On Contemporary Worship Music: Songwriters I

“The Psalms illuminate the mind for the purpose of enkindling the soul, indeed to put it to fire. It may indeed be said that the purpose of the Psalms is to turn the soul into a sort of burning bush.”Stanley Jaki, Praying the Psalms

“Human beings come only with difficulty to any significant time of turning and transformation.” Frank Burch Brown, Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully

The landscape of contemporary worship music (CWM) is a cross between a carnival and a grand theft auto zone. There's a little bit of everything plus everybody's got their guns blazing. If anyone tells you otherwise, they don't live in the 21st century. They live far away from the wild west where Christians point he-said/she-said/they-don't-glorify-God fingers at each other.

But it's not all bad, though the mean-spirited, snarky, cynical ad hominems abound, like this, for example:

"If there has ever been an age so myopically transfixed by its own importance and significance and a people so quick to dismiss its spiritual heritage, the age is ours and the people are evangelical Protestants."

I mean, c'mon. Are you serious? You're torquing the history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and theology angle in one doomsayer sentence. Hyperbolic statements like these are irresponsible, even if all-too common. I suggest that they are just as damaging as the bad music this (respectable) author decries. To put it bluntly: Statements like these are toxic.

This morning I have spent my time on two tasks. One, I've been listening to "preview all" samples of CWM on ITunes. So far we've previewed Sovereign Grace Music, Hillsong United (Australia and London), Red Mountain Music, Sojourn Church Music, Indelible Grace, Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Vineyard Music, Jesus Culture, Passion, Soul Survivor, Sandra McCracken, Vintage 21, David Crowder, Brian Moss, BiFrost, Brad Kilman and Robbie Seay Band. It's been a full morning. But let's get more quickly to the point of this post.

I'm preparing a talk that I will give at David Crowder's Fantastical Music Conference in late September. The talk is based on a paper I've written for a course here at Duke. Task two for today is to revise it. Unfortunately it's turned into a 31-page, single-spaced paper, bloated with unnecessary quotes and un-clear transitions. This afternoon we kill the darlings. Editing is everything, as Dr. Gordon Fee often told us. My intention over the next month is to post a few excerpts from my Crowder talk.

But before I conclude today's post, let me say two things. One, I don't think that I will be saying anything particularly new. Others have said it before me, and in some cases they have said it far more elegantly. Two, my heart is positively inclined towards the rambling territory that is CWM, especially with respect to the pop-rock and folk variety which occupies the primary attention of my paper.

I met with Bruce Benedict this past Monday. Bruce runs a fine blog called Cardiphonia. At the end of our shared cafe negro (té negro, in my case), he loaded me up with about 50 CDs of CWM. (He also kindly oriented me to the who's who and what's what of Reformed/Presbyterian church musicianship.) Some of the music Bruce gave me is so so, some it is good. Some of it is plain wacky. Bruce knows that. But since there is little new under the sun, my aim will be to trace points of connection and to discover ways in which I might say something of genuine service to the CWM movement.

Oh, one more thing. Lester Ruth said something recently that bears repeating. In an essay where he analyzed the Trinitarian content for CCLI's top 25 between the years of 1989-2005, he concluded, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the Trinitarian orientation was faint. Yet he ended his essay with a nice twist. If CWM songwriters are not writing music that is suffused with Trinitarian content, he argues, then the problem lies at a larger scale. The problem lies at the level of congregations and pastors and teachers. "Christians," he notes, "will write and choose more Trinitarian songs only if love for the Trinity resides deeply in their hearts." That is such an important statement. And again: "Songs will shift as Christians learn to love the Triune God for being Triune." The title of Lester's essay is "Lex amandi, Lex credendi." By that he means to say that what you love, you will believe, and in fact you will more likely write songs about the things that you love rather than simply believe.

My point is this. The burden of responsibility for writing theologically sound music should not be placed exclusively on songwriters. The responsibility should rest jointly on congregations along with pastors, teachers, artists and theologians. Together we should carry the responsibility for holy and holistically nourishing songs. Together.

Who is my neighbor? My neighbor includes songwriters whose music I find poetically philistine--or esoteric. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music comes across theologically shallow and musically dense or narrow. Who is my neighbor? It is the songwriter whose music falls into a lyrically incoherent or constipated pattern. Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is all the songwriters I've mentioned above plus all the ones I haven't--the Lutheran high churchmen, the Methodist activists, the Anglican sophisticates, the Pentecostal enthusiasts and the emergent/alternative/hipster/restless young artists who are trying to make sense of things as best as they can.

I'm new to the CWM neighborhood, I readily confess. I hope that the comments I offer are appropriately tempered. And by God's grace I will learn how to be a good and helpful neighbor.

Suggested Reading:
Here are a few books that I've found especially useful in my research this summer. Apologies for the bunched-up format.

