Confessions of a worship leader

juliatakaminecroppedI wrote this a couple weeks ago and almost didn’t post it – because I realized I am SO out of touch with trends in worship music that I may be criticizing a relic of the past rather than the present situation. I changed the channel for my sources of church music roughly seven years ago. Here’s the post – what do you think (besides the fact that it’s awfully long!)? How have things changed or stayed the same in recent years?

May I confess something? Lean in while I glance around and try to be discreet. Okay . . . I do not enjoy worship music. I also don’t listen to Christian radio or have much familiarity with the latest and greatest contemporary Christian music, or praise songs, or whatever the hip terminology is these days.

I could say much about what I find to be the often uninteresting, generally poor quality of the music itself, while freely admitting the same could be said about much of the music I write. Interesting music doesn’t just grow on trees (or radio airwaves, Christian or otherwise). I’m sure there is well-done music on Christian radio stations, but frankly I’ve grown tired of listening through so much else just to hear something worthwhile now and then.

The God described in the lyrics for much of this music isn’t someone I feel inspired to worship. Date or marry, maybe – he sure sounds like a fantastic boyfriend in the sky (strong and sensitive and always there for me!) – but I feel cheap and plastic when I attempt to worship the Creator of the Universe by singing songs that could just as easily work by replacing “Jesus” with “baby.”

Don’t get me wrong – I do not wish to categorically denounce modern church music. I grew up in churches singing only hymns accompanied by piano and organ and a man (always a man) up front waving his arms like a conductor. Until I learned to read and got to hold the hymnal, I wondered what a “pyonder” was, because no one I knew said anything remotely like “when the roll is called up yonder” anywhere besides in church.

Occasionally we sang well-written hymns, like “What Wondrous Love” (that haunting melody and ageless lyrics from Walker’s Southern Harmony), “This is My Father’s World,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and anything by Isaac Watts. But page through any hymnal and you’ll discover reams of oldies-and-not-so-goodies.

Many of the old hymns that nobody feels like singing anymore were popular in their day. Some of them were set to corny music that was only trendy for a few years, and that’s why we don’t sing them anymore. While music can be changed if the words warrant singing again, many of these songs employed images that were powerful for the writer’s contemporaries but can’t connect across the ages. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “Hold the Fort, for I am Coming” are two examples of hymns using war imagery in a time when wars and soldiers were highly idealized, before Vietnam produced a cultural shift in perspective about war (i suppose September 11th produced a pendulum-swing cultural shift, but that’s another conversation).

Maybe today’s preoccupation with God as the ultimate boyfriend is a reflection of our oversexed, Disney-princess-ized culture. Many of the songs we sing these days are written from an individual perspective (“I” the believer in Christ, not “we” the body of Christ), and describe that individual as a weak and helpless person who needs nothing else but God, strong and loving, who will rescue her from evil, hold her gently, love her forever, and one day take her home to his castle in the air (Heaven).

These aren’t necessarily wrong ideas, though I would argue against the “going away to Heaven” idea vs. Heaven coming to earth and healing it (see N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope), but pounding away on this one metaphor again and again, we lose perspective. Our God – and we humans – and the relationship between us – are more complex than that. There’s simply a lot more we could say when we sing about God, including some of my personal favorites: justice, the kingdom of God, and resurrection.

Some of the ultimate-boyfriend love songs are well-written, and I actually like and use them. I just don’t like singing more than one or two of them at a time.

There are fantastic songs, old and new, that can help us step out of our romance-novel mold. Some of my favorite newer ones are “He Reigns” by Steve Taylor, “Faithful” by David Ruis, and “Lutheran Hymn” by Michael Roe (the latter two are not popular but worth finding). And I’ll bet there are many more.

Because I am familiar with so many hymns, and because they’re public domain, and also because they connect us with our roots and the larger century-spanning community of faith, I have begun incorporating more of my favorites into the worship services I lead. It’s harder to keep up with, and access on a limited budget, newer songs.

So I’ll end my confession with a petition: does anyone have suggestions for places to look, or songs you enjoy that break out of the love-song mold? And what other comments do you have? I’m all ears now that I’ve used so many words!

15 Comments

  1. If you like the Heaven Invading Earth concept, you might like some of the stuff coming out of Bethel Church in Redding, CA. Brian and Jenn Johnson (“We Believe”, “We Cry Out” (though I prefer the Kim Walker cover)), Kim Walker, Mellisa Wise, Chris Quilala (Kim, Mellisa and Chris all on the “Your Love Never Fails” and “We Cry Out” albums). Misty Edwards of KC IHOP is also good. Though I like Bethel’s cover (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLNlnf80nXo).

    There are some free videos on Bethel’s TV site: ( http://www.ibethel.tv/media/free ). You should find a few videos of their worship sessions.

    The stuff coming out of this church is amazing. They have been pressing into the message of Christ’s Kingdom on earth for over ten years now and God is doing some amazing things as a result.

    • Hi Jeremy. Thanks for the tips. Nathan downloaded a free recording from IHOP recently and our whole family was taken with the song “Alabaster Box”. The melody and idea of the song are wonderful, but Nathan (and I agree) felt the lyrics were not real enough (too abstract, church-y language) – so he rewrote a verse. The song uses the story of the woman breaking open the costly perfume at Jesus’ feet, and says “I pour out all my worship over you”, talks about how all I have is for Jesus, but doesn’t get specific. So Nathan wrote these lines for the second verse – “Open my front door / open up my garage / my IRA, vacation time, I give it all to you.”

