Too emotional? Too commercialized? Too “Jesus is my Boyfriend”? Here is my problem with modern worship songs.
Probably worth mentioning from the start that this post is a bit more targeted towards readers of a Christian faith, but you’re welcome to keep reading no matter what walk of life you’re from.
Ah, the modern worship song. Few things stir more controversy in the hearts of the faithful. Whether it be a rock and roll upbeat anthem or a melancholic ballad, it seems the singing aspect of church services is under constant scrutiny.
The writer or producer of the song/s don’t seem to matter in the realm of complaint. Many albums, songs, and worship ventures are in the line of fire. It could be Hillsong. It could be Elevation Worship. It could be The Belonging Co. It could be Passion or Chris Tomlin or your own church’s music.
I’ve found that the complaints aren’t restricted to a particular denomination or church style, but across many churches that I serve at, visit, or have friends at, there are always rumblings around what does and doesn’t get sung.
And a number of the complaints fall into somewhat common categories. Things like modern songs being too loud, too self centred, too repetitive, too “Jesus is my boyfriend”, amongst other things. Sometimes people also complain that worship songs are either too musically simple, or too musically complex.
I always like to hear people out on what they have to say, especially when I hear things get repeated by multiple people. That goes for most things, not just on controversial topics like the problem with modern worship songs.
And so having heard people out over several decades (as that’s how long the complaints of “modern” worship songs have been going), I have come to the following conclusion:
The problem with modern worship songs is the fact that well meaning Christians have made it such a divisive source of complaint that they are robbing their own faith life and opportunity.
Bold claim, I know. But I’ve been re-reading a very strong book on the topic over the last week or so that has once again repeated to me that this is the case. This book is of notable authorship and holds extremely high levels of trust within the Christian community, and is considered absolutely theologically sound.
The book I’m talking about, the book that specialises on the topic of worship, is in fact The Psalms.
And I would argue (and I’m about to) that all complaints about modern worship songs are also valid about the Psalms, and I would like to explore exactly what this means.
One of the biggest complaints far and away would be that modern worship songs are too repetitive. This is actually quite true for a number of artists. From the overuse of “woah” to multiple songs singing the name of Jesus or something about faithfulness in different melodies, there can be quite a bit of repetition to worship.
I would argue that this is actually a deficit in human language and not in songs being written.
If you read any set of songs from common authors throughout church history, whether they be one of the modern contemporaries to Wesley to Isaac Watts to John Newton, there are often common themes which come up, and very routinely entire phrases and concepts which get repeated over and over.
Even moreso for the Psalms, despite having multiple authors.
Some that come to mind immediately are Psalm 136, AKA “His love endures forever” every second line; Psalm 119 which repeats almost the same sentences a number of different ways in order to make the Hebrew acrostic poem that it is work correctly; Psalm 9 and 10, Psalm 42 and 43, and multiple others which repeat entire verses and call themselves different songs.
I think what this really shows is that anything which describes the human experience with the Divine is inherently going to fall short and always tend towards repetition. This is even more true when you consider how a songwriter may have been affected by God in their own life and will tend towards celebrating or pondering those aspects.
We even learn of heaven itself that the angels of glory seem to sing nothing else but the same word over and over again: “Holy, Holy, Holy”.
If we’re going to hate on modern songs for this, I wonder if we’d be willing to apply the same valid criticism to the songs carried in Scripture. In fact, even beyond worship, repetition and the Hebrew concept of meditation go hand in hand. It must be repeated to forge convictions within the soul and mind.
“Too self focused”
This is one I’ve seen written about and publicly criticized a lot, by online authors and even sometimes from the platform. The problem with modern worship songs that is being described here is that they are “all about me” rather than being like the songs of yore which were seemingly focused on God.
Once again, I must defer to the Psalms. Even in the first 20 songs in this book, it’s hard to escape just how much about an author’s life and experience is on display. The notion of asking for blessing for one’s self or family or ventures, the concept of spelling out the sorrow of the heart in detail, the repeated mention of one’s own experience – it’s all in here, often to greater extremes than I’ve heard in modern songs.
One big complaint along this line is about songs forcing the person singing to make great commitments or claims about promises to God. To this I would render to you two of the most famous Psalms: 23, and 51. One is a deep dive into committing to the rest found in God and even claiming that the singer will never want for anything, and the other is a heart felt surrender and full on confession of repentance and complete allegiance. Both of these were also sung corporately, as all of the Psalms were.
Read one of these, and keep reading the rest, and you will find that singing from one’s experience is actually at the very core of what worship is. Even Psalm 50 speaks to this end that this is what true worship is about.
