How Should We Handle the Worship Music Wars?

For some odd reason, the topic of worship music has been in my face today. I came across this quote from a Facebook friend.

“As a listener I can only speak for myself, but I find that more challenging music can better communicate the sense of wonder and awe appropriate to a religious setting. If I want to sing a bunch of stale, bland pop songs, I’ll have a campfire, not go to church. That probably puts me in the minority, but there must be others. And I worry about the cumulative impact of always choosing the lowest common denominator of music as a medium of worship. It drives people like me to get their kicks elsewhere, and it sets your average churchgoer into a pattern of expecting emotional feedback from worship, which isn’t the point.” Jordan Bloom

Admittedly, I am not familiar with Jordan Bloom but I appreciate what he has to say here, except for the “emotional feedback”. If reflection on the character and work of the triune God doesn’t make me emotional then something is wrong.  But surely there is much to be said for music that accurately reflects Christian truths in a robust way.   A rejection of hymns dismisses doctrinally rich music that can fuel the fabric of our faith. So I appreciated what Stephen Miller had to say in this blog post, Why New Churches Should Sing Old Songs. I for one appreciate the old hymns and what they convey.

On the flip side, is the contemporary Christian music that provides a simplicity in lyrics.  Now it is not uncommon for those who like doctrinally rich music to dismiss the shallow and repetitive nature of many songs. Yes, some of them are and a steady diet of them is not good, I don’t think. I have no doubt that Bloom’s comment resonates with those against contemporary offerings in favor of the more doctrinally robust hymns.

One of the problems this creates is how defining worship according to our preferences and that results in worship wars. A while back I wrote this piece, Critiquing Worship Music Criticism. One of the things I noted was that we should not reject a song just because it has simple lyrics.  Nor is it unreasonable to think that songs must contain this concise theological treatise.  A simple lyric can resonate just as much as a complex one if our theology is robust to begin with. Moreover, the insistence that simple lyrics are meaningless in the site of God smacks of elitism and creates unnecessary criticism. What about those who have learning deficit and need more simplified lyrics? If it causes us to reflect upon God and faith, then there is value there.

And this is why I think we need to evaluate how we handle the worship wars. Nate Clairborne provides some additional food for thought on worship music

How to Worship When You Think the Song Sucks

A Weakness of Theologically Deep Worship Music

The more I reflect on this issue, the more I think we need to strike a reasonable balance about what we classify as worship music. I actually do like it when churches mix it up and play really hearty hymn combined with songs of simplicity.  And given all the disagreements present within contemporary Evangelicalism, is this something we really need to be fighting about?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “How Should We Handle the Worship Music Wars?

  1. Garland October 9, 2012 / 9:55 am

    Perhaps we need to come up with a definition of worship that goes beyond music? It seems to me that me make it all about instruments and musicality and miss the purpose of the activity.

  2. ljrobinson October 9, 2012 / 12:45 pm

    Ah mea culpa. I should have put music in the title. But I think you’re right in terms of the tension that exists. The more historical traditions would say the purpose of worship is for us to receive something. More contemporary traditions say it is to give something. I actually think it is both. We assemble together to receive but then give in response. So while music should minister to us, it also should prompt a response. And of course, the entirety of the service should be considered worship, not just music.

  3. John N October 9, 2012 / 6:14 pm

    I spent nearly two decades singing emotionally sappy songs. On rare occasions (and I mean VERY RARE) some of those songs made me sop and cry uncontrollably, completely unsolicited and unprovoked on my part (meaning I didn’t go to church that morning looking or expecting those things but some times it just happened spontaneously even though I had heard those songs before). At the time the whole experience felt “cathartic” and I felt encouraged afterwards. Those moments are imprinted in my memory as “special”.

    My retrospective assessment of those experiences (they way I understand it now) is that the problem was that I thought the Holy Spirit had orchestrated the whole thing and these days I’m hardly convinced He had much to do with it at all. Music can be powerful enough alone to produce emotions without the HS’s help. Take it a step further and you have people flocking churches “expecting” to be emotionally touched deeply and if not, they walk away with guilt and spiritual inferiority believing that God has something against them or wants them to clean up their act somewhere. This is utterly diabolical!

    THIS is what I think Jordan Bloom is addressing. There is a difference between treating our emotional response as a by-product of worship as opposed to a means to an end which ends up being the barometer of how God feels about us and this robs us of genuine joy and freedom we can be experiencing.

    So I don’t think he is arguing for an emotionally void worship experience (well I hope not anyway) as that would be almost impossible to do when music is playing, but he is cautioning about going after the “experience” as a spiritual drug.

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