Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 4, I Wanna Cross Over: The Struggle for Mainstream Legitimacy

In the last forty years there have been very few notable pop-gospel artists who have been strong enough to build a mainstream audience.

In Australia we had the first million record selling chart album with the singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, who was a one hit wonder with her electrified rendition of The Lord’s Prayer.  While Mead’s Holy Orders were a significant novelty factor, she did not keep attracting non-church audiences past that song.

In contrast, perhaps my favourite 1970s gospel artist who did draw worldwide attention is Andraé Crouch – especially when he was with his band The Disciples.

Andraé Crouch and the Disciples

In albums such as Keep on Singin’ (1972), Take Me Back (1975), and This is Another Day (1976), Crouch fused traditional Gospel with soul, funk and folk rock to get a sound that had emotional guts and artistic brilliance.  Crouch is the real deal.  His performing career started in 1960 with the Church of God in Christ Singers which included everyone’s hammond player of choice, Billy Preston.  But when he formed the Disciples in 1965 they elevated to such heights of popularity as to find themselves performing on Johnny Carson and at Carnegie Hall.  Crouch went on to collaborate with Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Madonna and even had Elvis Presley perform one his compositions ‘I’ve Got Confidence.’  Andraé Crouch is living proof that gospel artists that are truly great musicians can be appreciated for their talent by the mainstream: his songs still get sung in churches (mainly in America).

More recently there have been many gospel artists find chart success in USA.  Bands and solo artists such as dc Talk, Lecrae, RED, Casting Crowns and the David Crowder Band have debuted in the top ten, but temporary chart success does not necessarily mean that the music is finding the mainstream.  When Christians purchase these albums all at the same time, (such as at a conference) the sales will register high on the charts for a week but quickly drop down the following week.  This phenomena occurs annually in the Australian charts.  The Sydney Morning Herald explains it (July 11, 2011),

Beyonce and Lady Gaga may lay claim to some of the biggest audiences worldwide, but Australia’s Hillsong Church has bumped off both pop powerhouses to score a top three berth on the ARIA albums chart.

Their latest album God Is Able, released to coincide with the annual Hillsong conference, debuted at number three this week, entering ahead of Beyonce’s 4 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, which stand at fourth and fifth respectively.

It is the 10th Christian record to reach the top 10 since 2002.

The fact is, in the last thirty years, the only musicians singing about Jesus to consistently draw a mainstream audience have been those singing in traditional gospel (The Blind Boys of Alabama and Mavis Staplesor classical styles.  While Andraé Crouch’s pop-gospel did wow the world, not many others have done likewise.

In my next entry I will write about the great secular artists who found Jesus, the many who flirted with Jesus.

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Introduction,” Reflection

Chapter Summary

Keller calls for church leaders to move away from thinking about their ministry purpose in the false binary of either simple faithfulness to God, or “successful” with growing sunday attendance.  The problem lies in the fact that one can be faithful and see little “success” (like the missionary who commits his life to a people and sees no converts), or one could be unfaithful but because of some reason or another, your church grows exponentially.  Therefore, Keller advocates that pastors should aim for “fruitfulness” in their churches and he uses the garden metaphor to explain.

Screen Shot 2013-01-15 at 12.59.29 PMPastors need to be faithful in their work and skilful at what they do – but ultimately the gardener cannot control the success, only God can.  Other key variables for the pastor/gardener are: soil conditions (the receptiveness of the people to the gospel) and weather conditions (what the Holy Spirit is doing).  Therefore, “When fruitfulness is our criterion for evaluation, we are held accountable but not crushed by the expectation that a certain number of lives will be changed dramatically under our ministry.” (p.14)

To discover a pathway to fruitfulness Keller invites us to learn how to integrate the different types of books in the “how to do church” library.  Instead of looking for techniques for ministry effectiveness, learn how to make your own decisions that are centered on the gospel.  Be wary of attaching models of ministry to your church divorced from their doctrine and cultural context.   Keller uses a computer metaphor of Hardware which is your doctrine, software as ministry, and middleware as the software between the hardware and operating system.  In the case of the church, one’s middleware is the vision for how “how to bring the gospel to bear on the particular cultural setting and historical moment.” (p17)

Keller Illustrates it this way (p. 20),

Doctrinal Foundation (What to believe, theological tradition…)   -> 

Theological Vision (How to see, ministry dna, emphases, philosophy of min)  ->  

What to do (Ministry expression, local and cultural adaptation, style etc…)


I will be planting out of a flagship evangelical Anglican Melbourne church, which attracts church goers (in part) because of its popular mainstream ministry model: strong children’s and youth programs, a big network of small groups, and relatively “safe” low-church worship services (five songs, a sermon, and some occasional prayerbook liturgy).  It would be easy for me to try and repeat this model in the inner-city in the thought that I could attract other mainstream Anglican evangelicals.  Or, I might try and improve on the model by sending my leadership team out to do some reconnaissance to ten other key churches in the area to borrow their best ideas.  Or, like many church planters, maybe I’ll try and emulate my transatlantic ministry role model?

Keller is arguing that before I get into focussing on programs and models, I should clarify my doctrinal foundation, then work out my theological vision, and then after that look at programs and models.

