Ten to fifteen years ago, the main criticisms of contemporary praise and worship music were that the words didn’t have much substance, they were too sentimental, and they were more about “me” than God. For the most part this isn’t true of today’s worship songs. While some choruses like that still exist, many of today’s worship songs have better lyrics that clearly speak about God’s work in Christ through his cross and resurrection. In my opinion, modern praise and worship has “grown up” a great deal in portraying the basic truths of the Christian faith and a personal relationship with God.
I love contemporary praise music. I love listening to it, I love singing it and playing it, and I love worshiping to it. And I’m glad the words have grown more substantial. Yet I still see a problem with today’s worship songs.
The issue is that today’s praise music isn’t very singable for the average person, and it doesn’t translate well for the typical worship band in the average church.
Today’s popular praise songs are developed mostly in mega-churches, the largest churches in the land. Most of these congregations have several thousand people in attendance every Sunday. As a result, they have almost limitless resources. They can attract the best musicians, the most talented singers, the most seasoned songwriters.
Today’s worship songs are created for large audiences, making the morning worship time in these churches a lot like a rock concert. This means today’s worship songs are really written more to be observed and consumed, than to be participated in. They’re created to be heard more than sung. The primary question behind the songs seems to be: How will this be received by the thousands watching in church Sunday morning? How’s it going to sound on on someone’s iPod? How will it come across on youtube? The first concern doesn’t seem to be “How easy is this going to be to sing?” or “How playable will this be for a worship team?”
The musical keys of today’s worship songs often tend to be in the stratosphere – a high tenor or soprano might be able to hit the notes, but everyone else will have to sing in their lower range, or else the song may not be in some people’s range at all. And in fact, the latest thing for worship songs is to start them off in the low part of the singer’s range, and then at the climax of the song, the singer takes it up an octave for the sake of emphasis.
An example of this would be in the popular worship song “How He Loves” written by John Mark MacMillan and popularized by David Crowder. In the second verse the singer suddenly goes up an octave on the words “I don’t have time to maintain these regrets / When I think about the way… / He loves us, oh how He loves us….” You know what I’m talking about. How many of you can make that vocal leap?
This is the kind of thing that mostly only trained and gifted singers can pull off. I like to think I have a pretty decent voice, but my range barely extends beyond an octave. So in order to pull off that trick, I have to make sure the song is pitched in just the right key, or else it’s out of my range. Some singers may not be able to do this at all, and the person sitting in the seats may not even want to try.
And we wonder why people aren’t getting into the singing on our songs….
Likewise, the music on worship songs today is getting increasingly complex. This makes it more interesting and fun to listen to, and probably more fun and challenging for talented musicians to play. But for the rest of us mere mortals it may be beyond our level of ‘skilz.’
I really love a lot of the music coming out of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri (IHOP-KC or just IHOP for short). Their songs contain some very cool instrumental riffs and some really interesting rhythm parts. Which make them awesome to listen to. But a good bit of it is beyond the skill level of your average worship band. And IHOP does a lot of those low-to-high vocal gymnastics I talked about earlier, too. So unless your church has a cadre of unusually talented musicians and singers, good luck replicating their sound on Sunday mornings. (Although I do have to say the worship band at the little church I attend actually does a pretty amazing job on some of their songs…!)
But I think the important question in all this is: What’s happening to worship?
On the one hand, I think the current situation may be enhancing people’s private worship. With today’s technology you can have the absolute coolest worship music ever created at your fingertips any time of the day or night. You can download it onto your iPod, slip in the earbuds, and wander off for an hour of intimate personal worship time with God. That’s one of the nice benefits of the present scenario.
But what about corporate worship? What’s happening there? Personally, I feel corporate worship may be suffering in the current model. When songs aren’t singable, then people quit singing. They lose the desire to participate. They just stand passively or sit with their arms folded in their seats, watching. They become spectators.
But worship is not a spectator sport. It’s participatory. Corporate worship is meant to be corporate – not just a few people singing up on a stage. It’s said the word “liturgy” (another word for worship) means “the work of the people.” If those on the stage and close to the front of the auditorium are the only ones really participating, then something is wrong, something is lost. (I’ll resist the urge to get on my soapbox about my issues with using the word “auditorium” to describe a place of worship, since that might be a topic for another post. Lol.) In that case, corporate worship is no longer corporate.
The word “corporate” comes from the Latin word “corpus,” meaning “body.” The church is the body of Christ. Corporate worship is the work of the whole body of Christ, participating together, not just a few leaders or especially spiritual people. Not just those on the platform or at the front. So if some people are not participating, then the body actually suffers from the lack. Our worship suffers.
But also, are we getting to the point where worship music has to sound cool in order to be appealing to worshipers? If so, what does that say about us? Is worship really about us, or about God? It’s not supposed to be about us.
Worship music has never sounded better. It’s never been more appealing and listenable. But if today’s worship songs are only to be heard in a large auditorium or played on our iPods, then I think we’re missing something – something vital. The word “vital” refers to life – vitality. What are we losing in this performance model of worship?