  2. I’m so with you on the man standing behind a podium experience–and never, ever holding a microphone. But of course, we sat in the same pews, and sometimes beside each other.

    I’m not thrilled with many of the songs that are selected in my church. And we sing both hymns and “worship” music. It seems that worship leaders often forget that the average congregant is not a music major and struggles to stay on tune and keep with the beat…After all, we haven’t had several hours of practice before the service.

    I want singable songs…whatever the style or time period they originated from. And please, please, do not make me repeat and repeat and repeat the same phrase over and over and over to infinity! Back in the arm-waving days, at least we sang different words, even if it was always the 1st, 2nd and 5th verse of the song. 🙂 And please, please, please, do not set hymns to a new rhythm. The lyrics and the rhythm were engrained in our minds from babyhood. To attempt to sing it differently without practice is impractical and breaks all focus on the words.

    Great post, Julia!

  3. Julia, great post. I find myself captivated by the old hymns. There is usually a challenging structure and fantastic lyrics that go with them that help them stand the test of time.

    I am bored and “done” with “modern” Christian music. There just isn’t anything of value, in them. Strummy guitars, whiney voices, and a theology that makes me want to sacrifice an animal and reread Leviticus.

    IMHO, stick to the classics, there is a reason they are the classics!

  4. I can relate to the detachment from the ultimate boyfriend/Disney princess music (perfect metaphor!). Sometimes I leave worship services wondering if I was the only person in the room who felt like I’d spent half an hour watching Christian porn. Have some suggestions for you…

    Several months ago my congregation sang a hymn that became an instant favorite: “May the Mind of Christ My Savior” by Kate B. Wilkinson. It’s a simple song, easy to sing, and really made a connection with me. I think it’s in the public domain, so if you do a Google search you could probably find music.

    There are a few Andrew Peterson songs that I think would be singable in a worship service setting:

    “Serve Hymn” – not sure where you can get music for this one; it’s recorded on his Love and Thunder album
    “Doxology (Romans 11)” – http://www.andrew-peterson.com/media/Doxology1.pdf
    “Flesh and Blood” (Communion song) – http://www.andrew-peterson.com/media/Flesh_and_Blood1.pdf

    • Thanks for your comment, Jodi. I know the hymn you mentioned – good one! I think I’ve heard of Andrew Peterson too and will try to check that out. jb

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  5. At the risk of sounding like “Dad,” – I for one am glad you went ahead and posted this. In my current position as Interim to an older group who sing routinely older hymns, it has been especially stirring at times to re-connect with some of the old hymns. There aren’t many styles of music I DON’T like; Old, new, beat, classic, – it’s all good (except maybe polka – [sorry].) I, like you, don’t keep up with where the trends are going but I’m especially enjoying these days what I perceive to be less emphasis on the style, and more on the value of whatever style is offered. I pray that core value gains allegiance in our corporate hearts, empowering us to truely bring Him worship.

    • oh yes, i love that one! and i keep forgetting to add it to my repertoire. thanks for the reminder. if only i could keep that 2Goodwins-2Tindalls quartet in my back pocket to sing it with me whenever i wanted!

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  6. Like you I rarely listen to “CCM” since I tired of it musically and lyrically years ago. As you indicated older is not necessarily better; suffice it to say each generation will come up with some songs that are meaningful and will endure. Coming from the lament angle in Scripture I find CCM emotionally dishonest at worst and shallow at best. Because CCM is marketed at an American christian culture that wants a positive message(they might argue a strong faith message)my expectations are low that much music with any depth or emotional honesty will get mass marketed. Songs that could speak with brutal honesty about how we feel regarding the condition of our world whether at a personal, community, national or international level will not sell to an audience that wants a happy affirming message. We have become so unbiblical as to think that raw emotion poured out to God is impolite at best and evidence of a lack of trust at worst. To sum up many Sundays I leave worship dry in regards to “connecting” with the music but realize it is only a half hour of my week and that my meaningful worship will happen outside the walls. Brian McLaren wrote an open letter to worship leaders several years ago that sums up what many of us feel regarding our frustration with CCM praise worship.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dan. These days I talk to so many people who are fed up with ‘church as usual’, but who are devoted followers of Jesus (my cynical self would say, ‘. . . since they are devoted followers of Jesus’). I want to understand better and meet more of the people who are driving all that marketing. Are most people just settling for something they really don’t enjoy, but afraid to speak up; or is it that I remember best the remarks and conversations I want to hear, and tune out the mainstream even more than I realize?

  7. Hi Julia,
    I just found this post, albeit almost 4 years after it was written. I could not agree with you more. In the “Pub church” where I am responsible for leading the music, we use songs that would be considered “secular”. We’ve sung songs by the Avett Brothers, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Cockburn, Joseph Arthur and even some Blind Faith to name a few. I find in these songs the themes of brokeness, redemption and hope more honest than any worship music.

    • hi Graham,
      Thanks for your comment! I’m always encouraged when someone digs into an old post. Pub church sounds great. I love your list – Bruce Cockburn is one of my lifelong favorites. His song “One of the Best Ones” is the one my husband and I have claimed for “our song.”

      Since writing this post, I’ve recorded a full-length album chronicling a bit of my faith&doubt journey. We will hopefully be releasing it within the next few months, so if you’re interested, stay tuned!

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