And Another Thing…

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Jesus, School My Heart

 Those who know me know that I have mixed feelings about contemporary church music. I do believe that it is essential for believers to always be writing and singing new songs. At one time, all of the classics that our more traditional brethren prefer were new songs, and came from some surprising sources. For instance, Martin Luther “borrowed” the melody and tempo for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” from a popular German beer-hall sing-a-long. And it worked. The people knew the melody and the lyrics just fell into place. By all means, we should use the language of the day. It is a waste of breath and energy to sing a song whose language is so esoteric that 75% of the people singing it have no idea what they are expressing.

On the other hand, I also believe that songs written in devotion should demonstrate our best efforts. Nothing less than our deepest reflection, our best choices of language, and our most creative, moving, and poetic thoughts should find expression in congregational singing. Songwriting, much like preaching, is both gift and discipline, and only those who have the inborn talent and the discipline to hone that talent should try to pass their songs onto the church.

This is why I am sometimes left stunned or snickering at some of the language of devotion that we employ in church singing. For instance:

 “There is a fountain, that is a king”

What does that mean, exactly?
That's "Burger Fountain" to you, sir.

That's "Burger Fountain" to you, sir.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also get the giggles whenever a song requires “oohing.” I especially get a kick out of it whenever “oohs” are printed with the lyrics or displayed on the projector. I’m not making this up. At church, we actually have song lyrics that have a line that says “ooohs.”  In the plural. Because one person oohing just doesn’t get it, people. I remember when I was a counselor at a summer Bible camp, and pretty much every night the kids sang a song that started off:

“Wooh, ooh, wooh-we-ooh”

 Soul-stirring stuff, to be certain. This along with singing “Jesus Loves Me”. Now I don’t have a problem with “Jesus Loves Me”. It’s a simple, beautiful song and we probably couldn’t have VBS or children’s Sunday school without it. But somebody decided it needed a new melody. And frankly, that new melody sucked.

Then there is this gem:

 “Oh cleanser of the mess I’ve made
your boundless love for me portrayed
with patience for my learning curve” 

I’m sorry but when I hear the word “cleanser,” I think of Billy Mayes.

Jesus gets those sins right out! Order now!

It reminds me of the little talks that Christian singing groups always give before each song during a performance. The talks tend to go something like this: “This song is about how we all screw up sometimes, but Jesus loves us anyway and makes everything okay.” And then they go on to sing a song with a title like “I’ve Screwed Up Again, Jesus”.

A running theme through contemporary church music seems to be that the need for therapy is as great as the need for redemption. This accompanies the trend of a complete disdain for rhyme and meter. Consider:

“I don’t know why, so many things

seem to get in the way,

of seeing my God’s glory”

Important to note: in order to not break tempo, the word “seeing” must be stretched way out, so it comes out “seeeeeeeeing my God’s glory”

Yet another trend is mixing contemporary lyrics into classic hymns. For instance, someone decided that “Amazing Grace” just wasn’t cutting it after 230 years. So they decided to weave in the following lyrics: 

“My chains are gone; I’ve been set free,

My God my Savior has ransomed me, 

And like a flood His mercy reigns, 

Unchanging love Amazing grace”

There is nothing really wrong with those lyrics. In fact, they might make a good song on their own. But does a classic, known the world over by believer and unbeliever alike, that still moves people to tears on its own, really need to be contemporized?

I’m not mocking worship leaders. It’s a hard job, especially in large congregations where everyone wants to dictate how the job should be done. Or in small congregations that never come close to filling their auditoriums (excuse me, worship centers) yet everyone insists on sitting in “their pew,” regardless of its location, thus guaranteeing that the singing will suck. The point is it’s a hard job.

But I wonder if, in our rush to be hip, contemporary, or [gag] relevant, we aren’t giving up all of our common touchstones. I also wonder if we aren’t sacrificing profundity (and quality) for popularity in our songs. What do you think?

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Filed under: Faith and Religion, Music, , , , , , ,

19 Responses

  1. David B says:

    The problem resides in that some of the songs that were designed for groups and choruses or around campfires (and so have their wah wahs and ooohs) are being sung in traditional church of Christ accapella style. That doesn’t work.

    In answer to your ultimate question, about whether some of the songs needs to be made more contemporary, the best answer I can give you is that it depends. Just like most songs will eventually fail by the testing of time (even great songwriters like the Wesleys or Fanny Crosby only have a handful of their thousands of songs still sung today) so also most ‘updated’ versions will not ever match the quality of the original. In pop music, you don’t ever hear Tiffany’s version of “I Saw Him Standing There” but you very well might keep hearing the updated version of “Big Yellow Taxi” by Counting Crows. Such the same dynamic will work in the church, too.

