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!