Those hideous modern worship songs

Today I was caught out very nicely by a fantastic blog post at The Gospel Coalition:

Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

  1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.
  2. It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here.
  3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.
  4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God.” This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?
  5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.
  6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g., a desperate longing for God), then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.
  7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.
  8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.
  9. Finally, there are those songs that have like four or five lines that people just either have to repeat over and over again or just sing briefly and never get a chance to digest.

At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms.

Oh, wait. . . .

71196443Why was I caught out? Because my reading of it was shaped by my own prejudice. ‘Here we go’, I thought to myself, ‘another lot of anti-charismatic conservatives, who haven’t read 1 Cor 12, having a go.’ And when I got to point 7, I got even more cross: these so-called evangelicals don’t even know their own Bible—this is a phrase from Ps 51. Then I clicked the links. Then I read the last line. Then I realised I’d been had!

There are lots of nice things about this post. It is nice that, contrary to popular belief, folk at TGC have a sense of humour. (If you go to the original, you can see that the author, Jeremy Pierce, has a particularly quirky approach to life and theology.) Sadly, this does not extend to all their readers. One commentator complained:

Yes, some are annoying, and I’m a huge fan on the hymns, but I’m guessing you are criticizing style more that substance. Also, you criticized a couple of songs that are straight out of the Psalms. You can take that up with God and David.

Attempts by fellow readers, at trying to make this guy understand what is going on, are so painful that they are almost as funny as the post:

Hi, Bob. It sounds like you didn’t click on those links in each of those items. Once you do, I think you’ll see the heart and tone of the article. 🙂

Bob: No, I clicked on them. Look at #7, which is a reference to Psalm 51.

Right, they’re all references to Psalms. That’s the point. He’s not citicizing the Psalms, he’s criticizing common criticisms of modern worship music.

Bob: I reread #7, and it’s a criticism of the words, the lament of David. That’s a problem.  Again, there is a lot of criticize is many of the “new” songs. My issue is a lot are written from a very feminine point of view.

Try rereading it from the perspective of someone who heard that kind of line in a modern worship song. His point is that asking God to “not take his Spirit away” is a biblical line.

And here is another who missed it:

It’s a shame that the Psalms (God’s own songbook) would you not fit your criteria for a decent worship song, in more-or-less then #s 2, 4-8 of your list.  Be CAREFUL, brother, that your standards are not more reflective of modern sensibilities than the Word of God itself. That’s a fine line.

and then:

Wait, I just clicked on your links.  Is this entire article supposed to be ironic?  If it is, then just discard my previous comment, and I will hold my shame 🙂

And another:

Not sure what it is you are saying. Am I to understand that these Psalms should not have in the Bible? If this was meant just for humor, then fine.

@Jon & Venice: The article is using sarcasm to challenge some common critiques of modern worship songs by saying that the songs are biblical because they are in line with the Psalms. Hope that helps. [bangs head against brick wall, I would imagine!]

At least I got there on my own by the end of the piece!

This post cleverly sheds light on criticisms of worship songs: quite often these songs are using biblical material—but the Bible takes us places that sometimes we do not want to go. I think this is especially true on the question of formality versus intimacy. It is worth noting that many traditional hymns, with their depth, poetry and rhythm, often owe little to biblical wording and less to biblical theology. Even when they do use biblical phrases, they can interpret them wrongly. The Wesleys’ ‘Love Divine’ ends with the anticipation from Rev 4.10 of the time when ‘we cast our crowns before thee/Lost in wonder, love and praise.’ Unfortunately, in Revelation that is a description of the present, not the future! And worship songs are often more biblical than we realise. I used to be annoyed by Delirious’ ‘Sing to the Lord with all of your heart’ and its line ‘We sing the songs that awaken the dawn.’ I thought it was a bit meaningless… until I realised it was from Ps 108.2.

That does not resolve the question about modern songs, of course. Even biblical words can be appropriated in a number of ways, and I do think the criticism that many songs ‘feminise’ notions of discipleship, in a way which puts men off, does stick.

