Thoughts on Today’s Praise and Worship Music

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?

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15 thoughts on “Thoughts on Today’s Praise and Worship Music

  1. speakpeacealways

    There’s something that has been puzzling me a lot about modern ‘worship’. Why is it the ‘worship team’ has the responsibility to ‘lead’ the congregation into the presence of the Lord? Isnt Jesus faithful to His promise about being in our midst, if just two or three gather in His name? Dont we enter into God’s presence because the veil is torn, not because we’ve sung a hundred songs and got into the right emotion? I personally would like to see more songs being written about the resurrection power of Christ working in us, His living out His life through us… Sorry, my comment is not directly linked to your article, but your article brought to the forefront things that have been in my mind for a long time. God bless!

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  2. musicman707 Post author

    Hi – Thank you for commenting on my post. Actually it is pertinent to what I wrote about. And I agree with you – even as a worship leader I take some issue with the idea that a worship team is required to lead people into the presence of God. Now I do believe, based on experience, that we can have different experiences of the tangible presence of God. I also believe that one of the ways we can have a deeper or more immediate experience of the presence of God is through worship. But I think it has as much to do with the hearts of any and all of the worshipers as it does with any ‘worship team.’ The worship team are just instruments (if you will) in the hand of God, and in a sense are there to serve the body in providing some music that allows people to sing and worship and come into the presence of God. But it’s not like the worship team does this “for” the congregation. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. Jose

    God Bless You! So how do we transition from Private Worship to Corporate worship? I visited a mega church today in Austin, Texas. I was awed by the lights, sound, and production. It felt like I was at a concert instead of church. My home church is small and more intimate. The worship we do are the same songs that the mega church do every week. In our church I feel that we are not able to replicate the “Awe” of the Youtube Videos. I dont see the move of the Holy Spirit in the mega church and the small intimate church. How do we fix it?

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    1. musicman707 Post author

      Thank you for your comment and thoughts, Jose. I think your comment about the megachurch worship being more like a concert than a worship service makes a significant point. I think in an attempt to attract people many churches today are trying to imitate the feel of a rock concert in their worship music. I appreciate your dilemma about the small church versus the large church. My church is small, too.

      I think the first thing we do is to remember that the Holy Spirit doesn’t need a large crowd to work. We have to recognize the difference between the energy that’s created simply by large numbers of people versus the energy that comes from the Holy Spirit. They are not the same. Jesus said “wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, I am in the midst.” Jesus shows up wherever Christians gather to worship Him in spirit and in truth, not just in a big church doing cutting edge worship. Jesus can show up in a small church singing old hymns. The motive and the attitudes of the heart is what matters. Personally I think the small church has an advantage because intimacy of relationships is so much easier in a small church than it is in a megachurch.

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  4. Jose

    I agree with you. Because the churches are using the Rock Concert format I feel that the music itself has suffered in my opinion. I have been a church musician (saxophonist) since 1989. In the early 90’s into the 2000’s music was different. I saw a gradual change in 2006 and by 2008 alot of us acoustic musicians were phased out. I saw many talented, musically trained Worship Pastors lose their job and replaced by young energetic unskilled musicians. I myself went back to studying my first love, jazz. I was recently asked to play again and of course I was thrilled. As I started serving again I realized I am a lone acoustic musician amongst an army of guitars and young musicians. Fortunately my Worship Pastor is a Berklee Graduate and a fantastic musician and leader. He knows what he is doing. My task is to write my own parts out on a weekly basis. With this style of music it is really difficult to “hear” a sax line. Often I only play a phrase or two, most of the time I just stand there cause the song is too Rocked out. I am blessed to be playing again but it is much different now. Most of the other musicians have never played with a speclized instrumentalist like me. I feel ancient and out of place. Honestly I dont know what I am doing up there but for some reason the Lord asked for me to serve again. It is hard for me not to be upset as I am giving songs that I dont like very much. This is my present dilemma.

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    1. musicman707 Post author

      I can appreciate your dilemma, Jose. I think it is created in part by changes in the style of popular music in general. Usually contemporary Christian and praise and worship music tries to follow and reflect what’s happening in the larger culture musically (which is sad in my opinion, because Christians should be taking risks and setting the tone, not just following trends – but that’s a topic for another blog post – lol). But anyway, think about it: How often do you hear saxophones in any popular (rock) music today? Sure, there are saxes in jazz, but most churches aren’t going for a jazz feel in their worship services – they’re going for a rock or pop feel, because that’s what the culture perceives to be mainstream. And pop and rock music don’t often utilize saxophone anymore – it’s pretty much just traditional rock instruments at this point – guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums. Pop music in general has become much more bland, streamlined, and formulaic. The record companies have found the formula that sells records, and they’re not going to deviate from it, unless they can see $$ in doing so. It’s the sad reality – art these days is driven more my $$ than by creative freedom. Though the church hopefully isn’t driven as much by the $$, they are driven by what they perceive will attract the most people, and that’s why they follow what’s popular in the secular industry.

