It’s been a good week on the internet for me. World Peace followed me on Twitter (I did not follow back because who needs the hassle?), and I saw two videos satirizing worship music. I’m going to assume most people know what worship music is, but just in case readers haven’t been to the corner megachurch lately, worship music is like pop music, only with lyrics that avoid themes of sex, drugs, and idol-worship (or something like that). Worship music is to music what Old Navy is to clothing. It is wholesome and American-ish, even when it is made by Australians. Ideally, worship music should be written and performed by attractive young people sporting angular haircuts, tight T-shirts, and tattoos, but when it comes down to it, most churches will take anyone they can get.

A good worship song has staying power. It enters into tradition without obliterating it.After I grew up, I took an extended, multi-decade break from listening to a single measure of worship music. Then, not too long ago, I started paying attention again to evangelical subculture only to discover that the music had morphed into the likes of Hillsong. Imagine my surprise. Fog machines, theater lighting, soaring lyrics, giant screens, killer vocals, massive production values, riffs that ring in your skull for days—it is truly stunning. Or it would be, if the point of the music is to be a really polished version of commercial-ready radio pop. Personally, I’ve lost sight of the point of worship music. It certainly is fantastic, and I simultaneously feel like weeping, punching my neighbor in the ribs, waving my hands in the air like I really, really care, and getting gloriously saved all over again every time I hear one of those songs. I’m just not sure this is what I go to church for, or more accurately, if it is the only thing I go to church for. Listening to the music, I lose track of why I came. I also lose track of just what it is I am supposed to be singing about, but the worship band is there to stand in the gap, so it works out.

My sister, who (Christianese alert) helps lead worship at her church, told me that when she is shopping at a local bulk food store run by Christians, worship music is always playing over the speakers. She is usually shopping for something mundane and sold in bulk and is momentarily confused when a particularly emotive piece starts playing. Should she put the measuring scoop aside and drop to her knees in contrition? The vocalist is crying out to God that she wants to know Him; it somehow seems disrespectful to keep pawing through bins of beans against the backdrop of such intense spiritual yearning.

Besides the spiritual coercion of these songs, there is the small matter that nobody knows any of them, unless you’re among the unfortunate number of Americans forced to listen to their local radio stations. One of my other sisters (I have quite a few sisters, yea, a quiverfull) married a Mennonite fellow. At their church, formerly of the conservative no-instrument variety and now of the every-instrument variety, one has the weird experience of being caught between centuries. Elderly women from another time wearing head-coverings and skirts below the knee have ventured into a contemporary house of worship to join their jeans-clad descendants in a chorus of hymn-singing. Only they can’t join them, because nobody sings hymns anymore. There are a few holdouts, such as “Come Thou Fount,” rearranged into something nearly unrecognizable but still utilized on Sunday mornings. It is only a matter of time, however, before these songs leave their syncopated purgatory to be expunged from the canon altogether.

Cross-generational church should be a beautiful thing: older Christians and young ones singing together, bridging the generations through shared theological truths as expressed through worship. Instead, it’s a clash of cultures, with people of a certain age standing mutely, knowing they don’t have a chance against a full drum kit, the two rhythm and one lead guitar. Besides, they don’t know the song anyway, since they hadn’t yet figured out how to download the worship leader’s latest album.

For the record, I’m not worried about worship music ruining everything. The institutions of the Protestantism, including worship music, will survive, in one form or another, until the last trumpet sounds. No matter how hard Christians try, they haven’t been able to completely break church. But I do think there is a social, and maybe a theological, cost to replacing old ways of singing with new ones, especially with songs patterned after contemporary pop music. Pop is an inherently flaky genre, with changeability of tastes providing the only constant. This is why nobody listens to Evie anymore. She may have been hot stuff circa 1980 but current fashion moves on, and Evie is forever trapped on an album cover wearing a Dorothy Hamill haircut. On the other hand, we will sing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” written in 1905, until Jesus comes, even if He waits a while and a lot of sparrows fall in the meantime.

