Singing the Song of Popular Culture in Worship

The growth of a huge body of contemporary songs and choruses for worship challenges each congregation to evaluate their musical repertoire and the criteria by which they select it. This article describes some of the theological perspectives important in this process and then describes many of the types of songs and choruses that have been composed in recent years.

There is a growing sense among congregations that if we are to continue as faithful stewards of the gospel, some worship practices must change. Both churched and unchurched persons have become increasingly responsive to contemporary worship music (music written in the styles of the popular culture) and to culturally relevant worship (worship in which words, visual images, and music stem from the mainstream of the worshipers’ experiences, in any given culture or environment). Even so, most congregations remain reticent to offer overtly contemporary, or even alternative worship. (Alternative worship attempts to provide a change from what has been done in the past, but is not necessarily contemporary or culturally relevant.) Why the reluctance? The first part of this article will examine this reluctance in light of our heritage, with the hope of motivating worship leaders to consider adding contemporary worship in their churches. The second part will discuss some criteria for using contemporary music in worship.

The Road to Recovery

In order to understand the role of contemporary music in worship, we must first recover a full understanding of our heritage. The fact that worship leaders even question using contemporary worship music reveals that we have lost touch with important aspects of who we are. Our heritage is not one of loyalty to certain types of music, but instead to the theological commitments that guide, rather than preserve musical developments. These commitments reflect our identity as redeemed people—people of a new creation—people in renewal. Renewal is a process, a transforming of the old into the new by a daily experience of the Gospel, and it tempers everything we do. Our heritage is an orthodoxy of renewal in Christ, who calls us to disciple all people into his renewing love. Fully recovering this heritage will move us beyond some mindsets about contemporary worship music that stands, like roadblocks, in the way of the renewal process. By identifying and examining four of the most troublesome barriers, we can begin to reclaim our heritage of renewal as it relates to worship music and the Gospel.

Roadblock 1: It is the depth and complexity of music that give it meaning. Most worship leaders are clergy and musicians who have been trained in or sensitized to formal music, and who generally think of formal music as having depth and complexity. We in this group have for the most part grown up in the church, and this music is meaningful to us because the gospel, with all its freedom and creative power, was communicated through our relationships with those who taught us the music, and through our public experiences of the music in worship. But just as Latin, though meaningful to a certain echelon of clergy and scholars in 1517, was not relevant to the mainstream German experience, formal music, though meaningful to some of us today, is not relevant to the mainstream American experience. Large portions of our society, both churched and unchurched, have no significant experience with the language of formal music. Since language apart from experience has no meaning, the use of formal music as a conduit of the gospel is therefore limited. When we proclaim the gospel in the musical vernacular of those who have gathered to worship, we recover the heritage of Martin Luther, who translated the Bible into the language of the people because he understood the power of the vernacular—language that is not apart from but related to experience. In our zeal for the rich body of music that is meaningful to us, we must take care not to presume that it has meaning because it has musical depth and complexity. When music has meaning, it is because it has been linked, in some way, with experience.

Roadblock 2: Using popular musical styles in worship means lowering our musical standards. We have dubbed contemporary worship music “sentimental,” “schmaltzy,” and “trite,” and have dismissed it because it is not “good” music. Perhaps that is an appropriate response to some 90s music, but certainly not to all of it. Contemporary music, like any other genre, has its spectrum of quality. In classical music the years have served as a sieve, separating the poor from the best. To draw from today’s store, one must discern for one’s self what is poor and what is good. We can still apply basic standards of composition to contemporary music, but we must do so within the framework of popular styles. Our reforming ancestors were open to new styles and idioms, and unique among them, the Lutheran reformers respected all quality music. When we do not do the same, we close avenues of renewal. Instead of dismissing contemporary worship music, we ought to embrace it in a spirit of discernment. Rather than asking, “Is it good music?” try asking the question, “Does it have artistic and theological vitality?” This approach will better facilitate choosing contemporary music to suit the high standards of worship.

Roadblock 3: Contemporary worship music is entertainment and therefore not worthy to communicate the Gospel. When we use worship music written in popular styles we are not necessarily putting on shows in our churches. Music is a tool. Musicians can use it to glorify themselves or to glorify God. Music as entertainment is a function of the musicians’ intent, not a function of the musical style itself. For generations, most churches have used formal music, that music we describe as “art,” or “serious” music, as a main musical diet in worship. But have we forgotten that some formal music used widely in churches was composed specifically for entertainment? Consider Handel’s Water Music, first performed as background music for King George’s parties on the Thames River. Certainly we use it in worship with a much different focus than was originally intended! This is the transformation of secular music for sacred purposes, a process employed regularly by our reforming ancestors. It is not our heritage to disregard some music simply because it has been entertainment-based, or because its style might have developed in secular arenas.

