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Is it time for a new worship war?

Is it time for a new worship war?

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The first church I served at was in the middle of a worship war when I started there. It was like a cold war with a lot of passive-aggressive leadership on both sides of the debate. The “Hymns & Organ Crowd” declared that their music was rich with theological significance, whereas the “Praise Chorus Crowd” was fervently committed to introducing new songs with more current sounds that connected with people personally.

It all seems so long ago. In fact, it seems like ancient history. I’ve invested the majority of my ministry career in churches with attractional music environments that are targeted at connecting with the next generation. I’m honored to serve with some of the best musicians out there. They are passionate about creative musical experiences that engage with people and move them closer to God. The “new norms” of this approach to musical worship are:

  • Electric-guitar driven // The leaders are typically behind a guitar and the sound is based around that instrument.
  • Bands // We have a group of 5 to 8 people on stage: lead vocal, background vocal, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, keyboard and drummer.
  • Video-augmented experiences // There are screens in all of our environments that display not just the lyrics but also other visuals that support the message of the song.
  • It’s loud // We aim for 95 dBa … loud enough to make the room feel full. (Also loud enough to get regular complaints about the volume and the need for our guest services team to have ear plugs on hand.)

We should always remain “open-handed” in our methods while being “closed-handed” on the message. I wonder if it’s time to reinvent a “new norm” of musical worship. Have we wedded our method too closely to our message? Do we need to dream a new dream in musical worship?

Or maybe … is it time to wage a new worship war? For the sake of the next generation, do we need to ask fundamental questions about our approach to ensure that we’re connecting with them? Is today’s “Modern Worship Crowd” holding onto its approach in the same way the “Hymns & Organ Crowd” did so many years ago … looking down their noses at what was coming next? Here are some signs that convince me we need to be looking ahead to what’s next:

  • The electric guitar is dead // Seriously … listen to music that people actually stream or buy and you’ll find that the electric guitar isn’t featured in any significant way. Certainty not as much as when I started in ministry so many years ago … people actually used to love U2, rather than just complaining when their music is forced onto our iPhones. [Check out Bobby Owsinski’s article for Forbes on the demise of electric guitar in popular music.]
  • People aren’t singing // Over the last few months I’ve had the chance to participate in worship services at a number of “name brand” churches. Two of them are globally known for their worship experiences. One of the curious realities even in these churches is that the vast majority of the people in the service don’t sing. Once you get beyond the first few rows, most people are just watching what’s happening and not really participating. Musical worship is a way for the gathered community to unify around what it means to follow Jesus. Is it really “worship” if the community isn’t participating?
  • It doesn’t sound contemporary // Listen to the top 10 songs that are played in churches today … and then listen to the top 10 songs on the Billboard chart. Strip away the lyrical content and just listen to the music itself. I’m struck by the fact that the church music all sounds a lot more similar than the Billboard songs sound. It seems like church music has settled into a common sound, while “contemporary pop music” has a much broader variety.
  • I like our music too much // I’m a 40-something leader. I’m in that dangerous zone when it comes to leading the church. I’m not a young leader trying to prove myself but I’m also not a seasoned leader who has moved beyond holding on too tightly to stuff I’ve made. I really like our music and that’s a problem. Somewhere in the next few years I need to not like it anymore. It needs to get under my skin and bug me while it effectively engages the next generation. If leaders in my generation aren’t careful, we’ll just do what we’ve always done and our effectiveness will slowly erode under us. We need to push ourselves to be ready for “what’s next” while “what’s now” is still working.

What could some elements of the coming worship war look like?

  • DJ-led worship // DJs have the same “audience leadership” appeal that the lead guitar player once had. When are we going to see worship led entirely by a DJ? [Here is an interesting sample that might represent the future.]
  • Beatbox instead of drums // Beatbox is a mainstream vocal accompanist form. Even at my kids’ school I see them teaching it in the choral groups. Why isn’t it happening in our churches?
  • More variety // How will the church respond to ever-expanding musical tastes? What does “contemporary music” mean in a streaming music world where people can build music channels around their own particular tastes?

Let me state again … I am a fan of the current “contemporary musical worship” approach. My point is that we should also think ahead and embrace music that works for the next generation. We need to start letting go of what is in order to grasp hold of what will be.

 

16 Comments

  1. When God calls us to give our testimonies, we are to give our own, not someone else’s, correct? Our own, individual stories are infinitely more powerful than trying to present another copied or faked story. I feel this extends equally to music for those who express themselves via music.