A good worship song has staying power. It enters into tradition without obliterating it. The chief virtue of tradition is its sense of timelessness, the way it offers participants an experience that echoes down through the generations. As long as traditions promote truth and goodness, they are relevant forever. A good example of tradition is Christmas, specifically “Silent Night,” which we don’t replace every year with a new carol, as the old one works pretty well.

Besides, church isn’t supposed to be cool. It’s a place with generally bad coffee, annoying people, and antiquated habits. If you’re having fun at church, you’re probably doing it wrong. It’s not that you have to be miserable; it’s just that you shouldn’t expect to be comfortable. Being at church is not like being in your living room, or, more to the point when it comes to worship music, being in a smoke-free underage club. Church is a place where you are challenged, where whatever cosseting you experience comes from being with fellow believers, from returning to the eternal truths as evidenced in Scripture, in prayer, in psalms, in song. So come to church and sing. Make melody in your heart, like the Bible says. Just make sure you’re singing a good song–a song even your grandmother would recognize as good, in the most enduring sense of the word.


  1. I honestky can’t even figure out what the point of this rant was, other than to state – in varying ways – that you don’t like modern worship music. I can’t believe I bothered to read it – I guess I kept expecting you to say something of substance. I continued reading in vain.

    1. Well, the piece was supposed to be at least a little bit funny, but it looks like it failed even on that score. Thanks for slogging through it, looking for the point (coincidentally, that’s exactly how I feel about worship music!). ;)

    2. Her point was spot on.

      What passes for music in these mega and not-so-mega churches is nothing of the sort. Vapid lyrics that are unmoored from Bible passages. It is white bread from beginning to end, the lyrics endlessly repetitive.

      When I think of what inspired the hymn writers of the past (think Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Verdi, the requiems in particular, and (gasp!) the Bible), and I compare that for what passes for religious music today, I wince. There simply is no comparison in the complexity and variety.

      I am sure that many of the people who participate in “worship bands” truly ARE sincere but I can’t shake the feeling that it also comes with a heavy dose of ego stroking. It gives them “cover” for being in a band way into their 30s and 40s. They get to dress cool. And once a week, they are being watched and cheered by perhaps a couple thousand people. They are literally in the limelight, no? Of course they insist this is all about God but tell me this: what would all these band players say if they were suddenly asked to play their music behind a curtain, or up in the balcony, out of sight? Suddenly there would be 15 reasons why they can’t. No. In order to “worship God” properly, “they” have to be upfront, doing “their” thing.

      Meanwhile you are in the kitchen one day and suddenly on the radio, you hear the tune to Amazing Grace. Or Abide with Me. The authors of these hymns’ texts, the composers, nor the musicians need to be seen. Why? Because it isn’t about THEM. It is about the music and the message.

      If you are upset because you think that the author of the above essay did not say anything of substance, if you really, really hunger for words of substance, do the following: Go get yourself an old Lutheran hymnal (from the 70s or before) and open it up to ANY hymn. Seriously, any hymn you want, and compare the text of that hymn to whatever the text of whatever song that is being sung in the mega churches this week, and ask yourself HONESTLY, whichis the one that most closely follows the messages in the Bible? Which one is more complex in its messaging? And finally, which is the one with SUBSTANCE?

    3. I understand your frustration Shannon although you could have expressed it in a bit kinder manner. There was a time I would have fully agreed with you but recently have become dissatisfied not only with the state of Christian songs but all of media. We are living in a sort of “matrix” construct where we are only allowed what the industry gives whether it’s their version of news, television programming, games or music. More heartfelt & original content is stifled in favor of the same old tired formulas that promote their agenda.