Looking back, I now realize that for some time I basically believed that one kind of music (formal) was more gospel-worthy than any other. After many years of talking to and worshiping with friends whose churches were offering alternative and contemporary worship, I finally saw that God was working in great and glorious ways in their worship experiences—without formal music! I realized I had locked the gospel in a box, along with “legitimate” music, where it was only available to those who wished to learn the combination. But all the while God was loving everywhere outside my box and moving the hearts of hurting people with music I’d dismissed as somehow cheap. God has spoken to people in a variety of ways since the beginning of creation. Why should it be any different with music, which is, after all, a language of the soul?

Roadblock 4: Adopting a contemporary sound in worship means abandoning both the liturgy and the rich musical traditions that have given it expression. The central and distinguishing feature of liturgy is that it communicates the gospel. We gather weekly and participate in the drama of our salvation through prayer, praise, confession and pardon, and sharing Word and sacraments. These experiences are the essence of liturgy and are expressed through language. That language may be the ancient Mass sung in plainsong, or it may be colloquial English sung in popular styles. It might be contemporary praise choruses, chosen to engage us in confession and prayer, or it might even be movement and dance. (A praise chorus is a short refrain or simple song, often with a biblical text, used as the main body of music in most contemporary worship services throughout the country; praise choruses are particularly easy to sing, and often have accompaniments idiomatic to popular stylization.) Whatever the language, it must be relevant to the experience of those worshiping, so they can fully participate in the action of liturgy—the communication of the gospel. Adopting popular styles in worship does not mean we have to abandon liturgy. Quite the opposite: it means that liturgy because it is expressed in relevant language, will be open to more people as the living, dynamic, public experience of the gospel that it is meant to be.

What, then, of our rich musical traditions? I am not even remotely suggesting that we abandon our musical traditions. Where traditional worship is reaching people, it should continue. I am, however, suggesting that churches offer culturally relevant worship in addition to traditional worship. Because they were committed to renewal, our reforming ancestors both developed the music of their past and embraced the music of their time. They were also committed to the ultimate function of music as the proclamation of the gospel. This, more than any other value, invites us to share the Good News in the widest possible variety of musical styles, both past and present. Victor Gebauer stresses the importance of just such a variety: “ … we need each other’s songs in a sinful world if we are to piece together even a few shreds of our various, tattered perceptions.… Church music, then, will embrace all these songs if its own voice is not to be so particular that it becomes bound to a single cultural imperative” (“Seeking Common Roots Amid Diverse Expressions and Experiences,” a lecture given at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, October 1991). If we are bound to anything, it is to the gospel, which in turn frees us through the renewal process. It’s time to recover that renewal process in our approach to worship music. Christ will transform our ways and make a new creation—for all people.

New Songs for Worship: Do They All Sound Alike?

It must be emphasized that planning and sustaining contemporary worship is more than simply using new music. It involves a commitment to discussion and decisions about such things as preaching style, the visual aspects of a service, the style of transitions within worship, how a congregation does and does not use ritual, the physical layout of worship space, the design and verbiage of the bulletin (if one is used), and the language used throughout the service. Congregations who wish to add alternative worship will need to experience it in other places, and then begin to develop a style and approach that will be the best proclamation of the gospel for their particular area, given their particular resources. One of the first steps in that process is understanding the important role that music plays in worship, and knowing how to judge which music is most suitable and why.

The most significant musical differences between contemporary and traditional worship are those involving instrumentation and song selection and style. In the mainstream of contemporary worship practice, core instrumentation most often involves an electronic keyboard, electric guitar and bass, acoustic guitar (usually amplified), acoustic or electronic drums, and a mixed vocal ensemble of two to eight singers. The vocal ensemble is vital because it leads the congregation in contemporary worship just as a skillful organist leads the congregation in traditional worship. In this sense, the vocal ensemble is part of the instrumentation. If you hope to use the musical language of the unchurched people in your area, then it is important to achieve an instrumental sound that speaks that language. Again, mainstream practice points to a light pop or pop-rock style. The degree to which we experience this style will depend upon things like the intensity of the drums, whether we hear acoustic or electric guitars (and their complementation of effects), the notation of the electric bass (for example, whole notes vs. driving eighths), and so forth. Using these and other principles, one can stylize songs in many ways and develop variety even within a particular song genre.

