Monotone Worship

The worship wars are over. In church after church that I visit, we all seem to be singing the same handful of songs. To me they seem more like chants and shouted slogans than anything else. Melodically uninteresting and lyrically unimaginative, the music we are singing in the church these days isn’t composed, it is compiled. It feels more like the work of a committee than it does the creation of an artist. That’s because the songs we sing are often the result of a production process that might best be described as creation by committee. If you doubt this, count the number of names listed at the end when the song’s credit appears.

Instead of reflecting the personal faith experience and artistic skill of an individual, today’s church music has the feel of mass-produced goods of a marketing machine. There is plenty of enthusiasm. What is often missing is imagination and beauty. Today’s measure of what makes for good worship music rises no higher than the aesthetics of what used to be called top forty radio. As the teenagers observed on American Bandstand in the ’50s and ’60s, “It’s got a good beat, and it’s easy to dance to.” But the result of such an approach inevitably tends toward banality and cliché. This is true both for the music and the words that the music frames.

In an essay entitled “Thoughts about Music,” theologian Josef Pieper makes three observations about the music of the post-modern era, which also apply to much of the church’s music today. First, Pieper notes that the most common and pervasive feature of today’s music is its triviality. Pieper describes this sort of music as the kind whose primary function is entertainment and mood management. According to Pieper, its chief characteristics are “a happy sound” and a “numbing beat.” Second, Pieper observes that the music of the post-modern age is, “frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely ‘skin-deep.’” Third, and most important, Pieper explains that post-modern music “lays bare man’s inner existential condition.” Or to put it in other words, the music of a culture exposes the soul of that culture.

We have been conditioned to believe that all cultural artifacts are morally neutral. We not only see music as amoral but as something whose value is so subjective that it cannot be criticized. In the practice of the church, this post-modern perspective has resulted in a kind of cultural tyranny which demands that worshipers embrace the latest musical style uncritically, no matter what its effect might be on their experience of worship. Some may dismiss Pieper’s observations because his mention of the beat is reminiscent of a kind of musical criticism that was once characteristic of certain branches of Fundamentalism and which condemned modern worship music for its “jungle beat” or employed a pseudo-scientific argument to warn of the psychological and spiritual effects of rhythm on the listener.

But this is not what Pieper is criticizing. His point is not about what music does to us but about what our music says about us. If the music we use to express ourselves in worship is trivial and sentimentalized, it is because our thoughts about God and the Christian life have become trivial and sentimentalized. The danger with this kind of worship is not merely that it exposes our shallowness to the world but that it reinforces that shallowness. George Orwell makes a point in his essay entitled “Politics and the English Language,” which seems pertinent here.  “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell notes.  

The aim of worship is not merely to express our feelings. It is also intended to shape our thinking. According to Ephesians 5:19, when the church sings together, it is talking to itself as well as to God. Colossians 3:16 speaks of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as modes of instruction and admonition. We serve God when we worship, but the music we use to worship with also serves us. My complaint about the church’s culture of contemporary worship is that it often does neither.

Instead of serving God, the worship of many churches inadvertently pushes God to the margins by employing music as a marketing tool. Rather than serving the congregation, our worship is aimed at those we want to visit the church. Our songs usually speak of God but often in a sentimentalized and even a narcissistic way, so that the message is more about us than it is about God. There is a place in worship for speaking of our own experience. The Old Testament book of Psalms often speaks in the first person. The Psalms also show that worship should have an emotional dimension. Nor is it wrong to hope that outsiders and seekers might sense God’s presence when the church worships. The problem here is one of perspective. The church’s marketplace culture objectifies God by treating the reality of His presence liking a commodity and using it to increase its share of the religious market.

At the same time, the church sends a mixed message about the importance of worship. Even as it spends considerable resources to put on a display that will attract people, so much so that in some churches the worship pastor can be paid more than the preaching pastor, church leaders are dismissive of congregational worship. Pastors often chide those who “only come to church to worship.” Such language gives the impression that congregational worship is the least important thing a church does and that those who make congregational worship the center of their week are self-centered spiritual deadbeats.

Ironically, the Greek terms that are the basis for the term “liturgy” originally referred to a work undertaken for the sake of the community. Apparently, worship is for the sake of people as much as it is for God. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these same terms were associated with the kind of service rendered by the priests and Levites. In Acts 13:2, this language is used to speak of the worship of the church at Antioch. The apostle Paul uses a different term in Romans 12:1 when he expands the New Testament idea of worship to speak of the offering of the whole self to God as a living sacrifice.

