A vital part of my growth as a Christian has been music. I’m the youngest of five, and from a young age I was exposed to the music my older siblings were discovering as they grew in their faith.
I’ve observed what used to be called “Contemporary Christian Music” since around 1980, and it’s been fascinating to watch. As a rule, Christian music in the ‘80s was bad. There were exceptions, of course, but overall it was bad. I remember my mom listening to the local Christian radio station and being annoyed with the cheesy songs that were often sung by children who were out of tune. If you look up “Jesus is my Friend” on youtube, you’ll get an idea of how bad Christian music could be in those days.
Over time it gradually got better, thankfully. My own musical journey started with a Scandinavian singer named Evie, progressed to Keith Green (who, in my opinion has yet to be matched for his fiery/prophetic messages), and Carman, an Italian-American guy who sang lots of crazy story-songs.
Then one day I heard Resurrection Band (aka Rez Band, aka REZ), and my life changed forever. They were the Led Zeppelin of Christian rock, and they ushered me into the world of hard rock and metal.
In general, Christian music in the ‘80s tended to lag about ten years behind their “secular” (or “mainstream,” if you prefer) counterparts. For example, about ten years after Van Halen burst on the scene, Whitecross came along, giving Christian rockers a genuine guitar hero in Rex Carroll (yeah, I know Phil Keaggy had been around for a while, but he didn’t shred like Rex).
But by the end of the decade, the Christians were starting to catch up. Throughout the ‘90s, it seemed like Christian music matured, if not lyrically, at least musically. Several bands and singers started to make an impact in the mainstream scene (I don’t have time to get into that), until finally I remember hearing a Limp Bizkit song and thinking how much it sounded like POD. Finally, the Christian bands were influencing others!
Then there’s the church music.
I grew up singing hymns in Lutheran church, and unlike most many from my generation, I love them. While there are plenty of hymns were, as C.S. Lewis put it, “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music,” many of the classics are usually musically and lyrically far superior to most of the “contemporary” music out there. That being said, I’ve been singing and playing the “contemporary” stuff in church since the mid-‘90s.
Back then, songs tended to be pretty simple and featured a chorus of singers, as opposed to an individual leader. The songs had drums and electric guitar, but tended to be pretty “safe”—no threat of exploding into rock ‘n roll mayhem. As the decade wore on, the music reflected the ‘90s vibe of “earthy” music, and made one want to drink coffee and be contemplative.
After the movie Titanic came out, suddenly there were tin whistles and other Irish-sounding things everywhere. People also started to take old hymns and set the words to new music. Nine times out of ten the music was inferior to the original.
Overall, however, the music started to get better. For instance, Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” got annoying because it was sung so much, but anyone would have to admit it’s a very well-written song.
As we got into the 2000s, the music still tended to be acoustic-guitar based and kind of folksy, but now the songs tended to be sung by a single leader. For a while it seemed every song on Christian radio had a string section (as in orchestral) included. In the past several years, there have been an awful lot of songs with big “Whoa-oh” choruses. Maybe the songwriters have been listening to old Bon Jovi albums…
Now suddenly bluegrass has become very hip, and I’ve started hearing banjoes, mandolins and fiddles in many of the newer songs. It’s also cool for guys to look like they stepped out of 1980, with bushy beards, seed caps, plaid shirts and vests. I wonder what’ll be next?
Okay, so I entitled this “terrible Christian music,” and that’s more to get your attention than anything else. I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve got some strong feelings on the matter. There’s actually a lot of great church music out there these days, but there’s also plenty of songs that leave something to be desired.
A popular song in recent years is “How He Loves,” also known as the “sloppy wet kiss” song for its most controversial line. I personally sing “passionate” instead of “sloppy wet,” but my beef with this song isn’t that line. It’s the fact that the verse is utterly un-singable by a congregation. Many times I’ve sat behind the drums and watched the congregation stand there, mute, as the leader sings the song’s overly-syncopated rhythms. It’s like trying to sing a Dream Theater song together, or maybe Rush or Yes.
To be fair, the pre-chorus and chorus of “How He Loves” is great, so at least half the song is singable. This same problem plagues another hugely popular song called “Oceans.” I think it’s an awesome song, but it’s not easy to sing—again, there are tricky rhythms. Maybe Christian songwriters should be required to listen to some Beatles songs before they write…
Music is one thing; lyrics are another. I recall my mother-in-law cringing at having to sing “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord” at our church. Then there’s the popular “Blessed be your Name,” in which everyone sings the bridge, “You give and take away,” which quotes Job after all that bad stuff happened to him. Never mind that even the most conservative commentaries state that Job was unknowingly in error, blaming God for what Satan did…
A few years back a song entitled “Above All” was frequently sung on Sunday mornings. It’s easy to sing, but the lyrics equate the sacrificial death of Jesus to a boxer cheating by going down intentionally (“you took the fall”) and that Jesus was thinking of ME more than anyone when He died on the cross. That seems the theme of many modern worship songs: ME. Just look at the lyrics you sing this week, or check out your local Christian radio station. Many of the songs spend a lot of time focusing on how I feel about Him.
Finally, there’s “All I Have.” The first line is, “What have I in this life but the love in your eyes.” Huh? Then the chorus proclaims, “Jesus, all I have is you!” What about God the Father? What about the Holy Spirit? What about the Word of God, other believers, the gifts of the Spirit, etc., etc.? And since it say “in this life…” What about a car or a house? A family? A pet goldfish? How can someone sing this song with a straight face?
I apologize if I’m being too harsh, but this gets on my nerves. Let me reiterate that there are some great, well-written songs out there, so I’m not saying all modern church music is bad. A few weeks back, I was at an event where the worship leader, who was highly skilled, played some great songs. The lyrics made sense, they were easy to sing, and I was actually able to focus on God, rather than figuring out the music.
And do we really need so many new songs? I wish there was a rule stating that no more than one new song is allowed per month in any given church. Worship team members need to find their musical fulfillment elsewhere. This is about the people entering into worship, not the Top 40 countdown of today’s hottest worship songs. Start your own band for that, but make it about Jesus in church.
Have you ever noticed what they sing about in the Bible? They don’t constantly mumble about how “beautiful” God is (another overly-used word in worship songs as of late). They specifically tell of God’s deeds, such as parting the Red Sea, driving out Israel’s enemies, and so on. I know that can seem clumsy and un-poetic, but maybe our songwriters need to lay aside the tired formulas of the Church music hit machine, talking about how beautiful God is and how they feel about him, and instead try their hands at telling of God’s exploits.
I can hear it now: “The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody....”
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...