“I was dismayed that the beautiful lyrics that had made knowledge about God accessible to the masses had been traded in for cheap slogans. Conduct that once demonstrated reverence was replaced with behavior that could fit in at Coachella.”
The first thing I noticed about the church service was the complete darkness of the sanctuary. But even more striking than worshiping in what felt like a cave full of college hipsters for the first time away from home were the repetitive songs rife with “Christianese” (exceedingly vague metaphors that even I, having spent my whole life in the church, had a hard time unravelling).
Something in the song was always on fire, be it our hearts, this nation, our generation, this place, etc. Lyrics to the effect of “You are good/I am loved” appeared in every song. Repeated phrases, extra choruses, unnecessary “yeahs” or “woahs” intermixed with guitar solos replaced the songs with actual doctrine and theology that had stood the test of time. I didn’t think much of it until I noticed the emotional reaction coming from the congregation.
People were reacting to the music in ways I’d never seen. Arms waved high, Bethel wristbands glinting in the multicolored lights, interpretative dances being evoked in the aisles, and a barefoot pastor laying supine in front of the stage (“It’s called soaking,” I was later told*).
I was dismayed that the beautiful lyrics that had made knowledge about God accessible to the masses had been traded in for cheap slogans. Conduct that once demonstrated reverence was replaced with behavior that could fit in at Coachella. I suppose that long gone are the days of Bach and his unrivaled genius but I wonder: How are Christians supposed to combat the scourge of secularism by conforming more to it?
I often receive criticism from fellow believers for maintaining such strong resentment for the watered-down, three-chord, acoustic guitar songs that replaced the hymns and organs of my upbringing. And honestly, it is a well-founded critique. Words like “prostrate” and “Ebenezer” tend to alienate people who are seeking the Gospel but weren’t raised with the Church vocabulary. And it’s completely fair to point out that, at the time of their conception, now-traditional hymns were berated for sounding like (and even taking the tune of) well-known bar songs of the day.
One of the most profound summations of worship I’ve ever heard is that to participate in worship is to force the body into agreement with what the heart and mind already know. Worship music unites. It sums up truths in fewer words and more emotion than a lecture could muster. We are created to be emotional, intelligent, empathetic people who can testify to the existence of our Creator’s love not just because it makes rational sense but because we have also experienced it first-hand.
But with all these valid criticisms, why maintain such a strong opinion on the musical stylings of the likes of Hillsong and Chris Tomlin?
The problem is that most of these shifts in worship styles have been done in response to the mass emigration from stratified religious structures happening all over the United States.
Some religious authorities blame it on secularization, others on millennials, others on technology or on snobbish church-goers. Many of these diagnoses may very well be true, but how is the church going about solving these problems?
The fear is that in pursuing 21st century relevance, the Church is straying ever farther from its original purpose.