Saturday, June 10, 2006

Frustrations with Contemporary Music

I grow increasingly frustrated with the corpus of contemporary Christian music for several reasons. First, however, perhaps I should give a summary of how I come to be sitting in judgment on this issue.

Nearly two years ago, I found myself in a leadership position for a worship service that utilizes contemporary Christian music. I must both plan these services and lead the music for them. My background in this area previously had been as a distant auditor only. So necessity became my instant teacher. I must admit that I have not always done all the research I should in order to know what all is "out there" to choose from. But based on what I have found, here are several areas of shortcomings that I am finding it difficult to work with:

  1. The majority of the texts focus on the individual, rather than the corporate, in relation to God. They are more appropriate in private devotions than in public worship.. An example is "Breathe." This one is so prominent in my mind because of the sheer length of the repeated "I" phrases. "I-I-I-I, I'm desperate for you. And I-I-I-I, I'm lost without you, I'm lost without you." Titles such as "Let Your Spirit Rise within Me," "I Will Worship," and "Draw Me Close" illustrate this trend. I don't mean to imply that there is never a place for individualistic focus in worship songs. The problem is that the large majority of songs to choose from are individualistic
  2. Many contemporary worship music texts are about God, rather than being addressed to God. This shortcoming is separate from, though related to, item 1 in this list. Here, "Breathe" makes the cut, though again its over-reliance on the first person singular remains problematic. Let me hasten to add that traditional hymnody may be slightly worse in this regard. My little worship team is quite fond of "We Want To See Jesus Lifted High." This song passes the corporate focus test, but fails on the God focus. (It's great to want to see Jesus lifted high, but when we're in worship, perhaps we should address the One being lifted!)
  3. Taken as a corpus, contemporary worship songs reflect poor theology. One way they may do this is in failing both #1 and #2 above. It is bad theology of worship to have it all be "me 'n' my Jesus" and talking about God as if the Almighty is not present. So many of the songs reflect a careless familiarity with one or another of the Triune Persons. Yes, Jesus is undeniably our friend, but if all our songs reflect this casual kind of approach, we ignore the holiness of the Creator of the universe. There must be balance. So in and of themselves, few songs fail this test. Together, the corpus does.
  4. There is a dearth of response songs in contemporary worship music. It is important to follow the proclamation of God's word with one or more acts of response. When we have heard/seen the word prolaimed, a response is expected! There are too few songs which fill this need. A good example is Twila Paris's "Carry the Light." I challenge you to think of more than five familiar contemporary worship songs that articulate a response that is both corporate and focuses on taking the proclaimed word into the world. This contributes to the problem #3, in my opinion.
I am blessed, in that two of my gifts are writing and musical composition. I've decided to spend my time off this summer in writing worship songs that meet the criteria of #1-#3 in order to create new response songs (#4). After all, it's one thing to complain about the present situation; it's another thing entirely to do something about it.


John said...

All of these complaints are true. But I still prefer contemporary music because at least it is alive and not petrified words from hundreds of years ago.

I go to a church now that only offers traditional worship. Every few months, I have some opportunity to participate in contemporary worship. On those moments I feel like filled and that I had been empty. Such opportunities are oases in a desert of archaic, lifeless droning.

But people are different. Ideally, a church should offer both choices so that people can go to the worship services that are meaningful to each person.

Psalmist said...

Hello, John. I'll try not to get too curmudgeonly here, but please forgive me if I stray.

While I appreciate that you, like so many others, prefer contemporary worship, that is not the OP topic. I'm dealing with the fact of life that is contemporary worship music, and the shortcomings I perceive within that body (corpus) of of music. I did not intend to fuel a debate on the relative merits of contemporary and traditional worship. Plenty of us have the responsibility of planning and leading both, and doing so with integrity.

But since you brought up "[allegedly] petrified words from hundreds of years ago," I wonder what you think qualifies these excerpts as petrified:

* Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

* Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

*Mortals, join the mighty chorus which the morning stars began;
Love divine is reigning o'er us,
Binding all within its span.

*Most blessed, most glorious,
The Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious,
thy great name we praise.

*The God of Abraham praise,
Who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of Everlasting Days,
and God of Love.

*O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

Like any other human expressions, some stand the test of time and are rightly used by future generations, and some become museum pieces. I'm glad, however, that most Christian churches continue to sing the various hymns of Scripture, despite their great age. Conversely, I hardly expect future generations to sing my time-bound writings, though they're useful enough by the present Christians with whom I share them.

Meanwhile, worship is about God, not my personal comfort zone. I am responsible for planning and leading music that enables others to worship God in spirit and truth. The OP addresses one difficulty I face on a regular basis.

John said...

The solution may be to adapt traditional hymn lyrics to modern music. I've heard good renditions of "How Great Thou Art" to this effect.

Either way, although it is important that worship music be theologically rich, it is also important that it not be coma-inducing.

see-through faith said...

looking forward to hearing your compositions.

I too struggle with the I I I but it is good to see that people are at least recognising their own relationship with the creator.

I donät think it's only about choice John but about balance.

I'm notsure what you mean by responsorial songs - but I do like ones where the lead worshipper sings one line and we repeat it. it's good for the musically challenged like me, but also because there's time for the theology to sink in.

I love the re-jazzing of older hymns. I'm reminded that Booth took the best songs from the pubs and made them worship songs, I think that's the challenge today - we do not need to sing ancient melodies with archaic words all the time. but God focused, God exhalting songs to great tunes from the 21st century - this is NOT the era of the pipe organ. really it's not. It's nice for a change and shouldn't be lost but not for everysong every worship service.

sorry but that's how I see it

Psalmist said...

See-through-faith, what I referred to as "response songs" are the songs, which we at my church place near the close of both our "informal" and traditional services, that articulate our corporate response to the proclaimed word of God. I mentioned "Carry the Light," which is good because its focus is "...Go and preach the gospel till there is no more night / In the name of Jesus Christ, carry the light." Another example would be "Here I Am, Lord," and a much older one would be "Heralds of Christ, who Bear the King's Commands." Response songs aren't about the structure or style, but about the text. In fact, it is texts, not the music to which the texts are set, that is my focus in the OP.

Let me try to bring this back to the OP topic, which is shortcomings in the corpus of contemporary worship song. I allowed myself to get a little too testy about the subjective comparison of contemporary and traditional sung worship music, and I participated in the topic drift. Believe me, there are LOTS of places to which we could go to debate contemp. vs. trad. music and worship! The relative lack of critical analysis of contemporary song texts, however, is one of the reasons I believe we have the too-individualistic, too-theologically fluffy choices we do in contemporary worship songs. Here again, I'd rather be part of the solution than merely pointing to the problem.

A further comment: I have appreciated Twila Paris's contributions to worship music over the years. The balance you speak of, see-through-faith, is refreshing in her songs. She also does what you and John suggested: set classic texts to new tunes and fresh arrangements of standard tunes. I especially appreciate her original "We Bow Down" and "We Will Glorify," because while they're hardly "new," they're both corporate and theologically sound...and people actually like to sing them! She has the knack--which so many current writers don't--of writing songs that are relatively easy to sing. The ranges aren't extreme nor are the rhythms and text flow tricky for untrained singers.

Thank you to those who commment in the future, for addressing contemporary music only. (smile)

SingingOwl said...

I confess, I prefer contemporary music as a rule. But I think every point you raised is valid.
And I love the rich theology of the older hymns. I so long for a good mix! Ditto to your thoughts on Twila Paris, and Psalmist if you write contemporary songs I will pay an enormous sum to have them! :-D