church music is terrible :: how to make it better

July 19, 2011

Wow. This one is close to home. This one has actually set up shop in my living room and is enjoying a sandwich on my couch while wearing my slippers.  That close to home.

The truth is… church music is terrible.  And that’s not to say that it isn’t sometimes incredibly moving, effective, and inspiring.  But often… it’s kinda… bad.  Thankfully the work of the spirit and the sacrifice of worship does not require great music.  It requires an honest heart before God, and grateful submission to a personal Savior.  These are spiritual concerns, independent to some degree of the quality of the art in our local church.  Great music in church simply is not required for deeply personal worship.

But great music might help.

As a worship leader for the past 17+ years, I’ve been a part of some powerful high-level artistic experiences, and several musical expressions that should not be labeled art at all.  I’ve led with far better musicians than myself as well as rookies in the field.  Sometimes we have produced beautifully crafted art.  Sometimes we have produced something not so beautiful.  I want to keep the bar high – to either obliterate or redeem the phrase “good enough for church.”  I try to lead the MUSIC as best I can, but our focus remains primarily on the heart of the lead worshipers on our team.  I am far more interested in leading artists who are in an honest, growing love relationship with Jesus than in signing up the best local rock star.

And yet my ears are tired.

I remember reading a post not too long ago from a blogger who generates broad discussion amongst the worship leader community.  He asked us what songs were really “connecting” right now in our churches.  I read through the 100+ responses, realizing that for many of us, our playlists were almost interchangeable.

Crowder, Tomlin, Hillsong, Passion, Sovereign Grace, Maher, Brown, McMillan, Hughes, Redman, Gateway…

It was interesting.  And kind of sad.  I wondered what God must be experiencing as he hears our worship team singing “Mighty to Save” again.  I realized that at the exact same time there are probably 400 other churches in America singing that song.  I still wonder that today.  And I realize when I hear other churches leaders crank up their rhythm sections… my ears are tired.

Are God’s ears tired?

This post isn’t meant to address worship style, per se.  I just hunger for something fresh in church music  that moves my heart and inspires greater love of God. It isn’t about needing “new” songs all the time.  And it isn’t just about the technical aptitude of the players, either.  Christian radio, playing studio-polished recordings of passionate and gifted artists often has the same effect on me.  Unease. There may be some new things happening in me, or maybe a discontentment growing for what feels too familiar and too easy.  It made me think… What is about “church music” that is so… so… uninspiring sometimes?

I found a possible answer in Psalm 33:3

“Sing to Him a new song. Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts.”

I see three important elements here.  Freshness.  Skill.  And Fervor.

Do you know when music in church is most effective for me – when it inspires God thoughts in me that lead to worship?  If you thought I was going to say, “When the music is presented with fresh language, or when it is skillfully played or led, or maybe music that is passionately honest about the truth of God…”  You’d be almost right.

Replace “or” in the statement above with “AND.” Psalm 33:3 is a command.  God wrote it.  He did not say, “Sing a new song… or play skillfully… or at least make it passionate.”

He said (my paraphrase), “Don’t just repeat the songs you like to sing because they ‘work,’ make sure you include songs that inspire people with new and surprising poetry and beautiful melodies and harmonies that reflect my creativity and my beauty.”

But God asks for more. The whole Bible is full of exhortations to bring our BEST lamb as a sacrifice, to offer the FIRST and the BEST to God, and for artists to “play skillfully, sing skillfully, craft skillfully” when our art is in service to the King.  God asks for a new song, but he doesn’t want us to bring something half-baked.  He wants us to play skillfully.  When a Worship Team plays instruments that are out of tune, or when singers miss entrances, or when the organist plays a wrong chord, our attention is on the Team, not on the Lord we are singing to or about.  Artistic skill doesn’t need to be “showy.”  In fact, the most skilled and Spirit-led musicians sweep us into the presence of God and practically disappear… our focus on the Audience of One.  Humbly wielded, artistic skill in the service of the King is a powerful tool for use by the Spirit.