    This is a hot button topic for me. I feel like the music that is played in church should NOT (necessarily) try to conform to a popular style, whether it be Top 40 or CCM top 40. This is the mistake Christian musicians & worship leaders make time and again. Why do those top 40 hits sound the way they do? More often than not, they are carving their own sonic territory, and that’s why they stand out and get noticed. It’s because the PEOPLE creating those songs (the singer, songwriter, engineer, producer, musicians) all are working to be uniquely themselves…telling a story that only they can tell.

    Christian artists then hear that, and try to copy someone else’s “story,” and that’s when things get so uncreative, generic, blah…it loses its salt.

    I want to see Christian artists be THEMSELVES, produce their own unique music, and this extends into church worship services, as well. I firmly believe if every church would find those who express themselves musically, and then put them “in a bag, shake it up, and pour it out,” you would create worship music that is authentic and passionately performed by the musicians, as well as unique. When music is passionately performed, people’s hearts are moved!

    As a music educator for more than 20 years, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had students who claim they don’t like classical or jazz music, then actually HEAR a great, authentic, passionate group perform and come away lifelong devotees to either that group or even the style. The style doesn’t matter, the story does!!! Personally, I could care less about a Southern gospel quartet, but there are two I’ve heard in person that I have enjoyed as much as anything I’ve ever heard! They were skilled, passionate, and told their own story their way.

    So if a church has a death metal guitarist, a classical pianist, a bluegrass bass player and a jazz drummer, have them play Amazing Grace together and see what happens! (Don’t get me wrong, some musical leadership to get these disparate styles together is needed, of course). This is how Christian musicians can get out of the “let’s see if we can sound like pop singer X because he/she is the biggest singer in the world now” mentality, and start producing honest, heartfelt music (with variety, originality, etc…) that actually LEADS the music industry instead of pathetically trailing behind.

    And while I understand (and to a great extend agree with) your article, saying the “electric guitar is dead” is not smart, because it invites a confused worship leader to NOT let some talented, passionate guitarist play just because your article or others thinks its not “hip” enough. (Actually, electric guitar is very much alive and well, just not as present as it has been. Just because the top 10 movies might not mention God, it doesn’t mean “god is dead.” Tons of popular artists have guitars in the mix, but they may be blended with or overshadowed by synths, plus many of my students pick up guitar so they can learn to play songs they’ve heard on the radio!) Again, my point is to concentrate on the individual’s story not the style.

    This is my same sentiment inversely with the DJ suggestion. I’m all for that, if there’s a Christian DJ with a heart to lead worship, but don’t have somebody learn to do DJ music just so the church can advertise “hey we have a DJ!.”

    God sends us great people to produce great worship music, but we have to be better about identifying them and not being scared to present them just because it doesn’t fit a prescribed mold. Story not style…

    Thank you for your thoughtful article and the chance to respond. Have a blessed day!

    • Thanks for chiming in and for your thoughts! Always great to hear from people who know what they are talking about! Thanks for leading in the way you do for all these years!

      – Rich

  2. Rich,

    Some interesting thoughts here. I would be interested in hearing more on the “no singing” phenomenon. I’ve been around churches since the whole praise and worship genre got started. It has been my observation that as the church gets bigger the participation gets lower. I have no explanation, but I’ve seen it happen several times. The bigger the church, the less people seem to sing.

    • This is an interesting observation … I haven’t really noticed the size of the church as the limiting factor to people engaging. I’ve been in smaller churches where it seems like people don’t sing any more.

      Good thoughts though … worth chewing on for sure!

      – Rich

      • My personal observation is that singing participation goes down with volume as you cannot hear your own voice or the voices of those around you. Tends to defeat real worship and simply “sounds like teen spirit” (here we are now, entertain us).

        • Carl! Thanks for the feedback. Fun reference to Nirvana… From 20 years ago! 😉

          Volume is a tricky deal… Too low and no one sings because it’s too intimidating. Too high and it can cue people that it’s a performance.

          I will say this about volume… It seems like there is a trend among the fastest growing churches… They run loud!

          – Rich

  3. We have a contemporary and traditional (classic service). The people really sing out in the traditional (hymn and praise songs) service. The contemporary service does not have as many singing. But, our worship leader in the contemporary service is starting to stop the band in the middle of a song and asking people to sing a capella. The people respond.

