereby less meaningful to most people. Of course, modern worship music is no exception.

Now this is where I observe one of the greatest ironies in every conversation about worship music. All ancient hymns with very few exceptions were a part of folk culture when they were first written. Over the years, with the changing of musical tastes, educational systems, and the structure of the English language itself, those ancient hymns now “feel” like high culture because they demand a certain level of knowledge to be appreciated, but in fact, they were born out of folk culture. For example, Martin Luther was widely criticized for using bar tunes to express his theological truths. Granted, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God has far more lyrical content than does Chris Tomlin’s Forever, but the point remains that Luther was attempting to use the folk culture of the day to communicate what he thought needed to be communicated.

Therefore, Bill would have done well to address the purpose of the simplistic repetitive songs he criticized. If the songs are intended to be part of folk culture communicating in a folk culture, then they are following the cultural pattern of every century. If instead, a worship service is to be high culture, then they fail miserably.

The question we should all ask ourselves when it comes to our churches is whether a gathering for worship should “meet people where they are” or “take people to higher ground” or somehow both?

I believe that question can only be answered from within the context of each individual gathering.

If Bill were honest, he would admit that he isn’t critical of the songs as much as he is critical of the leadersp of those churches for letting those songs predominate, but then he would have to admit that he doesn’t know why the leaders of those churches have made the decisions they have made.

So, he missed the cultural issue, but he also missed the biblical issue.

Bill never addresses the biblical issues

Worship is not about me. Every Christian who has been in any church would readily admit that. “Worship isn’t about us!” we all say. But most of us are lying when we say that.

One person says, “Worship isn’t about us! We shouldn’t do songs just because they make us feel good or jumpy. We should do songs that make us think about God! Songs that elevate his attributes!”

Another person says, “Worship isn’t about us! We shouldn’t sing songs that confuse people just because we think that’s the right thing to do. Worship is about God; it’s about people telling God we love him; it’s about people offering themselves to him for his purposes in this world.”

The irony is that each person is expressing their belief about what worship “should” be by expressing what they want worship to be for themselves. In other words, in saying “Worship isn’t about us” they affirm their belief that worship is completely about them.

Let me go on a limb and say that worship is simply this: affirming God’s worth.

Let me go on another limb and say that for worship to really be all about God, it must be informed completely by God’s Word. All conversation about worship that doesn’t center on and build from the text of the Bible is mere gum-flapping!

Here are a few examples of how the Bible would inform Bill’s article:

  • Sometimes simplicity is good: 1 Corinthians 2:2, Psalm 13:1-6
  • Repetition is often profoundly good: Psalms 136:1-26, Revelation 4:8
  • Personal expression is good: Matthew 26:6-13
  • Difficult lyrics are bad: Matthew 13:19
  • Mental discipline is good: 1 Peter 5:8, Hebrews 5:11-14
  • Musical variety is commanded: Colossians 3:15-17

Now, this last verse to which I just referred is an amazing one for our conversation here today. Let me quote it in context:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

The person who reads this passage with an open heart to the things of God would understand that in every conversation, in every worship service, in every blog post, and in every thought, he is to possess compassion and humility. He is to bear with others and forgive quickly. He is to express a love that builds unity and demonstrate a heart at peace. He is to appreciate the giving and receiving of all kinds of songs whether informal psalms, carefully crafted hymns or spontaneous words brought on by the Holy Spirit, and he is commanded to sing them with gratitude.

A true worshipper worships God regardless of song or instrumentation so long as the song itself doesn’t violate one of these other biblical principles.

In light of this verse, I realize that Bill doesn’t merely miss some important points, rather, he actually does some things that do violence to the church as a whole.

What’s wrong with what he says?

Reading the article, I found myself agreeing with him in theory while still feeling offended at his rather angry, sarcastic tone. I brushed it off because that’s what you get on blogs, and I myself have been guilty of that same tone at times on this blog. However, when I started reading the comments, I began to see how this article and others like it are divisive and damaging to the church. A few points will suffice:

He raises good issues from the perspective of personal preference

Churches should pay attention to the songs they sing and the reasons behind those songs, but churches shouldn’t care about the personal preference of one specific disgruntled blog writer who doesn’t want to sing when he visits a church with no intention of submitting himself to the community of that church.

My point is that he offers his personal critique only from his own perspective. A song that is simplistic to him, a man who was raised in the church and has never been a seeker, might not be simplistic to a man who Saturday was drunk and decided on Sunday morning that his life needed to change.

Any argument of personal preference in the context of the church must be surrounded completely with biblical support and social awareness. Stating what he wants isn’t good enough.

He falsely attacks good people

I agree that churches should strive to express truth in their worship music, that they should avoid overly simplifying things and that they should be careful that repetition isn’t used purely for the “trance” impact it can have on people, but that’s no reason for him to attack the God-fearing men and women who wrote those songs he can’t stand.

This paragraph specifically bothered me:

They’re really, really simplistic. There, I tried to keep the words small. You certainly put a lot of work into doing that for me each Sunday. It’s not just that most of the lyrics are simple — as in easy to understand. It’s that so many of the songs remind me of the ditties we sang at camp — when I was ten. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the theology in some of those camp songs was more advanced than the ones I’ve heard in some of your services. But, hey, everybody else seems to be really, really enjoying it so maybe it’s just me. Unless, of course, they’ve also learned how to fake it.

Or maybe someone for the first time in her life is beginning to understand that God really will “never let go.”

His article promotes Christian divisiveness and empty quarrels.

Finally, a quick skim through the comments yields a number of people who say, “I’m with you” or similar statements. People talk about how they are also sick of church music, how they also don’t go to church anymore because of the music, etc. Other people talk about how there are other churches he should try like a traditional Baptist church or something. The comments display what I think the Bible would call “foolish controversies” (Titus 3:9), and Paul’s recommendation to Titus regarding such things is this:

Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. — Titus 3:10

Bill’s closing words on his article asked if anyone else was “faking it” in worship, and he invited people to respond as if them “faking” worship was somehow the fault of the church or the songs.

Don’t fall for it.

If you are “faking” worship, the fault is yours.

Conclusion

It is my sincere desire that the conversation regarding worship in churches takes a different tone than the one presented in Bill’s article. My personal hope is that we stop talking about music and lyrics as if there is some “right way” of doing worship or some “right way” of writing a worship song. My personal hope is that we could start asking the question, what is the best way to express how great God is, and what is the best way to help people connect with that? In other words, I want us to ask, what is the best way to connect the truth of God with my spirit and the spirit of my neighbor? And what is the best way to express from my spirit the truth of God? If we can do that, we will be worshiping in spirit and in truth, and I’ve been told that’s what God really wants anyway (John 4:23).