So, you’ve been standing in the pews for about 20 minutes, and the band is showing no sign of letting up. You didn’t know the last two songs, your mind starts wandering, and a dangerous question pops into your head: ‘Could a blindfolded monkey write some of our worship songs?’
It may sound like a surprising question, but it was the thought that hit Spring Harvest worship leader Vicky Beeching. On her blog last year, the PhD student bemoaned the ‘lack of freshness, creativity and effort’ in the lyrics in some contemporary worship music.
As well as the lyrics, the music itself is also under the spotlight. Worship leader Paul Oakley recently said he was ‘tired and frustrated by the serious limitations of the praise and worship genre’. He even questions the ‘genre’ bit – it was never intended to be that, he says. ‘It’s got a bit in a rut and sounds a bit samey to me now.’
It isn’t just these two well-known and respected worship leaders (who both made clear their love for the church and the joy that much Christian music has brought) who are expressing doubts. Others are beginning to question whether the ‘scene’ is in a good place. Critics are beginning to ask whether both the music itself and the lyrics have gone stale – and whether it can be blamed on the way we now ‘consume’ worship music.
Professional singer Loretta Fenton, who presents the Unsigned music programme on Premier Christian Radio, thinks part of the problem may lie in the way our music has become domesticated. ‘If you say “worship music” to the average Christian today, they immediately think “indie/acoustic guitar-based sound, driven by a white male in his late twenties/early thirties” – or if it’s “cutting edge” – a woman of the same description,’ she says. ‘There was a time when the “worship style” was genuinely cutting edge (think of Delirious?… in the 90s). However, it’s now become predictable and to be honest, slightly boring.’ Of course, there’s more than one type of Christian music, and this discussion doesn’t include Contemporary Christian Music (a style which has Christian lyrics but is not designed for congregational use), Gospel music or the ‘modern hymns’ pioneered by Stuart Townend and others.
From the mid-1960s onwards, a distinct genre was slowly developing which can best be described as ‘Christian soft rock’. It has now become the sound which defines the corporate worship in many evangelical churches. It may have begun in house churches, with choruses using an acoustic guitar in someone’s front room, but the typical soft rock worship band now comprises a combination of electric, acoustic and bass guitars, keyboards and drums. They are usually (though not always) led by a white, male worship leader. And even though agnostic journalist John Harris described it in The Guardian as ‘music that suggests a grim hybrid of Snow Patrol and LeAnn Rimes’, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the soft rock style.
In fact, its inoffensiveness is probably the reason for its ubiquity. Young and old, those of different backgrounds, people who are life-long Christians and those who are new to faith, can all catch onto a song quickly if the style is simple and repeated often enough. But granted that it has advantages, does it really benefit the Church? Theologian Rev Dr Derek Tidball, former head of the London School of Theology, says: ‘There are two conflicting things happening. On the one hand, I think that after the seismic revolution in worship which occurred in the 70s, with organs giving way to bands and Isaac Watts to Graham Kendrick, many have become stuck.
‘Some churches have settled into the style which their increasingly older leaders were happy with when they were young and haven’t moved on. I am amused – and impressed – to see men in their 50s and 60s on the drums or playing guitar in many worship bands. Why shouldn’t they? Except what they’re doing is what they’ve been doing for decades.
‘On the other hand there is a younger element somewhat alienated from this style and many young people seem as bored in worship in the average church as they have ever been. So some try to counteract this by being creative and, as with any creativity, some of it is embarrassingly naive, novel merely for the sake of being novel, but not well-founded.’
Despite this problem, the composition of the average church congregation may mean that to take on anything more complex than a simple ‘soft rock’ style may be difficult and divisive. As Jon Foreman, lead singer of Christian band Switchfoot says, ‘The communal nature of what happens within the church means that what would be described as worship music needs to be repetitive and simple by nature…If you write a song in 7 that no one can clap to, or if you have 35 verses that use words people don’t understand, it kind of defeats the purpose of communal worship.
‘So, I don’t know if boring is the right word, but I definitely feel like a good song should be stirring and deep calling deep, but it should be simple.’