And it is worth noting, too, that very often worship songs in Scripture engage in particular ways with their culture, taking stock ideas in culture and human experience and inverting them in the light of God’s extraordinary grace. This is particularly the case with the worship songs in Revelation, which parody and invert first-century elements of emperor ‘worship.’ These nuances are often lost in translation to our worship culture.

And that leads to a final observation. As the comments on the posting show, humour and irony are difficult to spot and interpret, even for people belonging to the same language group and culture. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how difficult this must be across divides of language, culture and time. Unless we think that Jesus and the biblical writers themselves had a sense of humour failure, I suspect we are missing quite a lot in our reading!

15 thoughts on “Those hideous modern worship songs”

  1. The post caught me out initially, too!

    One of the things I find most difficult about ‘modern’ worship songs is the apparent conviction of some that quoting from the Bible is enough. I’m not a big fan of ‘How Great is our God’, for example. I just hear (ostensibly) biblical phrase after (ostensibly) biblical phrase thrown together randomly. But the other day at church, we sang ‘To God Be the Glory’, and, thinking on it more carefully, I don’t think I’d agree any more with the phrase ‘*that moment* from Jesus a pardon receives’.

  2. I guess what it shows is that (we) evangelicals are not always good at making a careful reading of the complete text. Think of how many times when the book of Job is quoted it is the false/unhelpful words of the comforters. We skim and cherry-pick what we find most agreeable.

  3. I’m as ‘happy clappy’ as the best of them but I happened to experience Songs of Praise last week which was celebrating Sunday Schools. All of the hymns were ‘old school’ (as I think those down with the kids would say!). I was struck by how clearly these hymns told bible stories and ‘Christian truths’ in a very simple (linear!) way as a story narative. Would that some modern songs could teach those new to the faith in a similar way.

  4. Sorry – here it is again comlete with first line!

    I found this piece of writing very frustrating and rather glib; The real objections to some worship ssongs are not tackled at all, and the writer’s purpose, to answer all objections by using songs based purely on the Psalms, soon become frustratingly apparent.

    It seems to me there are several big problems which are not addressed. What about the random use of various unrelated Christian phrases one after the other, which means that the song has no real integrity, identifiable character of its own, or theme? What I once heard Tom Wright characterise as “post modern?” Many worship songs could have been written by a computer and are just a random compilation of popular Christian phrases. In comparison, many great traditional hymns have a grandeur, depth and individual personaility and identity of their own and often a deeply poetic insight. This is developed over several verses, e. g. the magnificent and memorable paraphrase “Thou art the everlasting Word, the Father’s only Son”. Some worship songs are just lazy (what on earth does “I see a near revival” mean?) or just plain manipulative, using the same musical phrase or group of words almost as a mantra. Many are distinctly unmemorable.They lack poetry, rhyme, scansion, and theology! They also often use a manipulative three stage rising musicalstructure, starting low and ending up with everyone shrieking at the tops of their voices in order to hit notes at the very top of the vocal register (O happy day for instance, which uses an instrumental rather than vocal range) – again, gets everyone singing but at huge cost to its own integrity, based on a secular rock anthem style. ( And again it is based on a popular Christian phrase but not a biblical one.)

    This is not to say that all worship songs are rubbish by any means, but the best ones, like the greatest hymns, still have a solid, identifiable theme and are born out of a real and deep experience of God. “All I am and all I have is yours, for instance, with its moving recognition in the chorus that “Except you build the house I am building it in vain”, or “Blessed be your name” which struggles with loss and grief in a way that anyone who has suffered either immediately identifies with.