The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship, edited by Robert Woods and Brian Walrath; Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings, edited by David W. Music; Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views, edited by Paul E. Engle; Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition, by James F. White; Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God, by David F. Ford and Daniel W. Hardy; Worship Old & New, by Robert Webber; Doxology: A Systematic Theology, by Geoffrey Wainwright; Te Deum: The Church and Music, by Paul Westermeyer; The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church, by Robb Redman; Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defense, by John M. Frame; Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations, by Dan Kimball; The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, by John Witvliet; Worship by the Book, edited by Don Carson; Inside Out Worship: Insights for Passionate and Purposeful Worship, edited by Matt Redman; and Worship at the Next Level: Insight from Contemporary Voices, edited by Tim A. Dearborn and Scott Coil.

I leave you for now with the beautiful words of St. Augustine, in his commentary on Psalm 149:1.

“My brothers and sisters, my children, O seedlings of the catholic church, O holy and heavenly seed, O you that have been born again in Christ and been born from above, listen to me—or rather, listen to God through: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. Well, I am singing, you say. Yes, you are singing, of course you are singing, I can hear you. But do not let your life give evidence against your tongue. Sing with your voices, sing also with your hearts; sing with your mouths, sing also with your conduct. ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’.

You ask what you should sing about the one you love? For of course you do want to sing about the one you love. You are asking for praises of his to sing. You have been told, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. You are looking for songs of praise, are you? ‘His praise is in the church of the saints’. The praise of the one to be sung about is the singer himself. Do you want to sing God his praise? Be yourselves what you sing. You are his praise, if you lead good lives.”


Looking forward to this. My breath is bated.

Additionally, I would recommend the book by J. Matthew Pinson, Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views, (Nashville: B&H Pub., 2009). I prefer some of those essays over the essays in Engle. From my perspective, the interaction between Mark Dever and Dan Kimball is particularly noteworthy.
Matthew, good to see you. "See" you. I'm glad you added Pinson's book. I have it on my desk. I didn't mention it for two reasons. One, I ran out of steam. I didn't have it in me to mention all the books piled on my desk.

And two, I really wanted to like this book but I got fed up with the snarky responses by certain authors in the book. I felt like some of the authors in this book simply didn't care a wit what others had to say. I actually felt sorry for Kimball. He so quickly turned into the punching bag. Whether you agreed with him or not, I believe he deserves an honest, humble and intelligent response, not an impulsively dismissive and, let's go ahead and say it, emotively flagrante response.

I get the feeling that some folks on one side of the spectrum just couldn't be bothered to listen carefully. I also feel ambivalent about these "Four/Five/Six Views" et al books. When you don't have to sit across from the person whom you disagree with, it's easier to objectify your opponent, that is, to treat them like an object, not a person, however much you intensely dislike their ideas.

Trust me: I've got it in me to trash people I disagree with. But like the good book says: "Beloved, count to ten before you open your trap, lest the maggots of hades fly out of your trap."
Bob Kauflin said…

Enjoyed this post. Looking forward to your talk at Crowder's conference, and appreciate your desire to be even-handed and studied in your comments about CWM. It's definitely a serendipitous genre, and at its weakest when it minimizes or ignores the rich heritage of the past.

May God give you much joy in the Savior as you prepare.
Laurel said…
I'll look forward to hearing more from you on this topic, David - very interesting. My mother was a church musician for many years (organ/piano), and my husband has played in church for quite a while also (keyboards/piano/organ), while I also dabbled in playing years ago (Intervarsity, in college, guitar). My musical exposure has run the gamut, secular and Christian, and I have my own definite opinions about CWM (positive and negative). Thank you for the reminder to be gracious in my response to the many heated opinions about CWM, even when I don't agree.
Bob, thanks for saying hi and for your kind words. If you're the Bob whose last name starts with the letter K, then I too look forward to meeting you at Crowder's conference. If your last name is not Kauflin, then I still will look forward to meeting you.

Laurel, so interesting to hear about your family's musical background. And yay for former IVCF people. I've got plenty of IVCF former staff in my family. They're good folk, those IVCF people.

I should also say that Matthew Westerholm is a fine songwriter and I'm grateful to know him.
"The burden of responsibility for writing theologically sound music should not be placed exclusively on songwriters. The responsibility should rest jointly on congregations along with pastors, teachers, artists and theologians. Together we should carry the responsibility for holy and holistically nourishing songs. Together."

preach it.
You, dear flatterer, cannot name a single song of mine :-). You share this in common with 99.9999% of Christendom. And each of our conversations have been personal highlights of this year.

My interest in Pinson's book stems from an appreciation of the Kimball essay (esp. compared to the Morganthaler counterpart). I did think the Dever/Duncan chapters were redundant, so poor show there.

The snarky comments, while not a joy to read, I believe are (sadly) indicative of the current discussion's timbre, and could be informative to your foray into CWM. But given the tone you are trying to avoid, I defer.

We had Kimball speak in our chapel last year, and he was great---combining Billy Graham's heart for the lost and Jimmy Neutron's coiffure. To me it seemed, however, that Dever's distinction between doxological and pedagogical methodologies was insightful.
Jake T said…
Looking forward to the series.

My interest in CWM stems from the fact that I see it living a lot closer to advertising than art.

