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Are We Too Critical of Contemporary Worship?

Are We Too Critical of Contemporary Worship?

by Mike Duran · 31 comments

There’s a man at our church who remains in the lobby until worship is over. He says it’s too loud. I haven’t noticed. But then again, my iPod volume is always maxed out. Our worship is like many evangelical churches — we employ contemporary music in a “theatrical” setting (stage, lights, overhead projector, video, amplification, etc.) .

Which makes us the target of many critics of the Church.

It’s easy to criticize contemporary worship, and many do. Take D.H. Williams’ piece in Christianity Today where he described the worship service at a megachurch as “aimed at finding a theological and cultural lowest common denominator.” Or Jeremy Pierce’s pointed Rant About Worship Songs. One author simply asks Has Modern Worship become Corrupt? And then there’s the typical scolding: You are not a Rock Star, and other nuggets for worship leaders. The critiques of contemporary worship just seem to go on and on.

It’s one of those things that postmoderns and the religiously disaffected often site as reasons they leave the Church: worship is canned, phony, sentimental fluff. It’s little more than rock ballads with “Jesus” conveniently inserted, and those who lead it seem more concerned with performance than theological and spiritual depth.

So why is worship — specifically, musical worship, which is my focus here — a continued topic among friends and foes of the Church? Here’s a couple of reasons:

  • Worship is basic to a healthy Christian life, often considered the scaffold for all other disciplines
  • Every church “does worship” — it is elemental to the typical corporate sevice
  • Worship is often the first experience one has of a church
  • Music is constantly in flux; these ongoing cultural shifts force us to readjust or reinterpret our views on worship
  • Worship music has become a massive industry, one of the best selling CCM genres

I’m sure there’s other reasons why worship is — and should be — an ongoing topic of discussion. Apart from these issues, though, the topic interests me  because for about 15 years of my early church experience, I was a worship leader. Reluctantly thrust into the role at an early age, no one provided me a how-to manual. All I had was a used Yahama acoustic guitar and a desire to follow God. The rest I learned on the fly.

And it didn’t take me long to realize that I was under the microscope. The kind of songs I chose. The instrumental arrangements. My stage presence. The mix and volume of the music. Drums or no drums? Hymns or no hymns? Were people being engaged during worship? If not, why not? What should we do to engage people? What was manipulative or sappy? And could we worship corporately without alienating visitors, seekers, or non-believers? The questions just seemed to go on and on.

I wonder that contemporary worship has become an easy target for critics of the Church. On any given Sunday, these charges can be leveled against any worship service:

  • The music is too loud
  • The music is too soft
  • The congregation is too stiff and reserved
  • The congregation is too loose and disorderly
  • The musicians are performing, not worshiping
  • The musicians are cold, joyless, unemotional
  • The music is unprofessional, amateur
  • The music is too polished and scripted
  • The worship is too short
  • The worship is too long
  • The music is too contemporary, too worldly
  • The music is not contemporary or relevant

Believe me, I’ve heard them all. In a way, contemporary worship is in a no win situation. On the one hand are those pulling us back toward more traditional forms, on the other are those challenging us to expand the tent pegs of our understanding. And, in the middle, are those who just mimic what’s current. Some prefer the more liturgical, others the more informal; some prefer the more contemplative, others the more celebratory. No wonder contemporary worship has become a tug-o-war!

Needless to say, the inexperienced worship leader can be easily overwhelmed.

We all have an ideal of what worship should be. . . and maybe that’s the problem. The Bible does not provide a checklist — When you do these five things, you’re really worshiping. In fact, the biblical injunctions are not very explicit. There’s few external measurements for true worship. What does it involve? Singing, speaking, or silence? Contemplation, celebration, or service? The fact is, it can be all or none of the above.

Ultimately, if true worship is an exchange between an open heart and its Maker, then how a person worships is incidental. As shallow and unoriginal as I think most modern worship songs are, I cannot discount the possibility that people will genuinely worship with them. This is not a license for shallowness and un-originality, but an admission of how difficult it is to wrap our arms around the topic. The moment I say we need to be more Pentecostal in our praise, the traditionalists pummel me with their hymnals. If I suggest longer worship sessions, I am lectured about the importance of preaching the Word of God. If I choose a simpler, more “home-spun” presentation with amateur musicians, the “professionals” leave the church because of its unconcern for the arts.

