Maybe the Problem with Contemporary Worship Music…Isn’t the Music

A couple of months ago I wrote a review of the book Lovin’ on Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship by Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth, which was published on the White Horse Inn/Modern Reformation blog. What I appreciated most about this book is its decidedly nonpolemical approach to its subject matter. While many books on contemporary worship are written to either attack or defend these practices, Lim and Ruth simply present the development of contemporary worship as it happened and is happening. Their plain presentation is helpful and refreshing, and has—perhaps ironically—brought me to understand more clearly just what troubles me about so much of contemporary worship, especially with regard to music.

While I have written on this subject on a number of occasions, I have never been fully pleased with my arguments against contemporary worship music. Those favoring contemporary styles often accuse traditionalists of opposing newer music for reasons of personal taste, and refuting those arguments is difficult because they contain a grain of truth. The accusation that I do not prefer contemporary styles because they do not “feel worshipful” to me is at least partially accurate—they do not, in fact, “feel worshipful” to me. But if my opposition to contemporary worship is simply a matter of personal taste, that is not a valid argument against it and should be ignored. To further complicate matters, in other contexts I very much enjoy many of the styles of music—and in some cases even the same songs—that I do not prefer to have present in the worship service. So one cannot say that I do not prefer contemporary music simply because “I don’t like it.”

Better arguments against contemporary worship music have to do with singability—so many songs that are common on Christian radio and such are doctrinally sound, but are difficult to use as congregational hymns. Others are shallow (or even erroneous) theologically, thus neglecting the teaching function assigned to congregational singing in the New Testament (cf. Colossians 3:16). These and similar concerns are valid, but can be (and in some cases have been) overcome by better contemporary songwriters, and certainly one can present examples of more traditional hymnody with the same problems.

Here I was stuck for quite a long time, with an uneasy feeling about contemporary worship music but having few good arguments against it, and not even a clear way to understand and articulate why I had this uneasy feeling. Enter Lim and Ruth, who unintentionally helped me to understand what was bothering me. To put it briefly, contemporary worship practices treat music as a sacrament, as a means of bringing people in to the presence of God. While those defending contemporary worship against its detractors tend to minimize or negate this idea, Lim and Ruth own it, celebrate it, and present it repeatedly, speaking of a well-designed “worship set” as “a journey of being ushered into the presence of God” (18). They go so far as to claim that those seeking to appropriate contemporary worship’s forms without owning this approach to music in particular “[overlook] the Pentecostal sacramentality that lays behind the rise of contemporary worship in many critical respects” (139).

What’s the matter with this approach to music in worship? Simple. The Bible nowhere treats music as a sacrament. The New Testament—which speaks very little about music in worship—assigns to music a role having to do primarily with instruction (cf. Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19). Even the expressions of praise, pleadings, laments, and other types of sung texts found in the Psalms are full of content that teaches us about who God is and what he has done, not merely how we feel about him. Granted, we are to “enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4), but assuming that these praises are sung we come into God’s presence with praise; we are not ushered into his presence by praise.

Yet one cannot deny that the emotions of the worshippers are stirred up in many contemporary services. Is it wrong to say that they are being “ushered into the presence of God?” Because Scripture nowhere tells us to use music in this way, the answer to that question must be “yes.” So where do those feelings come from? Simple. They are being stirred up by the music itself. Music has a powerful effect on the emotions, and the driving rhythms and loud volumes of much modern music can “work people up” very easily. That’s manipulation, not worship, and little different than what happens at a concert. Of course, it is perfectly appropriate to feel powerful emotions during God’s worship, but we must take care that these emotions truly are a Spirit-wrought response to who God is and what he has done, and not strong but shallow feelings wrought by musical performance.

Maybe the problem with contemporary worship music isn’t the music at all. Like I said, in another context I would like much of that music just fine. And perhaps there is a way to utilize at least some of these musical forms in a way that does not assume a sacramental function or otherwise manipulate the feelings of the congregation. But the tendency for people to mistake the inherent emotive power of the music itself for some special moving of the Spirit seems almost universal in contemporary services, even in churches whose leaders have no intention of assigning music this special role. Considering that those who pioneered contemporary worship music embraced this sacramental function, there might just be a built-in tendency for this music to assume such qualities, and that is reason to be wary.

At the very least, I have found a way to articulate the nagging concern I’ve had for some time.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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