When Contemporary Worship Music Is Boring: A Worship Educator Wrestles with the End Justifying the Means

I am neither a music snob nor a music purist.  As I wrote in my last blog, I am the son of a music educator who revolutionized the world of music appreciation (for all who encountered his philosophies, anyway) by suggesting that Van Halen was as worthy of study as Wagner.  Dad’s understanding of music is my understanding of music; the acorn has not fallen far from the tree.

Where church music is concerned, it was my generation that brought pop music into the sanctuary.  (The fact that we didn’t often do it graciously is lamentable but beside the point for this discussion.)  Over the past 30 years, I have served three different churches for which, in my role as chief musician, I helped make the services more “contemporary.”

CWPA_Stacked_Full ColorAs Director of Judson University’s Center for Worship in the Performing Arts, I oversee endeavors that support a wide range of musical styles, including jazz, gospel, and even bluegrass.  In case the point hasn’t been made completely obvious by now, I love pop music and consider it equally valid in and valuable to the Kingdom as any other musical form.  All of which makes the current state of contemporary worship music (cwm) sometimes frustrating to me.  I don’t want to appear the old fart who pines for the good ol’ days, but when so many of today’s cwm songs feature melodies that could have been written by a middle-schooler, it makes it tough to champion the genre.

When you move from melody to harmony, things don’t improve a whole lot.  The I-IV-vi-V progression shows up with mind-numbing regularity in cwm.  It’s as predictable as the I-vi-IV-V pattern was in early rock and roll.  (“Heart and Soul,” anyone?)  Oh, occasionally on the bridge of a cwm tune you’ll hear iv-IV-I-V, but that’s the same difference.  Rare is the cwm song like “The Greatness of Our God,” which features a truly inventive approach to harmony: the same melody set to different chords in the first four bars of the two verses.

Many worship-music educators would, at this point, point to the supremacy of classical musicKroeker and/or traditional hymnody, arguing against the use of cwm in our houses of worship; do a quick Google search, and you’ll come up with plenty of these opinions.  Let me provide a counterargument from an unlikely source, former Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose article “Thinking about Church Music” appears in the Charlotte Kroeker-edited Music in Christian Worship.  He speaks to the role of the worship educator here, and also to the valuable communication-theory understanding of the Rhetorical Triangle, where the audience (pathos) is as important as the speaker (ethos) and the content (logos):

No matter how fond you, the music director, may be of Palestrina and Bach, if your congregation has not acquired the ears for listening to Palestrina and Bach, I do not think it appropriate for you to impose Palestrina and Bach upon them.  Wherever the congregation does have the appropriate ears, then by all means do what you can to keep alive the richness of the Christian tradition of church music as well as honoring what is good in the here and now; but if those ears are absent, then it would be wrong for you to alienate the congregation from its liturgy on some such grounds as that God wants the best and that Palestrina and Bach are the best.

A few days ago I sat in a chapel service that some of my students were leading and listened to many of the same simplistic melodies and tired chord progressions.  At about the time I had mustered up enough angst to commit to writing a blog on the subject, I felt the Holy Spirit say, “Look around you.”

The band was leading the congregation in “Messiah/You’re Beautiful”–with its ad-nauseam I-IV-vi-V progression–and the congregation was as fully engaged as any I’ve ever seen.  I looked across the chapel to see a former student of mine who is going through some real challenges, and then I turned back to the stage to see a current student who just buried his grandfather.  Both were very obviously not concerned with the music’s being inferior, from a musician’s point of view, to that of Palestrina and Bach.  Indeed, they were sold out in worship, clearly being ministered to while singing,

When we arrive at eternity’s shore
Where death is just a memory and tears are no more
We’ll enter in as the wedding bells ring
Your bride will come together and we’ll sing
You’re beautiful

OK.  I’d love to see a iii chord somewhere in that song.  A ii chord would be nice, too.  A flat-VII would enhance the whole experience greatly, in my opinion.  But the end result, at least that morning, of a simplistic melody set to a less-than-satisfying harmonic structure was passionate worship that was changing lives.

Maybe when it comes to corporate worship the Lord occasionally chooses the foolish things of the world of music to shame the wise, the weak things of the world of music to shame the strong.  I will continue to exhort my students to write interesting melodies utilizing more than four chords, but I will also not get too bent out of shape if I sense that the end more than justifies the means.

The Lord be with you!

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