Why Is So Much Praise Music Not Very Good? – #2

Well, it appears I’m not the only one in the blogosphere to respond to Lawrence Henry’s article critiquing Praise Music. Each of the blogs I link to below make excellent points, so I’ll link to what I’m responding to in each case. In particular, Modern Orthodoxy offers some helpful thoughts in Three Cheers and a Jeer in Defense of Praise Songs. Matthew Lee writes:

Cheer Number 1: Evangelical worship songs are, on the whole, easy to sing, easy to remember and relatively simple. They also, on the whole, present truths that are theologically sound. As such, they allow an outpouring of emotion often more easily than the sometimes more cerebral hymns. When I want to tell my wife I love her, it turns out that sometimes the best and most effective way of doing it sounds trite to the outside observer.

To this I give a half a cheer. First, I agree that on the whole evangelical worship songs are easy to sing and remember. But I think that this is becoming decreasingly true as time goes by. I seem to be seeing an increase in musical complexity in newer songs. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the older praise songs were simpler than what’s consistently coming out now. The rhythms and melodies are just getting harder for congregations to sing. How do I know? My congregation tells me. Our musicians tell me. Even the younger adults.

Second, I also agree that they are generally theologically sound. I’m not finding anything outrightly heretical, just vague and trite. But, just because it’s not heretical doesn’t mean it is good and worthy of the church’s use in worship. It is unfair to say that the only two responses to a song is to either worship or criticize, evaluate and engage in pompous elitism. No, there is another response – one that involves both heart and mind, and can still be free from pride and a critical spirit. I’ll try to elaborate in the next point.

Third, I personally don’t find that it’s necessarily the case that a simpler praise song will always evoke emotions easier than a “cerebral” hymn. I often look out over my congregation and see hands raised, faces beaming, and even eyes streaming with tears at some of the most profound truths in some of the most “cerebral” hymns. In fact, our emotions should only be at their highest when they are actually in response to the highest truths. Emotions should only be raised in proportion to the truths they have in view. Jonathan Edwards spoke to this in regard to preaching, and it applies as well to worship songs.

I don’t think ministers are to be blamed for raising the affections of their hearers too high, if that which they are affected with be only that which is worthy of affection, and their affections are not raised beyond a proportion to their importance. (Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in the Yale edition, Vol. 4, p. 387; see also p. 399)

So, while some bloggers out there are arguing that we should just shut up and worship, to quit thinking so hard and just let go and feel and emote and enjoy, is that really what makes worship authentic? I don’t believe we should allow the emotional factor to become the greatest measure of a song’s worship value. Truth must take first place. We worship God in response to great truths about Him. That’s not to say emotions should be minimized. On the contrary, they should be raised as high as possible, that is, as high as the truths expressed in that worship. Our minds should be engaging with truths that warrant a proportional emotional response. Edwards continues:

I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my heart as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (Ibid.)

Neither Edwards nor I am arguing for anything that involves a critical spirit, just a thoughtful one, aided by thoughtful songs. If we’ll be more thoughtful in our worship, our worship will deepen, our emotions will rise and our hearts will overflow with gratitude to God with thanksgiving and adoration that can’t (and shouldn’t) be contained. So, when Michael Lee writes…

Cheer Number 3: The evangelical worship service and its emphasis on the emotional often allows maximal freedom on the part of the worshipper (this is particularly true of Pentecostal services). Such freedom allows the worshipper to respond as the Lord is leading him at that particular moment.

…I agree, but I also plead for worthy truths to be the cause of these emotions. Again, this is best aided by songs that most beautifully express them. Not tritely, not over-repetitively, not vaguely, not difficultly (is that a word?), and with simpler rather than more complex musical composition. It’s painfully obvious to all of you reading this that I am no expert in music. I love it immensely, but I am admittedly not trained in such things. I am simply offering the observations of a regular worshipper and the pleadings of a watchful pastor.

Finally, when Michael Lee offers his jeer, he observes that the deeper problem is the sheer lack of Scripture in the typical evangelical worship service. I could not agree more wholeheartedly! The disappearance of Scripture reading and faithful Scripture exposition by pastors is likely the single greatest cause for the decrease in truth-saturated worship and Scripture-saturated worship songs.

When pastors and worship leaders make Scripture central, it has massive benefit to the church, especially over the long haul. I think that a serious return to the centrality of Scripture in our churches would correct a vast number of issues where the church is weak or astray, including our need for more theologically-rich, dripping-with-Scripture songs that magnify the works and person of God. May the Lord do just that in His church!

