"Raise your hands if you think this music is awful."
Music and inspiration make a wonderful pair. Almost all of the music that I own serves some sort of emotional and inspirational purpose. Music can either shape my disposition, or a musical selection can be made in order to fit the current disposition of the moment. Regardless of what sort of mental state I’m in, I have some piece of music that will enhance it.
It’s this emotional relationship with music that has caused me to become so completely frustrated with what passes for music at church. If there’s one place music should arise to it’s fullest potential, it’s at church. Church is an environment where people are ripe for some expressive stimulation. Attending a church service is an opportunity to indulge in the simple beauties and truths of our existence. It is a place where forgiveness is requested, kindness and charity are honored and the splendor of our human gifts are celebrated. Music is one of those gifts. Much like unconditional love, music is a means by which people can experience the presence of God. It is a language that can’t be explained, but yet everyone seems to understand. So why do churches get it so wrong?
Worship, the portion of a church service devoted to singing and giving praise, is usually something that leaves me feeling rather empty. My mind wanders, my eyes roam through the crowd and I can’t wait for permission to sit back down. Lest I be dismissed as simply a critic, let me point out that I’m someone who counts ‘Amazing Grace’ as one of their favorite songs and has yet to hear a presentation of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ that didn’t leave me rubbing small pools of water out of the corner of my eye. When I say that worship services leave me empty, believe me when I tell you I’m someone who would much rather be fulfilled.
But it’s hard to be fulfilled when what you are presented is so mediocre. Today’s religious music is an empty, mechanical regurgitation of the worst kind of pop music characteristics. It’s thoughtless, repetitive and completely lacking in any kind of artistic integrity. Contemporary christian music is loaded with cliched religious language and the type of imagery that would leave middle-school composition teachers shaking their heads in disbelief if their students were ever found guilty of the same linguistic trespasses. Lyrics like “open the eyes of my heart”; “you are God, that’s just the way it is” and “you lift us up on wings like eagles” are just three examples of the kind of lazy, uninspired writing you’ll find. But it’s more than just poorly conceived metaphors. It’s the generic stylings that persist throughout almost every incarnation of contemporary christian music that make it so disappointing. Every song seems to be a mirror image of the one before. I imagine the creative process for christian artists and record producers consists of throwing words like ‘holy’, ‘worthy’, ‘lamb’, ‘awesome’ and ‘Jesus’ into a hat and blindly picking out some kind of combination. The lyrics are like a Bible-themed mad-lib that just gets filled out over and over again with new superlatives to describe God. Did you refer to God as ‘awesome’ last time? Well, just exchange it with ‘mighty’ and PRESTO! You’ve got a new record!
Shoddy writing alone is not enough to ruin a song. There are plenty of pop songs over the years that feature horrible lyrics that have still managed to find a soft spot in my heart. A great hook and an infectious melody can go a long way to make a listener forget just how ridiculous the words may be. Unfortunately, great hooks and infectious melodies are two terms that will never be used to describe most modern christian music. Take the corniness of Air Supply, the rock sensibilities of Matchbox 20, the artistic depth of someone like Miley Cyrus, strip away any remnants of originality, throw it all in a blender and you’ll have every contemporary christian song ever written. They all seem to include the same poignant, guitar-strumming openings, a crescendo to a proud and bubbly refrain and an over-indulgent breakdown rising back up to a triumphant, timpani-and-cymbal-filled conclusion. The music consistently seeks to hit the exact same emotional levers without ever breaking new ground or challenging the listener to try something new. Each song is canned and pre-packaged and contains all the excitement and intrigue as a bag of rice cakes.
So if today’s christian music is such a travesty, then what are the alternatives? What can provide the type of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment that people are looking for from a church service? Conveniently enough, the easiest solution is a musty book with a tattered spine found right on the back of almost all church pews. Hymnals are filled with some of the most wonderfully poetic and brilliant pieces of music American culture has ever produced. But these treasures are mostly ignored by modern churches. In an effort to appear young, hip and relevant to modern society, churches have tossed aside their heritage and sacrificed quality in an attempt to construct an image. This is troubling not only because their new music is so bad, but also because attempting to tailor your image to the prevailing winds of popular culture is the providence of corporations and marketers, not religious institutions. Churches should be a place where traditions are embraced, not discarded for commercial purposes.
Arguments like this are usually just dismissed as the nostalgic ravings of the elderly and those who refuse to adapt to an ever-changing society. I would insert here that I am only 33, hardly the standard age of someone who longs for the ‘olden days’. But I believe that it is not just me and a handful of little old ladies that experience this dissatisfaction. I see evidence to the contrary at nearly every church service I attend. Church music directors will often times include an old standard in the list of songs to be sung. Nestled in between a couple of contemporary, christian-pop ballads there might be an appearance of an old classic like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” or “It Is Well With My Soul”. When this occurs you’ll notice a distinct difference not only in the attitudes and responsiveness of the church members, but also in the volume of the congregation’s singing. One could easily claim that this is merely a result of familiarity with the material, but it is my contention that it is quite simply because they’re just better songs. When modern christian music is played the congregation becomes listless and despondent. When the chords of a beautiful classic begins, people immediately become more engaged. Certainly, there are exceptions, every church has members who embrace modern music with unmatched zeal. Their arms are raised, their heads are tilted back and the predictable, repetitive words are sung out with vigor. But as a whole, the anecdotal evidence I’ve witness over the years seems to support my side.