I’m wondering how much of our criticism of modern worship is based on biblical precepts and how much is based on our own personal preferences? I’d love to see more enthusiasm and abandon in my fellow worshipers. But I’ve also attended rock, heavy metal and hardcore concerts (which makes me slightly less predisposed to pipe organs and choral robes). And I’m with other critics wanting to see less commercialism, more honesty and artistic excellence in our worship. However, the “career worship leader” might have a pure heart and Billy Bob’s un-tuned banjo could sound like a harp in God’s ears.

I taught at a church this weekend. Younger demographic, 20-30-somethings. They sang your typical Top 40 Praise. The volume was loud, too loud in my opinion, and the mix wasn’t that good. But the people really seemed to get into it. So who am I to judge?

Could it be that, when it comes to worship, Scripture intentionally leaves room for personal preferences, different cultural expressions and — more importantly — individual and/or corporate idiosyncrasies and immaturities? Perhaps we’d be better off if we worried more about entering into worship than who’s leading and how it’s being done.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Dennis September 4, 2012 at 6:55 AM

Mike – thanks for sharing. Very thoughtful and interesting article. I’ve actually been thinking about the topic of worship lately (I often do it seems) and thought that perhaps looking at what kind of worship we should have we should actually look at the Bible, both what we see in the past (history of Israel & the Church) and what we see in the future (Heaven).

Concerning the future:

In Revelation we see that worship is pretty intense. It is filled with the glory of God. There are musical instruments being played. It’s also loud. Really loud. It say’s so 3 or 4 times if I recall correctly. It is Christ-centered not man-centered. And there are other things like humility, reverence, awe, etc. People are prostrate on the ground. Like I said, pretty intense stuff. Why not make heaven our model? After all other than glorifying God isn’t that what we are attempting to do in part, i.e. bring heaven to earth?

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Melissa September 4, 2012 at 7:43 AM

I went to church with my mother this past Sunday. She goes to a small evangelical church that mimics the megachurches with the lighting, the music, the theatrical feel, etc. I felt like I was being entertained. We didn’t sing any hymns, and times of quiet were nonexistent. I felt intensely uncomfortable during the service and did not feel any reverence at all.

This, however, could be personal preference and my introverted nature. I am not demonstrative when I worship. I do not put my hands in the air or any of that, though I have absolutely nothing against those who do. If the spirit moves you, then go with it. I have always thought that my style of worship is quiet and reflective, and, indeed, solemn. That is just who I am, and I gravitate toward churches who are the same.

I think there’s room for both styles – contemporary and traditional. My church incorporates both (they have musicians play for the three choruses we sing at the beginning of church, then the organ and piano play the hymns for the rest of the service). and I really like that.

I guess what I think must be included in any church service, however, is reverence and reflection. If that isn’t there, then I believe the service misses the mark. Just my two cents…

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Nicole September 4, 2012 at 7:43 AM

Excellent points, Mike. My son is a sound guy. Has been for several churches. Started at the age of 13 and has battled with every complaint you mentioned and every technical frustration encountered by those who endeavor to make worshipping the Lord anointed from the booth to the congregants.

It’s amazing to me what people find to complain about instead of worshipping in “spirit and in truth”. I have my preferences for sure, also coming out of the pure rock generation. But what I really prefer are people entering into worship and ushering in the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our midst. (As Dennis above suggests.)

Isn’t it just one more area where “the church” needs to forget about all the “traditions of men” and just realize we’re gathered there to truly worship the one true God? Personally, that’s my yearning, and I’m sure on any given Sunday the Lord can minister to all “tastes” and “skills” if allowed.

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Nicholas Nieblas September 4, 2012 at 8:33 AM

Thanks for writing this, Mike. I think you’ve got a good handle on this issue, for an old guy ;-). I especially appreciate: “Ultimately, if true worship is an exchange between an open heart and its Maker, then how a person worships is incidental.” Its been said so many times, but hardly ever fully embraced.

