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”
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.
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?