Back To Basics: Confronting the Culture of Worship with Worship
By Chuck Fromm
Scribed by Andrea Hunter
Back to Basics is a regular feature drawn from the writings of Worship Leader magazine’s founder Chuck Fromm. His theories and theology surrounding worship and communication are woven together by various editorial collaborators and used to elucidate and underscore each month’s theme.
“Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will hear not the melody of their viols…” – Amos 5:23
“He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in Him.” – Psalm 40:3
In the overarching Culture we share, there are many sub-cultures, and defining it and them is not an exact science. Music, folk, traditional/classical, and recorded performance collided in the Jesus Movement, creating a path to what is now called Contemporary Christian Worship (CCW). In the process it became genetically modified in a manner of speaking. (I might add that all worship is and was contemporary at some point in time.)
The identifying characteristics of many of the songs that have profoundly impacted people across history is that they are deeply personal and at the same time universally experienced and felt. Labels with logarithms, demographics, and a bottom line produce songs that may or may not be personal, transformative, and deeply Scriptural. And the allure of reward (whether fame or fortune) can play with the motives of the would-be songwriter (label/manager/church, etc.).
New Song: Streams of Refreshment
In Psalm 40, as elsewhere in Scripture, we see a distinct pattern for New Song—a biblical prototype that repeats itself throughout history. The human spirit responds to an encounter with God; man is delivered, renewed, and set on a high place. A fresh expression of spontaneous praise and worship celebrates the deliverance. The experience of salvation becomes the substance of song. God is glorified, faith is revitalized, and the community is blessed. Think of Psalms and songs such as “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Amazing Grace,” and Psalm 51, written from a place of deep personal connection. Even centuries after they were penned, at key moments of life, they mediate meaning, hope, comfort, and repentance. Thankfully we see a trend in this direction and an increased desire to write as teachers, prophets, evangelists, culture-changers, community builders, and those who worship God and love His creation. Think of your favorite worship songs. What amplifies their meaning for you?
New Song is the song of faith that is passed from generation to generation. During times of revival or spiritual renewal it often resurfaces afresh, like a deep flowing underground stream bringing a reservoir of refreshment for a new generation of believers. It is generated from the heart, captured by cultural artifact, and in our day—for better or worse—it is generally transmitted by commerce. Not that the collision of commerce and “church” music is something entirely new; hymnals, artist patronage, and music publishing have existed for hundreds of years. But the commercialization of worship through the music business has raised new issues and questions for us.
Worship Wars Against the Powers
At its best, worship glorifies God, interprets the Text, touches the un-churched, educates both the singer and those he sings to, and tells personal and biblical history within the community of God. Throughout history, music has served many functions in the Church. While it extols God and worships Him, it also forms His people and corrects questionable doctrine. Some of the earliest examples of Christian hymnody were written to counteract Gnostic and Arian heresies: Chrysostom sought to overcome the perverting influence of Arian hymnology with solemn doxologies. Hilary of Poitiers, the first hymn writer of the Latin Church, also composed orthodox hymns to oppose the spread of the popular Arian hymns. Ephraim, leader of the Syrian church, introduced to public worship a body of poetry that countered the heretical poetry of the Gnostic Bardesanes. St. Ambrose, the father of Latin Church song who clashed with the Arians in 386, is quoted as saying, “…some claim that I have ensnared people by the melodies of my hymns. I do not deny it.” As the fourth century Bishop of Milan, Ambrose’s compositions, which made use of popular Greek melodies, facilitated spiritual awakenings as well as combatted heresy.
Now, as then, of course, there is opportunity to introduce heresy or misinformation about God as well as to correct it. But now, those who filter and promote our worship songs are not necessarily pastors, scholars, or believers with sound theology. The criteria can be more, “Does it have a good hook?”; “Is it catchy?”; “Will it sell?” Not, “Does it support the ‘Text’ at the center of our faith and community?”; “Does it form Christ in the singer?”; “Can most people even sing this song?”
That’s really why Song Discovery was founded, so that songs could be evaluated on an equal footing whether the writer was associated with a church or a publisher or label, and songs could be looked at in terms of their truth, freshness, singability, biblical imagination, service component support (i.e. call to worship, communion, thanksgiving, offertory, etc.), and the Word of worship they embodied. This way, the large companies with big budgets would not determine the global hymnbook.
History and Outlook
Music has been alternately personal, expressive, and inclusive, and institutional and exclusive. At different times creativity and spontaneity have been expressed and encouraged, and at other times suppressed and tightly managed. Money has been exchanged for performance or offered as patronage long before the emergence of the Christian recording industry. But it’s taken on a new patina…or dullness.