Although song literature will vary some, praise songs tend to be the main musical diet in congregations that are highly sensitive to unchurched visitors. There are many moving praise songs for use in worship, and they can be variously stylized. There are also some new varieties of songs available, which congregations are using increasingly.

Praise Songs. Across denominational lines, praise songs account for most of the music used in contemporary worship, and it is this body of songs that classically trained musicians tend to find least palatable. Praise songs are short, and musically simple, often with a Bible verse as text. If we are willing to adapt ourselves to the use of praise songs, we will discover that there are some well-crafted pieces with artistic and theological integrity. It is true one must look diligently to find such songs.

Praise songs can function in a variety of ways, most obviously, for congregational praise-singing. In the absence of a sung liturgy, they are powerful when integrated into the liturgical structure of a service. They are effective in moments of the entrance, meditation, introduction (for instance, before a sermon or message), confession, pardon, prayer, affirmation of faith, and blessing. At the first hearing, we may say, “But they all sound ALIKE!” I remember saying the same thing in the eighth grade when my piano teacher played a recording of Chopin’s nocturnes for me. After learning several of them, and listening to the recording over and over, my opinion changed. Suffice it to say that experience with music, and continued exposure to it, hone the skill of discernment.

In order to use praise songs well, we need to understand their limitations—one of which is the lyrics. There are more praise songs on Old Testament texts than on gospel centered texts, which presents a particular challenge if we are to keep the communication of the gospel as the central feature of liturgical worship. Musicians and pastors often express a concern over a tendency within praise song literature toward “glory theology”: the exuberance expressed in many lyrics does not embrace the whole of the human experience and the need for Christ’s saving power. Addressing this concern is simply a matter of finding those praise songs expressive of the gospel. Also, images for God are limited. God is most often a King on a throne, to whom we bow down. It is rare to find lyrics describing God with the many other rich images in Scripture, such as servant, midwife, or mother hen. Ironically, many newly composed songs use old King James texts. If one is trying to use relevant language in worship, then songs with the pronouns like thee and thyself, and verbs with -est endings automatically confuse the issue of relevant language.

Another concern is the lack of inclusivity. God is usually a him, and has come to save man. It is possible to contact the copyright holders to inquire about changing pronouns and nouns to be inclusive. They are usually agreeable to it as long as the general meaning of the phrase does not change. Should you desire to make such a change, you must obtain permission in whatever manner each copyright holder requires. Several of the companies that are currently publishing volumes of praise songs are Maranatha! Music, Word Music, Mercy Publishing, and Hosanna Integrity.

Songs of Christian Artists. In the worship planning process, songs of current Christian artists are often chosen for congregational singing. Depending upon the song, this may or may not be a good practice. In each case, we must ask ourselves if the song allows the congregation to sing easily together. Many such songs are born of a soloistic practice, and although wonderful for their stylistic relevance and powerful lyrics, do not particularly enable group singing. When that is the case, it is better to use a soloistically styled song with a soloist, and honor the ministry of congregational singing with songs that a large group can truly sing. In some songs, the refrain may be well suited to congregational singing, while the verses are better suited for a soloist or small ensemble. This type of musical dialogue can be uniquely effective in worship. In order to choose songs of Christian artists that are best for congregational singing, we need to first consider the nature of the music and then ask the question, “To what type of singing does this music lend itself?”

Worship Songs: Light Pop-Rock Style. There is a new body of worship songs now available in several collections. These songs differ from classic praise songs in significant ways. They tend to be more complex than praise songs, although they are singable and easy to learn. They are in a light pop style (both fast and slow tempos), and melodies are creatively diverse and catchy, with accompaniments using a broad harmonic vocabulary. Many have a stanza/refrain form, and others are through-composed. They are liturgical in the sense that they not only invite but enable the congregation to sing. Among many other things, repetition and sequence are often used brilliantly. A melody with a somewhat complex rhythmic structure will be repeated in a way that the worshiper “gets it”—but without suffering artless reiteration!