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Thea September 4, 2012 at 8:44 AM

I went to a Christian school from grade 8-12 and we had “chapel” once a week, which was pretty much a slightly shorter version of a contemporary service. One week, we had a band come in and, for the first song, I was a little uncomfortable, because I wasn’t used to their style and I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Then God said: “Thea, just worship me.” Which was cool with me -that’s what I came for and enjoyed so much during chapel. So, I put my focus on God instead of the band’s style and, honestly, completely forgot about them being up there. They could have done anything, and I wouldn’t have noticed because I was so wrapped up in singing with God. By the end of worship, I felt fantastic. I really had had time with God, and it was like drinking from living water.

After everything, as we all were leaving and I was still amazed at how fantastic God was and how fantastic that worship time had been, I heard one girl say: “That band was terrible. I couldn’t get into worship at all.” It took me at least five whole minutes to process that statement, because it was the complete opposite of what I had experienced.

At which point, I finally figured out that worship has nothing to do with what’s happening on the stage (or wherever). It doesn’t matter what the people around me are doing, or if I know the songs that are being sung. Worship is about connecting with God, and that can happen anywhere, at any time. Certainly the outside circumstances can help, but the result is ultimately dependant upon my heart and my choices.

That said, the coolest corporate worship service is, in my opinion, when everyone is so authentically abandoned to God that it doesn’t matter one bit how anyone around them is worshipping. At all. I’ve been to some of those, and they are phenomenal.

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Bobby September 4, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Hehe I know a few guys who conveniently “miss” worship for whatever reason. I’ve done it myself on occasion.

Yeah, I think some churches could dial it down a bit and I think there is an argument that could be made that the noise becomes so much one can only wonder how hearing God is possible. During an internship in Los Angeles, I attended a megachurch in which the worship was pretty much a rock concert. The music was almost deafening, the interior was dark and flashing lights were everywhere. Sure, everyone was having fun singing about Jesus, but you could seriously ask if anyone was actually hearing from Jesus.

That said, I think if Jesus went into a small, big, long, short, etc. worship service and found people immersed in the atmosphere and trying to find God’s presence, he wouldn’t say much. He’d probably just join right in.

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Katherine Coble September 4, 2012 at 10:23 AM

” Perhaps we’d be better off if we worried more about entering into worship than who’s leading and how it’s being done.”

Nice idea in theory. But “how it’s being done” often stands directly in the path between me and God.

I don’t go to church to watch you. I don’t go to church to marvel at how well you play guitar. I don’t go to church to listen to a guy who has been a Christian for fifteen minutes tell me how I am Doing It Wrong. I don’t go to church to be bored into a trance by singing the same phrase over and over again. I don’t go to church to have someone say “If you don’t sing I’m going to come down and shove this microphone in your face.” I don’t go to church to have someone say “if you love the Lord, you’ll stand up to sing to him. If you don’t stand, you don’t love Him fully!”

The problem with song leaders–I won’t call them worship leaders because the whole service is worship and the Holy Spirit leads us all in worship–is that they are most often YOUNG.

They are young men. Young Christians. They have the naive enthusiasm of the young but lack the discernment, compassion and insight that comes with age. They don’t understand shyness, physical disability, introverted nature. They often fail to comprehend that their way is not the only way.

All those criticisms you list are ways that people try to tactfully say what I am bluntly stating outright. Nice people complain about too loud or too soft.

What they mean is “get your ego out of the way so I can follow the Holy Spirit to the Cross and the Father”

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Mike Duran September 4, 2012 at 4:08 PM

Katherine said, ” “get your ego out of the way so I can follow the Holy Spirit to the Cross and the Father.” This is exactly why it’s impossible to accurately gauge (much less critique) all contemporary worship. That statement is so vague. How does a “selfless, humble” worship leader lead worship? Does this translate into decibels, song structure, and the number of chorus repetitions? Maybe. Maybe not. You’re right, the real issue is character. But even humble people can lead awful worship.

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Jim Hamlett September 6, 2012 at 7:53 AM

“This is exactly why it’s impossible to accurately gauge (much less critique) all contemporary worship.”

