Friday, September 18, 2009

Christians need quality music

I was at a housewarming party hosted by a friend of mine a few months ago where I was quite possibly the only Christian there. This happens to me a lot -- being an artsy person hanging out with other artsy people means a whole lot of staunchly secular attitudes in this day and age.

While at this party, a friend of mine asked how I had been, and I told her the bad news of being laid off from my job as a journalist and the good news of being accepted into graduate school. Inevitably, she asked me if I was going back to Arizona State University, and with an internal sigh, I broke the excitement of me potentially rejoining the Sun Devils and kind of half-muttered that I am in SEMINARY, studying toward worship and music ministry. As I had expected, her response was a mere surprised, alienated "Oh." And I think the conversation more or less ended there for a while.

Much later, as I was turning in for the night, this friend bid me farewell with this request: "I know you're going into church music, but I hope you'll still make good music!" Ouch. I was a little hurt by this, even though she probably said it with the best of intentions (and also seemed more than a little intoxicated). But I have to say, her fears are not completely unfounded.

I feel no need to beat around the bush: MOST CONTEMPORARY WORSHIP MUSIC SUCKS. By contemporary, I mean most of what has been written in the past decade or so. By worship music, I'm not talking about centuries-old hymns, which I think are beautiful and Scripturally accurate in their own right. And I'm also not talking about Christian rock or rap or metal or punk or pop or any other veritable genre of music that happens to have lyrics about God through Christ instead of sex, drugs, angst, politics or sheer silliness. (Though some Christian punk is pretty ridiculous -- apparently the group Noggin Toboggan have a whole album all about kittens.) Worship music is a whole different species of suckitude altogether: It's adult contemporary pop/rock written specifically for church services. And it is by far the prime example of banal, soulless marketing fluff that makes this monstrosity we call the contemporary Christian music industry tick.

For those of you who have had the good fortune to not hear David Crowder, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin or -- heaven forbid -- Hillsong United, I envy you. For those of you who have, you are probably a churchgoing Christian or at least have been to a few contemporary church services before. These artists, in particular, are pretty ubiquitous nowadays, though you would be totally forgiven for not knowing who they are since ALL THEIR MUSIC SOUNDS THE SAME. The melodies are anthemic and sweeping. The tempos are egregiously slow, and not in a cool minimalist sort of way. There is almost always an acoustic guitar or piano holding the whole thing down. The songs are typically pretty lengthy, but only because they are so repetitive. A few of the songs are backed by choirs that are polished to the point of sounding synthesized. Then there's the inevitable overproduced backwards cymbal effect to let you know there's about to be a significant shift in dynamics. And worship music only has one song structure: Start off quiet, build oh-so-gradually, hit an overlong bowel purging of a crescendo, and then bring it back down for a quieter repeat of that huge chorus. It can admittedly sound quite pretty, but in a very harmless and predictable way. I shudder just typing out this description for you.

But what amplifies my reaction from shuddering to near-vomiting is worship music lyrics. These lyrics don't bother to take any chances. You could probably spend at least an entire week straight counting out how many times "Jesus," "God," "love," "salvation," "faith" and any other cliche word associated with Christianity is pumped into these just-add-water anthems. This is disappointing, considering some of the Psalms express very strong and legitimate feelings of doubt and anguish toward God, and some of the older battle hymns are rife with pretty hardcore imagery: "From victory unto victory/His army shall he lead/'Til every foe is vanquished/And Christ is Lord indeed." ("Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus," George Duffield Jr.) But worship music removes any elements that would be considered the least bit offensive -- and also anything that would appeal to anyone who is not already Christian. Sounds like a pretty terrible method of evangelism.

I fear these worship music "artists" may be perpetuating a separationist attitude among burgeoning Christian musicians. Even worse, I think they are perpetuating self-centeredness among many Christians. The thing that irks me the most about worship music is most of it exclusively features "I," "me" and "my" language. There are hardly any mentions of the essential notion of Christianity as a familial community. There are hardly any songs about trying to make the world a better place. There are hardly any songs about loving one another, even. It's all about what we as individuals can get out of God. All it really amounts to is that most irritatingly blase of any "divinely inspired lyrics" I've ever heard, courtesy of Delirious?: "God, You're my God, and I will seek you." Good for you, but what does that mean for your brothers and sisters in Christ?

