Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 1, From Mozart to McDonald’s

This first entry comes from a speech I made a recent conference in the style of TED on new ideas for the church on 22 October 2012.

At the 2005 Guardian Hay festival, British television personality Stephen Fry made this statement in the “blasphemy debate”.

Here is an excerpt of what he said:

 I mean it’s perfectly obvious that if there were ever a God he has lost all possible taste….you know God once had Bach and Michelangelo on his side, he had Mozart, and now who does he have? People with ginger whiskers and tinted spectacles who reduce the glories of theology to a kind of sharing…?

This was a cheap shot.  Fry made me so annoyed.  Why? Because it’s true.  I reference Fry’s statement as a way to launch into a rant about “contemporary worship music.”  Which, in case you are wondering, is a genre of church music, that gradually emerged starting in the late 1960s and being in full swing by the 1980s. In 2012, most mainline Christian churches sing these songs; if you go to churches in India, America, Europe or even China, you will experience the same.

I am going to argue that much contemporary worship music is aesthetically poor (the music and the lyrics), and as a result, is playing a part in hindering the worshipping life of the church, it is limiting the Church’s cultural appeal to the wider society (contrary to what we tell ourselves), and it reveals something about the church’s theology and self-perception.  I’ll return to that in a later post…

The English academic and worship song composer, Vicky Beeching  commented that it’s as if many of the contemporary worship songs were written blindfolded with a box of Christian fridge magnet poetry. She wrote,

Friends of mine joke that they play ‘worship cliche bingo’ when they hear a new contemporary Christian CD. They can basically guess what the next line and the next chord progression will be, as everything is starting to fit a predictable grid.

And Beeching is right about the predictable grid.  I once played keyboard in a worship band for a youth worship conference and for about thirty minutes, all of the songs used almost the same chord progression, in the same key, with only slight variation. And the same emotional structure of: soft opening with a gradual build to an epic rock out two thirds through, with a quiet drawn out ending.

You might like contemporary worship music.  You might like the repetition.  Well…I think it’s because you have been conditioned to like it.  You are like a child who has been brought up on McDonalds and thinks that’s the best food life has to offer – you haven’t discovered the splendor and variety of the world’s cuisine.  But there is so much more in store for you.  Did you know that God has in his record collection a library of wonderment, and it’s as if you’re only going back to the same old lame album (which he only has to be ironic.)  Don’t feel too bad if you have been brainwashed.  The weird thing is that most of the really gifted musicians in your church also have come to accept this sorry state of affairs.  They go home, listen to great music, and then come to church and leave their musical brain and heart at the door.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

Have you ever wondered why non-Christian people don’t care about contemporary Christian worship music?  They don’t know much about it, they don’t buy it, and they don’t seem to choose to listen to it.  If they go to iTunes to download music with Christian content, it is almost guaranteed that it will either be African American gospel music (such as The Blind Boys of Alabama or Mahalia Jackson), perhaps some gritty folk country album (Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan), or classical music (requiem masses, cantatas, choral music etc…)  But you won’t find them downloading contemporary worship music.

Similarly, in my home city, Melbourne Australia, apparently there are 141 choirs (not including from schools) listed on the guide to Melbourne choirs.  Of those listed, roughly 90 percent included either gospel or traditional Christian choral music as part of their repertoire – but none of them sing contemporary worship songs.  Secular choirs, the world over, look at the enormous canon of Christian music, and filter out everything labelled “contemporary worship.” I don’t blame them.

You might think I’m being elitist.  Isn’t it simply the case that we are now in a new egalitarian era when artistic brilliance in the church no longer matters, and where it’s better to encourage anyone who wants to, to get up and lead us in a song?  Shouldn’t anyone have the freedom to strum a few chords on a guitar and start a singalong.  Answer: yes, but why not have a singalong which is artistically pleasing, musically strong and inspiring?  Who wants to have to sit through a poor rendition of a poorly composed song?

You might question me from a spiritual point of view, arguing that all that matters is that you have a genuine person up the front, filled with the Holy Spirit and “focused on God.”  I agree.  But you can have both.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the church could once again inspire the world with music just as it has for most of its history?  Wouldn’t it be brilliant if contemporary worship music was such that it communicated the heights and depths of the majesty of God?  Wouldn’t it be great if you were moved to tears in the worship – not tears of laughter as you play worship-cliche-bingo to the latest Jesus is my boyfriend song – but tears that come from hearing an incredible band, or putting on your favourite album.

In my next post I’ll explain the history of the formation of Gospel music and how it spoke to common America.

4 thoughts on “Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 1, From Mozart to McDonald’s

  1. Peter I enjoyed your comments. Perhaps Liz Newton could introduce a wider selection of music by well known hymn writers such as Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts to your younger congregation in the main church with a combined service. Liturgy could be suitably amended to be more user friendly for the younger members.

    • Hi Hamish,

      Thanks for reading the blog and commenting. Maybe you’re right about hymn selection? However, as my future blog posts will argue, the great hope is that we can raise up some 21st century Wesley and Watts: musicians and poets that can compose truly inspiring hymns/psalms/spiritual songs etc…

      That’s not to say we can’t combine the church services now and experiment!


  2. Hi Peter………agree completely!!!! Every church should experience all styles of worship that is based on scripture………both traditional and contemporary- and as you say, well written and inspirational in every way!! My dream church has a pipe organ, a piano and a band, all of which are used at some point in every service no matter what the age-group! How do we start THAT?! Liz

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