This week modern worship received some attention from an expansive platform. NPR (National Public Radio) produced a piece on modern worship music and its influence in the church.
See the link here. As an introductory view of the landscape of church music, the article proposed, "There was a time when hymns were used primarily to drive home the message that came from the pulpit. But then came the praise songs." With one eye on the modern hymn and another on the modern praise chorus, the article featured Keith Getty (Songwriter), Mike Harland (President of LifeWay Worship), and Ed Cash (Producer and Songwriter).
Here are a few observations on the feature that may be helpful as we think through these matters.
Pitting Modern Hymns vs. Choruses
The interview gave great attention to the style of music as a catalyst for many worship wars. Admittedly, style cannot be overlooked. The style of music within the church is important. In Frisco, Texas, it would be a cultural assault to choose a narrow variety of reggae and polka music. However, the style in which a song is written cannot be the determining factor of these two genres. To this point, it is naïve to think the church had no hymnal before the Gutenberg Press. The hymnal of the church has continually been added to. In fact, we are commanded to add to the hymnal (Psalm 96:1). "Right singing" cannot be defined as Watts-informed, western-inspired melody.
To make hymn-style and chorus-style songs enemies is not wise. The Psalms are filled with many formats of songs that are to be sung. From simple refrains to antiphonal responses, from songs of lament to hymns of remembrance, our hymnal is vast. We must conclude that western worship is one way of orthodox singing, but in no way can we impose on varied cultures around the globe that this is the only way. The modern hymn and the praise chorus are close friends, especially in many churches where the music encompasses both variants of music.
Substance vs. Style
There is often a wedge driven between hymns and choruses. Hymns are presented as theological treatise, and praise choruses dismissed as elementary entertainment. Neither of these extremes hold true. We find hymns that are weightless of meaningful content (God of Earth and Outer Space), or fail to explain biblical doctrine rightly (I Come to the Garden Alone). Many modern praise choruses are filled with doctrine that communicates to our culture. Songs such as 10,000 Reasons by Matt Redman are proven examples. Both styles of writing are useful in building a robust hymnal for local congregations.
Ultimately, the litmus test of congregational songs is not the style in which they are formatted; it is the content they are presenting. If our conversation about church music remains simply of style, we have not lifted our attention high enough to what is of first importance. The songs of the church should blatantly remind and retell the story of the gospel of Christ (1 Cor. 15:1, Psalm 105:1-5). In this, God is glorified and the church built up in its faith.
The Goal of Worship Music
The interview ends by talking of the goal of worship music. Christian music producer Ed Cash weighs in, "You know, for some people, singing a simple, seven-word, simple chorus, draws them into the presence of God," he says. "And to me, ultimately, what is the goal of worship music? It's to exalt God." Cash is right in his diagnosis of the goal of worship music; however, we must contend that the content of our worship determines whether we are rightfully or wrongfully worshipping God.
Regardless of historical influence or cultural contextualization, the songs of the church must be gospel-infused. Whether the songs we sing are simple and few on words, or have much to say should not be the primary concern. The lyrical influence of the songs we sing must be formed and informed by the Word of God. In congregational worship, style is the servant of substance. The great themes of our faith must be clearly heralded faithfully and intentionally.
The Scope of the Modern Worship Movement
We should celebrate that this dialogue is being noticed by our culture. The fact that NPR would expose their audience to the songs of the church is remarkable. To the men and women who are crafting the hymnal of the church, you should sense a great responsibility in giving voice to the people of God. As we turn our gaze upon God in song, we are also calling the nations of the world to listen and to join us in worship (Psalm 67).
May our hymns continually drive home the message of the pulpit. May the world continue to listen in to the message we are preaching through song.
Matt Boswell serves as pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas, and editor of the TGC Worship blog. He is also the editor of Doxology and Theology: How the Gospel Forms the Worship Leader. You can follow him on Twitter @MattBoswell.