      Turning on Christian radio recently I heard the same thing. There was nothing worshipful about most of the songs to distinguish them from any other pop tunes churned out by the modern media machine. The music was all hooks based, repetitive & said nothing of substance beyond the most basic concepts of Christianity. One song repeated, “You love us Lord” so many times it seemed designed to make you wonder if God really does love us if the singer has to say it that frequently to be convincing. Many of the lyrics border on giving the opposite message from Christianity. While I don’t think we all are better off singing “Doxology” for the rest of human history (remember the Bible says to sing a new song unto the Lord) we could do better than we are now with this soulless puppet pop going on.

      Deana, I accept your challenge. Let’s look at the words to the hymn Amazing Grace. It goes, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see. Through many dangers, toils & snares I have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far & grace will lead me home.” That is poetic but the message doesn’t venture very far beyond rudimentary Christianity into anything extremely complicated. It tells us that God saves our souls, helps us to see that he is the truth, protects us & leads us.”

      Now let’s examine a recent Hillsongs release called Touch The Sky. The lyrics are, “What treasure waits within Your scars? This gift of freedom gold can’t buy. I bought the world & sold my heart. You traded heaven to have me again. My heart beating, my soul breathing, I found my life when I laid it down. Upward falling, spirit soaring, I touch the sky when my knees hit the ground.” In an artistic manner like the famous old hymn this song reminds us of Biblical mandates to give our lives to Jesus as he gave his for us & that prayer is the foundation of a relationship with God. That is no less complex or scriptural than the historical verses. It has plenty substance. This proves that at least some current praise hits are constructed with deep thought regarding Christianity.

      To S.D. Kelly, the author: people are happy to keep singing Silent Night because we only hear it once a year. Even then, there are loads of new Christmas music hitting the airwaves annually played alongside old favorites or updated versions. If we had to listen to the same thing at church every Sunday since 1865 many of us would want to rip our eardrums out. I used to dread services at a church whose worship team droned the same worn melodies each week & refused to learn anything new. God may have gotten bored with it too. I especially like spontaneous worship music because it’s fresh & guided by the Holy Spirit. While I agree that too many songs with a Christian label are mechanical & robotic that doesn’t mean the only real praise pieces in existence that benefit mankind for connecting to God are from centuries past.

  2. You have lost the true meaning of worship, it’s not about ourself, neither of the church but worship belongs to God, and it should be our lifestyle, irrespective of the church style. Model Jesus not Church and neither people.

  3. “But I do think there is a social, and maybe a theological, cost to replacing old ways of singing with new ones, especially with songs patterned after contemporary pop music. Pop is an inherently flaky genre, with changeability of tastes providing the only constant.” Yes! There are few things as beautiful as generations of people singing a song they know and feel by heart. It’s why we all love Nat King Cole, Perry Como and Andy Williams at Christmas time. Fleeting pop trends leave people behind. We lose precious connections between grandparents and children, we can even make elders seem irrelevant. Nicely written. Thanks for this!

  4. Just happened to see Hillsong on TV last night.
    It’s modern country pop, impressive production values, but completely forgettable songs.

    It belongs somewhere, just not in Church.
    Catholics have been trying to do some of this for decades. The output dies with the style.

    The main problem is that this is theater, not a mass. Nothing wrong with theater, but a mass it isn’t.
    The goal with theater is filling the seats, which looks like Hillsong accomplishes.
    But it ain’t mass.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. Traditional music binds generations and remains relevant throughout one’s iife. For me, pop music is a frivolous embarrassment.

  6. I thought this piece was hilarious and I agree that modern church music is abysmal. I am Catholic and we have the horrible “Gather” hymnal, which includes a lot of drivel by Marty Haugen and David Haas and almost none of the beautiful classic hymns from the competition, like Martin Luther and the guy who started the Methodists.

    My theory is that in the Reformation, the Catholics got the real estate and the Protestants got the music, but maybe you guys didn’t even get that.