  4. I’ve led worship in several churches, both mixed in style and strictly “contemporary.” My experience has been that any musical style can become canned and empty within several years. It becomes a stylebook, like no earth tones on Miami Vice, rather than a unique local response. Good musicians with a love of worship who like each other can be trusted to be original, with leadership to look out for the congregation and the message. For band musicians the war is often about using tube amps that face the congregation, and building a group dound together, rather than being inside a digitally controlled monitoring environment that serves the engineer and the pastor’s sense of safety… not necessarily the community.

    There is no best style, and no style is unitary. All worship is local. The sameness you cite reflects a bland uncritical culture in many churches and especially among the taste makers at the corporate level. We can do better, but it means trusting the people you asked to bring the chops into the building just a little more. God won’t be mad.

  5. Some very good points and many of which I’ve wrestled with as a church attendee, DJ, and pastor. It’s a trip to see a quick video I recorded for a workshop illustration get viewed more widely.

    In my context I see many churches worship the style and ignore any needs for contextualization sonically. I’ve always wondered why the sounds & presentations of worship cannot be contextual to culture(s) or generations represented. The sound track in the church often sounds nothing like the sound track people listen to during the week, as you pointed out. I’m my experience, the suburban church has been the most progressive while the urban/inner-city churches are the least.

    The use of me as a DJ in my church was implemented both out of necessity (no musicians) and intentionality (trying to contextualize sound and presentation). It has evolved over the years and I began asking the questions like, “Could the DJ lead worship w/o lead singers? What would it look like? How would the congregation react? What resources are available? What is the culture saying about the DJ as a leader of a crowd?”

    Thanks for sharing, not only my video, but insights on worship!

  6. Rich’s article plus Dallas’ comment to balance and add perspective both made for a very helpful read this morning! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks for the kind words! Just trying to be fair and balanced! 😉

      Rich

  7. I see lots of challenges in moving towards more modern music styles in our setting….mobile churches often are geared towards specific instrumentation from a tech perspective (and the teams are often geared towards setting up those specific instruments)…show up with a laptop and few other gizmos and you might not have a table, or the right number of channels, or the proper monitoring or power…and then mixing for beat heavy music is completely different so you have to make sure people are ready first off…a lot of it is more synth driven – so that great piano/rhodes/B3 keyboard you have on site is never going to be able to replicate a moog/polysynth let alone digital drum sounds or vocal effects…laptops are great with ableton or mainstage, but with teams that shift each week getting the proper sounds and setup becomes complicated and expensive…

    Second off, there is the challenge of finding or re-arranging music…there is a small amount of new creative stuff out there…I think the solution to this is finding the creative people in your church and letting them go at it, but again this is challenging is mobile churches where even getting together or finding space to practice is tough…

    Third – making room for kids…I think a lot of us experienced the opposite of this growing up with our electric guitars, and it’s really on us to create and prepare spaces for kids to have an opportunity to show us where things are going and how things work…

  8. i loves both hymns and contemporary worship. I feel that the music is difficult to follow, no matter what style, if too loud to hear vocals of leaders & congregants. Also, it becomes a concert & not corporate worship when the leader stretches words or repeats lines multiple times, leaving others embarrassed if they can’t follow.

  9. My theory on the “not singing” phenomenon has changed in the last year. Last March, I took over the Worship position at my church of 600, and I immediately decided to take a risk. We had been iffy in worship for years – decent music, nothing spectacular. We had also sang over 200 songs in 3 years. Using the book “the Song Cycle,” by Jon Nicol, I dropped our 200 song set list to 30. 30 songs, and only 15 that I wanted the church to still be singing a year later. I identified the songs that our congregation identified with, and I worked to include a wider variety, slowly. Now, a year later, we’ve tossed 12-14 songs from that list of 30, and we’ve replaced them with 16 new songs. We’re on our way to a total song list of 40-45.

    The biggest change I’ve noticed here is in congregational singing. I have never been in a church that sings as much as this church does now, and a year ago, there was almost no participation. I’m convinced that modern worship leaders are simply not giving people the brain space to learn and love the music we introduce. We’re so determined to throw the new and best thing out there that we neglect the learning styles of our congregations.

    Cutting our song list has made our once “good” band into a great band, because instead of learning one or two new songs every week, we have extra time to bond as a group and gel as a band. It’s set us up for a sustained period of growth, and our contemporary services are full – we’re figuring out how to plant a new service at the moment.

    I definitely recommend making a change to the way most leaders do song selection. It’s worked wonders for us.

    • Great insight and tactic … thanks for sharing!

      – Rich

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