I know this is of great comfort for me when I think about what God has done in my own life. I really do resonate with certain songs and experiences (some more than others of course) and find great power in allowing my heart to consider how God has been there for others and indeed myself in new ways.
“Too ‘Jesus Is My Boyfriend'”
Oooh boy, I can feel people getting triggered already. What does this one mean? This is probably a more recent complaint, made mainly by men as alluded to in the book Why Men Hate Going To Church (interesting read) and others like it, pretty much that modern songs are too girly, too touchy feely, too romantic in tone and lyric and completely switch the singer off.
The problem with that argument is, of course, once again I must defer to the Psalms.
Psalm 42 for instance, the male author writes a song that is then sung corporately: “As the deer pants for the water so my soul thirsts for the living God”. King David is the original Thirsty One it seems. Psalm 90 about being planted in the house, Psalm 1 about being like a tree by the water, Psalm 23 (again) about dwelling in the house forever, Psalm 150 about how every living thing needs to praise… the list goes on.
I imagine that people complaining about songs that are seemingly full on romantic and intimate may struggle with relating this way to God in general.
But what’s interesting about Scripture is it actually calls for this sort of relationship to take place between God and man. In fact, the Bible describes the End of Days being a wedding between God the Bridegroom and the Church the bride.
I would implore you, dear reader, to reconsider the view that a romantic heart is a heart of weakness. King David, the main author of most of the Psalms, was a man of war and an absolute hit with the ladies. In fact, when he was on his death bed, they sent a naked woman into his room and when he “didn’t respond”, they took it as a sign that he was on his way out. Talk about a man among men, even by that typical definition of masculinity. Solomon, the Sons of Korah, Asaph, and other psalmists all fall into similar boats.
And yet we find that their true strength and true masculinity was empowered by this level of intimacy with God.
And so I would challenge you to embrace the intimacy put forward in the Psalms and even in these more modern songs that may make you feel uncomfortable. I would say the discomfort is unhealthy.
In the same way that I could destroy my marriage by failing to be romantic, caring, intimate, or deeply open and honest – even as a man – I think people also destroy or diminish their faith by trying to appear tough or strong or disinterested in the intimate language that the heart of worship speaks. I can’t just stay agnostic to my wife and make great statements about her in general – at some point, it needs to become personal, or we likely don’t have a direct relationship.
It’s the same with God.
True intimacy can be uncomfortable until you realize how fully accepted you truly are.
AKA “I don’t like the fast songs”.
I think the Christian’s dismissal of celebratory songs, declarations of victory, or upbeat communications of thankfulness robs great power from their lives.
One of the great pastors at our church (Karolina Gunsser) did a fantastic message a while ago about a commandment that people often miss in Scripture – “Thou Shalt Party”. It isn’t quite worded exactly like that, but we do see in the Psalms that we should enter into His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, in Hebrews that we should boldly approach the throne room of grace, through the law of Moses that feasting and celebrations were commissioned as an absolute expectation on the faithful community to worship, and in Romans that the kingdom is actually about love, joy, and peace.
You shouldn’t need to tell me “I have joy” to justify staying sad and down all the time – if the joy is real, I should be able to see it and experience it despite all the world raging against you.
Yes, there are times for reflection. Yes, there are times to be still. And I personally revel in songs to this effect as well.
But when we despise our opportunity to celebrate and declare victory, we often rob ourselves of joy and opportunity in our own lives.
As one megachurch pastor who regularly cops flak for his smiling face and “light theology” even though he’s often on point observed, Joshua and the Israelites had no victory over Jericho simply by walking around and around their problems – only after they opened their mouth with a shout of praise.
I really feel sad when I see people still living in the death and the pain of the Cross completely to the detriment of the resurrection and new life that it brought as well. From death to life is a miracle worth celebrating wholeheartedly. Christianity is life in the resurrection.
This one is an interesting one. I have a few thoughts on this one.
One – yes, valid point. Modern worship is incredibly commercialized. Song writer loyalties, licensing costs via CCLI, regular album launches and high production values. I would even agree that you can hear certain songs or even some entire albums where it is very clear that the songs are by the book and just trying to fill up the song count on the album, and not truly from the heart of a worshipper.
Two – I think certain considerations need to be made based on the size of the audience that the songs could or will reach. Everything that is posted on the internet or social media is now public, permanent, and searchable. Anything could go viral at any moment and have an audience of millions to billions within a day – we even saw this recently with the song The Blessing by Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes which had millions of views within its first few days of release going absolutely viral, even into the mainstream. Lauren Daigle’s You Say also comes to mind.