One need to look no further than in the words from these hymns and gospel classics to realize what makes them so timeless…
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine…oh, what a foretaste of glory divine;
Heir of salvation, purchase of God. Born of his spirit, washed in his blood.”–Blessed Assurance
“Jesus, the name that calms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease;
Tis music in the sinner’s ears, tis life and health and peace.”–O, For A Thousand Tongues
“Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it, Mount of they redeeming blood.”–Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
“I’ve got a mansion, just over the hilltop. In that bright land where, we’ll never grow old;
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander, but walk the streets that are purest gold.”–Mansion On the Hilltop
“Just a closer walk with thee, grant it Jesus, is my plea;
Daily walking close to thee, let it be, dear Lord, let it be.”–Just a Closer Walk With Thee
This is only a snapshot of the type of imagery and simple linguistic elegance that is the staple of this genre of music. The words written here and in countless other hymns have more in common with classic American poetry than they do with the words written by christian artists today. As a culture, we’re losing our mastery of language. A dumbed-down pop culture and a society conditioned for the brevity of emails and text messages are the result of a people who have squandered their affinity for the potential beauty of the written word. Have you ever read a speech by Abraham Lincoln? If we had a president who could competently speak and write in that fashion today, he’d leave most of his audience scratching their heads in bewilderment. The same is true for music, especially religious music. The lyrics of today and the lyrics of yesterday aren’t even on the same playing field. It’s like comparing the Jonas Brothers to the Beatles. Old hymnals are a treasure trove of the kind of poetic and beautiful lyrics that are impossible to find today.
Christian and Gospel music used to be something that was very much intertwined with pop culture. Today, christian music wants to have an important role in the popular zeitgeist, but it is usually on the outside looking in. The christian music industry is always a step behind because instead of trying to forge their own unique and creative direction, they’re merely trying to grab on to the latest fad and then sanitize it for the religious community. Spiritual songs were once a staple of average American life. They were sung by the most popular artists and were universally known. The same cannot be said of christian music today. It is a widely marginalized and often disregarded portion of the culture in which we live. Now you may want to lament this fact as proof of the secularization of our society and the abandonment of our once-highly-held religious traditions and I might be inclined to agree with you. But there has to be a portion of this transformation that can be directly blamed on the quality of the product as well. Good music can transcend cultural biases. If modern christian music is stuck on the periphery, it’s simply because it has an inadequate level of artistic and inspirational quality that would allow it to resonate with the consuming public.
Elvis Presley was once the most influential and popular artist in the country. He was a trend-setter who pushed boundaries and transformed our societal rules about music, entertainment and sexuality. But at the same time, he also recorded, released and performed tons of religious material. There is no way that an artist of his stature in today’s world would try to do the same. A couple of recent christian artists, including Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant have managed to achieve some modest level of mainstream success by taking their pop stylings and removing the religious bent. But their christian-themed material never crossed over with them, because there was simply no mainstream market for it. It’s impossible to imagine an artist today being a popular draw in both the Top 40 world and in the contemporary christian world at the same time. Even with Top 40 music being as bad as it is, general audiences are just not prepared to stomach something so bereft of quality as modern christian music. Sure, you might witness a superstar such as Faith Hill or Beyonce sing a religious song at some kind of special event, but I promise you that song will be a beautiful gospel standard and not a contemporary christian pop selection.
I attend church to be inspired. Very often, I listen to music for the exact same reason. I get angry with myself when I find that I’m spending my time during worship doing nothing but bemoaning and critiquing the music that is pushed upon me. But what choice do I have? I can’t pretend to be inspired by something I find so comical and ridiculous. Modern christian music actually pushes me away from the spiritual and mental state that I should be feeling while at church. It achieves the exact opposite of its desired effect. When done correctly, the beauty of a worship service can be even more inspirational and transformative than the sermon or Bible study that follow. It is my desire to find a church service that truly understands this concept. I seek a church that does not sacrifice quality for the sake modern packaging. Music of all genres is constantly evolving and I don’t pretend to expect religious music to neglect that evolution. What I do expect is a simple understanding of what makes music classic and transcendent. People still listen to Beethoven for a reason. People still listen to Led Zeppelin for a reason. That music has proven over time to have the power to resonate within the soul of the listener. Traditional gospel music has also proven to hold that same resonance. It’s timelessness and simple elegance are intertwined in the very fabric christian spirituality. The poetic eloquence of the Apostle Paul is borne from the same place as the poetic eloquence of famed hymn author Fanny J. Crosby. Humans strive through language and song to explain the mystery of human existence and capture the essence of God. Some words and some songs have shown themselves over time to be more effective at accomplishing this task. I long for a church and worship service that puts those words and songs at the forefront of their spiritual celebration. I long to be inspired.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun;
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.”–Amazing Grace