Matt Redman, who’s written some of the most memorable and popular songs used in churches over the last 20 years including ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ and ‘The Heart of Worship’, argues that pushing the creative boundaries can end up being counterproductive. ‘If you try too hard to get outside the box you get it to a place where no one can play it on a Sunday morning.
‘What I love about [the title track of his latest album] ‘10,000 Reasons’ is that an 80-year-old granny could play that on her own on an out-of-tune piano, or you could play it with a band and have some cool funky instruments in it.’ And, he adds, there are built-in factors that limit what churches can do – and that’s not wrong. ‘Look, sometimes we’re all going to sit in a similar ballpark sonically because we’re all using similar instruments. Sometimes if you try too hard to get out of that it sounds a bit silly or a bit forced. The thing that I would be more interested in is the theology. If a song flies around churches and the world it’s hard to take back. They’re the things that keep me awake at night.’
However, not everyone is so sanguine. Paul Oakley, who wrote and performed some of the most popular worship songs of the last 20 years (such as ‘Be Lifted Up’ and ‘Because of You’), is one of them. ‘I think there’s room for growth, there’s room to stretch the genre left and right and every which way,’ he says. ‘Traditional gospel music has a lot of soul in it as well as theology, and I do wonder whether we’ve not ever really got that right with contemporary worship music. It all does feel a little bit devoid of some kind of emotional response. You can get emotional when you sing it but the music itself doesn’t contain the kind of soul that’s there in black gospel music.’
In addition to the music itself, the second major issue is the lyrical content. This was Vicky Beeching’s main issue and led her to wonder aloud whether a monkey pulling fridge magnets out of a hat could create a generic worship song, provided it was given a few ‘key phrases’ to begin with. Her argument carries on, ‘As the modern worship movement gets older…we are churning out a lot of the same words, when frankly they are so over-used, that their impact and meaning is diluted and tired.’
There’s nothing wrong with using familiar words (would you criticise a group of Christians for reciting the Lord’s prayer, for example?) and of course we have a need to express the glory of God and our desire to worship him. But a limited vocabulary of worship can lead to a limited spiritual experience. There are other areas of life and theology that our songs could be exploring. One Bible commentary suggests the book of Psalms alone contains 16 different types of ‘song’, with topics including praise, perseverance, confession, judgement, crisis, wrath and integrity. That’s before we even get onto the likes of Lamentations and Song of Songs. For the writer who feels uninspired, there are vast resources in scripture to use as a basis for lyrics, as well as 2,000 years of Christian wisdom. As Derek Tidball says, ‘I think our worship needs to be much more fully rounded and to make much greater use of the variety of scripture than it often does, and to included lament, silence, and petition as well as praise. Variety is important in biblical worship, but often absent in contemporary worship.’
Another troubling factor in the current scene is the industrialisation of worship music. In the UK we now have access to more Christian music than ever. New worship albums and compilations are released every week. Once an infrastructure is in place to produce and promote Christian artists, they have to write, record and release albums at a certain rate to keep the publishing and record companies profitable. That’s just how every industry has to work. But some of our worship leaders and musicians are now producing a lot of material each year. I’m not suggesting that they will then write a song purely to fulfil a contractual obligation, but is every song that gets released into the Christian ‘market’ as inspired as the best of them?
Has the ‘industry’ created an ‘imperative’ to write songs rather than just allowing writers to say what they think and feel? If so, that puts the artists and us, as consumerworshippers, in a dangerous position.
If the scales tip too much and worship music becomes just another industry, we’ll have lost the reason this style of music began to be developed 50 years ago – as a way of directly exploring our relationship with the living God. Michael Gungor, founder of the Christian band Gungor, started out as a worship leader. ‘I find something very disingenuous about most Christian music,’ he wrote in a recent blog. ‘There’s just something more believable about the whispery sexy voice that is singing about sex on the mainstream radio station than the voice that copies that style of singing while putting lyrics in about being in the arms of Jesus…I don’t hate all Christian music. There are a few artists that I know in the Christian industry that are really trying to transcend the inherent limitations and zombifying effect of the industry. But the industry as a whole is broken… The industry that labels things as Christian and sells them to you has far more to do with marketing then Christianity.’
