Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Bad Christian Music
Pastoral Position Paper
by Dave Hatcher
It is time to quit fooling ourselves. Contemporary worship songs, taken as a whole, are really bad, both musically, and poetically. That is not to say that there are not sincere, God-fearing men and women who are truly trying to write and perform music before God that would honor Him. The problem is that for so long our culture has lived without objective standards to measure whether or not a piece of art is good or not.
At the time of the Reformation, the church was the centerpiece for the cultural norms of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. The world followed our lead, and though imperfect, there were wonderful results in the areas of art, music, and literature, as well as in science, medicine, and a host of other fields. However, early in the nineteenth century, the church began to lose its confidence in the face of unbelieving scientism, and abdicated its leadership. Filling that leadership void in the world of music were men like Schoenburg, Wagner, Cage, and others, who applied the laws of modernity and scientism to music and made it a mechanical monstrosity. In the seventies and eighties, after over 150 years with no sense of what 'high art' ought to look like, and a growing consumer mentality within the church, we caved into the demand for pop-worship styles, along with our sermonettes and skits, for game-show like worship services.
Are there any objective standards we are required to use to measure the quality and propriety of music for the worship service? There must be, for we are required to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (1 Chron 16:29), and Jesus is referred to as Beauty (Zech 11). When it comes to evaluating aesthetics of all kinds we must meditate upon "…whatever things are true, what ever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy…" (Phil 4:8). God has something in mind when He says beautiful, lovely, and good.
In order to answer the question in the details, however, with regard to music, requires wisdom and propriety. One cannot turn to a passage in scripture in order to determine whether a particular song is appropriate or not. But such determinations are commanded. Relativism in music, and the arts in general, has made this a difficult challenge. Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy that deals with the theory of the beautiful and of the fine arts. But aesthetics, as with all branches of philosophy and learning, must submit to the queen of sciences, theology. Music, considered autonomously from the Lord of music, is leading the music of the church into bankruptcy and ruin.
The problem is that contemporary worship takes itself too seriously and yet not seriously enough. On the one hand, the leaders of the contemporary worship scene proclaim that we are on the wave of a new awakening in church-music. They teach that we are seeing the beginning of a revival of deep and moving Holy Spirit-inspired music and liturgy. Actually, we are seeing the logical outcome of several generations of abdicating our role as guardian of the culture and the arts. The testimonies of Christian music writers are often that 'God is doing something special in the music of today'. That is true, but not in the way they are thinking. Rather, He is giving us over to the garbage that we want. What will the historians say of the music of the twentieth century ten centuries from now? Not much I would wager. And what will the church say of the music of the twentieth century that was used in the worship of God in 'modern' churches? I would guess that it will simply be a quick illustration of how the twentieth century church, lacking any moral or aesthetic leadership, followed after the unbelieving world, desperately seeking its attention and acceptance, like the unattractive woman she had become.
On the other hand, the contemporary worship scene does not take itself seriously enough. Song after song of trite lyrics, hip-hop music styles, meaningless repetition and an overemphasis of the emotions, have taken us to all new lows in propriety within the worship service. Our motto has become: If it sells (or if it brings them in) it must be good, it must be annointed, it must be pleasing to our Father. Pietism is alive and well in the modern church. This view permeates the landscape of contemporary Christian music. If it moves the believer to thoughts of piety, then it is good worship music. If it does not affect the believer, the problem is in the music, not the believer. This is because, in general throughout churches in America, we have bought into the business axiom: The customer is always right. In addition, as worship services become more and more man-centered, focused on 'bringing them in', we serve music that suits the tastes of the God-hating unbeliever. If music were the beverage used to proclaim a toast to the King of kings, we have substituted Bud-Lite for fine champagne, simply because Bubba and his boys never acquired a taste for the latter. All for the sake of 'earning the right to be heard', we no longer have anything to say.
But the trite has come at a terrible price, only emphasizing the lack of literacy and deep-thinking so prevalent in our age. Worship music has been led by the pragmatist into the arena of feeling instead of thinking, because feeling gets quick results, while thinking requires too much patience. The result is a dumbing-down of phrases and poetry, a reductionist view of word content, constantly lowering the bar of what is acceptable musically, lyrically, and theologically, as long as an affect is produced. In contemporary music, we see this so obviously in songs that have become so vague in meaning as they sing of their love for the Father that one could simply insert 'Lolita' for 'Jesus' and not change any other words in the song! Praise and glory and honor and majesty is sung to God, but the biblical characteristics of God are rarely defined anymore, and almost any cult or fringe religious group would feel as comfortable as us at using the songs. There is no more theological 'edge' to what we are singing about.
Illiteracy shows up not only in the words, but in the music, where three-chord wonders rule the day. The hard work of creating complex and yet profound and simple pieces of art is beyond the reach of most musicians, and less and less congregations can read music. In addition, almost all praise songs are driven no longer by a melody that can stand by itself in beauty and simplicity. Instead, they demand rock 'n' roll's savior for all of its songs - the backbeat. No, the devil is not in the syncopation. But the constant musical tension created by the incessant backbeat is what gives the energy to all of the melodies - because the sickly melodies lack anything profound or interesting in themselves.
If we are thinking covenantally, then we must understand that 'we' are the problem, not 'they'. We must begin by repenting ourselves. Rather than building on the work of great church-musicians like J.S. Bach, we have gone down a long road of compromises, theologically, lyrically, and musically. These decisions have been made in the orthodox church for the most part, paralleling our compromises in the areas of science and rationalism, the integrity of the Scriptures and translations, and relativism in every area of art and the aesthetics.
In addition, we must repent of the way we are known for singing those 'dead, old hymns'. They are known as dry and dusty dirges because that is the way many churches sing them. We are not simply to sing, we are to sing, making melody in our hearts, as the Scriptures require. This requires true regeneration and the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. Dead churches can't sing hymns as though they were alive.
At the same time, we would do well to remember the antithesis, and remain constantly suspicious of styles and forms that come out of God-hating worldviews. We must be careful to remember that, while we may plunder the Egyptians of their gold, we must have never covet their golden calves. Classical music styles were created in the church and in a world dominated by a Christian worldview. Pop and rock'n'roll have been cultivated and embraced in a culture of rebellion and death. We must diligently seek wisdom to discern what the Lord considers to be lovely and of good repute.
A return to the hymns of the previous centuries, particularly the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when the reformation was making all kinds of wonderful applications in the arts, is certainly the place to start. But we are not to return as though that were the end-all for music. As God grants us repentance and a fresh reformation, we must watch for well-skilled musicians to again lead us down those old paths, but from there into fresh pastures of music that will be rich and well fitted for the task. In addition, we should return to the tradition of the psalter. When Paul writes of singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, he is probably referring to the age-old practice of singing the psalter. Many congregations have been rediscovering the richness and beauty of singing these truly inspired texts, finding themselves singing about things they never sang before.
O for the day to return when the church triumphant leads the world in the development of music. When that happens, I do not doubt that there will be complaints from the world (and even some stodgy types in the church) that the music is 'getting a little out of hand'. But that will be coming amidst the awe and splendor of glorious music, performed by skillful musicians on an assortment of instruments, leading the congregations of Christ's Bride in music sung from the heart. Then, the world will not laugh, they will come in and exclaim "Surely God is among you." Then the church will be placed in its rightful place as the leader in all areas of beauty, as we worship in the beauty of holiness.
Minister Dave Hatcher is the pastor of Trinity Church of Kirkland, WA. He lives there with his wife and six children. He is the reader of many outstanding books.