If I’m permitted a cliche, truer words were never spoken. Music, like writing, is a craft, and like every other craft, highly subjective. We go a little late to our service because my wife doesn’t enjoy the music as much as some. It impedes her worship. I grew up under a much broader range of music, so it doesn’t bother me as much.

My chief complaint would be with the execution. Some musicians, like writers, don’t know when to quit. Less is more. Works well in writing; will work in music. Good music has resolution, as does good writing. Define the end, carry your audience to it, and when you get there, quit.

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Nicholas Nieblas September 4, 2012 at 10:34 AM

Katherine, if the way that worship is being done is standing between you worshiping God, then what is really standing between you and God, is you. Your preferences and obvious prejudice against younger, enthusiastic worshipers is what is stopping your worship (so it seems) from happening in that setting. You can’t blame anyone other than yourself for not engaging in worship.

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Melissa September 4, 2012 at 10:43 AM

Disagree, most vehemently, Nicholas.

We are not all robots. We do not all have the focus of a laser beam. We are not all able to shut certain things out. We do not all function the same.

I need quiet to worship. I don’t need lights and pictures flashing on a screen – that distracts me. Does this mean it’s my fault for not engaging? Or is that the way GOD MADE ME?

We all worship differently. What works for you may not work for someone else.

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Katherine Coble September 4, 2012 at 2:43 PM

Nicholas, you’re young. That’s obvious from this comment alone. I’m guessing 15-23. That age where you are invincible and always sure of how righteous you are. That age where it doesn’t occur to you that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy.

You’ll figure it out.

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Nicholas Nieblas September 4, 2012 at 4:23 PM

I’m 29. I have a mortgage, a wife and 3 kids. I am far from invincible. I have worked in worship ministry “professionally” for over 8 years, and 4 years before that in a volunteer capacity. Aside from incorrect theology or incorrect action of worship, nothing other than your preferences and circumstance can (or should rather) hinder you from connecting and interacting with God. God is bigger than our preferences. I love quiet times of worship. I also love loud exuberant worship. There is a place for all of it in worship services. If you can find scripture limiting God’s people’s response to Him to one form of worship or another, then I will concede that we can have our preferences and limit or expressions of love and worship to those alone. But until you find such scripture, I suggest you learn how to crank it up while gently (or maybe we need it not so gently) teaching the youth to be reverent and still in worship of our Lord.

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Nicholas Nieblas September 4, 2012 at 4:41 PM

Also, I take offense to the term “you’ll figure it out”. I’ve come to see that when folks say, “you’ll figure it out” all they’re really saying is “I’m done learning so you’re gonna have to change, not me”.

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Johne Cook September 6, 2012 at 8:34 AM

We’re all figuring it out. If we aren’t changing, we aren’t being purified. (And we /all/ need to be purified.)

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Alan O September 4, 2012 at 10:48 AM

Several people have mentioned the Introversion/Extroversion angle in the comments. Susan Cain, in her book titled “Quiet,” has a nice section about modern day evangelical worship ideals, (particularly in the megachurch) and how those don’t always fit for the more retiring, more contemplative, more reflective type of personality. If you’re an introvert (or love one), recommend you check that out.

This post hit home for me, because I find these arguments (and I hear them a lot) very depressing. My wife and I are open to a wide variety of worship styles, and I’ve felt close to God in all kinds of worship venues, large & small, quiet & loud, formalized & liturgical or Pentecostal.

But it’s the incessant *arguing,* and the self-centeredness of it, that saddens me. I truly believe that if I ever chose to leave the church, it would be over this issue. The older I get, the more tired I become of the endless bickering…usually over mindless incidentals.

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Jessica Thomas September 4, 2012 at 11:12 AM

“My wife and I are open to a wide variety of worship styles, and I’ve felt close to God in all kinds of worship venues, large & small, quiet & loud, formalized & liturgical or Pentecostal.

But it’s the incessant *arguing,* and the self-centeredness of it, that saddens me.”