Lyrics are poetically expressive, cover a wide spectrum of images, describe the breadth of the Christian experience, and have become increasingly inclusive. There are songs to work within every aspect of a worship service since many of them have been written in liturgically oriented congregations. Their use is by no means limited to liturgical churches, however. Some fine examples of the work described above are the songs of Handt Hanson and Paul Murakami, available through Prince of Peace Publishing, Burnsville, Minnesota, and the songs of Larry Olsen and David Brown, available through Dakota Road Music, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

New Hymns. A new style of hymnody began to develop in the early seventies that has come into full maturity over the past twenty years. The music does not draw upon the idioms, motifs, and sonorities of light pop-rock, but instead evokes a sense of updated folk music, with layered vocal harmonies and long lyrical melodies adding an almost classical feel. Although these hymns do not sound like the many classic hymns the church has sung for generations, their function in worship is the same—thus their categorization as hymns instead of songs. Again, most of these pieces were written for use in liturgical churches, and for that reason, there are new hymns to suit a broad range of worship needs. There are many new psalm arrangements available for congregational singing as well. They are often designed for a soloist (or small ensemble) and congregation to sing in dialogue. Lyrics are poetic and widely descriptive. Many of the new hymns call for optional solo instruments, always with flexibility in instrumentation. This body of music is particularly useful in helping congregations who wish to add alternative worship but are skittish about change because of strong traditional practices. In one sense, these hymns are a kind of musical middle ground. Although they are widely singable, many are composed in triple meter. This is a challenge if you choose to use a drummer, as it takes a highly skilled percussionist to play triple meter without creating a feeling of a beer garden omm-pah-pah. Several of the many fine writers whose work defines this genre are Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, Daniel Schutte, and Carey Landry. Sources for new hymns are GIA Publications of Chicago, and North American Liturgy Resources, to name only a few.

Combining New Sounds with New Songs and Octavos. There are plenty of ways to use new worship songs and praise songs with culturally relevant instrumentation. For instance, a slow worship song with an underlying pop rhythm and chordal structure could be offered in worship with a saxophone on melody, perhaps while the offering is being received. Once the offering is received and dedicated, the congregation then joins in to sing the song before prayer. Or, a praise song may be introduced with lead guitar on melody, using distortion effects. In any case, one must plan instrumentation with great care. It is the structure and style of the music, the worship moment, and the area in which you are ministering that determine the sound which is most appropriate at any given time.

Increasingly, companies are producing octavos which lend themselves to this type of varied use. Such pieces are not necessarily suited to congregational singing, but provide wonderful special music for contemporary (and even traditional) worship. Many moderate tempo pieces are enriched by adding a synthesizer using strings on sustained inverted triads (which the keys player could improvise), and an amplified acoustic guitar picking eighth note subdivisions in the score. In more upbeat music, the guitar may sound better strumming, with a synthesizer set on an electric piano sound, playing the score as written. Such attention to instrumentation can produce beautiful results that are also very expressive of popular styles. When expanding instrumentation from a piano score, it’s important to communicate with the copyright holder. In some rare cases, they may consider it an arrangement, and set a fee.

Companies are also producing more arrangements that solidly combine old texts (and often tunes) with new musical styles and structures. These are particularly conducive to the type of creative approach described above. For example, “All Good Gifts,” by Lon Beery, Beckenhorst Press, is a song with many pop elements in its sonorities and rhythmic structure. Yet its classic words (“We plow the fields and scatter … ”) and sturdy through-composed nature give it added integrity. Another example, “Praise to the Lord,” arranged by Tom Anderson, Word Music, begins with the Doxology in slow tempo and moves into a fast-paced version of the hymn with an arpeggiated, rhythmically varied accompaniment, reminiscent of George Winston or David Benoit. It works well on the piano, but the nature of the arrangement begs for a synthesizer. It is a brilliant and creative blending of a wonderful, timeless hymn with new musical motifs. Two more terrific octavos are “Shout For Joy” by Stan Pethel, Hope Publishing, and “Let There Be Praise” by Dick and Melodie Tunney, arranged by Sheldon Curry, Laurel Press. These and many others like them represent contemporary music that is well crafted in every way, and that lends itself to a variety of uses in worship.

Going Forward … The Holy Struggle

It’s easy to avoid thinking about contemporary worship simply because the amount of printed songs is so overwhelming! But getting started is a matter of doing several basic things. Get a variety of song books and resources and begin reading through them over and over. Visit as many churches offering alternative worship as you can. Listen to tapes of the above resources, and begin to open yourself up to the style and expression of the music. Attend a major church conference with workshops on alternative worship (this is a tremendous help). And most importantly, own the struggle. There are many questions, concerns, and polarities in views about worship practice and theology, but they indicate exciting opportunities for growth, renewal, and refreshment. I am convinced that like Jacob wrestling the angel, if we are willing to wrestle honestly and humbly with the worship issues that are before us, God will bless that struggle to both affirm and renew the church.

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