Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my lead pastor. We were talking about the song “Oceans,” as we led for Sunday worship. He admitted that he understood the lyrics, but could not get into the song’s melody. He innocently asked the question, “why are songs of today not as fast and not as joyful as the ones from way-back? Today, they seem more monotone in worship. What happened?” he inquired.
At first, I saw it from his perspective and understood where he was coming from. Songs that were 10-20-30 years old were different. Our times were different, and our faith reflected those times. Also, logistics in doing music and instrumentation in the church was different, as well as the technology.
Songs before did seem a bit faster, happier, and more major sounding in key. Not to say we don’t now, but in my observation, I think I’m taking more notice of its relevancy. My pastor was curious for an answer; I paused for a moment to think.
In the 80’s-90’s, we had a different era of established worship songwriters, artists and publishers. We were singing songs that weren’t offered in the hymnal. Besides, we were still singing old songs 20-30 years back then as well – just as we do today.
Regardless, we kept singing those songs for years because they worked, and still do with many congregations. In 2014, we have a plethora of songs that all started from the seeds of humble beginnings. The complication we have today is choosing good songs that work Theologically and vocally, that retain meaning, energy, and sustenance. How you do the song according to style is reflective to the make-up of your band, their culture, their talent level, and capability.
Old songs are still good songs. They were ones that I have grown with and still love. We don’t sing them as much today because they may appear dated or out-of-touch. Is this true, or have we forgot what Scripture says about “singing a new song?” Has God stopped breathing in new lyrics to the younger and older generations? Are we to throw out the hymnal for the sake of being current? I don’t think so.
I believe the Gospel, worship, and need for Christ goes much deeper. There is nothing wrong with singing old songs, revamping them in a fresh way or exploring into new melodies, modes and textures of today’s songs. The only thing I caution is that the song selection needs to look like your church and not someone else’s. Otherwise, we subject ourselves to personal artistic indulgences.
So why new music? Why is it important to embrace what is current and add it to our growing heritage of faithful songs?
Since 9/11, and even moving through 2008, our world has changed. Current events and history have not only shaped our worldview, but also shaped the way we hear and write music. You can see this from Mozart to Copland, from Lennon and McCartney; from Motown to Hip-hop and Southern Rock to Indie Rock, we have a wider range canvas of music than ever before.
Church music and culture has also been effected by the recent economic, political and worldwide events. How do we respond as a Church? How do we respond to God in worship as the Church?
When you compare the greats of yesterday, of Don Moen and Ron Kenoly to the new energy of Hillsong, Bethel, and fresh new indie writers, you’ll hear a notable difference in tempo, melody, and lyric. How do you see these changes in church music/worship?
Do you feel that our music is changing? What about the old songs too, are they to be forgotten? Together, how do we help identify and connect our human needs to the loving and healing arms of Christ?
When I look around the world or down my street, I see more people desperate for authentic Biblical relationships and Christ centered sincerity. I see the same need in the worship of our churches. It doesn’t mean we need to sing funerals in light of hard times. My question is how do we sing songs that strengthen the heart to experience the needed joy in the hard times?
It’s just not the same happy-go-lucky world, as we once knew. Today we are busy, isolated, and have wandered. Our world is more questionable, confusing, and depressive. Yet, there has never been a greater time or a generation that is ready for Christ. This thought stretches over any paradigm or style of music.
Does this mean it’s a state-of-the-unknown for the Church or church music? Absolutely not. I believe our music today is growing richer because we as a society are getting more in touch with our emotions. We are becoming more aware that there is Someone greater beyond ourselves to help heal and manage life’s hurts. No, it doesn’t mean that we sit in a circle singing dirges of grief. What it does mean is that we begin calling things for what they are and calling on our Lord for Who He is. Song is just another way to do it.
Today’s songs have gotten a bit minor, less orchestrated, personal, slower, and more reflective. Some melody lines also mirror this trend, using more stationary tones, descending lines, or low registers in the verse, with high altitudes in the chorus and/or bridge. Tempos seem to gravitate to the beating of a human heart.
New lyrics of today are a bit raw and less churchy, they’re more direct and conversational. Guitar lines are more lyrical with counter melodies and bell-like tones. Overall sound mix is not as bright, but more organic and rounder than the former years. One of the major differences I witness is the dissonance and register shifts in music. I believe these qualities truly do reflect our current society, need for Christ, and desire for God to satisfy the poverty of the soul.
My friend Jeff Ling, Senior Pastor of Clear River Community Church in D.C. had an idea for the song Oceans, by Crocker Houston and Ligthelm (Hillsong Music). This is an example of how we can breathe new life into new/existing and old songs. His premise was to turn a personal statement of faith into intercession for the persecuted church.
Use these lyrics in place of the bridge in the song “Oceans.”
“Open wide the gates of glory for the dying
For the saints who have been faithful in the dark days of their trial.
Show your mercy to the hungry and the frightened
Scatter all those who love violence
Show the nations you are mighty”
When you look at the Psalms, the melody is pretty much the same as today. Spiritually, emotionally, and mentally we are up, down, on-fire, drowning, sorrowful, enthusiastic – very manic. But really, that’s who we are. Why do you think God put those words there?
I don’t believe that musicianship or quality is to be lowered by any means. We are to be increasing the threshold of talent and creativity daily. Just as history is reflective in music, I believe what we see, feel and hear in the world, is also felt and heard in our prayers for others, longings to be closer to God and anticipations to see grace, refuge, and healing.
What should the music look like in your church? Your church. Not the last concert you attended or album you downloaded. Doing music in the church today is very tough. We have new waves of people and new influxes of generations. The rule of thumb is meeting you’re people where they are.
Look at how Jesus ministered to so many and why His ministry was so effective. He didn’t copy what Peter did over here, or what John did over there. He imitated what the Father did up there.
This posting also falls on the heels of the passing of Robin Williams, a household name of comedy. No one ever would have guessed last night to be his final time on earth. This indeed was a man who was desperate for God’s healing and grace, as many others who face this same reality – everyday. What are we doing to help them?
If we are too busy copying everyone else’s style and song, we neglect the voice of our own church, and the present needs around us. Simply, you need to do whatever songs work in your church.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we see clearly how He led worship. Look at whom he ate with, talked with and walked with. Look at the many He touched and healed. Look at the multitudes of people in how they gravitated to Him. Why? Because he identified with them – like He does with us today.