by Matthew Raley
I’m going to say some things about evangelical worship music that cannot be said without seeming unkind.
I have no desire to be unkind — and that’s a change for me. When I was in high school and college, I got angry at church services frequently, both because of their musical quality and content. But most of that reaction was selfishness and pride, wanting everything to match my tastes. In the last fifteen years, I have become open to many styles of worship.
Still, not in anger but sorrow, I think evangelical music has failed. It has not united believers in local churches in common declarations of God’s glory, and the reasons for this failure have to do with truths about music that evangelicals have chosen to ignore.
Music is communal.
The act of making music is for bonding with others, not merely for pleasing oneself. A musician wants his expressions to be joined by those around him — joined through listening, certainly, but also through singing and moving. From the earliest times and in all cultures, music is for connecting.
Specifically, music is where a community’s rituals and moral vision fuse.
A ritual is a community’s repeated act that has acquired implicit meanings. Weddings and funerals are only the most obvious rituals. Sports, shopping, official decisions, and of course worship all have rituals as well. More often than not, music has a defining role.
A moral vision, the way I’m using the phrase, is a community’s view of what makes a good life. Music is one way communities express this vision. There’s a reason why spirituals sung by slaves are different from raps, a reason that goes beyond technology and even history. Among other things, the two musical genres express divergent moral visions of suffering.
So, with a bit a music, you encounter one culture’s view of good in life. And you react to it, positively or negatively. If you were to hear “The Sidewalks of New York” in its original 1890’s style, you would instantly react to the rituals and vision of good that it embodies.
Pop music is now too commercialized to unite diverse people.
This is just a fact of business: the target audience rules. Pop music is designed right down to the production values for that audience, to please that audience, especially by affirming its rituals and moral vision. Pop is designed to sell, not unite.
Those who market music are particularly concerned to avoid a negative reaction from the target audience. Radio people will tell you surprising things about where the dividing lines fall. For instance, people who love opera are not automatically the same as those who love “classical.”
Evangelicals have embraced pop music as a marketing vehicle for their message without stopping to ask what happens when people are connected not by participation but by consumption, or what happens when churches target certain people — that is, when they divide groups.
(By the way, consumers all around the world are rebelling against the music industry, because they are onto the calculation involved in the music itself. They are demanding authenticity, and they have the means to get it.)
Warning: this is the unkind part.
I think evangelical worship music most often mimics a girl’s vision of the good life, as packaged by pop music.
The calculation for megachurches has been like this: if pop music is the Way, the Truth, and the Growth, then the musical stream in which the church swims has to be non-threatening to most people. Anything from edgier pop music, or worse, old music, will send people running away with their hands over their ears.
That’s the reason for the Jesus As Boyfriend song. It’s non-threatening.
The typical contemporary worship tune is straight out of boyfriend ballads. It just is. And it has to be sung like a boyfriend ballad in order to be remotely convincing — with a certain breathy desperation.
The lyrics are also boyfriend ballad stuff. I need you. You are all I need. I’m desperate for you. Enough said.
The performers — and I’m pushing the edge of the unkindness envelope, and I’m sorry about it, I truly am — either act like girls seeking boyfriends, or like the boyfriends being sought, which is to say, cute.
(No offense to girls. Nothing wrong with girls. Nothing wrong with girls seeking boyfriends. Not trying to hurt girls’ feelings …)
The reason why worship music has failed to unite believers in a declaration of God’s glory is that, for the most part, it does not bother to try. It does not even attempt to cross generational or demographic lines. It either helps a church target a certain narrow group, or it helps a church be unobjectionable.
There. I said it. And I’m not done.