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The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship, The Charts Have That Covered

August 08, 2011

Living in the US I have frequently had a strange experience while flicking through the car radio. There have been times when I find some cheesy pop ballad or inane soft rock track to listen to as I drive. But then, as I hum along to the music, I discover that it is actually some contemporary Christian worship song.

Part of the reason why I get caught off guard lies in the way that so much Christian music emulates the structure of popular music. In order to begin to reflect upon what this means (and these are only provisional reflections) we could offer the following working definition of worship music: any music that presents someone or thing as the fulfilment of a gap at the core of our being.

For example a worship song might hold up a woman, fame, sex, money, revenge, Jesus etc. as that which is the answer to our sense of being incomplete. This should not be confused with a piece of music that simply celebrates and upholds someone or thing as good, beautiful and worthy. Rather it describes a song that holds someone or thing as the absolute answer.

It is not then the person or thing which makes a piece of music a worship song but rather the position that person or thing holds in the song itself (as that which fills, or would fill, a perceived void).

The most immediate problem with singing such songs in church lies in the way that it reduces the source of faith to just one more product promising us fulfilment and happiness in our soul. The church is then reduced to just one more company with it’s advertising sales pitch, it’s promises of happiness and it’s impotent snake oil supplement to supposedly enhance our lives.

In contrast to such music there are songs that don’t posit fulfilment but which rather ask us to stop pursuing such a false path and embrace life in all of it’s messiness. Songs which celebrate the good times and face up to the bad times. Songs that bring us face to face with ourselves.

In their humanity such songs do not promise a way to be fulfilled but rather invite us to face up to and embrace our lack of fulfilment. To find meaning in the smallest of things such as a stolen kiss, an unexpected conversation, a short email or shared meal. They tell us that the devil does not reside in the tiny details of our lives but rather the divine. And they remind us that beauty is to be found in the most fragile and flimsy of things.

I am not sure if these songs could properly be described as worship or not for they do not directly hold up and celebrate some god (that person or thing which we believe will make us complete). Yet by encouraging us to lay down the desire for that which we believe will fulfil us, and instead embrace the world, the trick is that we (indirectly) find a deep form of happiness and fulfilment.

In such songs (which transcend specific genres, even if they are found in some more than others) radical faith communities will find their liturgical heart. For these songs do not posit some god-object to fulfil our desires but rather encourage us to find meaning and beauty in the world we inhabit. They sensitise us to one another, encouraging us to embrace each others brokenness and stand together in our joys and sufferings.

It is here, in the difficult celebration of life, that God is manifest: not as that which we sing to but rather as the source which makes us able to sing. 

Such songs remind us that the Holy of Holies is not a place we ought to love but rather a place that is manifest in the act of love itself. 

To conclude these provisional thoughts, what if church is the place we go precisely to escape worship music, instead singing songs that invite us to turn our backs on some ultimate solution and affirm the life we find ourselves in? A place where the art encourages us to find meaning, beauty and goodness in our world rather than in something beyond it? 

This affirmation of life should not in any way be seen as a call to remain in the relationships, jobs or situations we currently find ourselves in. This is not a call for conserving the status quo. For truly affirming our lives often means making important steps in changing them. It is by courageously entering into grace (the act of accepting our life as it is) that we are able to change our lives.

40 Responses to The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship, The Charts Have That Covered

  1. Luke - the "Recovering Baptist" says:

    i am familiar with some of these types of songs , albeit few and far between i the “mainstream.” Do you have artists you would recommend for this type of honest message?

  2. Stephen says:

    I’d be interested to see lists of such songs, and why you (anyone) feels that they fall into a particular category.

  3. trey says:

    “A place where the art encourages us to find meaning, beauty and goodness in our world rather than in something beyond it? “… Sounds like worship of the world, and not the God beyond it, who created it. Sounds like more of a love of what God created it than the one who did create it…

  4. Luke - the "Recovering Baptist" says:

    chris rice has some songs that seem to face the reality of life and doubt and questioning. see lyrics for “smell the color nine”

  5. Gina says:

    Yes!! I am completely burned out on contempo worship music. I recently visited a church and they were just doing old fashioned liturgy(?)- if that is what singing Bible verses and such w/o music is – and I was amazed at the respectful, graceful, spirituality that was present there. It was a beautiful worship time, but it was also a relief.

