How Did We Get Here?
Part Two of: Has Modern Worship Become Its Own Musical Genre?
by Dan Adler

In my last article, I raised the concern that what is now known as "modern worship" has become so fraught with sameness and predictability that it has become its own musical sub-genre - so that when someone mentions "worship music" they're actually talking about a style of music instead of a broad palette of music used for congregational worship. This article is a follow-up to that article, discussing how I believe we arrived at this place.

However, before I go any further, I feel it is necessary to clearly explain my motivation in writing these articles and what I hope to see as an ideal outcome. The last thing I want to do is create more empowered, disgruntled critics who cause more division. I also don't want anyone who deeply connects with or leads a "modern worship" style to feel attacked, defensive or somehow defective. If our desire is for congregational worship to be powerful and engaging for as many diverse Christians as possible, then we must keep our hearts humble towards one another - being neither hostilely critical nor hyper-defensive - and let's see how we might grow towards a stronger and better place together. My hope is to bring clarity and perspective to the issue so that instead of conveying discontented, vague frustration or throwing out unclear criticism, the issue will be clearly articulated and discussed in helpful, uplifting ways. The bottom line is that if loving one another, serving one another and esteeming others as higher than ourselves gets lost over "worship", we are completely out of step with God's desires and might as well stop what we call "worshiping" completely.

Let me also do a disclaimer. I'm not a historian. But I think these are accurate observations that are helpful in gaining perspective on where many churches are at currently, regarding congregational worship through music. I also want to contextualize what I'm saying by clarifying that I'm speaking mostly about the "white evangelical" church experience. The African American church has a very different history than white churches; it varies between denominations.

Allow me also to present a working definition of worship. A dictionary definition of the basic meaning of the word, applied to any religion and one which I have used for years is this: To worship, means "to ascribe worth to, to bow down to, to give homage to" whatever you are worshiping. It's also clear that "worship" is a verb. You have to do something to worship something. A song, when used for worship, must be vertical in its lyrical focus (to or about God; not us) and the lyrics should reflect elements of that definition. A worshipper, when using music, should make a choice to sing that song to or about the Lord as an act of worship.

So how did we get here?

Before the 1970's, hymns were the primary music genre used in congregational worship. These hymns had a similar form with a strong emphasis on theological/lyrical content and had been written over hundreds of years. Hymns truly were a sub-genre of music, so much so, that for many people, the music and instruments used to play the music were considered "sacred" and spiritual in and of themselves. Though there are great hymns of worship, many hymns are not technically worship songs but instead exhortations to Christians. However, there was no real teaching or attention brought to the differences in the lyrical focus from one song to the other. Worship was generally viewed as showing up on Sunday morning, dressing nice, sitting still, passively participating in the singing of whatever was in the program and primarily listening to a sermon. There was no attention given to who we were singing to.

Beginning in the 1960's, "choruses", or what were sometimes called "camp songs", since kids tended to learn them at Bible camp instead of in church, began to grow in popularity among youth groups through writers and publishers such as Ralph Carmichael. But in main church services, with the exception of southern Gospel in some churches, hymns remained the music of corporate worship.

Then in the 1970's, big changes began to happen as the Charismatic Renewal and the Jesus Movement emerged out of the hippie culture. In Southern California, there was a huge revival amongst hippies who were coming to Christ. These former hippies began using guitar-based folk and rock music to sing songs about the Lord and both "Praise Music" and "Jesus Music" were born and began to spread like wildfire.

At that time, one church in particular, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, became a welcome place for these former hippies and their Jesus Music. That church gave birth to the music label, Maranatha Music. This label produced many albums by "performance" bands but majorly became known for its whole series of "praise" albums. The music on the praise albums was always congregational and recorded by what began to be called "worship teams" or "praise teams". And with the birth of "praise music", there was a new conscious focus of "singing to the Lord" instead of simply singing Christian songs in church services.

By the '80's and early '90's, "Praise and Worship" music was a growing sub-market of the contemporary Christian music industry. It was primarily released by 3 labels, which were Maranatha Music, Vineyard Music and Integrity Music. Christian radio ignored this sub-market for the most part and it only got airplay on smaller "praise and worship" formats. But this music was beginning to spread around the world and starting to be sung in Sunday services by more and more congregations.

Then, right as Darlene Cszech made a big splash with "Shout to the Lord", the secular company TIME/LIFE productions, seeing a major market opening up, put together a collection of praise and worship songs and made an infomercial called "Songs for Worship - Shout to the Lord". It was a huge sales success and ended up being one of their biggest selling music-infomercials ever.

From that point on, Praise and Worship was a force to be reckoned with in both the secular and Christian music industry. Soon, virtually every contemporary Christian artist and band began to put out "praise and worship" projects. Christian radio also took notice, and a majority of them began to play this music as their main format. But a major change had happened. The un-lauded earlier forms of praise and worship were quite intentionally recorded by groups of people - either born out of or recorded for congregational worship - with many vocalists and lots of harmony in the songs. But now, with solo artists putting out Praise and Worship songs, radio began pushing "artist-driven" praise and worship songs. The music took on a narrower, more "pop" sound, usually featuring one main vocalist with minimal back-up harmony. The diversity of style found in earlier praise and worship, including island and Gospel influences, completely disappeared or was relegated to only being played on "Gospel Stations", where the style was completely limited to "Gospel" music.

With this move, more and more youth conventions featured "praise and worship" led by solo artists and their bands. Soon, young people saw this as the "normal" model for how "praise and worship" songs should be done and began seeking to emulate that form in their own churches.

Now the "feeder" of church music became Christian radio and the model became solo artists with their back-up singers and small band. Somehow, the rock band U2, with its Christian undertones and religiously passionate performances, seemed to set the template for how many, many "modern worship" songs would be constructed and performed. Radio embraced the business marketing model of targeting a certain demographic market by narrowing the musical styles being aired, just like when you are selling any other product, so as to gain more customers. So that's exactly what they did and the sound of Christian radio became less and less diverse. The churches in turn followed their lead, and began to make this music and format the new "normal" for congregational praise and worship. Presently this is what we have with little prospect of change in the wind.

So - Is this so bad? In many ways the quality of production of modern worship is significantly better than it was in years past. Also, the songs and performances are clearly closer in quality to top 40 radio. Really, this is all positive. But, I believe that the blind spot in solely embracing this one musical form in congregational worship is both the narrowness of style and mood, as well as, the lack of the "congregational-ness" of it. How we do worship is not nearly as important as why we do it and the lyrical content we use. But the question I pose is this: could we do way better? I believe that answer is "yes."

Here are a few of the negatives of using solely this form:

  1. The general sameness of style and mood limits its impact and expression of Biblical worship. It dates the music and tends to exclude a majority of people who do not connect as much with it.
  2. Only a small group of musicians can lead this type of music and still keep it sounding "authentic". This eliminates the equally powerful outgrowth of a music ministry that involves community via choirs, and groups or "teams" of musicians rehearsing together, praying together and serving together in music ministry.
  3. Harmony, which is truly a gift to music and a profound illustration of unity in diversity, is mostly absent in this music.
  4. Ethnically diverse styles of music such as Latin and Gospel, as well as generationally diverse music, are difficult to pull off with this band format. Thus we entrench our ethnic and generational divisions all the more through our worship music.
  5. Embracing only this form causes "worship music" to be a "sound" instead of a huge diversity of sounds with a common lyrical focus, thus making it exclusive, narrow and destined for obsolescence. It also leads to spiritualizing the mood and sound brought by this certain realm of music. This is similar to the somber mood and ambience that organs brought to hymns in the past that caused that form of music to be deemed the only appropriate "worshipful", "reverent" and "sacred" music that there was.

So, what's the alternative?

Well, every congregation is different based on what musicians and budget they have to work with. So I couldn't possibly propose a one-size-fits-all solution. But to me, the basic alternative is diversity. Why should we market our music and churches to one demographic? If this is the "young" church now, what happens as they age? Won't they just marry this form of music and demand it forever, thus further sub-culturing themselves when they are no longer young and "cutting edge". Don't we want to teach our congregations - through sermons and our music - that we are called to be a loving and unified community across generations and ethnic groups? Shouldn't we be counter-cultural in this area - not catering to "market niches" that divide us, but instead calling people out of the culture to be true disciples of the Servant Christ and lay our lives down for each other and come together? Modern worship isn't bad. It's just one way to do it and there are so many more ways to enrich our worship experiences than just using this one form.

Here are some practical things that we could do:

  1. First of all, TEACH! One of the biggest reasons that we get stuck in ruts with music and have conflicts over worship, is the sheer lack of clear teaching and vision being cast about what we're trying to accomplish in the first place. Many in church leadership have little more vision for worship beyond needing to hire talented Christian musicians who can pull off the current music that is popular. Because of that, that's often all they get. So many congregants still view worship as simply showing up in church. They've never been taught the meaning of the verb "worship". We need to regularly explain and remind our congregations what it means to worship and call them to do that in our gatherings. We also need to routinely cast a vision for why we are doing what we are doing. We can easily do this at the beginning of our services each week. We need to keep in mind that there are plenty of new people who have no idea what we're doing or why we're doing it. Our regular attendees need regular reminding as well. If we suddenly diversify our music without explaining why, we'll just have more confusion. But if we routinely teach what worship is and cast a vision for multi-generational, multi-ethnic worship - calling people to embrace and serve one another in this way, instead of separating to have their own way, we will be so much more effective in moving our congregations forward to a deeper, more Biblical place. They'll have a vision for what we are doing and why we are doing it. They will be convinced that It's Biblical and will be more likely to embrace it, even if It's not always their favorite style.
  2. Look past using only the latest songs that are offered by Tomlin, Crowder, Redman, Hillsong and Jesus Culture. Do some digging into what was powerful in other decades, both recent and distant, and bring out some of those treasures again. When you do new songs, take time to teach them so that the congregation doesn't just stand there watching.
  3. Try different styles of worship music from one Sunday to the next. Do the modern worship thing sometimes but some other weeks change things up.
  4. Mix things up within a worship set sometimes. It is very possible, in one worship set, to cover a broad range of styles and still keep a cohesive flow to the set and a worshipful focus. The diversity of musical style of each song brings a broadness and richness to the mood and message that can be expressed. For example, not all styles of music express joy well. Not all styles express longing or repentance or majesty and awe. Not all songs are good as congregational songs. The broadness of musical palette allows for so much more potential richness in worship through music. It takes extra work, but It's worth it.
  5. Put together a worship choir even if they sing only once a month. That choir could lead the congregational worship using Black Gospel, Hymns or Chris Tomlin. It would utilize more people and bring more variety of music, mood and expression to your congregation's worship. I know of a couple of large churches in other states that use a 200 voice choir every week to back up the praise band and It's amazing!
  6. Mix in familiar songs of the Church just the way they were originally done. It's okay to do new arrangements to old songs, but not everything has to be changed to make it relevant. Often, in attempting to bridge the generations by doing an old song with a new melody or rhythm, you actually end up alienating the people who learned and loved the song the way it was originally. Just feature your favorite current worship song having the melody completely changed around by a leader in the future. You'd very likely be frustrated and distracted and just wish it could be sung the way you knew it and loved it.
  7. Sing acapella. Yes, I did suggest singing acapella. Try to see if It's possible to worship with just voices - no instrumental vibe, groove or ambience - solely hearing everyone's voice with a big emphasis on the words being sung.
  8. Worship without music some Sunday. From the stage and from the crowd, let prayers of praise, love, thanksgiving and adoration be spoken one at a time spontaneously. Break into small groups with the people around you and spend time in prayer. Imagine that in church! I have often said that, just as parents have to take away their children's toys for a while when they won't share them, I think this might be the best thing we could do in some of our congregations that are embattled over worship. Let's take away the music for awhile as we learn to pray and worship and love each other in church without it. Then perhaps we would gain a new perspective and be grateful when we are allowed to sing a song, any song, together to the Lord again.

Let's remember that music isn't the point. Worshipping our great God together is. Let's work hard to worship in a way that demonstrates both our love for God and our love for one another.