    One of the jobs of a good worship leader is to sift the material put before the church for worship and far to many poor songs are getting through, justifying some of the criticisms. It has always been so, and probably two thirds of all hymns ever written have fallen very quickly out of use. How often have you sung for instance Mrs C F Alexander’s verse,) about the quick and the dead (she wrote All things bright and beautiful” and There is a green hill, in the same series, to explain the creed to children):

    “Within the churchyard, side by side, are many long, low graves/And some have headstones over them, on some the green grass waves….They do not hear our footsteps, when we pass overhead,/They cannot rise and come to church with us, for they are dead.” !!!! * She does then go on to say “But we believe the day shall come the dead in Christ shall rise”” – but its still not one of the world’s greatest hymns.

    Another big factor today is that writing worship songs has become very profitable financially so a lot of stuff is produced to have immediate appeal, based on familiar secular pop musical forms and words. The use of worship leaders for conferences doesn’t help as they just have a few days to promote their own new songs which are sung ad nauseam but associated with the excitement and memory of being in a big crowd, hopefully with good teaching and fellowship.

    A lot of these worship leaders are quite young with not a lot of experience of life under their belts, unlike some of the greatest hymn writers of the past (Fanny Crosby who was blind from birth, John Donne or Horatio Spafford, who, having lost all his money in the great Chicago fire, then lost his four daughters in a boat wreck, and wrote as he passed the spot where they died :Whatever my loss, thou has taught me to know It is well, it is well with my soul”. Wow!

    Many new songs are written for performance by a rock-style band, rather than for a congregation to use in worship, possibly because that is the background of most young musicians today. Also many do not know much about language, poetry, scansion rhyme or appropriate linguistic register. musical theory ( hence the impossible vocal range of many songs . the very basic harmonies and rather crude musical structures etc.and the way men can find themselves embarrassed for instance by the very feminine sentiments and vocabulary of some songs. “Jesus, how lovely you are/You are so gentle, so pure and kind” from the 60’s. There are only one or two songwriters (e.g.Tim Hughes) with any theological training.

    It is not good enough to just dismiss this by choosing a selection of worship songs based on the Psalms as a riposte. If we want worship to be as worthy as humanly possible of our great God we do need to engage with this issue. At its best, modern worship can take us into the very presence of God Himself, and is powerfully evangelistic. We need to give a lot more thought to what enables quality worship, and what makes it spiritually alive.
    6 minutes ago · Like

  5. But I am not sure that it what the author was doing. He wasn’t offering a comprehensive critique of worship songs, but just making the single point that saying ‘they are not biblical’ is neither accurate nor particularly helpful. I think he does that well.

    I think you make a lot of interesting points…though perhaps this goes to show that evaluating both songs and hymns is a multifaceted thing..

  6. Can’t see where the above post finishes and responses start. Serious or not…….Firstly it is not necessarily the songs – but the choice of songs across a theological spectrum. Many of the things remarked on negatively are actually in the Bible – ‘repetition’, ‘Take not thy Holy Spirit from me’. The charge .’Too many words’ caused me to nearly fall off my chair with laughter – has anyone read the Psalms recently – or sang Wesley’s Hymns of Eternal Length! We’re not getting confused with Mr Mozart are we ‘Too many notes’ said his paymaster! Pastors should help their music teams choose more carefully when a range of songs are sung – yesterday we had THE most astonishing time of adoration and worship – but best not to try and repeat it next S
    Sunday methinks!

    • ‘Many of the things remarked on negatively are actually in the Bible’ Indeed. I think you need to click the links to get the point of the post!

      But I agree with you that ‘the choice of songs across a theological spectrum’ is key.

    • Go look up what the author of that song said about that lyric. And go read the context in which the song was written. I used to have a bit of trouble with that line myself-(i AM 56 after all) but when I did that….I got over myself.

      And started thanking God for real and authentic writing.

      If a song does not fit with your church’s flavor, pick another one. But I think it’s high time our songs became really, objectively excellent and not religious backwash, whether a hymn or a guitar chorus.

      i’m a songwriter too, and these things do demand some pondering.

  7. I have no problem with modern hymns per se – but I find them almost impossible to sing! Nearly all of them are written with only the melody line, to be sung in unison and, if you are an alto (like me) or a bass, it’s impossible to sing the high notes without giving yourself a sore throat! As I’m in our choir I have to make an attempt at these but usually manage by constantly switching octaves.