  6. Shirley Smith says:

    Hi Josh Smith is that kind of writer. You can hear him on reverbnation.

  7. David Jordan says:

    I hear what Gina is saying and can attest that ‘worship’ has become an industry, sadly, pumping out cookie-cutter songs to tickle the ears of the masses. I believe songs sung in worship need to be honest about where we are as humans- completely incapable, depraved to our core and seekers of ourselves rather than seekers of God. THAT’S honest! However, in doing so, we would quickly come to the realization that any good in us is because of Christ’s finished work and imputed righteousness alone. This should produce a profound sense of gratitude toward our Savior and God, that He would love us when we were His enemies and redeem us to Himself. So, really, I see two types of songs that need to be sung in church- those introspective, honest songs you mention in your post AND the songs from a heart of complete gratitude for life, sans the cheese, of course! :) ONLY looking inside ourselves is a dismal prospect, for there is nothing good there.

  8. Earl says:

    Check out the Austin, Texas-based Deadman for some great songs.

    Check out: Mankind, Broken Man, Blood Moves, Brother, Malice Toward None, If I Lay Down In the River, and Take Up Your Mat and Walk (among others).

    These guys are doing some really great songs that, to me, really tap into the spirit of praise.

    Lyrics can be found here: http://lyrics.wikia.com/Deadman

  9. Ida says:

    Well, this is my sore point! My chuch, they are killing me softly every sunday! The songs they writing… Only dear God knows where their getting inspration from.

  10. julia says:

    Great post. Thank you. I used to be a worship leader, and posted something similar on my own blog a couple years ago – http://juliabloom.wordpress.com/2009/06/30/confessions-of-a-worship-leader/

    I took a summer off from doing church music, and at the end of the summer I said to our pastor, “well, I got some clarity. I really don’t want to lead worship music anymore.” To which he said, “what do you really want to do?” And I said I wanted to perform songs I and others have written about all sorts of things. He said, “well do that then!”

    And I did, and continue to do so, and the freedom for creative expression and vulnerability about life that we share at church has been wonderfully healing for many of us.

    Again, thanks for posting this. I’ll be rereading, and probably reposting :)

  11. Sam says:

    Intriguing stuff here. Thanks for the thoughts…

    Do you think the Psalms represent either of the two types of song you described here? And if so, which one? If not, do you think the psalms can show us a way toward healthy “church music?”

  12. Bill Colburn says:

    Except for a couple of references in Mt & Mk and in Paul’s epistles, music is not a dominant feature in the New Testament. No worship music debates. Nothing said of Jesus and his disciples walking between Galilee and Jerusalem singing in four part harmony. “Church” wasn’t equivalent to music nor even a sermon. What if we didn’t expect music or even a sermon every week?

  13. Lisa says:

    I had a conversation with someone the other day on the idea of prayer and they shared that an interesting teaching they had come across taught that you should always speak your prayers out loud. I am sure there is a context for that, but for me, there is also this way in which it seems that we miss a lot of what prayer can be when it becomes this space when all we do is speak and speak. It has this tendency to become another space of ranting or anxiety or perpetuating our own needs – repetitive cycles. I think there are times when one should not speak, but “hush” themselves so that it gives this sense where something would or could be allowed to surface within you from a place in your heart, the very thing that the prolonged prayers and busy-ness prevents. It seems that in this way, when one quiets themselves and goes to a quiet peaceful place alone – then a song or a prayer can surface or rather be created or “birthed” or prayed through you. In my experience, some worship does create this ability to quiet me (or the anxiety), allowing for this bubbling up or surfacing of my heart within me. Whereas some forms of forced worship are merely trying to pull something to myself, or pull a prayer to me in such a way that it does not come from within.

  14. Michael says:

    Peter, I really think you are on to something. And you have expressed it with come great clarity. I’d like to create some time with you, if possible, related to us creating just what you are expressing. You can reach at http://www.fcchou.org.

