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.