Comparison to secular artists can leave Christian music falling short. ‘I often wonder why Peter Gabriel has more passion in his voice about freeing lab monkeys (in the song ‘Shock the Monkey’) than most worship artists have about their creator and Father,’ agrees Justin Johnson, a music producer who works with Christian artists. ‘Worship in the Bible does not refer to a style of music, it refers to a condition of our hearts, what we are passionate about.’ There are political explanations of the problem. ‘Perhaps we’ve started following what sells the most, rather than always listening to what God is saying,’ says worship leader and head of the Christian Socialist Movement Andy Flannagan. ‘We need to ask again – what is God’s specific word for the Church at this specific time?’
Another pundit who highlights the role played by the record companies is journalist Tony Cummings, who has written about the Christian music scene for more than 30 years. He says the way the industry is now set up means worship is ‘stuck in a rut’.
‘The key factors in popularising modern worship are the worship music multinationals which…are able to circulate music to the world church. But like other parts of the music industry, they have been hit by the decline in CD sales so that today there is a tendency for these companies to stick with their existing big sellers rather than invest in new worship leaders.
‘More than that, there is a conscious or unconscious desire amongst the multinationals to replicate the last big worship hit so that much worship music has become increasingly stylised, as it follows a limited musical template laid down years ago by pioneers like Delirious? and Hillsong.’
However, he adds: ‘I don’t think we should be particularly worried because there is sufficient creativity demonstrated in the church…There are numerous fellowships showing true originality in their approach to worship. I could point you to churches in the UK which are using heavy metal to worship God, club dance music, even hip-hop. And even in the more mainstream musical arena there are occasional worship ministries which are bucking the trend.’
So what’s the big deal? Evangelical churches are doing well in attendance figures compared to traditional churches, and many Christians buy worship CDs, go to worship concerts and enjoy the music in their own congregations.
But there may be trouble ahead. There’s already a debate about whether the church is too feminine and unfriendly to men, and some of the song lyrics have been blamed for this – for creating a culture where men feel uncomfortable in a church context (‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ music). Even more worrying is the extent to which young people are ‘missing’ from churches. As a recently published British Social Attitudes Survey showed – and as we all know – fewer and fewer young people are going to church.
More adventurous music in our churches is not in itself going to see church buildings bursting at the seams with more men and young people. But relevant and contemporary variety of worship styles could be part of the answer. Encouragingly, Beth Croft, who leads worship at the Soul Survivor youth festivals and the Soul Survivor Church in Watford, says she’s open to change. ‘We can’t pretend we don’t have a certain style of music that we write and play, but I’m all for breaking those boundaries, and breaking the mould a bit, in order to keep our worship fresh.
‘We are in no way committed to that style of music. We’re committed to connecting with the young people. I hope that if all of a sudden 90 per cent of them were into trance music, then we would adapt accordingly in order to relate to them and in order to help them engage in a way that they’re familiar with.’
Another encouraging area of growth in lyrics has been those which have a real social focus. The Compassionart album from 2009 is a great example, as was the final Delirious? album, Kingdom of Comfort.
Rend Collective Experiment’s first album has been given all sorts of accolades, and rightly so. Their second, which is just as quirky, soulful and uplifting has recently been released. The aforementioned Gungor are creating some truly beautiful and life-affirming music too.
Another artist to look to for inspiration is Ian McIntosh (who’s also the keyboard player for worship group Jesus Culture). Outside of the mainstream culture there has always been a lively Christian scene with punk bands such as MXPX and Relient K as well as numerous Christian hip-hop groups. Try something different: why not dive into some of the old hymns to find great theological truths, or listen to a collection of sacred motets? Why not experiment with Taizé or Iona?
This country has a rich history of Christian music. Could we now re-appraise the beauty of all that has gone before and re-interpret some of it for the present day, while forging ahead in new creative directions which aren’t restricted to a soft rock style that sounds like a pale imitation of Coldplay?
As Paul Oakley says, ‘When the UK is so multi-national, multi-ethnic and the church has got so many denominations…How come the worship scene doesn’t reflect that? I would love to see churches expressing who they are, rather than following the latest CD that’s out from such and such a worship leader.’
Let’s become a church for whom worship doesn’t mean singing a few songs on a Sunday morning. Let’s become worshippers in our whole lives who are known for their imaginative, dynamic and glorious music making.