And yet God asks for more. YES, we must create and present NEW songs to the Church and to the Lord.  YES, we are commanded to play skillfully – to bring our BEST lamb as an offering out of love for God.  But we are also exhorted to shout.  LOUDLY.  Of course, there is a place for quiet reverence, as well.  But I think this has more to do with our fervor than it does with volume. How often have we as Worship Leaders phoned it in?  How often have we just moved the church through our songlist, hearts disconnected from our faith?  God hates vain repetition, but looks to strongly support those whose hearts are fully devoted to him.  As artists and leaders in the church, we must have a transparent, contagious, firey love relationship with God.

Freshness.  Skill.  Fervor.

The problem with most “church music,” in my view, is that I rarely see all three of these qualities present at the same time.

I have seen passion on display without much skill, and it can be painful.  I’ve seen skillful players who seem to be more interested in their music than their Lord, and it can be distracting.  And so often Worship Teams are slow to create, slow to adopt new expressions, slow to use their imaginations.  Skill and passion can only go so far the 94th time your church sings “Open the Eyes of My Heart.”

Freshness, Skill, AND Fervor.  Three elements that would go a long way in making our artistic leadership more effective. They are not suggestions, as if two out of three are good enough. They are commands.  Remember… God wrote Psalm 33:3. Often I see one of these elements, or two at a time, but to see all three at the same time is rare.  And that’s part of why “church music” often leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  Can you relate?

If artists in the Kingdom of God would commit to bring fresh artistic creative juice to their art, to work hard at their craft and bring their BEST offering to the Lord and His church, AND to sing and play with passion, “church music” might have an entirely different connotation.

But there is something even more important to me, more soul-stirring in me, something that is a non-negotiable if art in the Church is going to move me to worship with freedom and gratitude.  Something beyond a new song played well by a passionate artist.

It is a artist who knows the Lord intimately and reflects that love relationship in their art.

The trump card.  The non-negotiable.  The single greatest factor that will help artists in their local church break hearts and usher in space for the Spirit to interact with the souls of the congregation. It is the power of a life truly devoted to Jesus.  And although many, many church musicians profess a personal faith in Jesus, it is rare to experience true depth of personal devotion to Jesus IN THEIR ART.

I’ll end this with a story.

One afternoon several years ago an elderly gent from our congregation asked if he could sing a song for the church.  He admitted he didn’t have much musical ability, and that he’d be more comfortable without an accompanist so he didn’t need to stay in one key.  Out of concern for him and for our church, I asked if I could hear him first – before we had him sing for a service.

Stan agreed, but he admitted that even just singing in front of me made his knees knock.  How would he feel in front of 300 more?  Yet he felt that he should to do this – to express his love for Jesus.  One hurdle at a time, I told him.  Stan and I wandered into the big, empty sanctuary. And I took a seat about 5 rows from the front.  We prayed together.  And Stan sang.

With a cracking voice he started in on the first line, eyes closed, hands trebling.  “I come to the garden alone…”

My heart broke. For the next three minutes tears flowed freely down my cheeks and dripped onto my collar.  It was maybe the most moving piece of church music I can remember.  Stan sang an old song badly.  But it was so honest, and so deeply rooted in his love for Jesus, it catapulted my heart before the throne, and I worshipped.

Stan played the trump card. Jesus meant everything. More than polish.  More than art.

So, artists in churches all over the world, I exhort you with the authority if the Word of God, to bring NEW expressions of worship to your congregations.  I exhort you to NEVER settle for “good enough for church” mentality, unless that means your bar is set very, very high. And I encourage you to let your music be full-throated and played with zeal.

But above all, express an honest and deeply rooted love of Jesus.  Some of you may need to stop producing art for church until your heart is overflowing.  Then, out of the over flow… Sing a new song to the Lord; Bring your BEST offering… and make it loud.

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“church music is terrible :: how to make it better” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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Psalm 24:7 & Luke 10:42 >> Like David, and Mary, I'm in pursuit of my one thing. I'm the Pastor at St. Olaf Lutheran Church in Montgomery, IL. Pastor, teacher, writer, communicator, designer, and drummer. I definitely got the better deal in my marriage to Amy. And I couldn't be any more proud of my five amazing boys. Deeply grateful.

19 responses to church music is terrible :: how to make it better

  1. Good thoughts my friend. I think it is about the songs. Great songs resonate with people. Right now many of the great songs aren’t “Let’s all sing together/Tomlin-esque” songs.