If you were giving a presentation at work tomorrow for your boss, how would you present yourself? How about for your CEO? Okay, how about for the Board? How about for the Board and for the entire company? How about if you knew your presentation was going to be recorded and broadcast to a network of companies? How about a conference of 10,000 people? How would you dress? How would you prepare? How would you want your stage to look? How polished would you like it to come across?
I think many people forget that things that get presented to millions of people, whether products, people, sermons or songs, are under ridiculous levels of scrutiny and analysis, and need to be presented in a professional manner accordingly. I don’t have a problem with a company doing that for a presentation, I don’t have a problem with a singer doing that for an album, and so I definitely don’t have a problem with a church upping its production values accordingly for sermon or song. It’s just the modern wrapping our culture speaks, wants, and I would say even needs.
Three – there is actually a Biblically sound case for churches to make money out of the things that they produce. 1 Corinthians 9:14 – “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”. Uh oh, that wasn’t in the church bible study this weekend was it? This isn’t a concept that gets discussed or even studied a lot. But nonetheless, the priests and Levites of old were fed and blessed by the offerings of the people in accordance with their service, as well as the Temple maintained and made even more elaborate, and I would say here we’re looking at the modern equivalent.
Keep in mind as well the great cost of running a modern church. Paul and Peter didn’t have to worry about public liability insurance, property cost, funding legal teams, OH&S compliance, government regulations, income tax (yes, churches do pay tax for certain things, as they should), and all the rest.
And to be frank, church people aren’t as generous with their finances as they say they are. I read a study a while ago that showed that the average Westerner gives away to charity and churches 2% of their disposable income (the income left after all their bills and expenses). A related study shows about 2-6%. Try running a multi-million dollar facility, staff, and ministry on 2% of attendee income. Supplementing and having multiple income streams makes perfect sense, especially if you believe in the call and the cause of the local church.
Four – once again, the Psalms. Produced in five books over several years and many more beyond. Individual songs brought into the corporate setting over and over again. Sung by pilgrims, religious leaders, great leaders and the smallest of the small in unison. Descriptions of ancient worship are quite elaborate. I wonder how many people complained about how large the sacrifices and the noise and the fanfare and ceremony was back in the day.
Actually, there were, including one of David’s own wives, Mical. She despised him for calling himself a man but then acting seemingly foolish in his elaborate celebration at the front of the procession. You can read about what God thought about that reaction. Short answer – not impressed. In worship, we can either be David, or Mical. Which one does your attitude towards worship make you?
Too “are you missing the point?”
I think that the problem with modern worship songs really is about a heart that isn’t fully settled. We wrap it up in fancy language and convincing arguments but I have seen way too many people who start talking this way eventually lose their faith and walk away completely. And I think if only they had captured what the true heart of worship is really about, they would have found a lot of the true peace, joy and answers their soul longed for.
It’s about gratitude and surrender. Thankfulness for how blessed we really are and how blessed we will be, and surrender of life’s great mysteries and challenges. As the Serenity Prayer cries out, we need the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t control in life, and a worshipping heart teaches one to find and live through this difference with great strength.
Many people have written and continue to write many great songs to this effect, and I know I have been so blessed by the journeys and lyrics of others even in my own life, to the point where a number of songs have well and truly become the confessions and pillars of my own heart. And I actually do still love the oldies – bring back some corporate Be Thou My Vision written between 400 and 800AD, I reckon.
But there’s something powerful about singing a new song. It keeps you moving forward. It opens you to theology you may have never considered before. It softens the heart in times of great celebration or even turmoil. And it unites us all in one voice, one mind, and one heart, as Scripture well and truly desires of us.
So there you go. My problem with modern worship songs. You may have remembered I did a similar spin when I wrote My Problem With Christian Conferences where the problem (spoilers) wasn’t actually with the Christian conferences.
In truth, I continue to find that whenever we start to become cynical and especially divisive, something is really off. And I hate seeing people miss out on their opportunity to live their best life and experience the fullness of what the life of faith has to offer.
If you’re unsure about where you stand or you’re after some more related reading, I would recommend the following:
- How Easter Changed My Life
- Why Christians Who Don’t Go To Church Are Missing the Point
- Seven Reasons Why Atheism Makes No Sense To Me
- When You Feel Like A Dirty Backslider
Also small shout out to a band called The Sons of Korah (based on the sons of Korah who wrote a number of the songs in Scripture) who put the Psalms to music. I have been a huge fan of them for over a decade and they’re a great way to fully get into the text.
How about you? Do you have a problem with modern worship songs, or any other comments on the above?