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Modern Worship Is Going Nowhere

  • Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 29 Jul
  • COMMENTS
Modern Worship Is Going Nowhere

Modern worship is ten years old. Well, unofficially so. Depends on how you look at it. After all, worship labels like Integrity, Maranatha, and Vineyard have been crafting music for the church for much longer. And by the early '90s, churches had generally embraced contemporary standards like Rick Founds' "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High," Graham Kendrick's "Shine Jesus Shine," and Darlene Zschech's "Shout to the Lord."

Things changed dramatically beginning in 1998, however—call it the start of a modern worship renaissance. First there was the introduction of Delirious to the United States through their Cutting Edge collection. Then a fledgling college ministry called Passion released its first album in response to their first successful worship conference. Not long after that, Michael W. Smith coordinated a hit multi-artist worship project called Exodus, followed by the debut of an unknown band called Sonicflood made its debut. All the while, Hillsong Australia continued to set the pace with their recordings, and … well, you can read our sidebar list of the ten most influential worship albums of the last decade for the rest of the story.

Now that ten years have quickly passed, where does modern worship stand today? Many traditionalists believed modern worship was merely a fad that would quickly fade away. But many others—particularly teens and young adults at the time—embraced the music as a true application of Psalm 96:1: "Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth."

Regardless of where you stand on the subject, my response is the same: Modern worship is going nowhere. And that answer can be interpreted two different ways, relating to its longevity and creativity.

Here to Stay

By now it's fairly obvious that worship music is firmly entrenched within the Christian music scene. Such was the case ten years before the start of the modern worship renaissance, and so it will be for at least the next decade. After all, applying our faith and glorifying God through the music of today's culture is essentially what the so-called genre of Contemporary Christian Music is all about.

But our understanding of worship has changed considerably in just ten years time. Before the late '90s, Christian music was somewhat at odds with the church. To many, hymns were for Sunday morning, Christian pop was for the other 6 days of the week, never the twain shall meet. As modern worship has reminded us, time and again, our worship is more than attending church every week and something that should be a part of everyday living. That understanding certainly applied to the idea that any kind of music could be used to glorify God if its intent was to stir the hearts of believers to express their worship to him. In that way, modern worship music helped reconcile Contemporary Christian Music to the church.

Modern worship also gained a greater presence within Contemporary Christian Music. Before, it was simply a niche genre within a niche genre. To some extent, it remains such with many terrific worship projects creating music under the radar of anyone who doesn't follow praise and worship closely. But now worship music is inseparable from the genre at large.

Nine years ago, when the idea of Christian Music Today was originally discussed, the thinking was that we wouldn't review worship albums because we didn't want to be perceived as critiquing how people chose to worship the Lord. It soon became obvious that evaluating worship music would be inescapable since the line between worship and non-worship music grew increasingly blurry, starting with the radio success of bands like Delirious and Sonicflood. It wasn't long before the most popular artists like Michael W. Smith, Third Day, and Rebecca St. James began recording specialty worship projects. Suddenly, worship music was no longer relegated to early Sunday morning airplay—it seemed to permeate every corner of the industry.

Today modern worship remains an integral part of the industry. Delirious has gone into retirement, or at least temporary hiatus, but fellow Brit Matt Redman continues to craft memorable anthems for the church. Hillsong remains even more active today through multiple formats, most notably their youth-oriented band United. Passion also continues to draw younger Christians to its conferences, and has since developed two of Christian music's most popular artists: Chris Tomlin and David Crowder Band.

Meanwhile, many of my favorite worship artists continue to write great music for the church without breaking into the spotlight and dominating the airwaves—leaders like Brian Doerksen, Tommy Walker, Paul Baloche, Brenton Brown, and Kathryn Scott to name a few. And new worship artists continue to crop up seemingly every month: Fee, Laura Story, Jeremy Riddle, Sherri Carr, and many more.

Best of all, the modern worship movement has played a part in reconnecting people with the church. It has served as a door for those who had trouble connecting with God through hymns, gaining an appreciation and an understanding for the old through the accessibility of the new. It has also inspired another generation of hymn writers seeking new ways to express their love and adoration to God. In short, the movement has taught a new generation what it truly means to worship, through song and through our lives.

Stuck in a Rut

Modern worship may be here to stay, but unfortunately, it doesn't currently seem headed anywhere either. For every Chris Tomlin that successfully brings new songs to church worship programs, it seems like there are another twenty artists who fail to offer music that endures.

