9.06.2015

Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary

Wait...who exactly are we worshipping again?
A recent article is making its way around the worship music circles, "The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons" by T. David Gordon, and by way of it's title it is causing a decent amount of buzz (I'm prone to writing titles like that myself, most especially in my article "The Moment I Began to Lose Faith in Contemporary Worship Music"). Articles such as this also tend to warrant lots of responses, so I figure I would step in the ring and have a go at a round. Musician and church music leader Fernando Ortega pointed it out to me, who I hear might be writing some "contemporary" worship songs himself at the moment. Let's pray for him! We all hope he gets his new songs "right"! (No pressure!) But seriously, lets pray for him—his art is a blessing to the Church.

There is a lot to be commended in the article. That is, there is a lot I agree with, most especially his concerns with the disposable nature of contemporary worship music. It is novelty music, here today, gone tomorrow, and is not excellent enough art to endure throughout generations. I would also want to resound his points about its (general) lack theological depth and poetic excellence in its lyrics (where that is the case), as well as its unhealthy connections to our overly saturated entertainment culture and industry.

However, there are two points in his article I believe deserve a pushback:
1. That the "old hymns" are by default superior.
and
2. That "contemporary worship" as a term is an oxymoron.


To the first point, while I generally assume the time-tested hymns we sing in our churches will be musically, poetically, and theologically superior than most of the "contemporary" hymns/songs we sing simply for the fact they have been tested by the Church over time, I do not think they are intrinsically superior than contemporary worship songs. 

In fact, for all their richness and depth there are some ways I find "traditional" hymns woefully lacking. To me, the word-centric strophic song pattern (e.g., 3 or more verses of lyrics set to the same music) can often be mentally taxing. We often steamroll our way through the words and hardly know what we are singing. That is probably why a lot of hymns end on some variation of a Trinitarian formula, as it gives people something familiar to grasp onto as the song is wrapping up. Granted, singing the same hymns numerous times over the course of our lifetime affords us the opportunity to continually be able to unlock new layers of meaning. This is, of course, the very reason we sing the great hymns for centuries and perhaps even millennia (they help us sing about God and to God).

But what I want to argue is the structure of a typical "contemporary" worship song offers a necessary and welcome alternative to the default strophic song pattern, namely the inclusion of a repeated chorus/refrain and possibly even a powerful bridge that summarizes the entire song. Assuming the lyrics of a contemporary song are worth singing, in my mind a repeated chorus is essential to understanding what the song is about. One of the greatest examples of this is Matt Redman's "Better is One Day", which features a highly repetitive chorus ("Better is one day in your courts, Better is one day in your house, Better is one day in your courts, than thousands elsewhere"). To me the repeated nature of the chorus, which is directly from Psalm 84, is essential to the effectiveness of the song as a facilitator of sung prayer. Either the repetition will drive you insane...or it will slow you down and cause you to meditate on its truth. My hope and my intention in selecting that song for my congregation is it serves them in doing the latter. I would also add "Better is One Day" features an excellent bridge, which serves to expand the meaning of the song while also creating a dynamic musical tension that releases in a final repetition of the chorus. In today's culture, which, as Gordon adamantly points has been detrimentally effected by the tropes of pop music, it is not difficult to teach people a song that switches back and forth from verse to chorus to bridge to even an alternate chorus. If the melodies are easy enough to pick up on people tend to have little problem with the switching. Now, is "Better is One Day" musically excellent? No, not really, and I bet T. David Gordon would thoroughly enjoy picking it apart as musical drivel.

However, my point is that some of the forms of contemporary worship music, when they are lyrics worth singing, are superior in form to a rigid four verse hymn where none of the lyrics are repeated. A well-written contemporary worship song has the potential to allow the worshipper to spend more time on specific ideas. A contemporary worship song, when sung/performed in a fitting way, affords worshippers the opportunity to slow down in God's presence, to not feel as if a song is an inevitable exercise of quickly getting from point A to point B. Instead, the music aids contemplation. In this way contemporary song is a cousin to cyclical, meditative (and even more repetitive) worship music as found in the songs of the Taize community as well as the truly spontaneous songs found in some Pentecostal churches.

To sum: in some ways "traditional" hymns are superior to "contemporary" songs and in other ways "contemporary" songs are superior to "traditional". This is why we need them both. At the same time, and this is to Gordon's point, current song writers should be striving to write the most musically excellent songs possible, though what songs endure on into subsequent generations will be up to the song leaders and hymnal committees that come after us, and this is something we have no control over.

To the second point, not only is the term "contemporary worship" not and oxymoron, I would like to posit that all worship, and therefore all worship music, should be radically contemporary.

Of course I will have to explain myself. As a jumping off point I will quote Gordon at length:

“Contemporary worship” to me is an oxymoron. Biblically, worship is what angels and morning stars did before creation; what Abraham, Moses and the Levites, and the many-tongued Jewish diaspora at Pentecost did. It is what the martyrs, now ascended, do, and what all believers since the apostles have done. More importantly, it is what we will do eternally; worship is essentially (not accidentally) eschatological. And nothing could celebrate the eschatological forever less than something that celebrates the contemporary now.