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 3, From Innovators to Imitators (the 1960s and 70s)

In the early 1960s, young North American folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan repackaged the songs of their poet strumming heroes Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and became megastars.  They were beatnik Greenwich Village radicals, anti-establishment prophets with dark glasses, street philosophers, anti-McCarthy, post-religion and yet oh so spiritual.  For a few years it seemed like there was a grassroots revolution of ideas led by intellectual doped out pop-stars.  They cried out against injustice; stood alongside Martin Luther King Jnr at march on Washington; created a sense of camaraderie amongst disillusioned youths; and they were very cool.  It was natural, then, for the parallel tribe of long haired baby-boomer Christians to be swept up by this tide and challenge church conservatism.  Instead of the formality of the robed choirs, grand organs and Hymns Ancient and Modern, they opted for jangly guitars and ballads about a Jesus in their own politics.  Many of the newly ordained wore side burns and bell bottoms with their clergy shirts and habits.  Then, as Dylan smashed the very genre he helped invent and scandaled his fans with folk-rock, so followed the church music of the Jesus freaks.

Suddenly there was an explosion of Jesus rock.  For every mainstream artist and style there was a Christian imitation.  And the music of the Christian copies shaped this new church music of the “radicals.”  As there was Dylan inspired Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, so there was a Dylan inspired Paul Clark and Phil KeaggyLarry Norman took on the blues folk rock of Country Joe and the Fish.  Led Zeppelin tried to buy their way into heaven, and then Resurrection Band showed the gospel way.  Joe Cocker had a little help from his friends and Randy Matthews had a little help from his congregation (with much less whisky).    Elton John flew with the Rocket Man, Billy Joel sympathised with the Piano Man, and Keith Green worshipped the Son of Man.  James Taylor swooned about something in the way she moved, but Al Mossburg’s woman drove him insane for introducing him to Jesus.  Bowie counted down with Major Tom but Agape was simply a Voyaging Pilgrim.  As Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks wailed “who do you love?”, C. McPheeters and the Bible Belt Boogie Band simply loved Jesus.  There was a Creedence Clear Water Revival, but the real move of the Spirit came with the Hallelujah Joy Band.  I could go on.  If there was a chart topping act, there was a Christian counterpart in your local Christian book store.  The key musicological point I am making is: as secular led – in most cases – Christian musicians followed.  And this pattern was reflected in church music led by local musicians who only had their record collection as a reference.

Of course there were some exceptions.  In my next entry I will write about the struggle for gospel pop artists to find acceptance in the mainstream . 

Calling for a “Contemporary Worship Music” Revolution: Part 2, Church Music for Common America

In my last post I declared my distress at the lacklustre state of Contemporary Christian Worship Music.  I am not, however, necessarily going to advocate a high brow alternative; it is good for churches to sing the music of the people if they want to.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

When Gospel music emerged, it provided church music for common America: the uneducated classes, the slaves, famers, and factory workers. It was a fusion of the protestant hymn tradition and the African music introduced by the slaves of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (see the Gospel history timeline ).   By the 1770s, the most popular hymn composer amongst slaves was Isaac Watts (1674-1749), whose pioneering influence over the lyrical and emotional content of Gospel Music should not be underestimated.  Watts controversially diverged from the starch musical tradition of his calvinistic English dissenting church (who made up a core part of the settler American church).  Watts reasoned,

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament. Click here for more about Watts

Soon the slaves took the lyrical ideas of Watts, and brought their own sound.  Thus, out of the darkness of the slave-trade God made something beautiful.  At the beginning of the nineteenth-century, the first clear examples of Gospel music emerged in the form of spirituals, shouts, lined-hymns, and anthems.    While this music was aesthetically attractive and deeply emotional, with the “fear” and “love” of Watts, it was also music of the people.  Which is why the revival-pentecostal tent meetings from later in that century, under the leadership of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, adopted this style.  Moody employed the music of Ira D. Sankey, George F. Root, and P.P Bliss who published the song book ‘Gospel Songs’ in 1874 which was the first time a publication used “gospel” in reference to a musical genre.

In the early twentieth-century, the Pentecostal-holiness movement continued incorporating Gospel music in their meetings using guitars, tambourines and harmoniums for accompaniment.  The genre subdivided under the influence of  related genres blues, bluegrass and country.  And it soaked into the consciences and culture of influential popular artists who would start recording in the 1950s such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Mahalia Jackson.  Soon this music was broadcast over the newly invented radio playing the records of the Carter family, Arizona Dranes, the many gospel quartets and the songs of Thomas A. Dorsey.      In 1938, Sister Rosetta Tharpe sold one-million records with the single “This Train.”

After the second world war, the popularity of Gospel music elevated to the concert hall, and was appreciated by mass audiences for its true artistic significance.  Recording artists such as Mahalia Jackson, the Swan Silvertones, the Caravans, the Original Gospel Harmonettes, and the Clara Ward Singers all became world-wide hits.  This music inspired people because it was raw, it had ache and passion, it reached inside of you and connected you with God.

While Gospel music bloomed and became the staple for many American churches, the European hymn tradition continued in parallel for those churches who so desired.

In my next entry I’ll explain what happened when the logic of “church music for common America” evolved in the 1960s and 70s. 

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.