Contrasting the high church’s entrenched musical traditions is the simple and pragmatic approach of men like Martin Luther. One of Luther’s stated goals was the restoration of true worship. He understood the tremendous benefit resulting from hearing the Word of God and then uniting as a congregation to offer thanksgiving in song. This stress on congregational participation in worship became a linchpin of the Reformation. And congregational participation and formation should still be our goals. If it’s just a song we can clap to and move our body with, it’s not enough.
With that said, let’s consider some questions around Contemporary Christian Worship, and then together foment a plan to save the best of it, turn away from the worst of it, address the business entities who amplify, muzzle, and direct creative flow, and offer gratitude to those who are able to keep the faith and create and produce worship that meets the criteria of Biblical imagination and faith in a commercial environment largely owned by non-Christian companies. And let’s encourage the local church to celebrate the Text at the center of our faith with worship locally grown in addition to the worldwide hymns we sing.
The following questions are just a few adapted from New Song To Entertainment (Chuck Fromm)
Production Culture Issues in Contemporary Christian Worship
- Are the aesthetic principles required in music coming from the inside-out or merely being applied in the studio?
- Are we creating a spiritualized commodity or commodifying spirituality?
- Are the marketing customs and patterns around worship artists consistent with the Christian message?
- What aspects of the CCW product make it Christian: lyrics, performer’s lifestyle, the company’s ethos?
- Is CCW celebrity-driven or song-driven?
- What is the purpose of CCW?
- Does the corporate ethos have to be Christian to support such an artist? Are we participating in the transformation of a media culture or merely joining it?
- Have we turned a mission into a marketplace?
- How do we discern purely commoditized culture vs. genuine and authentic expression?
- Is it possible to maintain biblical values, language, and behavior in the CCW media system including radio, concerts, agents, promoters, and labels?
- What institutions do CCW sales promote, and how do those institutions support spirituality?
- Can we develop industry leaders who regard God above capitalism?
- What is the message of Christian Music, and should it be distinguished from other messages in the mass media?
- Does mass media support or fight against the incarnate message of Christ?
- Are we confusing production process issues with content, and is the form more impressive than the content?
- What is the meaning of “quality” when applied to CCW?
- How can we avoid the repeated sameness that plagues production culture?
- How does form structure the message, and can the form create symbolic confusion for the listener/singer?
- Are forgiveness, repentance, humility, morals, and devotion modeled by the Christian label artist? What message is being sent along with the song?
- Does/should production of the sacred differ from production of the secular?
- Is the music forming listeners morally and spiritually, or merely moving them emotionally?
- Are the audiences worshiping the artists or God?
- What message is the audience hearing?
- Can we capture the industry without being captured by it?
- Are the artists truly giving voice to what the Spirit is saying or rather what the audience is feeling or wants to hear?
- How is CCW shaping the values, beliefs, and attitudes of people today?
- What is CCW teaching the audience about God, about Life, and about Christian community?
- Does CCW encourage faith among its audience or promote new gods?
- What are the motives of the sellers of Christian music: financial or spiritual?
If the culture of worship has lost its sacred edge, how do we confront the culture that is supporting and distorting it? Making a laundry list of trespassed lines, deficits, and holes is “moralistic” at best, and “religious” at worst (unless a song is heretical). The most effective way to confront empty, formulaic music created in the image of Billboard is to create its opposite. First, let’s create dialogue between the Church and commercial producers and spreaders of worship music. Next encourage writers to create from encounter and engagement with God and His Word (which thankfully many writers do, including those on Billboard’s charts), and create new avenues of distribution, where the spreadability factor is not stacked against the artist without a publishing company gaining premium entrée to licensing and distribution. Most importantly, write songs to God and for people and care more about formation than chart position. Encourage the writers of songs and those who lead worship by providing tools, teaching, and opportunity to develop New Song. Encourage the poets in local congregations. Look at the rich treasure of past worship and (don’t resurrect) but remediate it— bring its fire and truth and glory into the present language. The only way to create an alternative to isomorphic sameness, shallow lyrics, and bad theology is to be led by the Spirit, embody Christ, worship God, and cling to the Text at the heart of our communities: the Bible. Don’t take away the Pablum unless it’s poisoned, but for goodness’ sake, give them some milk…and ultimately veggies and steak (Heb 5:11-13). Trade a culture of narcissism for a culture of servants, and encourage cooperation and collaboration between business, scholars, pastors, worship writers, and worship leaders. Sing a New Song that we live and breathe and share with others.
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