Agreed. And if you aren’t “feelin’” it, then you are free to leave. Or, get over it? Or worship at Church A on Sunday morning because you love the people, but not the worship so much, and then go to Church B on Sunday night because they worship in the style you prefer. No church revolves around me or any other believer. Given that fact, sometimes we have to be willing to get out of our comfort zone.

As an aside, the worship leader at my church is a wo-man, mid-forties. We sing hymns and contemporary. As a member of the worship team, I find the monitors are always far too loud. And I much prefer the AKG mic over the Shure. Not enough to fight about it or cause a rift in the church, but I might whine a little if I don’t get the one I like.

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Katherine Coble September 4, 2012 at 2:50 PM

You’ll then be pleased to note that I DID leave. Rather than fight about it. I figure if that’s how those people are comfortable worshiping (and all those things i put in quotes were really said, in two different churches) then they’re welcome to it.

I’ll stay at home and worship God in my quiet way without powerpoint.

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Jessica Thomas September 4, 2012 at 6:11 PM

Based on the quotes alone, and not knowing the context of course, I can’t blame you for leaving. If the leadership allows that kind of coercing to go on during the worship service it’s likely indicative of a broader systemic problem within the church.

As far as getting out of one’s comfort zone, the example I’d give for myself is Chris Sligh’s “Empty Me”. Whenever that song came on the radio, I turned the channel because it just bugged me. “Empty me of me so I can be filled with you…” Wha? Those lyrics seemed overly simplistic, too easily misunderstood. I still don’t like them in isolation, but one Sunday one of our elders went up front and talked about what that song meant to him, how it had moved him. He fashioned a mini-sermon around it that was quite powerful, then he played the song. When the song started (with video projected on the large screen), I thought, “Oh great, here we go.” But when I listened that time, I heard the song through the elder’s eyes and I finally “got it”. By the end of the song, I was teary eyed.

I have to be careful, myself, because I can fall into elitism pretty easily when it comes to music… I miss out on joy of simply appreciating someone else’s creation, appreciating where the artist was at along their journey when they wrote it because I’m too busy being nit-picky about this chord change or that bass line. In the end, it’s my loss, not theirs.

I still say, no song should have the word “pastries” in it, though.

Slowly sinking, wasting
Crumbling like pastries
And they scream
The worst things in life come free to us

To the artist (Ed Sheeran), Are you trying to be deep, because all I can think about right now is strawberry shortcake.

I have my limits.

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Jessica Thomas September 4, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Oh. Ed, otherwise it’s a good song. I’m hip to it.

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Mike Duran September 4, 2012 at 4:15 PM

Alan, I appreciate this. The thing I’d encourage as to why I think this IS an important discussion to have, is not for the sake of critiquing worship style per se, but the larger issue of church and culture, especially the evangelical church’s embrace of modernity and the potential long-term effects that has on its disciples. Hang in there and keep your eyes on God!

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Alan O September 5, 2012 at 3:43 AM

Understood, Mike… I’m all for discussion, but all around me I see more evidence that people are losing the ability to do that. We can’t have a civil dialog on whether to install pews or chairs…or whether we should have stained glass and an organ, or synthesizers and stage lights. Instead, we go straight to “biting & devouring.”

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Jill September 4, 2012 at 2:26 PM

I’m at the point where I can’t even bother to get up to go to church on Sundays, so I guess I don’t know if I should add to this discussion. But I was a part of the “praise/worship team” for some time at one of my churches, and I do remember the song choice to be a balancing act for the worship leader. We sang traditional hymns and traditional choruses. Also, we had a couple of local college boys playing guitar, and this was, of course, contentious. I had to wonder if those who didn’t like it didn’t want college kids in the church at all because this gave the students a purpose and a reason for coming. It wasn’t because the guitar was loud–the music was very-well balanced in the sound booth so that the organ and piano didn’t dominate the guitars and vocals.

Having been on that side of things, I agree that people will bicker about almost anything. On the other hand, I agree with Katherine in her comment above because I know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by loud music/drums, to not be able to filter it out, and to feel manipulated or brow-beaten by overzealous, young male praise leaders. I still have nightmares from my youth over a man like that. Even though, as a child, I felt pity for what I considered to be the man’s low intelligence (looking back, he probably wasn’t stupid, just too enthusiastic to stop and think deeply about anything) and felt that I should be above his tactics, it was difficult to cope with an authority figure who had no empathy for others’ worship styles, not to mention their feelings. It may be a balancing act, but worship leaders need to consider others, unless it’s all about them.