    I’d like to make a plea to everyone thinking about writing a new hymn and consider all those people – in both choirs and congregations – who do not sing soprano!

  8. This post and the comments following really got me thinking. I’m a worship pastor and have the job of ‘sifting’ through and choosing our new songs, including those written by some of our own musicians. I’ve never forgotten when some years ago, Chris Bowater said that he would sometimes have someone presenting to him a badly crafted, unbiblical song, yet insisting, “God gave this song to me”. His response? “Maybe He gave it away to you because He didn’t want it!” Brilliant, if

    I had the following thoughts…

    1) My worship leaders are expected to contact the designated speaker to find out the subject and context of their upcoming message so that the songs chosen enhance rather than detract from the sermon content. Helping the congregation to focus on a particular aspect of God’s nature for example. If the sermon was to be about faithfulness, then I would encourage our team to use songs that help to build on that subject.

    2) Just because words from a song are biblical – be they from the Psalms or from elsewhere in the bible, that doesn’t automatically qualify them to be included in a congregational worship song – and that is the issue I have with such ongoing debates about modern worship songs. The prophetic Psalm 52 for example is both biblical (old testament), and biblical (new testament – Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34). BUT, to put verse 1 (as an example) in a worship song would not reflect the new covenant status of a believer. It might reflect how someone is personally feeling on a particular day or during a particular season, but it is far from the truth of their position in Christ, and far from the truth of God’s attitude towards them. Given the memorability of sung words, this is where we have to be particularly careful, and I stress again, that I am talking of congregational worship. Individual ‘A’ might be in a church service and feel a need to be able to sing a lament alongside others, but for someone else, the words might be entirely inappropriate; and surely our worship time isn’t for us to be ‘ministered unto’, but for us to ‘minister to’ the Lord! I believe that songs that are very personal need to be weighed as to their appropriateness for group singing and those that are a comment on someone’s emotional well-being should be put in the ‘ministry song’ category and used in a context where the words are appropriate to that – to support a sermon or a prayer need, for example.

    2) The safest way of protecting truth in our congregational singing is to ensure that our songs are not about ME, but about HIM. Who God is, His ways and eternal nature, will ALWAYS be true and so song content should major on those truths which (even if not yet believed by all present) are nonetheless The Truth.

    3) When the leaders of the meetings say “Let us worship”, they are not saying “Let us pray/petition God, let us lament, let us bemoan our lot or let us sing about us.” I believe our songs should be, in the main, God focused.

    4) I agree absolutely regarding the keys of hymns and it is because hymns are presented in SATB arrangements with the melody written for choirboys or sopranos to sing, that hymns are far too high for many adults.

    5) Personally I often have to change octaves to accommodate the key in hymns and modern worship songs. There have been songs written by male worship leaders in the past 30 years or so (Martin Smith, Chris Tomlin, Noel Richards, Chris Bowater, to name but a few) that I simply cannot sing in their designated key. I often change the song keys our worship team use in congregational songs for both hymns and modern choruses and many songs on our list are made available in more than one key, so that the worship leader isn’t struggling to lead because the song’s key makes it unsingable. There is this common misconception that because their voices are in a higher register, therefore women must be able to sing in higher keys than men. Not necessarily so! I find that the male singers in our worship team prefer a higher key whereas the female singers prefer the lower key.

    6) As for “heaven meeting earth like a sloppy wet kiss” (“How He Loves” written by John Mark McMillan) – I just can’t sing that line and wouldn’t ask any congregation to sing it! I’m sure the writer’s intention was to describe God’s overwhelming love, but the image that is conjured up is revolting and intimate in a distracting way.

    7) Years of experience of life under one’s belt isn’t necessarily relevant for the production of a sound worship song. Experience of God IS.

    8) When song is true theologically, it can help ground people in scriptural truth, particularly when short, to the point and repeated over and over again. The same works in reverse which takes me back to point 2.

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