    There’s a reason that most new songs start out in small groups and in youth organizations, because in doing so they go through the necessary filtering. Thus by the time we get to grandma and grandpa in the pew, hopefully much (but not all) of the garbage is tossed aside. Sometimes garbage makes it through, usually songs that were awesome around a campfire, but eventually grandma will put her foot down and stop singing it if it ain’t good church music. It’s always been this way, and will probably continue to be this way until the Lord returns.

  2. There are also trends, you know. One of my biggest complaints with currents trends in contemporary Christian has been the lack of depth in the words. There is a place in the world for pretty songs that repeat the same words over and over, but when I compare it to something like “Night, with ebon pinion,” which we never sing anymore, I get really frustrated and annoyed. And when we sing nothing but that kind of song, I am uninspired.

    The other annoyance I have is related to your comment above about how the lyrics fit the music. The lack of music knowledge really shows sometimes. Being an amateur only excuses so much. And the bitter irony is that a lot of really popular music is done by people who have no musical training whatsoever.

  3. Jr says:

    One thing that is bothersome with some of the new stuff, in my view, are the songs that repeat lines over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again. So mindless.

    The worst though, are the songs that are doctrinally incorrect! Yet we sing them with such heart and feeling without even realizing what we’re saying!

    For months now I’ve had trouble with this song, and I refuse to sing it because it just doesn’t seem right to sing:

    “Can he still feel the nails, every time I fail, can he hear the crowd cry Crucify again. Am I causing him pain Then I know I’ve got to change I just can’t bear the thought of hurting him.”
    Then it goes on in the middle of another verse:
    “…But each time he forgives What if he re-lives The agony He felt on that tree”

    Umm… what?! NO, He can’t still feel the nails, and no, He can’t hear the crowd cry crucify again, and no, he doesn’t “re-live” the agony he felt on that tree! He died once for all and arose in eternal victory!

    What the heck are we singing!?!??!

  4. Kathi says:

    Oh, my dear brother-in-law-in-law…as one trained in classical Church music, I love reading what you have to say about all this. I’ll admit, I love reading it because I agree with it. But still…you have much to say which is very relevant to the argument and you phrase it better than most.

    Our old hymns (and thank you for mentioning our brother, Martin) do more than trudge us through tired melodies – they have theology in them which is rich and full of challenge and purpose. (THAT is my biggest argument with contemporary praise/worship music – the lack of challenge and purpose. When did asking people to think about their faith become such a bad thing?)

    And contrary to popular belief, at least in Lutheran circles, not everyone under the age of 40, or 30, or 20, prefers contemporary praise/worship music. (Some do…) I think people want worship which is fulfilling and meaningful, led well, followed well, and which asks something of them. (I’ve been to contemporary services which were more meaningful than traditional services because of the intentionality – or lack thereof – put into each.)

  5. odgie says:

    Dave – That’s the first theory i’ve heard on the evolution of church songs. An interesting idea there, man. You should do some writing of your own on that.

    Melanie – Welcome to AAT! Glad to have you on board. You are right about the “Seven-Elevens” (repeat the same seven lines eleven times). Those can be beat to death. You are also right that some of these songs seem slapped together by people who don’t really know their music.

    JR – Yes! I have the same problem with that song. I think that it was written as a total guilt trip/manipulation for youth groups.

    Kathi – Thanks for your kind words. And I will slip in references to Luther any time I can; I can’t say that I agree with him on everything but how can I not love a guy who stuck it to the Catholic church? You’ve also touched on two important elements that are missing from a lot of contemporary worship services: intention and purpose. All too often (but not always) we are shooting for a quick emotional fix; we want to try to recreate that mountaintop revival feeling every week rather than something that resonates after the service is over.

    Thanks to all of you for your comments. Honestly, you went deeper than I expected anyone to…I just wanted to vent and maybe have a laugh.

  6. Roland says:

    Boy, I could not agree more with some of the comments here. The new “worship” songs, esp those by certain big name worship leaders, lack depth big time. They are just surface songs whereas many of the older songs, with ACTUAL verses and a chours, are much, much deeper. I mean, there is no comparision of “Our God is an Awesome God” to “When Peace like a River” in terms of depth. When I sing some of the deeper songs, I think about the lyrics. When I sing the “praise” songs, I start to think of them but then, when they turn repetative, I start to tune out.

    That being said, I don’t think there is no place for the praise songs and I actually like some of them but I think we need to have more of a mix and, please…PLEASE…let’s get more of a variety. There are SO many songs to sing, why do we sing the same 20 songs over and over and over and over? When is the last time you heard “There is sunshine in my soul” or “Heaven came down and glory filled my soul”?

  7. odgie says:

    Roland,

    In the interest of being fair, I should point out that the worship leaders at the church I attend have always made an effort to have a mix of old and new.

    You raise an interesting question about some of the newer songs: Is it the lyrics, the repititious nature, the contemporary melodies and tempos, or some mix of all of the above that makes them less powerful? Someone who knows a lot more about music than I would have to answer that…Kathi? any thoughts?

