Back in March, Christianity Today’s Mark Galli wrote an editorial note explaining why the magazine was publishing four separate articles all extolling traditional worship music:
“We strove to find an article or conduct an interview that would give more space to exploring the gift of contemporary music, but we came up empty. I’ll be frank: When it comes to contemporary Christian music, I have yet to find authors who are able to probe its uniqueness with the same depth and insight as those who relish traditional music. What I usually find is articles that say, ‘But people like it!’”
I’ve been pondering the matter. I like contemporary worship music, but can I articulate its contribution? Let me try.
First, though, let me distinguish between two kinds of contemporary music. One is little different from traditional hymnology—just different instruments. The melody may be simpler, the harmony less complex, and—most notably—the typical accompaniment is drums and guitar, not organ. But the lyrics are as extended as most hymns, and they are arranged in verses. For this kind of contemporary music I believe we are merely discussing musical tastes. You prefer organ over guitar? Good for you. The fact that most such contemporary hymns are flaccid and forgettable is hardly relevant. Most hymns composed in most of history have been of poor quality; they appear for a season and then vanish unmourned. So it will be with this new crop, whatever instruments are used. Let us hope that among a lot of bad material, something good will appear.
Another kind of contemporary music really is different, though. I was forcibly reminded of it this past weekend when I attended Bethel Church in Redding, California, a Pentecostal congregation known for its music (among other things). The guitar-driven songs were well performed, in a U2, wall-of-sound way. The lyrics projected on the screen for singing were brief, almost mantra-like words of adoration or confession, and they were repeated without much variation for about ten minutes per song. I liked the music but found it boring after the third repetition. My fellow worshipers did not seem bored, though: they appeared to be in states of ecstasy right to the last note.
This is the music mocked and scorned by traditionalists: three chords, four words, five times. But let us take it seriously, since our fellow worshipers do.
The goal of traditional worship music is to engage mind and body together in a rigorous act of worship. It requires work and skill to sing hymns well, especially in harmony, and the words to a good hymn require your sustained attention. The best hymns express truth in a comprehensive complexity, unified and full.
Just the opposite is the case in the best contemporary praise songs. They take one simple phrase that the emotions and mind and heart can seize on, and repeat it. These are not mantras in the eastern sense, where mind is dazzled into quiet by sheer mystery. Rather they reflect one comprehensible facet of the gospel message—God’s infinite power, for example, or our longing for his love, or his sacrifice on the cross. They hold a beam of light on that facet. Their value is in enabling contemplation, in a way more familiar to Catholics than Protestants. Trained as I am in traditional hymns, I do not find it so easy to lose myself in these songs. My younger fellow worshipers do, “lost in wonder, love and praise,” as one older hymn puts it. The simplicity of the music enables this. You do not have to work at singing; in fact, the wall of sound makes it virtually impossible to hear yourself sing. The words are easy. No hymnal need prompt you, nor even a powerpoint slide. The best songs stick in your head. You can focus on one thing, continuously, and for ten minutes see nothing else.
Then there is the body. Andrew Walls somewhere snidely refers to the remarkable western achievement of making music in a way that goes against every human instinct: not moving your body at all. Traditional worship music involves very little swaying or toe tapping. The body is still. Just try dancing to, “How Great Thou Art,” or “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
But in contemporary Christian worship music, the body is expressively involved. If you do not signal worship with your body, you are not really participating. Look around the room; you can see the difference between those who are involved in worship and those who are not. Their bodies tell the story.
This is one reason why contemporary worship music crosses cultural boundaries in a way that traditional hymnology does not. Anybody who has worshiped outside the west and heard a congregation struggling to sing western music badly will understand the problem. Contemporary music makes the transition with few obstacles. Surely this is a significant point in favor of contemporary music. It internationalizes. Its musical simplicity, and its danceable qualities make it communicate in almost every culture.
In sum: contemporary music enables worship of a different kind—that of adoration and contemplation. It enables bodily expression, for soul-and-body worship. And it begins the process of melding all nations into the one great chorus that will sing eternally. It is not the only way to worship, surely, but it has captured the minds and hearts of many. “People like it,” and for a reason.