And I mean that in the least pejorative sense of the term--CWM is, for the most, functional. It's designed to DO something (namely, allow us to worship God together, in music), as opposed to evoking something, like most art.

Which isn't to say it can't be art, just that it's not concerned with being art first and foremost.

I'm really interested in your perspective, as somebody whose dedicated to 'real' art and is committed to being neither snarky nor unoriginal in your analysis.
Matthew, last I checked, Worship Leader magazine liked your song "O Bless the Lord," while CICW chose one of your songs for their CSFW hymnal. I also got a chance to hear you at the seminar you shared this past January with Greg Scheer, Keith & Krystin Getty and Dan Schutte. I may be flattering you, but it's not empty flattery!

I do appreciate your comments about the Pinson book. That's good.

Jake, I would agree with you that the bulk of CWM is functional. At one level I would say that it shouldn't be otherwise, especially if the music is intended for corporate worship. Whether a song is artistically beautiful, with respect to form and content, is another matter. But I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with music that directly and functionally serves the church's worship life. Again, I don't pretend to say anything new here. I simply seek to describe what I see, and at this point we're not yet at 20-20 vision. It's more like 20-80.
Gwen said…
Growing up in my particular SBC church (FBC, of course) we KNEW there was a trinity and we KNEW there was Holy Spirit, but we NEVER MENTIONED said Holy Spirit. Shhhhh. I asked and I asked and I asked but nobody had any answers. I figured they were holding out on me. Later, much later, I realized they just did not know. We talked God, we talked Jesus, but Holy Spirit was like the strange cousin nobody mentioned, only whispered about. I am loving praying the hours and the old Celtic prayers that lean so heavily on the Trinity. It does my good Baptist soul good.
Amen, sister. Preach it.
For whatever reason this gets over looked but I believe a big part of what has gone wrong in the current CWM landscape is the rise of the CCLI license and the CCM industry all together. I think it is dangerous territory when record sales and companies decide what gets produced and distributed.

I think more Christian artists that are serious about serving the church should submit themselves to the church and work under it's umbrella. Then the fruit of what is created can be readily shared to other churches using Creative commons licenses and/or public domain licenses. I think we are too concerned about who gets credit for our artistic expressions.

Really isn't it kind of strange that someone can take a public domain text, write a new tune to it and charge people to play it? Would we be doing this if our sole concern was God's name being glorified and proclaimed?

How do you think the whole licensing situation plays into the current landscape?
Craig, I think you raise an important issue, and if it's any encouragement to you, many in the CWM world wrestle with it too. It's certainly not a new issue. CCLI-related issues have been around long before today's CCLI. Martin Luther got worked up when strangers took his songs and messed around with them. He usually found the results worse--"mouse poop in the pepper" is what he called them to be exact.

The Wesley brothers composed, edited and sold their songs in order to fund the fledgling Methodist mission. Charles used some of the profits to secure funds for his marriage to Sarah Gwynne.

I don't think the issue is so much commerce. A worker is worth his or her pay. Those who compose music for the church as their vocation and occupation should be honored with appropriate remuneration. They should be honored like any other occupation. CCLI is one way that musicians can be paid for their work. It may not be a perfect way. But I don't think it's inherently scurrilous.

Nor do I think it's a secret that the "business" side of CWM (the companies, the distributors, the marketing channels, etc) has, in some cases, reduced the work of church musicianship to narrow and simplistic terms. Again, plenty within the CWM world have raised these issues and are trying to do something about it.

What to do? One thing you can do is support the songwriters in your congregation. Ask them how you can support them practically. Remember that to write a good song takes hours and hours, lots of energy, and resources. "Good don't come cheap." Perhaps you can find folks in your congregation who would be willing to patronize the songwriters in your community and help them, over time, to produce new songs for your corporate worship.

What else? Pray for those who do work in the CWM world. Pray for those who run the business side; I'm sure they wouldn't mind. Pray for good connections to be made across the community of songwriters. And pray for those who write about it, both at the popular and academic level, that we would discover sensible ways to encourage healthy habits across the landscape of contemporary worship music.

I think if we committed to this kind of prayer, much good might come from it.
Unknown said…
here is the link to the Lester Ruth article - "Don’t Lose the Trinity! A Plea to Songwriters"

Excellent, Bruce. Thank you.
Epic said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Epic said…
Gently and eloquently put. On a topic that aches for a gentle hand. If not done gently, painful damage will be dealt to the worship music we love so dearly. Regardless, the church will endure, and healthily so, for no act of man has been able to thwart the praises of God’s people… but a gentle hand surely brings joy to those praises. So, from my heart, thank you for your gentle eloquence.
Thank you, M. Appreciate that word.
Bob Kauflin said…

Yes, Bob Kauflin. Thanks for seeking to be circumspect in your thoughts and comments. Grateful that the future of the church doesn't depend on the success or demise of contemporary liturgical songwriting (nice phrase).
Word up, Bob. Thank you. I've enjoyed listening to your music recently. And, yes, I was a big fan of *The Acapella Project* back in the day. Good times.

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