Quick, name the last great worship song that truly captured the attention of churches around the world—the last "Shout to the Lord," if you will. Something like "The Heart of Worship" from ten years ago, or Tim Hughes' "Here I Am to Worship" in 2001. And sorry, Chris Tomlin, your arrangement of "Amazing Grace" doesn't count.

All you have to do is look at the CCLI top 25 most used worship songs for your answer. With the possible exception of Brenton Brown's "Everlasting God," the last big worship anthem to be embraced by churches is Tomlin's "How Great Is Our God." It may surprise some of you to learn that the song is already four years old. It may also surprise you to note that most of the others in the Top 25 are, on average, seven to ten years old.

What's happened? For all the talk of worship transforming the Christian music industry and churches around the world, there are only one or two songs of major significance from the last five years?

Does this mean modern worship is in fact a trend that is gradually cooling off? Not at all, though it is worth noting that many churches are going back to more traditional worship practices—Christianity Today explored this "ancient-future" movement in an excellent cover story.

There's still plenty of modern worship music created with excellence—still new songs that are connecting believers and congregations with God. But creative passions are beginning to wane, and it's important not to confuse the passion for worship with the passion to create good worship music. People are making worship music because they want to make worship music, but they're running short on ideas.

Consider how many worship songs sound as if they were inspired by U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." First came Sonicflood's version of "Open the Eyes of My Heart," followed by Tomlin's "Forever," and from there, hundreds of others have imitated the same driving rock sound. By the same token, how many big worship ballads follow the same patterned pop style as Hillsong with their sprawling anthems?

The problem is that we've come to expect new worship songs with too much regularity. By making worship a vital part of the Christian music industry, record labels have placed undue stress on the art of creating songs for the church. We expect songwriters to churn out such songs fast and quick because they're uncomplicated and because they have sold well historically. And besides, if a song is written with a worshipful intent, then it must be good, right?

Christian culture isn't buying it (figuratively and literally). The output of modern worship hasn't slowed, but the interest in it has. Again, that doesn't mean believers have any less passion for worshipping. But given the choice between an old-but-great worship song or a new-but-mediocre worship song, most will readily embrace the classic. Hence why great hymns never lose their allure and new arrangements of older songs are always welcome.

Moving Forward

Though it may be stuck in a rut, modern worship isn't played out. It's modern worship as we understand it that needs a new spark. Here are three quick suggestions to get people excited about modern worship again.

First, modern worship needs to push itself musically. Modern worship didn't succeed because it originated the idea of singing praise to the Lord. It caught on by applying such praise to contemporary music styles. As much as we like to say that worship is all about God, it also needs to evolve and reflect cultural trends in order to connect with the changing culture of the church. That means developing skills in songcraft and arrangement. I'm still waiting for a worship team to develop a great worship album in a hard rock or hip-hop style, much like The Insyderz made two great ska-styled worship albums ten years ago.

Secondly, there will always be a need in worship for songs that adapt God's Word. With that said, the last ten years have produced more word-for-word adaptations of Scripture (especially the Psalms) than the church has need for. Consider the hymns that have endured most strongly over the centuries: "Amazing Grace," "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," and "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" to name just a few. These hymns aren't direct adaptations of the Bible. They're original and poetic expressions of worship inspired by the Bible and what God has done in the individual lives of the authors. Though pop music conventions require more use of repetition, there's no reason for modern worship to be any less original or poetic in its lyricism.

Lastly, it might be wise for worship writers to craft albums thematically, as if they were writing a soundtrack for a Bible study or a sermon series. It gives writers the chance to fully explore a subject and apply their artistry to it, looking for different ways to say similar things. For example, Jami Smith's terrific 2008 release, Faith in You, is a response to tragedy and suffering in the lives of people around her. As with hymns like "Rock of Ages" and "It Is Well with My Soul," many of Smith's songs are lamentations within expressions of faith. By focusing on a theme, she crafted a variety of songs that fit a practical context in worship, offering something meaningful to say on a subject that leads people to worship.

Though it has grown static and formulaic in recent years, modern worship is here to stay. But it can't remain as influential as it once was if it continues to churn out more of the same. Worship music has come so far thanks to so many great songs in the last decade. Under the right creative conditions, I believe it's capable of going even further in the years to come.

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