What has happened to modern "worship" music? Has something really changed? Or is it simply the old folks in churches looking for something to complain about?
Music in churches has been a subject of debate for centuries. Famously, Martin Luther re-introduced congregational singing to the church after centuries of absence. And since it's re-introduction, it seems to be one thing that Christians can constantly argue and split over. But is there warrant for some of the argument? What criticisms are necessary for music in Church?
As I have walked down the path of pastoral ministry, one criticism I have leveled against the modern church as a whole (not even counting music) has been the watering down of theology and doctrine. As a matter of personal experience I have encountered countless Christians who are incapable of answering the most basic questions of the faith. They are unable to tell me what the gospel is, why Jesus came to Earth, who God is, what the purpose of creation and life is, and how one can be made right with God. (not even counting the reason we must be made right with God)
Without tackling all that, it is my firm belief that the reason modern Christians are so empty headed about their own faith, is because the Church as a whole has failed in teaching the importance of doctrine and theology, and therefore has not taught theology and doctrine. One clear evidence of this is in modern "worship" music. There is a clear decline in the profound teaching ability of music. Church music used to teach us about the God we are worshipping. But what does the current trend of music teach us? Let us see.
Here is the first verse and chorus of a song called. "Never Lost" by Elevation Worship. This song is one of the top "worship" songs of 2020.
"Miracles when You move
Such an easy thing for You to do
Your hand is moving right now
You are still showing up
At the tomb of every Lazarus
Your voice is calling me out
Right now, I know You're able My God, come through again
You can do all things You can do all things but fail 'Cause You've never lost a battle No, You've never lost a battle And I know, I know You never will"
Let's compare this with a classic hymn of the faith.
"A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing
Our Helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe
His craft and pow’r are great, and, armed with cruel hate
On earth is not his equal
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He
The Lord of hosts His name, from age to age the same
And He must win the battle"
What do we learn in song number one? Well, according to song number one; Miracles are presented as an easy thing for God to do. True enough. However, it states that God's hand is moving right now, calling at the tomb of every Lazarus. And who are these Lazarus's? In the next line, it is identified that the ones singing the song are these. Regardless of the intent, this sends the message that God is working miracles for everyone singing this song. Is this true? Is God working miracles for whoever is singing the song?
I can hear you now, "Come on Jonathan. They obviously are taking some creative license in the song to magnify God's miracle working ability." I agree, that is what they are doing. That's why I am so angry. Rather than simply portraying God in His infinite glory, they twist a truth about God. And what happens? They are teaching people that God is in essence a genie in a bottle working whatever miracle they need. To be hyper clear, God is not a genie in a bottle. God does not work out every miracle you need. You may suffer. You will die. In fact, God gets great glory in the suffering of His saints.
But enough with the heretical jargon of a feel good song. Let's look at the classic. What does this song teach us about God? He is our fortress that never fails. True. He is our helper amid a flood of danger and trial. True. Without Christ on our side, we will fail against the devil. True. Christ is the Lord of Hosts, never changing, winner of the battle. TRUE. This song (all twelve of fourteen verses, I lost count) are laden with truth like this.
So, comparing the two, one teaches, at best, twisted truth mixed with some real truth while the other teaches truth. One is focused on us as the object of the song, the other is focused on God. One minimizes God, one minimizes us. I think it is fair to say that the first song is worshipping man, while the second is worshipping God.
However, let's look at another song on the top "worship" songs of 2020. Here is the first part of "Who you are to me" by Chris Tomlin. Chris Tomlin has had his songs being sung in churches for years, but let's look at his most recent hit.
Some people think You're distant, just some words on a page That You're nothing more than fables handed down along the way But I've seen You part the waters when no one else could pull me from the deep That's who You are to me
Some people think You just live in cathedrals made of stone But I know You live inside my heart, I know that it's Your home And I've seen You in a sunset and in the eyes of a stranger on the street That's who You are to me
You're amazing, faithful, love's open door When I'm empty You fill me with hunger for more Of Your mercy, Your goodness Lord, You're the air that I breathe That's who You are to me Who You are to me"
The song in general is a personal declaration to God. It is contrasting what other people think of God and what Chris himself thinks of God. This is a great format for a song. In fact, there are parts of this song that are true and teach truths about God. It is true that many people have misconceptions about God. There are people who think that God is distant, or that He is fables. God is the only one who can part the waters. God is amazing, faithful, loves open door. He is the only one who can fill us. He is the merciful one. Surely there are more truth's in this song than in the last one we looked at. However, there are still flaws that I cannot ignore. This song is exploring subjective realities of who God is in the eyes of one person, but it is not laying down objective truths of who God is. This would be fine, if it were not sending the message that God is who we think Him to be.