I equate this kind of attitude with churches that maintain a pastoral approach to ministry in the face of missional living's increasing relevance. Like pastoral churches, contemporary worship music is not there to motivate people to fulfill their duty as Christians -- it merely serves as a Band-Aid for whatever spiritual boo-boo's they may have recently suffered. People who listen to contemporary worship music have no interest in joining the proverbial orchestra and performing "The Word," as composed by Awesome God. They only want to sit in the audience and listen to subpar musicians give a very dull rendition.

Not only do I wish there were more Christian musicians who encouraged people to join that orchestra, but I wish the musicians that do encourage people to do so would get more exposure than these worship music torchbearers. Even with a zillion mentions of the word "Jesus" in any given contemporary worship song, I hear little -- if any -- of Jesus in any of that kind of music. I hear Jesus more so in the music of artists on the Asthmatic Kitty and Sounds Familyre record labels, many of whom sing unabashedly about God over some of the strangest music you could ever imagine. I hear Jesus in Animal Collective's latest album, Merriweather Post Pavillion, which features songs about cherishing your loved ones and "support(ing) your brother." I even hear Jesus in the music of hardcore punk sextet F@#!ed Up's The Chemistry of Common Life; even though it's taken from a very agnostic perspective ("It's hard enough being born in the first place/So who would ever want to be born again?"), at least they haven't given up on the search. This is the kind of music that fuels my desire to pick up my instrument and perform "The Word" in the most creative, passionate and relevant way I can muster through Awesome God's rockin' grace.

With all this being said, I must offer a full disclosure: As someone who oversees the 10:30 a.m. service music at his own church, I try to avoid this dreadful contemporary worship music I am speaking of at all costs, but sometimes I succumb. It's not that I like the music (although a few of the songs have admittedly infiltrated my pleasure centers), but the fact of the matter is that quite a few Christians do like contemporary worship music. This terrifies me to think people would rather listen to "The Word" than play it themselves, but at this point in my very young mission I am still learning and therefore playing by some of their rules. One day I dream of a church where a band as bizarre but unmistakably spiritual as Danielson can be played without confused looks or congregants walking out, but I'm doubtful that day is today.

Still, I don't see any reason church music can't be more challenging, motivational and evangelistic than it has been in the past decade. Awesome God did not write "The Word" to be played solo or casually listened to; He wants us all to play our parts and make its melody resound for all the world to hear and recognize its beauty and power. Awesome God is a brilliant composer, and the Jesus Jam were pretty groundbreaking for being an Awesome God cover band. I would like to think they are offended to see "The Word" replicated so poorly by so many sycophantic fans who don't attempt to be innovative musicians.

So to my friend who hopes I still make "good music" in spite of my excursion into seminary, don't worry. I'm working on it, and I hope other future worship leaders will, too. The terms "Christian" and "quality" do not have to be mutually exclusive.


  1. Aaaaand, I feel like I'm back in the music lobby at Simpson. :)
    This was one of the common topics of discussion in the music department and one that didn't make us many friends when we tried to discuss it outside of the department (well, except with some of the bible and theology profs).
    We got better results when we rephrased it this way: "Don't try to be a 'Christian' musician; be a good musician who also happens to be a Christian."(You can replace "musician" with any profession and it helps people get your point.)
    Since I can't add much to the issues with contemporary church music, I do have two tidbits that I feel are good to remember when working with your own congregation:
    1. Music in the church should be primarily functional, which means that you should choose songs based on what is right for the moment and not based on an arbitrary favorite style (as an extreme example, Bach actually wrote some parts of his cantatas to be unplayable/unsingable. The musicians would actually fail when trying to perform it so it would highlight lyrics dealing with despair or man's separation from God, etc.).
    2. You have to start where your congregation is at the moment and then expand their horizons from there. I remember one anecdote from a music leader who was trying to introduce hymns and other interesting styles to his chorus-only congregation. His plan was to introduce a hymn once a month (when appropriate) and then build up from there. He estimated it was going to take him about five years to get where he wanted the church to be musically, without alienating his congregates. And he was cool with that.
    3. Hymns have been around for hundreds of years, and the ones we have now are generally the ones that were filtered out as being noteworthy. But there were lots of hymns that were just as inane lyrically and musically as many praise-choruses today. And there are good praise-choruses being written here and will just take some time to filter out all the fluff (of which there is a lot).
    In the meantime, I'm glad there are musicians like you out there willing to soldier on. Keep at it!

