Guest contributor Bailey Gillespie’s call for a unified worship through a celebration of diversity.
Charles Wesley. Hillsong. Jesus Culture.
Most Western Christians no doubt have been exposed to the musical controversy within the church regarding the depth and creativity—or lack thereof—of contemporary songs of faith produced for Sunday mornings or radio/CD’s. What style of worship music a church creates reflects their theological position, so opinions are rarely neutral. Acoustic or electric? Hymns or contemporary songs? Free worship or structured sets? And the list continues. More specific to the current conversation, however, is the topic of reviving musical complexity and theological depth in songs crafted for the Christian community. Since music and words are powerful conduits of truth, and artistic expression is rising in popularity within Christianity, should the songs we sing in church be more complex and poetic than the repetitive choruses evangelicalism is used to?
Perhaps the most vocal group advocating this philosophy right now is the college-aged hipster community. These Christians desire to explore greater depths in musical originality, lyrical complexity, and theological honesty. Upstart artists, creative communities, and other musically-sensitive individuals are challenging the evangelical worship chorus norm that has sustained the last couple decades with a more raw and unique approach to musical worship. They might argue that the repetitive/ simplistic verses are all too similar to the “vain repetitions” of Matthew 6:7. They might argue that Christian artists write uninteresting melodies and that quality is sacrificed for content. And they also view the peppy, joyful projection of Christian music as being unrealistic and having more honest counterparts among the secular music community.
Now, this observation isn’t comprehensive, but generally speaking there are three worship styles that appear most prevalent in Western Christianity today. Believers who attend Reformed churches, drawing on the rich theology of predecessors such as Martin Luther and Charles Wesley, sing hymns steeped with the lyrical depth of traditional doctrine. Melodies can be musically complex, but instruments are often limited to piano or organ. Evangelical “non-denominational” believers sing modern worship songs with more simplistic declarations of God’s goodness in the spirit of many Psalms. Melodies can follow a fairly predictable chord progression to accompany the lyrical motifs but are usually uplifting and victorious.
Charismatic believers have a more free worship environment, where movement by the Holy Spirit is encouraged and spontaneity dictates song sets over structure. Lyrics can be extremely simplistic–sometimes a single phrase forming the entirety of the song–and are often driven by powerful and emotional melodies. How do we reconcile all this? The beauty of Christ’s bride, the church, is that she is diverse. So, naturally, that diversity will be visible in something like artistic expression. But worship is more than just artistic expression.
It’s helpful to revisit the reality that worship is deeper than musical preference, even though church music sets are broadly painted by that definition. I asked for the insight of two peer leaders on William Jessup University’s chapel worship team. Bassist Sean Huang’s response was:
“Sometimes we think that good music equals good worship. After all, if it’s not good music, it brings up a lot of distractions.” But he continues with the conclusion that worship is “an attitude of surrender to God. In a sense, you are telling him, ‘You are God. I am your servant. I give you everything. May your glory and sovereignty and presence show up in my life.’ It’s a process of offering ourselves.”
To worship singer Jared Fujishin, the excitement of leading students in communal worship:
…is all about the unity. It is more than just singing a song. It is a body of believers coming together and agreeing the same things at the exact same moments. We may all believe that ‘our God is greater; our God is stronger,’ but where else but worship do you get 600+ people thinking and saying it together at the exact same time? The unity it brings to the body of Christ is beyond beautiful to me.
If worship is a personal offering, a way to bring honor and glory to God, then worship will reflect whatever state our lives are currently in. And, since human beings are living breathing organisms, that state will constantly change. In times of trial, we will feel squelched by pain and confusion. In times of blessing, we will feel joyful and full of praise. Therefore, music crafted by Christ’s bride ought to reflect the honesty of those fluctuations. But it also has the responsibility of speaking consistent truth.
King David, a man after God’s own heart, wrote songs and poetry that reeked of despair and burst with thanksgiving. He was honest in that he was sensitive to all of life’s circumstances as well as God’s faithful involvement in them. And if worship is not a musical hors d’oeuvre but an attitude of surrender, an offering, and we are to give out of the abundance of our hearts, then indeed we should give our best artistic efforts.
We should take creativity and originality (stemming from personal experience and divine inspiration) into consideration and contribute to a legacy of sacred art. By acknowledging that both simplicity and complexity exist within Scripture (the theological weight of Romans’ doctrine, the poetic Psalms, the “holy, holy, holy” angelic anthems in Revelation), we also must acknowledge the constant temptation for division.
When it comes down to it, like Jared said, unity is key.
We are one body, one bride, and “worship falls apart when we remove focus off of God. Let us never become so self-consumed that we turn worship into a completely narcissistic event,” he said. “And I think that applies to the megachurch, light show worship set and the liturgical, stained glass, one piano church equally.”
In light of this understanding of worship, perhaps we can look at hymns, Hillsong, and Jesus Culture differently now. The diversity of personalities within God’s church ought to be encouraged to express their musical offerings differently. Why not facilitate services that incorporate hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs, just like the Apostle Paul exhorts (Eph. 5:19)? These flavors can only enhance our theological depth as well as our musical creativity. So, will there be a sort of Neo-Renaissance in the future of the Christian worship scene and music culture? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But let us remember one thing— unity is beautiful because, in it, our voices become a pleasing aroma to the Lord.