    1. This may be “church music” since it was likely recorded in a church – but I did not find myself encouraged to worship by it. Rather, I found myself straining to understand any coherent message – whether toward God or toward men about God. I heard interesting musical technique – vocally producing a “washed” effect more commonly associated with electronically-produced New Age or Ambient styles. Certainly impressive vocal technique – but it didn’t direct my mind toward God.

      As the “worship leader” at my (very small) church, I spend a significant amount of time picking particular songs with comprehensible lyrical content that encourages a focus on God – both His attributes and His actions. Those songs are selected with a view to supporting the following sermon (we preach sequentially through a full book of Scripture, so I always know the passage for the coming Sunday). Some of the songs I pick are older hymns – generally at least one per Sunday – some are newer. All are picked primarily for their lyrical content, and how it supports the believer in understanding and absorbing the sermon.

      Is that really so offensive? I really do get SD Kelly’s point – there is a definite over-focus on production and performance in much of today’s worship-pop. On the other hand, can God really be restrained from using a song just because the original live video recording is too slick? Or is God more great than the tools He uses? If I can be Baalam’s donkey – let it so be!

  7. The message never changes, but the delivery system does. Or does your church only sing Gregorian chants?

    I don’t want a light show myself, or fog machines, and ALL compositions need to be fact-checked against the Scriptures, but you need to be very careful complaining about worship. King David himself wrote worships songs, trained musicians, and filled with Temple with sounds of adoration.

    1. HH:

      1) These are not Gregorian chants, which come from the Latin Church in Rome. These are Eastern Orthodox chants, which derive from the other of the original five churches of the faith: Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople.

      2) I hate to inform you, but the delivery system and the message are intimately related—a secular-based delivery system based on a I-IV-V chord progression, like so-called ‘worship music’, can only deliver a secular message. It’s the difference between regarding Christ as a guitar-carrying hippie wearing a pair of old jeans and Christ, God of the Universe, ‘ineffable, inconceivable, everywhere present and filling all things.’ It’s the difference between the everyday appearance of Christ and the awe-inspiring appearance of the Transfigured Christ.The emotions summoned in the listener cannot even be compared.

      I’ll take transfigured.

  8. I was just thinking it had been a few days since I last saw some progressive Christian write something dismissive about contemporary worship. I was worried we might have lost our priorities in all this Trump business!

    But I’ll give this points for not trying to hard to conflate cultural snobbery with theological integrity. It’s okay to not like something simply because you don’t like it.

  9. In my opinion music in most churches has become a watered down mixture of this and that with little semblance to the hymnals of another era. Having said that, let me clarify a few points by using secular pop and rock music…There was a time when Frank Sinatra was very popular. Over time a lot of young men were inspired to sing. Some were good enough to have careers of their own. Many of them started off by mimicking their idol, Sinatra. Over time some developed a style of their own albeit they were still under the genre listing, “Crooners.”…The same can be said of guitar players of the sixties. Up and rising wanna be famous guitarist emulated their heroes. Eric Clapton in the sixties had a unique blues style, with a distinct vibrato and phrasing to his solos. Countless teens picked up guitars and played their butts off. It didn’t take long before a lot of rock n roll songs had guitar solos that sounded close to much of Clapton’s solos and ornamental fills. The same can be said of vocals and harmonies and countless garage bands. U2 came along with its simplistic guitar progressions that another generation embraced. Several decades later, minimalist guitar and chord progressions became the accepted norm. Hill song is in that category. Secular music makes its way into the church. Its obvious. Influences of the current pop music, whatever that might be is incorporated into the church service. A certain demographic target is sought it of a necessity to “out reach.”….In many ways, music in the churches has de evolved (sorry for that word). Countless small churches have popped up every where. Most cannot afford to hire a trained musician or for that matter a degreed minister who also has a degree in music. Therefore the small up and coming small church relies heavily on wanna be musicians who’ve played in parties and so forth. Then there are the over the hill types who dreamt of being a great player but never quite had the talent and or luck. …I’ve had friends complain time and again about how bad the music is within so many churches….And I haven’t even touched on the subjects of rap, death metal, punk or any of the other supposed avenues of music…In nut shell, secular music has definitely influenced the church for better or worse

  10. I have been reading this article for decades. This was done more artfully than most.

    Ask yourself the next question: if this is well-known enough to be a cliche, and people who regard themselves as deeper thinkers have been railing against it for years, what does it provide to people so they don’t just get rid of it? Think like an anthropologist.