      But I can understand the difficulty and disappointment it creates for a specialized and trained musician like yourself. My hat’s off to you that you are following God and determined to use your ability for him even in spite of the less-than-ideal circumstance. God bless you in your obedience and endeavors.

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  5. Paul

    Morgan, used to be a part of a worship band and when we practiced a song, many times our worship leader would shout “stop – train wreck” and ditch the song, because he knew 500 people were not going to be able to sing it together. It sounded great with one person or a small ensemble but it wasn’t meant for a large congregation. I personally love songs directed TO God, not about God, and songs that give glory to Him and are not about how wonderful “we are so that He would die for us” I love great theology in song more than a catchy melody. (Keith & Kristyn Getty for example)

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    1. musicman707 Post author

      I’ve read some articles that talk about that, and it is sad. I think it’s a function of some of the things I talked about in the post: The fact that churches are getting bigger and bigger, and worship is becoming more of a performance (again), increasing the distance between the worship leaders and the people in the pews (or chairs), and also the fact that worship music is becoming less something to sing and more something to listen to.

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  6. jared

    Very interesting article. I think one thing that is to be remembered in all this is that worship is necessarily a song, or music, or any of this. Worship is an act of the heart where our lives are to be lived in worship. Its not supposed to be confined to a 30 minute set on Sunday, it should be our lifestyle with everything we do as an act of worship to God. I’ve been involved in leading worship now for the better part of 10 years and in my thought process as a musician was that I know there will always be better musicians. So in regards to the idea of sound replication, just in my opinion, is that I believe that God gifts us to find a sound within the song that we are playing. God created us with specific sounds inside of us, and when we replicate someone else we are just being a copy, when really our greatest outpouring of worship is to be who He created us to be, authentic. Not there’s anything wrong with playing a song like someone else, I’m not saying that. I’ve just come to learn to adapt the song to the DNA of the church that uses it. A song is always subject to the one that leads it. I also am saddened by the lack of participation in intimate worship that people overall tend to have, but i think that is the purpose of a worship leader. To create a welcoming atmosphere for people to experience the presence of God and give an example of one who chases Him. I would tell anyone even if they don’t feel like they sing good, or sing as high as a song may be, sing it either way. God desires a joyful noise, He doesn’t necessarily request a ‘beautiful vocal display by the standards of me’. Now I don’t claim to know everything at all, this just is an expression of the experiences that I’ve had. The church I attend isn’t large, but it does have lights and very contemporary music, not because its the popular thing, but because its the direction our pastor believes we are to use to effect our community. But God can and will be present in loud concert like songs, just as much as He can in hymns and choral ensembles.Because at the end of the day Its not about a song, or a beautiful vocal line, a screaming guitar, or a quiet piano melody. It’s about people who live a lifestyle of worship and seek after the presence of God. People who live a lifestyle of worship will find Him in everything. Thanks for posting this article. The church needs to see beyond popularity and release what God has put in them to release.

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    1. musicman707 Post author

      Good thoughts, Jared, thanks for sharing them. The only thing I would say in response is that I think we often aren’t aware of it, but the means we use to worship God conveys something in itself. Sure God can use any of them. But the means we choose to use is going to have an effect. So if we choose to do corporate worship in a way that resembles a rock concert, we shouldn’t be surprised when people respond to it the same way they would a rock concert–by sitting and listening.

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      1. jared

        I get your point in that as well. There are spiritual obstacles that have to be overcome in that situation. Sadly there will always be people who choose not to participate. Whether its a lack of discipline, or apathy, or just not caring, there will always be those unwilling to enter in to His presence. I believe that if our goal is to seek out God’s presence that it wont matter the package that it comes in. Yes, certain means that we use to facilitate our worship can have things conveyed through them as well. But it would be an inanimate object that we are saying carries that obstacle rather than attributing it to a spiritual obstruction, whether in ourselves, a lack of discipline to chase Him through any circumstance, or a refusal to look at it as something God can use because we don’t like the box it comes in. Now I am by no means saying that the big concert feel is the only way to have a worship service either. I believe there are times for those moments and times for soft and quiet ones, even a Capella moments. But if our heart is to seek after His presence than that’s what we will do. Really like I said before each place really should seek the sound that God has put on them rather than strive for the ‘popular’ worship type. We were created to be creative because God is creative and we were made in His image. The best worship is always found in authenticity, no matter the package. His anointing is always being poured out, it’s just whether we are really looking for it. Thanks again. I love having conversations with people about Jesus and seeking His presence.

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