  2. Finally, someone has addressed it. I play bass and sing in my church band, and one day our music leader, trying to make casual conversation during a baby shower, asked me what my favorite band was. This is a lady who was raised by a music minister, has probably never listened to secular music (not even the beatles), and whose favorite band is Hillsong. I was at a comlete loss. I didn't want to tell her that my favorite band only mentions Jesus in an ironic way. I've always felt a lot of guilt for this. Throughout my teen years, youth pastors would always have that speech about getting rid of all your cds that don't glorify God, but I never listened. I wish I could enjoy Christian music more, but I just feel if you're singing to the God of creation, you might come up with something better, something maybe a little deeper. I agree that Christian music has become pretty watered down. I guess this comment doesn't really have a point beyond that, I just wanted to point out that, dude, I relate to this so hard.
    p.s. Can you recommend some bands or artists that don't suck and happen to be Christian?

  3. Kristen, who is your favorite band?

    I totally agree with you Todd! Most 'Christian' music is unimaginative and repetitive. The only Christian groups I like are Relient K, and some albums from Sanctus Real, Everyday Sunday, and Switchfoot. I've mostly given up on finding good Christian musicians, and instead, try to find music that is uplifting and positive. If that song happens to be by an artist who happens to be a christian (or not, they just might be a good person who is a rationalist, or believes in a different religious idea) and their songs happen to be played on secular and christian radio, then I think I've hit the nail on the head.

  4. OK, I meant to have a whole ton of great comments for you guys but I accidentally deleted all of them and frankly don't feel like retyping everything (sorry about that), so let me just say thanks to all three of you for reading and for the kind words of encouragement! I think God certainly deserves better joyful noises than what He's been getting lately.

    Kristen: As for Christian music that doesn't suck, I would recommend anything on the Asthmatic Kitty or Sounds Familyre labels, much of which you're probably already familiar with -- Sufjan Stevens, Danielson, Woven Hand (with David Eugene Edwards, formerly of 16 Horsepower), Half-Handed Cloud, Soul-Junk, The Welcome Wagon (a Presbyterian ministry couple!), Liz Janes, Shannon Stephens, etc. Other contemporary artists and songs I would recommend are as follows:

    Leonard Cohen, "Story of Isaac"
    Pedro the Lion
    Starflyer 59
    Damien Jurado
    Morella's Forest
    Sal Paradise
    Summer Hymns
    Joe Christmas
    Crooked Fingers
    The Black Heart Procession
    The Decemberists, "Sons and Daughters"
    American Music Club, "Last Harbor"
    The Velvet Underground, "Jesus"
    Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "There is a Kingdom"
    Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I See a Darkness"
    Sun Kil Moon, "Unlit Hallway"
    Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch, "I'll Fly Away"
    Gillian Welch, "By the Mark"
    Over the Rhine
    Jars of Clay
    Derek Webb
    Bruce Cockburn
    Bill Mallonnee/Vigilantes of Love
    Sarah Masen
    Fernando Ortega
    Page France
    Neutral Milk Hotel, "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 2"
    Johnny Cash
    Talk Talk
    The Louvin Brothers, "Satan is Real"
    Kanye West, "Jesus Walks"
    J.D. Salinger
    Cold War Kids
    Tonio K.
    The Innocence Mission
    Denison Witmer
    T-Bone Burnett
    Sam Phillips
    Peter Case, "Hidden Love"
    Victoria Williams, "Holy Spirit"
    The Jayhawks, "Smile"
    Murray Attaway, "Allegory"
    Buddy and Julie Miller, "The Selfishness in Man"
    The Alarm, "The Stand"
    Eisley, "I Could Be There for You"
    Pierce Pettis, "I Am Nothing (But the Angels Sometimes Whisper in My Ears)"
    David Wilcox, "Awake, My Dear"
    Emmylou Harris
    Bob Dylan, "Gotta Serve Somebody"
    Larry Norman
    Hank Williams, "I Saw the Light"
    The Rolling Stones, "Shine a Light"
    Ernest Tubb, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus"
    The Byrds, "The Christian Life"
    The Band, "The Weight"