There’s a meme going around Christian circles on the Internet about CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) songs. The gist of it is as follows: ‘Please try to name ONE (I know, there are so many to choose from) CCM praise song that you find unbearable and at least 2-3 reasons why, pointing to specific lyrics if you must’. Responses have appeared from Clayboy, Elizaphanian (briefly!), Phil’s Treehouse, Banksyboy, to name a few.
This theme is like a red rag to a bull for me, because there really are many so-called ‘worship songs’ that I find not only banal and trite but also genuinely irritating and even ‘appalling’. Not that I know even a fraction of the songs out there; at our church we sing fairly traditional music from ‘Hymns Old and New’ , with a supplementary binder of praise songs ranging from seventies material to almost the present day. But I’ve been around enough services where the CCM approach is used, and although this style does seem genuinely to engage a lot of younger people, there are some serious drawbacks which I’ll address in a moment.
And yet… and yet… in the 1970s my own Christian faith came alive as a result of the charismatic movement, and many of the songs we sang then were indeed ‘trite, banal, and perhaps even genuinely irritating and appalling’. How about “I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart”? Or “The Bell Song”? Or “The Joy of the Lord is My Strength”, whose fourth verse went like this:
‘Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
The joy of the Lord is my strength!’
But here’s the thing: as a teenager and a new Christian I loved this stuff! I found most hymns stuffy, boring and (in many cases) virtually incomprehensible (what on earth does ‘ineffably sublime’ mean, anyway?). In contrast to that, the new stuff being promoted by groups like the Fisherfolk was simple, direct, enjoyable, accessible and refreshing. And I’m so grateful that I became a Christian in a church where this stuff was welcomed. I’m pretty sure that if my nascent faith had had to deal with a purely traditional worship style I’d very quickly have gotten bored out of my tree.
So I want to be careful about dismissing the CCM praise songs genre, simply because the sort of criticisms some people level against it sound disturbingly like the things some people said about our music back in the seventies when twelve-string guitars and Arran sweaters first arrived in our eleventh century Norman church in Southminster! The question of what exactly constitutes worship music is a slippery and elusive one, and I need to remind myself that in the end what is really important is that people focus on the living God and go away with their lives transformed as a result.
Nonetheless, I do have a few questions about much of what I hear sung in churches today:
Is it really worship if the subject of a song is not God, but rather our feelings about God?
Let me give an example of what I’m talking about:
You know that I love you
You know that I want to know you so much more
More than I have before
These words are from my heart
These words are not made up
I will live for you
I am devoted to you
King of Majesty, I have one desire
Just to be with you my Lord
Just to be with you my Lord
Jesus you are the Saviour of my soul
and forever and ever I’ll give my praises to you.
Now, quite apart from some rather strange (if ‘these words are not made up’, how precisely did they get onto the page?) and even downright dishonest (“I have one desire” – really? No, really? Does your wife know that?) statements, notice that the entire attention of the worshipper singing these words is the state of his or her own emotions. Is this worship, to focus on my own gut, rather than on the glory and majesty of God (who is glorious and majestic whether or not I feel his glory and majesty)?
Is worship in which the most frequent pronoun is the singular ‘I’ really faithful to the Biblical vision of Christian worship?
Quite simply, Biblical worship is primarily corporate: the people of God coming together to join in words of praise and in ritual action. The worshipping agent in the Bible is not primarily an ‘I’ but a ‘We’. Not that the Bible doesn’t contain prayers and psalms written in the first person, but they do not dominate as they do in contemporary worship music.
Interestingly, the old Book of Common Praise (1938) of the Anglican Church of Canada contained a small section entitled ‘Hymns Chiefly for Personal Use’. Is it not true to say that in a book of contemporary worship songs, that section would comprise probably 80% of the material? And is this a healthy balance?
Is a genre of worship music that virtually ignores the Christian stories really true to the Bible (which is overwhelmingly composed of narrative)?
Here’s an exercise: take a Sunday in which you know that a well-known biblical story (other than the crucifixion) is going to be read in the service at your church. Now try to find a contemporary worship song in which that story is sung. In most cases it simply can’t be done, because the songs do not exist.
In contrast, older hymn books included many songs that recounted biblical stories. These songs, once again, helped to focus the attention of the worshippers away from the state of their own entrails and onto the great objective story of God’s love told in the Bible and supremely in Christ.
Is the intimate really the best and most appropriate tone to use in worship of God?
‘I’m longing for you’ – ‘I’m desperate for you’ – ‘Hold me close, put your arms around me – draw me near nearer to your side’; it has often been observed that the God (or, more frequently, the Jesus) addressed in these lyrics sounds more like my girlfriend than the exalted Lord and Creator of the universe. Where’s the genuinely shattering spiritual experience expressed by the author of Revelation when he saw the risen Jesus in a vision and said “I fell at his feet as though dead”? Where’s Isaiah’s “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King”? (“…and he was high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple”.) Does the metaphor of the romantic relationship have quite the dominance in the biblical approach to God that it does in contemporary worship music?
Do the authors of contemporary worship songs understand the difference between performance and participation?
I go to a lot of concerts and gigs, and I often sing along with the songs that I know, but the purpose of the concert is not for me to sing along; the purpose is to listen to the music, and hence the stage setup and the amplification draw attention to the performer’s voice, not mine. And is it not true to say that this is the natural setting for much contemporary worship music?
Here’s the thing: tunes written to be performed can be idiosyncratic, can bounce all over the place, can come down off the beat, can have bridges that are only sung once in the song, can have instrumental solos – all features of performance music. But congregational songs are different. They need to have memorable tunes (test of a memorable tune: can it be sung unaccompanied and still sound beautiful?) that can be easily learned and sung by a non-musical congregation. And here’s the crux of the matter: in much contemporary worship music, the congregation is singing along with the band (which has the amplification system to back it up), whereas, it seems to me, in the older approach to worship the instrumentalist (pianist, organist or whatever) was playing along with the congregation, to support their singing.
Finally, what does it say about the value we place on the God we worship, when we can’t be bothered to take a little more care with our lyrics?
I’m not trying to sound like a snob here, but I can’t help but contrast much of what I hear in contemporary worship music with my monthly experience at a songwriters’ circle here in Edmonton. And I can’t help thinking that much of what gets written and recorded in contemporary worship music would never make it past the first ten minutes in our songwriters’ circle. The rhymes are bad or non-existent, the metaphors are mixed and slippery and inappropriate, and the overwhelming impression, for the most part, is that the lyrics were just dashed off and recorded without any substantial time being taken for that essential feature of the songwriting experience – the rewrite!
Music is a sensitive issue, because for many people it is the language of the heart. But having said that, let’s remember that the metaphor of the ‘heart’ is a very slippery one. In modern times it means the emotions, but that was not the meaning it carried in biblical times. In the New Testament it was the intestines that were seen as the seat of the emotions, not the heart (hence the King James Version phrase ‘bowels of mercy’!). ‘Heart’ meant something much closer to what we would now call ‘the will’ – the seat of our choices and commitments.
So the purpose of genuine biblical worship is not just to arouse our emotions but to change the direction of our lives by orienting our will toward genuine Christian discipleship. And this discipleship is not primarily about ‘me’; it’s about God and my neighbour. Worship music ought to help orient our lives in this direction, and I think that intelligent Christians have a right to insist that our worship songwriters understand this. Too often, I’m afraid that they don’t.