  15. Brian says:

    …and all these comments confirm why I always return to the masters. Palestrina, Bach, some Mozart. Not the hacks we so quickly call “artists.” Music from the masters holds far more potential for creating that thin space. Text, frankly, can’t stand up to this level and depth of music. Only great poetry can do that, and seldom is great poetry enhanced with music.

  16. Rae says:

    I adore Sufjan Stevens, whose deep faith is apparent in his music and yet in much of it expresses agony and suffering. Try his album “The Age of Adz”. This post reminds me in particular of the songs “I Want to Be Well” and “Vesuvius”.


    • Mark says:

      I’m w/Rae. “I want to be well.” The entire (26 min) finale is so much like a journey through the psalms. This is the “liturgical heart.” I feel the Shekinah in the angsting, longing–and the moments of jubilance–that Sufjan delivers. It’s not an easy listen, but we’re not after morphine; we’re after the “liturgical heart” (gonna steal that one Pete).

  17. Adam says:

    A great post Pete. I especially appreciate your inclusion of aspects of celebration, beauty, and goodness. I’m glad to see this connected to your call to embrace life in all its difficulty. “A difficult celebration of life” – I think that’s just right.


  18. David Olivares says:

    Excellent observations here Dr. Rollins!

    It’s interesting how diverse (in terms of topics covered) are found just within the Psalms! Heartache/ Doubt/ Anger/ Malice/ Repentance/ Exaltation/ Jubilee/ Concern/ Grief… i think dials on the “worship” scene should reflect that.

    I play this song during “Baptisms” in the meetings i do:
    “The Pyramid Song” by Radiohead

    “I jumped in the river and what did I see?
    Black-eyed angels swam with me
    A moon full of stars and astral cars
    All the things I used to see
    All my lovers were there with me
    All my past and futures
    And we all went to heaven in a little row boa…”

  19. gary says:

    is it possible you (Peter) connect to God primarily through other means? whether the charts have it covered or not, does not mean i want to miss the opportunity to join with others and express love to God through a shared musical experience. I want to join with the chorus that sings in God’s presence and express my adoration and love and at the same time be reminded that he is and that I am his.

  20. Andy says:

    I printed this out to look at later. Today I was remembering something Bono said, when he was invited to address the Willow Creek pastor’s thingy. He talked about worship music lacking tension, unlike the blues, and some gospel. He prefers music with the tension of real life.

    But I understand you’re not really writing about worship music, but about how we might live in the presence of God — and the way that our accustomed ways of worshiping God (for those of us who grew up that way) may actually be a way of replacing God with a god to fill our gaps.

    I want to know God in reality, but I still struggle to let go of the god-image I grew up with. I think this reflection on worship helps. Thanks.

  21. Kerry Cox says:

    The song that fits what you’re talking about to a tee for me is “The Good Stuff” by Craig Wiseman, recorded by Kenny Chesney. Amazing song that somehow manages to celebrate the sacredness of first kisses as well as holding your spouse’s hand as they die…truly a gem of a song.

  22. Robin says:

    I don’t understand how you can make such broad brush statements about something that is so wide, so diverse, so embedded inside and protruded outwards, so alive, different, weak, strong, wrong, right and otherly. You’ve been to so many Greenbelts and yet broadly toss our humble offerings into the bin of cheese. There is much cheese, no doubt, much sticky treacle, but also so much more than that – and also, cheese, when toasted, bit of ketchup tastes fab. But then it’s always about those other people, who worship in that other way that we find distasteful….

    You have so inspired me Pete, but you seem to be falling into the same “if only,.. then” trap as every other preacher – “if only you would give yourself to the holy spirit, then you will be filled” or in your case “if only you would let go of it all, then you’ll find what you were looking for.” Please don’t become just another flavour of snake oil. Here’s hoping.

    • Peter says:

      Well said. Worshipping an idealised product of God is one thing. Worshipping God himself in all his complex glory is quite another. Don’t overlook the latter just because too many people do the former.

  23. Peter Waugh says:

    Does this sum it up?!