    I appreciate how a Lincoln Brewster brought Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah into his mix. That is one killer song. He changed the lyrics of course (which I’m not sure how easy that was to get permission to record it that way, but that’s beside the point).
    I have been encouraging our leader to bring songs that connect with what’s in the mainstream soundtrack of people’s lives (not just Christian radio).

    For example, the chorus from the band Finger Eleven’s hit “One Thing” (although not about God necessarily, but a relationship) really resonates. Goo Goo Dolls “Better Days” is another one with a terrific chorus. “Take these words! And sing out loud! That everyone is forgiven now. Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again.”

    Thanks again for your thoughts.
    Mark

    • Hey Mark! Thanks for getting in on this. You have long been an innovator. The Church needs your creativity. You bring new songs, dude. In all kinds of artistic and ministry endeavors.

      I think there is certainly a place to use “secular” songs that communicate truth, although I’m resisting that classification altogether. I think songs are either true or not. Art is either beautiful or not., Truth and beauty come from God. Let’s redeem the culture.

      Speaking of Yahweh and the intersection of the sacred and the secular… I’m going to have a moment of silence in your absence Saturday night at TCF Stadium. I was really looking forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with you during “Magnificent” and believing deep down what you believe, brother.

      However, it’ll be cool to hang with Kris, too. 🙂 Keep bringing the funk to the Church, Ma. Love you. God bless your family.

  2. Bless you brother Josh. There’s a quality line to hold that can be erased at any time if we are led by the Spirit to sing/shout/warble/rasp/chant… figuring out how to do it, YES. Also, if volunteers are solicited or a regular guitar group or organist contribute, requiring NEW stuff all the time can drop people out because of having to be NEW, thereby having the counter effect of having LESS new stuff. I think a good formula it’s CORE stuff + “anybody led by the spirit and want to express themselves?” Finally, it’s the Lord’s work, and all formulae can be obliterated for good reason.

    • Thanks Kev! I agree that formulas can be overridden when the Spirit is leading. It is a Spirit-led balance. High artistic standards and an invitation for those in the church to express their heart to God. So it’s not ALL about the high standards. But if there are no standards, I don’t think that honors the Lord, either.

      Leadership of arts in church requires Balance. Honesty. Skill. Beauty. Discernment. All led by the Word and the Spirit.

  3. Amen. And amen. And amen. And amen. I so struggle with the “universal worship songs” problem that you mentioned where everyone is singing the same thing (although I tend to shy away from that if I can). It makes me wonder, “Where are the songs born out of your community of faith and your community of artists? What word does God want to speak through you to YOUR congregation?”

    I’ve long been dreaming about this for the AFLC in particular. I love the concept of Sovereign Grace’s music but, although very Biblical, it does lead towards Calvinist tendencies. Where is the fresh music for Lutherans? We have beautiful old hymns or….or….or nothing. I would love to see a community of songwriters in the Free Lutheran Church creating modern and fresh expressions of worship for our particular doctrinal standings as well as taking some of our old (and even obscure) hymns (like some Rosenius) and updating them with fresh musical language.

    On a side note, have you listened to anything from Sojourn Music? Now THERE’s some freshness, skill AND fervor. You should check it out, particularly Over the Grave.

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this.

    • Thanks a ton Ryan. I like your vision for an AFLC songwriter’s guild. Perhaps you ought to curate such an endeavor??

      When it comes to worship songs being universally sung across the globe, I have two mindsets. (A) Does God want to hear us sing “Majesty… worship His majesty…” for literally the 164 thousandth time? If the congregation is checked out, ABSOLUTELY NOT. On the other hand, if that song (or any other popular Christian tune de jour) in effective in inspiring a congregation (or and individual) to worship with a full heart, then I suspect the answer is YES. Because i believe God is listening to our HEART CRY and not the physical sound of our rhythm section, I am only really concerned that the songs we use for corporate worship under my watch are EFFECTIVE in inspiring worship… and to do that they must be TRUE and BEAUTIFUL.