I do not believe that Chris Tomlin had the intent of sending a subjective message about God. I do not think that was his intent in the slightest. I think that Chris Tomlin set out to write a song that highlighted a personal relationship with God, and I applaud that! Regardless of intent though, this song could easily convey the message that God is who we see Him to be, subjecting the creator of the universe to our whims and fancies. I say this because of lines like the following:
"Some people think you're distant, just words on a page." - It is true, God is not words on a page; however, God is what He wrote about Himself through inspired scripture. Scriptures that words on a page. God's character and nature are revealed to us through the words on the pages of Holy Scripture.
"I've seen you in a sunset and in the eyes of a stranger on the street." - It is true that God is at work in the beauty of a sunset. He commands the motion of the stars. He is the sovereign Lord of all who paints every sunset through His commands. But if we are being honest, this line conveys the idea that God is in everything. He is in the sunset, in the strangers eyes. This is really a dangerous concept. Again, I am sure that this was not the intent, but words convey meaning. These words feed the universalistic idea that God is in everything. Easily it can send the wrong message to the ones singing it.
To be clear, God is not in the sunset. He is the author of the sunset and deserves to be worshipped. God is not in the eyes of a stranger on the street. He is the maker of the stranger on the street and deserves to be worship as such!
But as I previously stated, my chief problem with this song is that it subjects the God of the universe to the whims of man. The title of the song and most repeated line is, "who you are to me," of "that's who you are to me." This is a wrong idea. As someone who loves people and cares about what they hear and believe, let me make this abundantly clear. God is not who He is to you. God is who He is. His very name is "I Am who I Am." Exodus 3:14. God is not "I Am who you want me to be," or even "I am who you think I am." God is who He is. He defines Himself, we don't define Him. At best, this is a song that is true, so long as you read it correctly. However, if you are misguided in your understanding of God, it does not teach you truth and could actually lead you further astray.
Let us compare this song with another song that is a heartfelt personal cry to God.
"When peace like a river attendeth my way When sorrows like sea billows roll Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well (it is well) With my soul (with my soul) It is well, it is well with my soul
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come Let this blest assurance control That Christ (yes, He has) has regarded my helpless estate And has shed His own blood for my soul"
Many are familiar with this song and it's story. Horatio Spafford wrote these words about his personal relationship with Christ upon the occasion of his daughter's death at sea. It is even more so a personal cry to the Lord than the last song. But what does it say? In short, verse one says that regardless of what happens in life, even in the midst of hellish trials, God has taught him to say that it is well. This is not just truth, but profound truth.
Verse two in short says that the truth of the gospel is the blest assurance that controls him when satan and trials attack. This is again, profound truth!
Let us again compare the two. The first is true as long as you read it in the correct way. The second shares the gospel in its verses, and therefore is nearly impossible to misread.
Now just to show you that I am not someone who is preaching "hymns only!", I will show you a modern song that I love dearly for the truth it lays out. This song is "Grace" by CityAlight written in 2016
"Your grace that leads this sinner home
From death to life forever
And sings the song of righteousness
By blood and not by merit
Your grace that reaches far and wide
To every tribe and nation
Has called my heart to enter in
The joy of Your salvation
By grace I am redeemed
By grace I am restored
And now I freely walk
Into the arms of Christ my Lord"
Verse one clearly states that God's grace leads sinners home, home being eternal life. That this happens by blood and not by merit. Verse two clearly states that God's grace reaches every tribe and nation. It also makes clear that God calls our hearts into salvation. The chorus is filled with truth about God's grace. This song clearly lays out truths of scripture, and I personally love it.
If my criticism seems harsh to you, or is of no use, please pass it by as simply the ramblings of a man obsessed with doctrine. That , I think, is one of the highest praises you could give me. However, to be clear, my criticism is not with modern music in the church. My criticism is with the pattern of a lack of depth and truth in modern music in church. Much modern music ranges from unhelpful for Christians to openly heretical. As a pastor, my job is to shepherd the sheep, leading them closer to the Good Shepherd every day. And in light of this, I hate the current trend within "worship" music because it does nothing to lead the sheep closer to God. Much of it is truly "worship" music, but I fear it is worshipping ourselves rather than God. I fear we are the object of these songs, not the God of the universe. I fear they relegate God to be our little help-mate, while we are the important ones. True worship music is the music that makes clear who we are worshipping and why.
If I were to sum this up, it would be this: Be careful what you listen to, dear Sheep. Listen to music that makes clear who you are worshipping and why. Seek out music worthy of the Good Shepherd, and that draws you closer to Him. Dear Sheep, do not be satisfied with milquetoast music.