It is not just the tyranny of contemporary style that has flattened our corporate worship to a monotone; it is our view of worship itself. Congregational worship is not the least important thing the church does. Worship is the church’s primary vocation. Indeed, if the first article of the Westminster shorter catechism is correct, worship is humanity’s primary vocation, since “man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.”

The worship wars are indeed over, at least where the battle over musical style is concerned. But I am afraid that in the end, none of us is the victor.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.

7 thoughts on “Monotone Worship”

  1. A.W. Tozer in “The Dangers of Shallow Faith” also warned against such worship. He says that the Church’s music has allowed itself to be influenced by the world, become worldly. The Church no longer influences the world with its music (and like you said with its depth), but rather has allowed the shallowness of the world to creep into its worship.

    1. Thanks so much, Heidi! Tozer anticipated so many trends in contemporary worship, it is uncanny. He really anticipated the direction of the church in the 20th century and beyond. JK

  2. My father emailed me the article and asked for my thoughts. My response was to him but I thought I would add it here in case it is worth anything…

    Koessler says quite a lot in his article. I find it a little hard to follow since he keeps moving back and forth between topics. He talks a while about the content of the words of songs, then he moves to the musical styles, then he moves to the emotional impact of songs, then to the reduced education or culture of the singers. Then he stirs all those topics in a mirky soup and treats it like it is one problem. Since his writing is not precise, but emotional, I don’t think I can give a precise response.

    The most I can say is that in every generation there are worship songs that are drivel and others that are worthy. Some of the worthless drivel hit a chord in the population and for whatever reason become popular (think “Father Abraham Had Many Sons” or Jerry Sinclair’s “Alleluia” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) and some of the worthy songs hit a similar responsive chord and become common worship songs (think “In Christ Alone” and “Living Hope”). Some of the greatest songs get neglected in worship because they are too complex or require instrumentation or singing ability that is not common (think the “Hallelujah Chorus”). Many of the greatest hymns are getting neglected now because good organ players are scarce, piano accompaniment is no longer a preferred style, and few guitarists can do the chord progressions justice. It’s the same reason that Bach’s Chorales have not been used commonly in worship for over two hundred years – most churches no longer have small orchestras with harpsichords.

    I don’t think this “turnover” of worship songs is a problem. The words are what count for eternity, not the notes or styles. After all, God preserved 150 Psalms for us in the Scriptures, and none of the music remains. If the music needed to be preserved for worship to be divinely blessed, then the sheet music would certainly be in the Scriptures as well. The truth of the words remains. Every few generations needs to create new music to express the truths in the musical language of the times. Anyone who doesn’t like the times will not like the worship music.

    I personally can’t relate to Koessler’s complaints. I know some churches that I think his complaints fit, but mine is not one of them. Not every one of our songs is a “winner” but in general they give glory to God, teach his attributes and his grace, give people a legitimate expression of worship, stretch and give joy to skillful and godly musicians, and are done with excellence and taste.

    This email got a little longer than I expected – but the topic is important to me. So, there are some reactions for you … What do you think?

    1. Dan, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thorough response. I think you make many valid points.

  3. I’ll just add that not all songs are suitable for *corporate* worship because of their complexity. Something may be musically beautiful and excellent but not suitable for large gatherings where folks are singing along.

    Therefore lots of the songs used for corporate worship tend to have more simple melodies, lyrics, etc. Also as mentioned above, a lot of churches are relying on volunteer worshipers for their band, most of which do not have expert level ability with their instruments. So this limits the range of songs that the worship team can handle.

    I think that accounts for a lot of the sameness that you may hear from church to church. What matters most to me is not whether or not the songs are complex or even beautiful, but the heart of the worshipers. Are we worshiping in spirit and truth?

    Much love, thanks for the thought provoking article John!

  4. I get what your saying John and I get what others are saying in their replies. We are each individually varied in our worshipful intents and God gets the glory. I have only just learned of this blog after googling Dr. JK right after reading a Moody email about your retirement, Dr. John. Welcome to the club I’ve been in for 2 and a half years.
    I want to thank you for your radio commentaries on my afternoon drives home back in the day on 90.1 FM. Your laid back delivery is comforting to me even when seemingly rambling because I can ramble too as my thoughts come to me and get expressed. I learned more each time hearing you on radio or reading your point of view in Today in the Word. Theology matters and Thank You!

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