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!