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Kaleb September 4, 2012 at 2:53 PM

And I as I read, I’m very glad I’ve found my church. We have hymns and contemporary music, no organs or hymnals though. Our piano is a keyboard, so it can imitate an organ. Yes, some of our musicians are professional (One of them signed on to a record label last week and’ll start touring soon.), others aren’t yet, but will be. (Our keyboarder is a high schooler who received a scholarship at the 2012 OSU jazz festival) Others just aren’t, and probably won’t be, but they’re united by passion, dedication, and desire to worship God through their music. We have quiet and contemplative songs, and we also have the joyous songs like the one David danced to.

Personally, I really like the mix and balance. There’s a need for all types of worship because there are all types of people.

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Kaleb September 4, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Young worship leaders without discernment isn’t a problem at our church either.

I’m blessed.

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Marion September 4, 2012 at 5:57 PM

Mike,

I just posted recently on my blog a post titled I Like Christian Music, But…and the reason for the post was that I overheard a co-worker saying he got a CCM CD from a friend and heard the word “Jesus” sung 67 times and didn’t want the message forced down his throat. Yeah, that’s hyperbolic….but I decided to take his comment and create a blog post out of it.

http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2012/08/25/wisdom-from-kammbia-3-2-i-like-christian-music-but/

I got some strong responses and one person got a little mad at me. LOL!! That was my first response like that after 2 years of blogging. I’m moving up to the big leagues…I guess.

Anyway after reading your post, I realize that I do believe it comes down to personal preference when it comes to worship. For me, listening to music is one of my great hobbies beside reading fiction and I grew up where I could listen to anything from Van Morrison to Earth, Wind, & Fire to Miles Davis to Tito Puente to Peter Gabriel.

So my musical tastes is varied and I must admit a lot of CCM music isn’t that diverse musically. However, I have been listening to Michael Card a lot lately and he’s good.

But, I do think for most modern evangelicals….it does come down to personal preference for worshipping. Unfortunately, in a lot of megachurchs (I’m a member of one) will play worship songs from a Chris Tomlin or Paul Baloche or Mercy Me or Casting Crowns but not a Kirk Franklin or Israel & The New Breed or Marvin Sapp. And that saddens me….because aren’t Gospel singers singing about the same Jesus as CCM artists?

Well, I do realize you can’t get everything you want at church and we should not get overly upset because the worship music is not what you prefer.

This is another good blog post and something to think about offline.

Marion

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Marion September 4, 2012 at 6:00 PM

Sorry about the multiple posts, Mike. I was trying to edit my response. Oops.

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BK Jackson (@BKJacksonAZ) September 5, 2012 at 6:22 AM

There will always be this discord, unfortunately. There are those who diss old hymns, those that diss contemporary music. I’ve heard it all. But one point you make is very important–true worship is between an open heart and God. For example, I fairly often hear people trash contemporary Christian bands who use the same refrains over and over and don’t have a lot of deep verse. But the Newsboys bring out my utter joy in God just as powerfully as To God Be The Glory or How Great Thou Art.

But this all runs deeper then just the worship. I know it’s outside the bounds of your post, but I struggle more with the varying opinions on how to teach kids God’s word in the modern day church. Sometimes it feels like we work harder to bring in a lot of pop culture refererences rather than teaching and grounding students in God’s word. It is very frustrating and I don’t know what the right track is. But there has to be a proper medium that walks the line between “people pleasing entertainment” for the ADD crowd (which is virtually everybody, young and old alike) and the nitty gritty of reaching people with who God is and how to know Him more intimately.

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Leanna September 5, 2012 at 4:07 PM

Just wanted to point out, Mike, that the Rant About Worship Songs you link to at the beginning of your article is actually a clever critique of worship criticism. You might want to go read it again. ;)

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Mike Duran September 5, 2012 at 4:22 PM

Thanks, I will.

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