Tradition! To some, this word brings up images of Tevye dancing in the streets in Fiddler on the Roof. Though we laughed at his insistence that tradition meant everything, many feel the same way now about the musical church traditions with which they grew up. I was raised in a Catholic Church in my youngest years in which I can’t remember singing at all. Then my parents joined a Catholic Church near the University of California at Berkeley campus. There, along with college students of the 70s, I remember singing such songs as “De Colores.” Actually, that’s the only song I can remember singing. There were probably others, like the ever-popular “Ave Maria,” but my childhood experience in church was lacking in contemporary worship music.
Then I encountered Jesus through Young Life when I was in junior high school. Our weekly meetings in someone’s living room were filled with goofy songs and choruses out of a huge songbook that I still have and giggle at when I flip through it.
“All my life was a paper once plain, pure and white,
Till you moved with your pen,
Changin’ moods now and then,
Till the balance was right.
Then you added some music,
Ev’ry note was in place;
And anybody could see
All the changes in me
By the look on my face.
And you decorated my life,
Created a world
Where dreams are a part.”
(“You Decorated My Life,” words and music by Bob Morrison and Debbie Hupp, 1978.)
Or how about this oldie but goodie:
“It’s a happy day, and I thank God for the weather.
It’s a happy day, and I’m livin’ it for my Lord.
It’s a happy day, and things are gonna get better.
Livin’ each day by the promises in God’s Word.”
(“It’s a Happy Day,” words and music by Gary Phieffer; arranged by Fred Bock, 1973.)
Some think these are a far cry from,
“Oh Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.
I see the clouds, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.”
Falling back on their tradition, people across America leave churches because they don’t like the evolution of modern musical worship. Some think it’s too flashy, the leaders too slick, the lights and atmosphere too contrived. The popular satirical website The Babylon Bee recently poked fun at the modern worship experience in an article titled, Holy Spirit Unable to Move Through Congregation As Fog Machine Breaks:
“Just as the song, an original mashup between Hoobastank’s The Reason and Gungor’s Beautiful Things, reached its climax, a loud pop emanated from the 1600-watt machine positioned just in front of the Plexiglas pulpit. The device sputtered to a halt and ceased pumping out 30,000 cubic feet of water-based fog per minute into the venue. Onlookers said it totally and instantly killed their personal worship experience.”
There are many who argue that modern worship music is far inferior to the hymns of yesteryear. The lyrics are banal at best, tedious at worst. The theology is sketchy and the music itself bland and ordinary.
Famed U2 lead singer, Bono, was quoted in a 2016 article in the Huffington Post criticizing modern worship music:
“I would love if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful…gospel songs; write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re pissed off at the government. Because that’s what God wants from you, the truth,” Bono said. “And that truthfulness…will blow things apart … Why I am suspicious of Christians is because of this lack of realism,” he continued. “And I’d love to see more of that—in art and in life and in music.”
Then there are those who long for beloved hymns to have more of a place. Worship leader Dan Cogan said this in a 2014 article titled, “My Journey Away From Contemporary Worship Music”:
“I make this plea to my fellow ministers, do not neglect these milestones from ages past. In fact, I would make the case for the abandonment of most contemporary songs. If you choose a song for congregational worship based on its content (say you have chosen a contemporary song because of its focus on the Cross), do the hard work of finding a hymn that more than likely addresses the same topic or doctrine in a much deeper way. If, on the other hand, you have chosen a song because of the way it feels or the emotion it evokes, ask yourself whether you are depending upon the Holy Spirit or your own skills to engage our brothers and sisters in singing to our King.”
But Thomas Irby, then a student at Duke Divinity School, in a 2014 article titled, “The Case for Contemporary Worship” states:
“The mere fact that hymns are published in a hymnal does not make those songs any more sacred or theological than a song written two years ago by someone who likes to play the electric guitar. There are many hymns that are as poorly written and as theologically problematic as any contemporary worship song (might I remind you that “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are both in the United Methodist Hymnal).”
On March 24, 1820, in the village of Brewster, New York, Frances “Fanny” Crosby took her first breath, and in that moment, God presented to the world a musical and lyrical talent that significantly affected worship in the Christian church. Despite being blind nearly from birth, Fanny composed hundreds of poems and hymns in her lifetime, such as this classic:
“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God.
Born of His spirit, washed in His blood.
This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long!”
(“Blessed Assurance,” words by Fanny Crosby, music by Phoebe Knapp, 1873.)
Another New Yorker, Francesca Battistelli, came into this world on May 18, 1985, 165 years after Fanny Crosby’s birth. The winner of several Dove awards including female vocalist of the year (2009, 2010), and Artist of the Year (2010), and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song for “Holy Spirit,” Francesca recorded a song that has heartfelt and beseeching words that grab people’s thoughts:
“Holy Spirit, You are welcome here.
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere.
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for,
to be overcome by Your presence, Lord.”
(“Holy Spirit,” words and music by Bryan and Katie Torwalt, 2010.)
Francesca’s story is significantly different from Fanny Crosby’s, not only for the era in which she lived, but because of the route her life took in the musical theaters of New York and the touring stages of the U.S. But something both women had in common was this: a significant and all-consuming love for Jesus. Different women, different traditions, worship of the same God.
The fact of the matter is, taste in music is as varied as congregants at a Sunday morning worship service. My children grew up in the same household, but my elder son loves dubstep and electronic music, my younger son enjoys epic movie soundtracks, and my 14-year-old daughter is more the Disney soundtrack fan. My husband loves a variety of music like old gospel, bluegrass, country, dubstep, classical, and so much more.
I happen to love modern worship music. My current favorite is a song by We Are Messengers called “Magnify.”
“My sight is incomplete and I’ve made you look small
I’ve been staring at my problems for way too long
Re-align where my hope is set, until you’re all that’s left
But just a glimpse draws my heart to change
And one sight of you lays my sin to waste
I don’t need to see everything, just more of You.”
(“Magnify,” written by Darren Mulligan, Casey Brown and Jonathan Smith.)
In the midst of the storm that has hit my life this winter, this song speaks to my soul. It doesn’t challenge me theologically. It doesn’t engage my mind. It ministers to my heart. I feel it deeply. And there are others like that. Some exhort me in my relationship with God (Third Day’s “Soul on Fire”). Others remind me of what I believe (Hillsong’s “This I Believe”).
Just as I want my kids to examine the words of the popular songs to which they listen, I need to know the songs playing to my heart represent an accurate picture of God. But I don’t believe that every worship song has to make deep theological points. Sometimes I just need to hear, “He loves us, Oh, how He loves us. Oh, how He loves.”