Christians of my generation and younger have been a part of a surge of energy that seeks to reclaim the historical hymnody of the church. We have grown up in churches that played contemporary worship songs because “young people” liked them while we, the young people, scratched our heads wondering why we don’t sing awesome songs like “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing” anymore.
A few years ago I was speaking with a middle-aged youth leader (that I had never met before and have never seen since) who was in town to present at a conference. In a casual conversation he ranted about how “old people” selfishly didn’t care about reaching new people and went on to say (this is verbatim) “The worship in heaven is going to be contemporary.” 23-year-old-me died inside a little bit. I thought to myself, “Dear God I hope not.”
I have met many people that share my opinions about worship since I have been at Duke Divinity School. Duke has a reputation for embracing high church liturgy and, more often than not, singing songs that have their melodies and lyrics printed on a music staff inside a hardcover book. When I first got here I loved it. I loved singing responses and communally reading the creeds. I loved the way that the organist played beautiful, complex interludes between each verse.
However, always the contrarian, I have become a bit perturbed by the attitudes about contemporary worship that I hear from the cynics of my generation. People often complain about the bad theology and weak lyricism of modern worship songs. They argue that the liturgy of the church is part of its identity and that there is something ancient and sacred about singing communally from a hymn book.
I would like to say, first of all, I completely agree and sympathize. However, I would also like to say that these attitudes are problematic.
First of all, these attitudes are problematic because they are assigning generalities to an entire genre of music. This is like the people who say that “country music is terrible” because they don’t like modern pop-country musicians like Taylor Swift or Rascal Flatts. To make this broad sweep leaves out classic music icons like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Willie Nelson. It also dismisses modern alternative country musicians like Lucero, Mount Moriah, or even country/folk revivalists like Iron and Wine or The Avett Brothers.
There are a lot of fantastic contemporary worship artists writing songs with rich, beautiful theological language. To say “contemporary Christian music is terrible” is to write off a lot of great bands.
What usually happens at this point in the discussion is that I name bands like Gungor, The Brilliance, The Welcome Wagon, or John Mark McMillan and I hear one of two responses: 1) They are the exception, or 2) they aren’t contemporary worship music. Let me address both points.
1) If they are the exception to your rule, that means the rule is broken. They prove that not all contemporary Christian worship is terrible. These artists are inspiring a Christian musical renaissance that is transforming our idea of music in worship. To not seriously think about what these artists are doing is to deny a very large artistic current in the church.
2) It can be argued that these bands aren’t contemporary Christian music because CCM is, well, bad… and these bands aren’t. You can say that they aren’t a part of the same machine that produces all of the bad music. To an extent, this is true. However, I have heard music from all of these bands played in worship services. Vito from The Welcome Wagon is a pastor at a Presbyterian church in New York that uses music similar to theirs within the confines of their formal, traditional liturgy. It can be done.
Further, these artists may not self-identify as contemporary Christian musicians, but it can be reasoned that they would not have made the music they are making without the influence of their CCM predecessors. Michael Gungor got his start writing CCM songs (he co-wrote “Friend of God” with Israel Houghton). The Welcome Wagon has covered a David Crowder Band song.
So, at this point, you may say, “Great, but I still don’t like contemporary worship.” I recently saw an interview with Stanley Hauerwas (condescendingly titled “Contemporary Worship vs. Worship”) where he argued that much contemporary worship is “ugly” and “superficial”. This may be true in a lot of respects. But is doesn’t have to be.
Modern people can write good songs influenced by genres that they like and sing them together without turning worship into a shallow, un-theological vanity show. Yes, this is what has frequently happened in the past, but it does not have to be this way.
I’d also like to point out that the mere fact that hymns are published in a hymnal does not make those songs any more sacred or theological than a song written two years ago by someone who likes to play the electric guitar. There are many hymns that are as poorly written and as theologically problematic as any contemporary worship song (might I remind you that “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are in the United Methodist Hymnal).
With all that said, I usually prefer worshipping with old hymns. It is my preference. But, it is just that… it is a preference. If I was to begin attending a new church this week I would choose one that sings hymns… but I would do it because I like it. We can try to make this a theological issue, but we have to ask ourselves what is at stake. Drawing lines between “contemporary” and “liturgical” worship is to feed the destructive fire that has been dividing our churches for about 40 years now. We need to honor art in our churches… and not just the art that we like.
I don’t have a solution here… just a challenge. Whatever music you prefer in worship, stop trying to assert that people who like the other types of music are somehow inherently wrong. We all live in a particular context that forms the way we worship. Let us speak humbly of humans (who are created in the image of God) and their work that is composed with the intention of giving honor and praise the God we all worship. Let us encourage each other, regardless of our tradition, to stop singing problematic songs with questionable theology. Let us point out victories in lyricism, both ancient and modern.
Let us be at peace with one another as we differently express the unending song:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might
Heaven and earth are full of your glory
Hosanna in the highest
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest