Has Modern Worship Become Its Own Musical Genre?
by Dan Adler
A few weeks ago, my 18 year old son made an interesting comment about a secular song he had heard. He said that when he heard it, it sounded like a modern worship song. By that, he meant that the musical instrumentation and construction of the song sounded like worship songs he'd heard. For him, all modern worship songs sound basically alike - and this secular song happened to sound like the "modern worship music genre".
I've been thinking about that, and have started to wonder if what has now become the "sound" of worship, is so much the same - (U2/Coldplay sounding electric guitar parts, 2 or 3 different basic rock drum rhythms, steady 1/8th note bass and acoustic guitar rhythms, solo vocalists with little to no harmony) - that it has become it's own sub-genre of music? It seems to me, in reflecting upon the narrowness of the musical palette that is used in most modern worship songs, that that might indeed be the case.
But if that is the case, is it a bad thing? I mean, lots of people really like this sound and Christian radio really seems to like it. Hey, and if I take it one song at a time, I really like a lot of it too! There are some really powerful songs in this realm of music. But I, and so many people I talk with, find that the sameness of mood and general style of music in song after song, makes it begin to feel tedious and difficult to engage with in worship. Because of the sameness of style and mood, it makes us feel like we can't listen to Christian radio and also find ourselves struggling not to disengage when attending Sunday morning worship services where this narrow form is all that's used.
I have some questions I have to ask: Is there really only one sub-realm of music that is most effective for worship? Should the bulk of the songs have just one sort-of anxsty, yearning, melancholy mood that our music should evoke that is appropriate for worship? Is it vital that "worship music" always be what is perceived as "current" and "cutting edge" - every week -- in every service? If so, what would qualify it as being such and is this current realm actually meeting those qualifications? And if what so many churches have now embraced has become its own sub-genre of music, could it possibly in reality be current and cutting edge?
It seems to me that in our rush to be current and relevant and "reaching the next generation", we will end up ultimately doing the opposite. We are creating a sort of musical and creative ghetto that, because of the sameness and lack of creativity, will ultimately turn people away. I find it disturbing how many young people, like my son, find modern worship music to be ultimately disinteresting because of its sameness - while they are the very ones that it is supposed to be connecting with most.
From my perspective, I would compare the trend in modern worship music to telling all the visual artists, "If you want to use your art as a tool to express your adoration for God, you can only use the colors blue and green. - Now I really like blue and green, and I bet that if you gave a bunch of artists the task of being really creative with blue and green, they would come up with some great stuff for a while. But ultimately, both the artists and the art observers would go, "Man, I'm really sick of blue and green! Can't we use some other colors like red and orange and yellow and black and white and purple and all the other massive possible mixtures of color and nuance?! Is this the only way art can be expressed to worship God?!"
When we start equating worship music as one basic sound, whose main variance comes through simply making it either slower or faster, louder or softer and we reduce the musicality of it down to a same set of instruments and vocal arrangements and similar chord progressions, we have instantly outmoded it, outdated it, reduced it's power and have made "worship" less relatable to a large portion of Christians. When "worship" music becomes about a narrow range of moods that it can express, we have severely limited the vastness of how musical worship can and should express the broad range of emotions, truths and expressions that encapsulate Biblical worship. When the "sound" of worship becomes equated with one age demographic and ethnic group - such as white youth and young adults - we are limiting the power of corporate worship to embrace and unite diverse peoples and generations and it actually becomes a tool of division. And when the "style" of worship music demands that you can only have one lead singer and a back-up band of 4 or 5 - and they all need to be relatively young and attractive - then, no matter what size your congregation is, only the musical gifts of a very elite few will be allowed to be used in leading congregational worship.
No, worship music shouldn't and doesn't have just one style or one mood. It doesn't have to be played on just pianos and organs any more that it does with just electric guitars and drums. It can be led by choirs and orchestras or by just one person with their guitar. It can be led with no instruments at all. It can be joyous and jubilant. It can be quiet and reverent. It can be yearning and aching. It can be bold and majestic. But ultimately, music itself is just a tool to help us express our worship. We can still worship with no music at all. But using the incredible broadness of notes and rhythms that God has given us, music can be an incredible tool used to unite us and help us to express the broadness of our worship of God!
So are we embracing the worship of God or are we embracing the mood and ambience and feeling we get from one form of music used in worship? Are we expressing the beauty of the diversity of the Body of Christ or are we expressing and further entrenching not only an ethnic divide but a generational divide as well? Is our worship expressing some of the vastness of thought and emotion reflected in the Psalms and the whole of Scripture or have we narrowed the thoughts and emotions in our songs to a very limited palette?
I think it's vital for us to ponder and re-think this issue before the form of what we call "Modern Worship" becomes as negatively associated with Christianity as certain political parties have.
(in part two - I'd like to discuss how I believe we got here)