I’ve been coming out of a music sabbatical that’s lasted the better part of 7 years. After listening to a slew of the latest worship songs (which apparently only come from two places in the entire world–Hillsong and Bethel) I’ve noticed a few things:

  • The production and quality of music today has gone up. It seems excellence in production has replaced excellence in community.
  • New songs conceptually are current and with contemporary trends, but few, if any, are innovators musically. (This makes sense given most Christian music does its best to mimic mainstream.)
  • Congregations now need a full band to copy the music.
  • And lastly, although this has less to do with the music, when I visit contemporary church, very few people actually sing the songs coming from the stage. They stand and watch with blank stares (seriously, try looking around next Sunday).

Unfortunately, as quality increases something is missing that matters: depth. Depth in emotion and theological depth. Most worship (which is synonymous now in contemporary churches with “music”) is stuck in a “praise” mode that rarely broaches moments of lament. I asked some worship leaders about the empty lyrics and some claimed you can’t have much lyrical depth or congregations will have trouble singing them. That would explain all of the clichés. Somebody else said nobody wants to sing sad songs…a scary thought to think that the church isn’t a safe place to be sad….

Congregational music is supposed to be more than a crowd singing with a band. It should be worship dominated by the voices of the people celebrating their God. Instead we have the voices of a few people drowned out by empty verses and guitar solos (nothing wrong with guitar solos by the way.) Which all begs the question:

Is “worship” shallow?

Contemporary worship music in Western churches lacks substance. We seem to be more interested in celebrating a handful of bands that get rich from the mass production of tunes versus created to pluck the heartstrings of churchgoers. (By the way, I think Hillsong and Bethel, et al., are great for their context, but we have a problem when EVERYONE uses their songs exclusively EVERY week.) We strive for performance over authenticity and wind up manufacturing our weekly gathering times into mini-concert attempts rather than curating connections to confession, prayer, scripture, and relationships.

Challenges to modern day worship.

1. ‘Worship’ is not just about music. We all say, “worship” to refer exclusively to music but it’s not accurate. Churches should try to think outside of the box, and if they’re really interested in ‘worship’, incorporate elements that are not musical. If the creative people run worship programs, let them use their creativity to make something outside of 5 song sets. And no, merely putting a painter at the front with an easel doesn’t count as creative. And no, having a skit twice a year is definitely not the answer.

2. Lyrics are hyper-individualized. This isn’t surprising given how evangelicalism as a whole continues to condone the privatization of the Christian faith traditions. Emphasizing the “personal relationship with God” trickles down to worship music that is filled with the constant droning of, “what God does for me, myself, and I”.

There’s nothing wrong with personalized songs. The problem is singing so many week in and week out. We can do better.

Ironically, secular music offers alternatives. For example, Serena Ryder’s, “Together we are one” is a song that reflects a ‘we’ and community orientation that we sorrily lack in church music culture.

Sure, it’s easy to cherry-pick, but when secular music (can we just call it music?) offers better songs about community, we’re in deep trouble.

Our pursuit should include more collective reverence about the church and a sending God. Instead, we have the me, myself, and I, placated by the benevolent God.

3. We need more songs on lament. Christian music sounds like Katy Perry songs and they’re about as deep too. The game seems to be about making congregants happy. Yet the Psalms are full of laments and woe, but it’s difficult to sing a church song in a minor key about loss and despair, and without a suitable resolution.

The Bible contains all sorts of different stories yet we tend to only sing about a handful of them because they make us feel good (ever sing an entire song about the poor?). When ALL the songs we sing resolve to freedom, winning, victory, etc. it’s not a truthful depiction of life.

4. Christian music is driven by industry. If the “Left Behind” series was driven by the publisher (Tyndale had an idea and shopped it cause they knew it would make $$$), then Christian music as a whole is driven by similar economics. Heck, look at Hillsong. They claim charity status so they don’t pay a dime on all of their music income. It is an incredible marketing adventure to not only sell your music for money, but to get millions of people to sing your songs every week. U2 doesn’t receive this kind of adulation. Couple the allure of sales with the natural drive of talented musicians to perform on stage and you get a tenuous balance between performance, industry, and ‘worship’.

5. Worship (singing) is connected with loving God. For most evangelical congregations the pattern to demonstrate a robust spirituality is to learn how to love God better. Part of that enterprise is to attend services regularly and, of course, sing the songs.

Worship through song is a wonderful praise to the Lord. It has also become deeply ingrained into the rhythms of our community to the point that if you don’t like the songs, or don’t like singing, or don’t raise your hands at the right time, you are out of place.

It’s easy to pick on such an easy target. How about some ideas on going deeper with our worship?

Ideas to Re-Imagine Worship and Ways to Go Deeper

These are merely ideas, and ones that you’ll have to think about and apply uniquely to your situation. If you have some of your own please leave a comment.

1. Consider more than one method of Sunday corporate worship. We’re exclusively devoted to music and it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not advocating dropping music entirely (although that’s probably a good option). But maybe you want to have a ‘no music Sunday’. Or even easier, try to incorporate some other routines in your gatherings. Maybe put out a number of prayer books in the pews for people to write in? Think about ways you can increase participation while decreasing consumption (putting on a skit or having 1 or 2 artists is passive for the rest.)

2. Invest in localized liturgy. Evangelicals may frown on the word ‘liturgy’ but the fact is they have it: 5 songs, announcements, 2 songs, sermon. That’s evangelical liturgy. What I’m suggesting is the revitalization of localized liturgical practices and storytelling. We have completely lost connection to our own church communities. Instead, we sing songs produced in Sydney or California and hope the individual can find meaning.

What if instead we wrote our own songs about what’s happening in the neighborhood? It’s harder, and less glamours, but singing songs about the local landmarks and stories are highly connective. What if we even incorporated prayers that involved the local landscape and people? We do that already by specifically praying for needs, but let’s also connect ourselves into the immediate world outside of the four church walls as well.

3. Restore ancient tunes. There are ancient hymns, old liturgies, chants, you name it. Discover something uniquely suited to your own community from the distant past. Reinvigorate old tunes with new accompaniment or melodies.

4. Redeem secular songs. I hesitate to use ‘secular’ because music is music to me. However, in my search for deeper lyrics and congregational singing, I’ve found the greatest success in old country and blues. People may be delighted belting out old Johnny cash chorus’. There are so many old spirituals that are dying to be revived. This may cross the cultural boundaries (white churches singing black spirituals in new ways) but the essence in many of these lost songs is true. The content and stories behind them are also very deep.

5. Increase spirit sensitivity, reduce evocative experience. This is a difficult one because it can’t be taught. Many of us have noticed the ‘feelings’ of good music. We get worked up over repetitious choruses, feel our hearts swell at the key change, and are moved during the a capella. Manipulating emotions using music should be used sparingly. In an age of busy, it would be worthwhile for churches to demonstrate quiet.

However, there is substance increasing our sensitivity to the prompting of the Holy Spirit whom leads towards discovery and ministry. It’s certainly a developed skill, but one that shouldn’t be practiced through the guise of manipulation.

6. Reduce the stage. The draw for musicians to be on stage is a real one. Personally I have trouble singing in the crowd. Put me on stage and it’s a whole different and deeper level. The issue, however, is the function of the stage that elevates worship to performance. Many of the best resourced church bands put on a show. They obviously play fantastic music, but one has to wonder if people are connecting with the delightful personalities on stage, or with the Creator?

Those are my six ideas to get you thinking of how you can go deeper with your central gathering times. We can go deeper with our creativity and the way we connect our communities through worship than we have in the past. Do you have any to add?