I love about 85% of that quote, but the way Gordon uses "contemporary" could not be more wrong. I know what he means by "contemporary". He is railing against the annoying, shallow, derivative pop-influenced music that has become the default repertoire in many many churches. But I am all about taking back terms that have become degraded by redeeming their meaning. Therefore, I would argue that since I am a contemporary person my worship has to be contemporary. I have a context and no matter how hard I try, the given "style" of my worship and worship music will reflect that context. I would also like to argue that God finds our contexts very beautiful and fitting. Think of what happened on Pentecost. The young church began speaking in languages none of us speak today, languages "contemporary" only to their time. God uses the present. Actually, as enfleshed creatures living within time, all God can use when it comes to people is us living in the present. In fact, one of the major reactions I have against Gordon's above quote is that everything on this earth is temporary compared to God and his word. Everything is passing away. Everything is a novelty compared to the reign of Christ in the new heavens and the new earth. 


I fall pretty firmly into the Robert Webber "Ancient Future Worship" school of thought and therefore to us worship is an ancient/present/future kind of thing. It is both/and, not either/or, both Eternal and entirely Of The Moment. Worship needs to be "traditional" because we live into our historic faith (hence Gordon's reference to Abraham, Moses, and the Apostles). However, it also has to be "contemporary" because it needs to live in the present, otherwise we're merely enacting a museum piece in our liturgies. Finally, it's also "future" worship because we're proclaiming the coming kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth. 

And so, as someone living in the present (or in a present) the only way for my worship to simultaneously draw from both the past and the future is to be radically contemporary. My community's worship has to live in the now, otherwise it will not survive into the future. The only way to be faithful to the past and to ensure the coming kingdom of the future is to be radically contemporary in the form my community's worship takes. The traditions in our worship must be performed in such a way that they live in the present. In this way, "contemporary" worship will be both alike and different to the worship of the past. It will be like our current culture, like cultures from the past, like other cultures around the world, and stand in rebellion to all those cultures—all at the same time. This is a tension I will explore in a later article.

Now, it just so happens that at my church our songs draw on both ancient and contemporary sources. That is, our way of being "radically contemporary" is to be faithful to our liturgical and musical heritage. Like in the Eucharist, which makes manifest the death and resurrection of Christ in the present, by singing "old" songs we make an ancient expression of our faith come alive in our time and place. What was once an old museum piece of a song lying dusty and dormant in a forgotten hymnal becomes a contemporary expression of the Church when we inhabit it with a sincere singing faith. In other words, the only way to do the old songs justice is to make them contemporary, to sing them with gusto in the present. They have to be able to live in the present. We do not sing old hymns out of some obligation to the past. Instead we sing them because they are a true expression of our faith, a faith still alive in the present, a faith that is radically contemporary, even as it is radically ancient and radically eschatological. Again, our worship does all these things at once—or at least it will strive to.

And so, to conclude, I very much believe the Church should continue writing new worship music for its people to sing, even if it risks writing disposable songs to be forgotten within 5-10 years. Our goal should be to draw on and be faithful to the past, even as we fully live into our own present. To me, the only way to do this is to sing both an old and a new song, to make the old songs new again and the new songs as old as they possibly can be.

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4 comments:

Joanna Machen said...

I like to think about all the Psalms that declare "sing a new song" to the Lord. Not so much as a command but rather as a possibility. It's amazing to me how much creativity we've been given as his creation. We will never run out of new songs! And yet in heaven they sing the same thing over and over...I wonder if they jazz it up...add some synth to the "holy holy holy" refrains 😉. But if we sing new songs on earth I'm sure there are innumerable songs being sung in the vastness of heaven as well. Can't wait to join the choir!

P.s. your blog about the vapidity of Coldplay lyrics still haunts me. You've ruined my listening experience. I hope you're proud of yourself.

Joanna Machen said...

I like to think about all the Psalms that declare "sing a new song" to the Lord. Not so much as a command but rather as a possibility. It's amazing to me how much creativity we've been given as his creation. We will never run out of new songs! And yet in heaven they sing the same thing over and over...I wonder if they jazz it up...add some synth to the "holy holy holy" refrains 😉. But if we sing new songs on earth I'm sure there are innumerable songs being sung in the vastness of heaven as well. Can't wait to join the choir!

P.s. your blog about the vapidity of Coldplay lyrics still haunts me. You've ruined my listening experience. I hope you're proud of yourself.

Chris Marchand said...

Joanna, that's actually a fascinating thought experiment, thinking about the endless amount of creativity in eternity.... I wonder what it will be like too.

And sorry about Coldplay. I wish they sang about more meaningful things...

Sandy said...

one of my problems with contemporary Christian music in churches is that the leaders are making it way more like a performance rather than just leading people in worship. I listen to several different churches' services online and the way the leaders act makes it hard to just sing to God. Changing that would be a big help.