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5 Responses to Why Is So Much Praise Music Not Very Good? – #2

  1. […] Scott contends that though praise songs may be theologically sound, they are still “vague and trite.” That may be. But set within an appropriate context, […]

  2. Charlie says:

    Scott, you’ve said some good things on a subject that is worth debating. It’s good for us to figure out what worship is and how to worship authentically. There are lots of things I’d like to say, but for brevity’s sake I’ll pick 2. BTW, I’m a musician and volunteer as a musical coach for our worship team — I advise them on how to be better at what they do.

    “an increase in musical complexity… The rhythms and melodies are just getting harder for congregations to sing.” I’ve been flipping through my hymnal and find many musically-complex hymns that we sing without a second thought. “Be Still, My Soul,” written to Sibelius’ Finlandia, has unusual rhythms and pitch intervals. “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” is written in 9/4. Minor keys, archaic language, like in my favorite hymn “Come Thou Fount” — you’re kidding yourself if you think hymns are musically simple.

    We in the western church have grown up hearing these songs since birth, so they are imprinted on our brains. They are only “easy” because we’ve learned them through lots of repetition. Musical complexity is in part what makes the difference between insipid music and awe-inspiring music. It’s why Mozart was a genius and Salieri merely competent.

    My critique, therefore, is that you are encouraging your congregation to be lazy in their worship. In the same way that doing a new exercise hurts at first before it gets easier (and before you see the benefits), failing to introduce new music creates flabby worship (and worshipers), in my opinion. If that were not true, why would Scripture so often call us to sing “new songs” to the Lord?

    “Iā€™m not finding anything outrightly heretical, just vague and trite.” Again, flipping through my hymnal, I find a great deal that could be called “trite.” “Amazing Grace,” that favorite with such a rich story of John Newton’s call out of slave trading, is not very deep theologically. It’s been sung so often that one wonders if it has any meaning left. It’s a very “me-centric” song — it doesn’t acknowledge the church at all, except perhaps through that final “we” in the last verse.

    But it has power because of the truth behind the words: I am unworthy, and yet God redeemed me, Grace is an overused word, but it’s perhaps the most remarkable word in our language.

    Many complex theological truths can appear “trite” when applied to our own walks, but perhaps only because we hear them over and over again. The simple can be remarkable.

    Let me suggest that what we might really be experiencing in the “music wars” is discomfort with new things, and our basic human tendency to cling to what is familiar. Was the 18th century really the church’s musical high point, or are we just reluctant to hear what the Holy Spirit is singing today? God is in the new music, and in the old. We need both in our worship, to connect us to the past and to open our eyes to what God is doing today.

  3. Scott W. Kay says:

    Charlie,

    Points taken. Thank you for your feedback and insights.

    I feel that I need to make it clearer than I have that I am not in any way against praise music – I use it every Sunday in the services I plan for our church’s worship. Nor am I against complex music. You are absolutely right that plenty of hymns are complex, and plenty more are terribly trite and vague. Nor am I arguing that the church hit it’s musical zenith in the 18th century.

    I resonate with you that the Holy Spirit is still giving “new songs” of expressions of worship in Christ’s church. I am thankful to Him for that beyond words.

    As an untrained musician, I am simply observing that some stuff (which I happen to like) works well for Christian top 40, or for a band, but doesn’t seem to work well congregationally. Yet, it seems to me that those type of songs seem to be the kind of music that is dominating the current worship scene.

    I honestly don’t think I’m encouraging laziness, because I do introduce both new and old songs that are not so simple to sing, and I do it regularly. I’m just longing for something better than today’s typical offerings. That’s not to say there aren’t some to choose from. I’m finding some great ones. I just wish that the cream of the crop weren’t such a rarity.

    Scott

  4. Charlie says:

    Thanks for your responses, Scott. And let me apologize for the length of my comment. I always find it hard to say something in 1 sentence when I can say it in 2.

    I agree with your observation that some of the modern music being sung congregationally is better suited for performance. There are people like Brian Doerksen, Darlene Zschech and others who are writing with congregations in mind, and I hope there will be more.

  5. Scott W. Kay says:

    Charlie,

    As you can see, I’m not too succinct myself! There’s just too much to say! šŸ˜‰

    Scott

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