    1. I love your screen name. You’re not even the actual village idiot? You have to settle for assistant? Thanks for the nice laugh. :D

  11. gold digger,
    I too am a Catholic. I remember the horrid “guitar Masses” inflicted on unsuspecting worshipers all across the US.

  12. Enjoyed this piece. Have always had difficulty with much of contemporary Christian music, worship or otherwise. But especially contemporary worship, which has always struck me as more than a little on the creepy side, as so much (though not all) makes me feel like I’m singing not to the Savior of the World, but a 13-year-old girl.

    1. Absolutely beautiful!!! As a music major in college, I had the privilege of singing in an acapella group, and I miss it so much! Thanks for sharing this version of Lully Lullay.

    2. Ahem, I can’t understand a word but the singing is beautiful although I think it’s largely due to the amazing acoustics in that vaulted church. The one drawback is that in church on Sunday morning where people are already having trouble staying awake after working all week & getting up early for service, this slow lilting melody is likely to put us to sleep. It’s funny to see people singing such an old world tune in skinny jeans. Now that is a culture clash! Also, people will wonder like me, “What is a ‘lully’?”

      S.D. Kelly I understand that one of your points in writing this article is that worship is not about hearing styles that we like but what allows us to draw toward God. That is vaild but we will be affected by all components of the music being played. If I find a song tedious or the singer seems haughty I might have trouble getting into worship. It’s a heart thing that is driven by any number of factors. Everyone gets tripped up on this subject because what generates true praise is so personalized to each individual.

      The good thing is that as the debate rages a writer will always get tons of traffic & interaction from addressing this sort of thing just as you did. That’s one of the few reasons I can see that you or anyone would open themselves up to the kind of criticism they will surely garner by giving an opinion on this matter. You are funny although it’s easy to ignore the humor in this article since we are all so passionate about this topic. The comment section here on this is quite entertaining.

  13. This made me laugh. I appreciate the satire (and truth). As a pastor, it’s an ongoing challenge to marry ancient unshakeable theology with changing contemporary context – and not just musically but also in preaching.

    Sometimes we actually get it right. :)

  14. Not sure how tongue in cheek this article is, but I agree with it (though admitting that makes me kind of feel like a grouchy old man). When I think of contemporary Christian music (which is typically the music at my church). I’m struck by two things:
    1) how totally predicable the actual music is. It’s almost like a recipe; have a short verse and an overwrought chorus. Repeat the chorus 3-4 times. Have a long bridge that builds into a crescendoing chorus at the end which the chorus is repeated 2-3 more times. End on a whisper.
    2) how vapid and showy the lyrics are. Basically write the most emotional unrelatable lyrics about how much you love God. Lyrics that are absolutely boastful about how religious you are. I can’t sing these lyrics! I just can’t make myself. So I just stand there waiting for the songs to end Which again, takes too long because the chorus never seems to stop being repeated.

    Give me the old hymns or at least have the bulk of music be old hymns any day. Now get off my lawn

  15. I would LOVE to see all the orchestras (bands) put back into the orchestra pit. The only one on the stage should be the star, THE STAR. Since God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are invisible, I suggest even projecting pictures of nature on a screen is better than putting a worship band in a place where only the Main Actor should be. God Is NOT an Audience Of One, We are the audience! God is the Performer, doing wondrous and marvelous things, everywhere at once. We the audience respond to God’s loveliness and activities with worship. Worship is not an action, it is a reaction. Everyone already knows this stuff.

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