[This post is part of the Revamping Christian Worship series]
Before I get started, Josiah or David, if you’re reading this, its not about you. I’ve been thinking about a post like this long before coming to CrossPointe.
Now having said that, let’s dive in.
You might gather from the title, rightly so, that there are worship songs out there, sung frequently, that I think are less than stellar. One might even say I think they suck. To be clear, when I say “suck” in this sense, I mean, according to entry #11 on dictionary.com, that they are “repellent” to me. In other words, the lameness of either the lyrics or music repels my artistic sensibilities for one reason or another.
The question then is this: How do you worship when you feel that way about one or all of the songs selected on a given Sunday?
One option you might take is to leave that particular church. My home church in Tennessee experienced a mass exodus back in the late 90’s when we moved the music in a more contemporary direction and added some pretty hardcore elements like electric drums and acoustic guitars. Many people were just a bit too conservative to tolerate this kind of liberal inclusion of instruments besides the piano.
Taking this route does help when you feel that the genre your church chooses to worship in is repellent (=sucks to you). However, the larger question I am asking concerns song choices. Certainly the people who left our church back in the 20th century would still occasionally have to endure a rendition of a hymn they didn’t particularly care for. Or heaven forbid, their new church began using “praise choruses,” which is to say that church just moved one step closer to the edge of modernity (=becoming liberal).
When this happens, one would be faced with finding a new church yet again.
Clearly then, this option doesn’t work for the long term, unless you enjoy church hopping. Whether you are moving away from a church because you dislike the genre, or moving to a new church because you like that genre of worship music better, you will eventually encounter worship sets that are not to your liking.
So what do you do when you that happens more than you would like?
For me, its not so often that I think the songs actually suck. Its usually either that I find them musically boring or lyrically vapid. Part of this is the point T. David Gordon was trying to make in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns. The medium of modern worship music (its genre) caters to a message that is not all that deep. I would respond that while this is true of many worship songs out there, it is not necessarily true. Pop music lyrics haven’t always been vapid, they just tend to be frivolous and naively emotional in recent days and I think some of this trickles down into worship music. This is what gives rise to “Jesus is my girlfriend” worship songs, which we can, or should, all agree need to stop.
The other issue with some worship music is that it is musically boring. This is another way of saying that the music lacks aesthetic panache, which is a more complicated way of saying all the songs sound the same. Not all the songs, but most songs are primarily written in major keys, use either E or G shapes on the acoustic guitar and are capo-ed to change keys as needed. Tempo-wise they all fall within a certain range, and rhythmically, speaking as a drummer, there are probably only about 3 to 4 drum beats you need to master to play drums in a worship band (unless your band plays In Christ Alone, which is an excellent song, and a bear to play drums to).
Certainly I am speaking with some level of hyperbole. Contemporary worship music is not all that bad. I’ve mainly spoken in generalities to avoid saying something like, “Here’s a list of worship songs that I think suck” and then you see your favorite one on there and never read my blog again. Since I can’t change the songs that I think are lame, and since I do not pick the songs we sing at church, I’ll just stay mum on which ones I think go on that list. Also, if I publicly slam certain songs, the next time our worship leader picks one of them to play on Sunday and I happen to be playing, (and if he’s read this blog), he’ll be thinking in the back of his mind “Oh man, Nate hates this song.”
And that my friend, brings us to the point. “How do I worship when I think the songs suck?” you might ask. Well first off, you don’t express that you think the songs suck to anyone else. You may ruin a genuine worshipful experience for them by your complaining. While they were perfectly fine worshipping to that particular song, your comments could forever taint it for them. You are certainly free to mentally critique the artistic and theological merits of the songs you sing each Sunday. But when you decide one or more are duds, don’t rain on everyone else’s parade.
The church has enough people complaining about enough things. If you don’t possess the artistic ability to write new worship songs that don’t suck, then just keep your mouth shut. Also, if you can’t write songs, you probably are not the best judge of what sucks and what doesn’t when it comes to music.
However, if you’re like me, and you can and do write music, and are therefore qualified to critique the musical merits of worship music, I would still say, if you can’t contribute to a solution, you’re just creating another problem. If the quality of the songs bothers you that much, then write new ones. We need new songs written outside the genre box that exhibit a lyrical and musical depth that is on the whole lacking in many (but not all) worship contexts.
This still leaves the question though of “how do I worship when I think the songs suck?” The answer, in short, is that the worship set wasn’t picked for you, and part of being in community of believers gathered to worship is forfeiting your preferences in deference to others. A prime example of this is theologian John Frame. While a classically trained organist who doesn’t like contemporary worship music, Frame nonetheless argues for its legitimate place in worship services. I’m sure he might cringe as well at some of the current praise choruses that are popular out there, but out of love for his brothers and sisters in Christ, he lays down his preferences and worships alongside those who sing songs he might not particularly like.
I think this is the ultimate answer to the question. When you think the songs suck, you can still, and should still worship God as fervently and freely as you would when its your absolute favorite song being sung. You may however need to mortify your critical spirit and get over yourself first, but you should still strive to worship God through song each Sunday whether you particularly like the selections or not.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross so you could sing your favorite songs every Sunday. He died so that you might learn to die to self as well. Part of doing that might just be singing songs you don’t like, and singing them as genuinely as the songs you do.