    Hopefully be there on the 5th in Belfast Pete …

  24. Franco says:

    Excellent stuff! Some go as far as to say that pop-Gospel is nothing else than love songs that give some Christians license to partake in the love-lust mad of pop music. Just put ol’ Jesus in the lyrics as the target of our warped longings for love and intimacy. I do believe the Psalms help us in the right direction. Most of them have a deep sense of alienation or fear or even doubt as root to the actual song. When last did you hear a pop Gospel song that sings of our truthful yearning to “bash babies against the rocks” (Psalm 137)?

  25. steve says:

    Pete, this is very much what you were speaking about at greenbelt when I saw you (you may recall a somewhat inebriated (on my part) exchange in the Jesus Arms later that night with me). I have two children who have ‘done church’ and now feel they are over it for the time being and one of their complaints would be the apparent smugness inherent in so many worship songs. This ‘jesus is my boyfriend’ stuff has held sway too long. God is in the here and beyond, right now I am here so that’s my focus, I’ll leave the beyond for later.

  26. Rebecca says:

    Wow, that was quite the heartfelt and sincere bit there. Lovely. :)

  27. Caleb says:

    Honest music: La Dispute and mewithoutYou

  28. David Hughes says:

    Pete…this is at the very core of so much of the “lively” church’s offering..music seems of paramount importance and self gratifying…the hit, buzz,fix that it provides masks whats really going on – like taking asprin to pretend your head isnt hurting! keep it coming mate.:-)

  29. Pingback: The liturgical heart » The Panamerican

  30. Eric says:

    It sounds to me like you want to take the focus off of Jesus and look at life. That seems to be worshiping creation instead of creator (romans 1). I’m not sure what you’re getting at, but Read Romans 12:1-2. This is worship. Laying down our life for our King. If a song can express that, great! Also see the end of Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3. “singing spirtual hymns and songs….” I thought the “Psalms” post was pretty telling. If you don’t like the idea of worship music, then maybe you should start reading Psalms. What about the worship throughout Revelation… “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, who is, and who is to come!” The focus is God, not life, not us, not some simple product to fill our idol driven hearts, but the GOD who made us to love and know Him.

  31. Eric says:

    Also, if you aren’t worshiping God throughout the week in your personal life… then it does no good to sing songs in church on Sunday. It’s spit in God’s face. Reference Mark 7. “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

  32. Pingback: About Worship Music « Mars Hill Owatonna

  33. James says:

    mewithoutYou. Beautiful and disturbingly honest music that points away from false promises, and instead inhabits the place of doubt, disbelief and uncertainty that I find typifies the lived faith experiences of so many.

    “Find a friend and stay close, and with a melting heart tell them whatever you are most ashamed of.”


  34. Dan says:

    Great. So this has turned from a poignant piece on worship in the modern church into a place to write your favorite band (or your son’s band). great.

  35. Aaron says:

    The problem with worship music, as I see it, is that it is based too much on “feeling God.” This can be a dangerous thing when you become so interested in your own feelings that you begin to ignore others in need. In this way Christian worship music has copied the formula that is so prevailant in Christian spirituality-that is God exists to make you happy-to help you feel some personal sense of satisfaction or fulfillment. Modern Worship Music is the sonic expression of the theology of Hallmark Cards.
    Worship music exists “feel fed.” If that is true worship music is just another form of consumer product, and the interesting thing about consumer products is that they will never fill you up, because consumerism demands that you remain hungry so that you never stop consuming.
    Did Jesus go around constantly worried about his own personal sense of satisfaction? Was he constantly going around worried about whether or not he felt fulfilled? When addressed with a hungry crowd did he say, “who is going to feed me?” This need to”be fed” in worship actually makes us feel worse, because we are drawn into ourselves and hyper-reflect on our own feelings, or lack there of.This is exactly what the worship industry wants. It’s a viscious cycle of despair, momentary escape through the song,followed by an intensified despair after the feelings wear off.

    The structure of CCM music is quite un-Christian, and is a reflection of our own obsession with self-interest.The god of CCM is there to make us feel good. The god of CCM is actualy an extension of ourselves, in that he exists solely to titlate us.
    CCM is antithetical to the teachings and life of Jesus, who called us to give (not take) and personally broke himself open for all humanity. Who in prayer taught us to humbly ask for our daily bread, and no more.

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