      That leads me to my second thought about mass-corporate use of worship songs around the globe (ala Tomlin, Redman, Hillsong, etc…) I think it is possible that the Spirit may nudge gifted Kingdom artists to write songs that will awaken the hearts of massive numbers of believers – so that God hears the song he is calling for – so that the Church is alive and awakened and growing and moving in the Spirit. So I don’t write off the “Holy is the Lord” or “Revelation Song” anthems and choruses that seems to resonate EVERYWHERE for a season.

      Perhaps in His wisdom and His desire to be glorified, these are exactly the songs He wants the Church global to be singing to Him?

      • I would like to curate it, but I need someone who knows more people in our denomination to help me get connected with other songwriters 🙂

        You’re right on with this. I do still think, though, that even though these songs can and do awaken the hearts of many, we should still be fostering and encouraging our own artistic community and expression of worship as well.

    • ” Where is the fresh music for Lutherans? We have beautiful old hymns or….or….or nothing.”

      No so fast Ryan. 😉

      I think there are lots of folks out there creating amazing liturgies today. There is a rich community of pop musicians in Minnesota (Luther-land) that are, in my opinion, changing the face of Lutheran worship.

      http://www.jonathanrundman.com/album_pre.html
      http://natehouge.com/endeavors/becoming-liturgy/
      http://www.nemercy.org/category/liturgy/

      Hopefully helps you find a “new song”.

      Thanks Joshua for the article. Anyone else have some good resources for non-CCM stuff?

      • Thanks a ton Micah. Excellent resources. I love finding new art that honors God. MUCH appreciated reminder. And yes, we are surrounded by poets and musicians up here in the sticks. Grateful to God that I get to live here in Minnesota.

        God bless, man. Thanks again for your input here.

  4. Excellent post Josh. Your heart for God and desire for genuine worship is evident, oh, and way to go Stan.

    • Thanks Heidi. And yes, way to go Stan! He sang it for the church that Sunday, and there was hardly a dry eye in the sanctuary. Now Stan is with Jesus. Can’t wait to see him again and give the guy a big hug.

  5. Hey Josh,

    I think one of the things that leads to the situation you describe is that we have an expectation in many churches that we will be consuming great worship songs from great and popular worship artists. Basically there are two conduits for worship music – well known worship artists (you provided a list above), or church projects. I think some churches fall into the category of only singing the big worship act songs, and considering everything else secondary and inferior (even my own church has this viewpoint). Or a church has a worship team dedicated to writing, performing, and perhaps producing worship songs, and some good stuff comes from that. In both cases however, the song pipeline is tied to the artist (solo or band) producing the songs. So, the more popular the artist (or the more vested interested because it is the church worship band making the songs), the greater use and acceptance of their songs.

    There are some projects that break this mold, trying to offer a worship song pipeline that is song-focused (rather than artist focused). Sovereign Grace Music, Chris Vacher’s Worship Rises and our own Weekend Warrior Worship project fall into this category. The premise of these efforts is that, if we dedicate ourselves to the song, and really focus on the songwriting aspects of things, we may help source some new, high quality song choices for the church.

    So my real point is, I suggest churches taking the focus off of the artist and putting it on the song, and see what might happen. This would at least help address the freshness part of your equation.

    • Great thought here, brother. Thank you. I’m familiar with both Sovereign Grace and Worship Rises. I can see where you are coming from with this.

      My question, though, or press back is the following… Don’t you think that in MOST cases the song choice and worship service structure comes down to the Worship Leader in today’s contemporary settings? Or maybe a creative team who plans services together? And in the end, don’t you think that most often the song list and arrangements are driven by the comfort and/or ability level of the leader? I think so.

      So my challenge to all of us is not to settle for “good enough” if that means making the easy choice, taking shortcuts, and disengaging from the discipline of prayerful seeking of the Holy Spirit. Or job is to be lead worshipers (modeling it) AND worship leaders (inspiring people to worship). On the worship leader side of that dual calling, we best be investing the time and energy and heart and soul to figure out what is most effective in inspiring worship…

      Anyway, I’m going to continue to mull over what you have proposed, because I think it has some merit in the creation of fresh worship expressions for the Church. But for the many leaders who are not geared or gifted to be writers, there are other ways to keep the se-tlist and the service fresh. And well-led. And fervent. Our job is to pray, find those avenues, and TAKE ‘EM.

      Appreciate your voice here, Mark. God bless!

