I’ve been thinking a lot about “worship music” these days. I’m very suspicious of the term. I’ve been suspicious of it for a long time, so much so that at a point during my time at Wheaton College, whenever I’d get a “worship” CD in the mail (I was A&E editor of the newspaper; I got lots of free CDs), I’d rarely even open it.
Here are just some of the reasons why I’ve become so jaded with what modern evangelicals have come to call worship music:
- It’s 90% crappy, knock-off Keane or secondhand U2 (i.e. it is usually very predictable and unoriginal)
- It’s an industry. How bizarre and kind of disgusting that branding your music as “worship” and selling it as an “experience” earns the most money in CCM.
- It’s a very fickle, trendy industry. Every month there’s a new “it” song that eventually filters down to every evangelical church across the world… only to be replaced by a new “it” song a month later. No more standards, no more canons.
- It turns its nose up at good writing. Most worship music wallows in bad water imagery, fire metaphor, or pseudo-sexual verbiage (“Jesus your love is ravishing, intoxicating, orgasmic, etc).
- It’s more about creating an emotional response than eliciting a profound spiritual reflection. The measure of a good worship leader is often how many in the audience stand up or raise their hands out of their own volition.
- It’s much too happy and self-satisfied. “Make a joyful noise” does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” Some of the most beautiful (and yes, joyful) hymns have come from places of sorrow and brokenness (e.g. “It is Well With My Soul”)
- It’s much too focused on the words. Can’t the music be worshipful on its own? Could not an all-instrumental song be just as worshipful as one with lyrics?
So, as you can see, I have issues with modern worship music. It really pains me, because I want to like it; I want to think that God is pleased by it. But I can’t get over the fact that it is mostly just mediocre, conservative, and stuck in a box. Worship is so much broader than just a “genre” of music that can be “entered in to” as a corporate, religious activity. Worship is much bigger than that—so much so that perhaps the question we should be asking is what isn’t worship?
Here is my non-traditional definition of what we might call worship: Any music, art, or experience that moves us in a transcendent way.
This includes things made by Christians and things made by secular hedonists.
This includes wordless music, formless painting, and R rated movies.
This includes books, poetry, and just talking. Yes, just chatting with friends.
This includes silence—the simple, still, do-nothing, unmediated experience of God.
All that said, this article is about worship music, so to get back on track: Worship music should be first and foremost honest music, and excellent music (artistically). It should come from the same place any musician goes to when writing a song. If that place is dark and has only a glimmer of hope, then that is your worship, and God rejoices in it (see Pedro the Lion sing “Be Thou My Vision”). If that place is effervescent and giddy about life, and that is honestly where you’re at, sing about it. Don’t force your music into formulas. Let it come out organically, creatively. There is nothing more worshipful than using our creative minds and talents to create the best and most creative thing we possibly can. Not the most commercial—not what is easy listening or reductive. No, our worship music should not be made for the masses.
Even as I’ve been ranting and raving about worship music and how bad it is, there are signs that it is beginning to get better. Thankfully there are Christian musicians out there beginning to realize that God is also honored by music that doesn’t have His name in it! Music can be about so much and still, in the end, be about God.
Here is a sampling of artists who you might not have heard of, but who consistently make artful, forward-thinking music that is also rather worshipful. Some are more obviously “worship” artists, while others are just Christians making beautiful music. But most importantly, all are good.
This Holiday Life
Future of Forestry
Mars Hill Church music