    As to your final question: I don’t remember the last time I sang “There is Sunshine in My Soul” or “Heaven Came Down”.

  8. rollerpimp says:

    I would say there are problems with old songs and new songs. Does anyone actually think of the lyrics of Night with Ebon Pinion? And I can’t remember what song it combines with but whoever thought they need to put Peaceful, Easy feeling into a worship song needs to be shot. I also don’t like it when worship leaders try to force a modern CCM to be an accapella worship song. Sometimes it can work but for the most part it is not a good idea.

    I do agree that some worship songs are overly simplified but God did the same for us in Revelations. The writer sees streets of Gold and jewels and other things but is told this is just so we can have a twinkling of an idea of what awaits us. We do hurt God with our sins and maybe saying that he feels the nails again is overly simplified but it does get the point across that God feels pain from us looking away from Him.

    I like it when churches mix and match old and new songs during worship.

  9. Kathi says:

    Well, call me a purist if you want – but when I was a choir director, I kept this thought before me when selecting music: A song which is bad musically can be good theologically, which CAN (but does not always) “redeem” the song. However, a song which is bad theology is still bad theology, no matter how beautiful it is musically.

    Now, I’m going on the premise that we are choosing music for corporate worship which has the main goals of a) praising God, b) telling others about God, and/or c) strengthening people’s faith in God. Some folks throw the above criteria out the window when choosing music for corporate worship, and so the above thought probably makes little sense to them.

    And – we also have to differentiate between music used in corporate worship and music which may be “religious” but maybe is not appropriate for worship because of the theology OR musical style.

    Two examples:
    1. Many people, even Lutherans (gasp!) love having a setting of the “Ave Maria” at funerals, weddings, etc. In a Lutheran worship setting, however, this song is inappropriate because it is a prayer to Mary. Musically, there are many beautiful settings of these words – theologically, the song is a no-go for me as a worship song.

    2. I have heard so many Christian contemporary songs play on the radio which later start appearing in praise band repertoires. The problem with this is that, while the theology may be spot-on, those songs largely are not meant to be sung by a congregation – they are soloistic by nature. Therefore, trying to have a congregation do all the oooohs and aaaahs which a solo singer can do very well can turn out to be quite a mess musically.

    And one more note – there are plenty of contemporary composers out there writing hymns. Just because something sounds more like a traditional hymn, doesn’t mean it was written pre-1900.

    (CLUNK! down off the soap box!) 🙂

  10. odgie says:

    Pimp (#8) – Funny thing about “Night With Ebon Pinion”… the phrase “ebon pinion” actually means dark night, so a literal translation of that title is “Night with Dark Night”

    And slipping a secular pop song into a Christian song was indeed one of the worst ideas ever. At least it’s not “Shut De’ Do'” Few things are more vomit-inducing to me than Americans faking Jamaican accents.

  11. odgie says:

    Kathi (#9) – well, yeah, what she said.

  12. I see church as a place to embrace ideas and to learn about Him; I tend not to socialize as much as I should. Music has never been my thing. I guess I am pretty passive when it comes to church; I want to sit and listen to the message. Or, participate in a class discussion.

  13. Andy says:

    Always such strong feelings on this topic…

    I tend to agree with most of the criticisms of contemporary music offered here, but I don’t think we’re the first to do so. I recently read a scathing criticism about the theological bankruptcy of a popular new song among churches. I kind of nodded in agreement until I saw the title. It turned out to be “Just As I Am” and the comments had been written in the 1800’s.

  14. Roland says:

    “whoever thought they need to put Peaceful, Easy feeling into a worship song needs to be shot.”

    Have you been reading my mind???? I bring that up to my wife all the time! lol.

    I mentioned to my wife today, after church, how can you even compare a lyric like
    “My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.”
    to
    “Our God is an awesome God,
    He reigns from heaven above,
    With wisdom power and love,
    Our God is an awesome God!”?????

    You can’t. Sure, they are both songs I enjoy singing but the first…you just can’t compare it…that is just, pardon the pun, awesome. 🙂

  15. Lou says:

    This thread reminds me that my “Knights with Ebon Pinion” suggestion for a spring banquet theme was never used.

    Odgie and RP will get that one.

  16. odgie says:

    Doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good suggestion, Lou.

  17. Frank B. says:

    Re: that ebon pinion. Not to be persnickety, but pinion is a near synonym for “wing.” Night with ebon pinion, therefore, means something like “Night on wings of darkness,” a night that brooded o’er the Kidron Valley.

    Frank B.

  18. Kathi says:

    Andy, thanks for pointing out what we missed – ie, that bad theology knows no limits of time…tho’ I’m not sure “Just As I Am” is the worst out there.

  19. odgie says:

    Hey Frank,

    Snick away. I don’t mind being corrected.

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