  6. Josh! Great article my friend.

    Mark touched on it but one thing I don’t see mentioned much in your prose is the role that church leadership has on picking/choosing music. I am wondering if you took a poll of worship leaders(and they were honest), how many of them would choose different and more varied music if they felt free to do so.

    How many musicians on worship teams are playing the music that they do best? Obviously that is not possible to always have, but if it is a consistently large number does this speak to diversity that is being wasted within the church?

    Where are the writers and why aren’t they being utilized? How is it possible that we have churches as large as we do and we don’t have quality music being produced from within? I think it is exactly what Mark said, in that songs are only used if the artist is “established”(i.e. on christian radio)and if it is not, than it is considered inferior. So if musicians can get their songs on christian radio, then their home church will consider using their songs?

    I have seen original music rejected in the church because it was deemed that the Holy Spirit wasn’t moving people as much as a “established” song was. How do we know when a song is “connecting”? Is it an outward sign that people give? What about internal signs? How are we seeing those? What are we using for our Holy Spirit weather-vane? What does that tell the artist who submitted original music?

    Yes, I think that the choosing of music comes down to the comfort level of those leading but I would submit that it also comes down to the leadership of the church. There are lots of ways around this though, and if followed through on, it could lead to fresh, new, and richly diverse expressions of worship. Holy Spirit move…

    • Hey Gregg! Thanks for getting in on this discussion. Sorry I didn’t respond right away. I was slaying huge pike in Manitoba, FAR out of laptop range. Now I’m catching up.

      You bring up a number of great questions and challenges. I actually think I want to grappel with some of this in a brand new post. I’m interested in having a frank discussion here about this idea of the Holy Spirit’s movement in songs – the outward signs of the Spirit’s presence and activity, and how we confuse that with emotion sometimes. This would definitely touch on the whole “established music” vs. “new songs” issue, and song choice in general. Even further – worship service planning, layout, and execution…

      And of course, private worship. That’s where corporate worship begins. In the prayer closet. And leaders need to teach and model that. I’m praying with you, man. Holy Spirit MOVE…

      Thanks so much for this comment. It has been thought provoking for me, and I continue to reread it and ponder. I hope you and your family are thriving, Gregg. I hope you’re still making music, too. I miss you. Take care, and God bless.

    • Interesting points, and thoughts I have had as well. A couple of things to consider:

      – Christian Radio is not a meritocracy, it is big business. Music industry people will tell you that the cream will rise to the top. Maybe in some cases, but in many other cases, it boils down to access, opportunity, payola, etc. And there is definitely bias toward big business and big money in this.

      – This doesn’t mean that there aren’t amazing songwriters sourcing the church through big industry – there are. Matt Redman, for instance, is one of my favorites in this regard. Do Matt Redman or Hillsong need $5000 site takeovers on big music industry sites such as newreleasetuesday.com to source the church with new worship? Probably not, but that stuff is done anyway, because, to his label, Matt Redman = $$$. Does that mean the spirit doesn’t move through Matt’s music – absolutely not.

      You asked – ‘Where are the writers?’ Maybe they aren’t in your church, but maybe in the one next door, or down the street or in the next city or state. So how does the church find them? This is why I love Chris’ project so much – it brings them together to source their church. SG does the same for its churches, on more of a denominational level. At Weekend Warrior Worship, our thesis is that the internet is a great place to look – that there are many, many really good writers and anointed songs our there waiting to be released. Maybe they just need a little polishing up, or maybe a little songwriting craft applied. Maybe we need to mimic the things the ‘industry’ does to make songs shine. Not so much to make scads of money (trust me, you won’t), but just to ensure we source the church in a way that is comfortable for leaders to engage with the songs. And maybe they just need to be accessible in a place that helps the cream to be readily available, and that helps worship leaders to sort through the noise of indie music mediocrity to find them.

      One thing is for sure – many leaders see little need or at least don’t try to source their songs from unknown writers. When I talk with Chris about this, his take is that the transformation and democratization of the music industry through new social media networking paradigms and new access technologies such as Spotify will start to make the church look toward its own writers more and Nashville less. I still think we need a movement, not among only songwriters, but among worship leaders, dedicated to helping see this happen. But that’s me, a little utopian at times!

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