Open Letter to Modern Worship Music Haters

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hatersDear Modern Worship Music Hater,

The 7-11 modern worship song moniker that might have been humorous two decades ago is no longer funny or accurate. Using all-encompassing labels to denigrate newer songs indicates you haven’t recently read the text of many of those songs.

CCLI now contains over 300,000 worship songs and hymns. If some of those songs are theologically superficial, then don’t use them. After eliminating the shallow ones you’ll still have a couple of hundred thousand songs with profound theological depth that can be used. If you still feel the need to use derogatory labels for songs with repeated phrases, then at least be consistent by including How Great Thou Art since those 4 words are repeated 17 times in that 4-stanza hymn.

Criticism of one in order to elevate another often has the opposite effect. So trying to defend hymns by vilifying modern worship songs is not fair to those beloved hymns that have helped and continue to help us sing our faith. If hymns can’t stand on their own, then we shouldn’t be singing them. If, however, they can stand on their own as many of us believe they can, then they don’t really need our feeble attempts to prop them up. They will endure in spite of our criticisms or defenses.

Is it possible that defending hymns by criticizing modern worship songs is really just an act of self-defense? Labeling modern worship songs as shallow or too easy are the same epithets used to denigrate that new girl in the middle-school classroom. Both disparagements are desperate attempts to guard territory or protect status.

So it’s time to honestly admit that your disdain is primarily musical or emotional, not theological. It’s time to admit that you just don’t really like modern worship songs and are lamenting the loss of a life-long musical and textual encourager. And it’s time to admit you are missing worship service opportunities to sing familiar texts and tunes that allow you to express your joy and grief.

Honestly voicing those emotions as the root of your disdain instead of labels and ad hominem criticisms is really where the conversation should begin. When the discourse begins here, it’s time for those of us from all genres to acknowledge that your emotions are understandable and even defendable.  Maybe those honest and heart-felt conversations could be the starting point to help us all find worship common ground.

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22 Responses to “Open Letter to Modern Worship Music Haters”

  • Louis Dolton Says:

    I enjoy singing the old hymns and 7/11 choruses. What I don’t enjoy is the pain caused by cranking the volume up so loud that the windows vibrate in their casings. When the church starts handing out ear plugs, then the music is too loud.
    See http://thomrainer.com/2013/04/17/how-loud-should-our-church-music-be/ by Pastor Thom Rainer. It has an even longer thread of replies (some from audiologists) than this post.

  • Todd H. Says:

    There’s an large variety of elements of sound that have not been addressed by the original post. I’d reckon to say that a good example would be how a word is sung, how a consonant is pronounced, and how the user uses the drums, drumsticks, and how the soundboard (sound mixer) person (or audio engineer, if you will) changes various settings on the soundboard. I’ve seen soundboards with clearly hundreds of knobs on them. Each knob represents a certain value of sound. There are far more elements to sound than are mentioned by the author. Contemporary worship music is not simply whether we’re singing old hymns in new tempos or melodies. Contemporary worship music is not simply whether we’re too “old” or too “new”. I think that, to be fair to the readers, many additional categories of sound might soon be addressed before we can say, “Aha! this is the way it is, and this is why it is happening.” There are numerous elements to contemporary worship and praise which are not simply “singing old hymns in revised ways”. No mention was made of a large assortment of various sound qualities — and thus I would hope that the author would acknowledge this.

  • Craig Collins Says:

    David,

    My apologies for crediting you with something you didn’t say.

    I disagree with your point or premise,however. I understand that your article was not intended to elevate one above the other. I think if we are to grow and to worship in spirit and truth, we must take a hard look at our worship practices. IMO not everything is good, acceptable or the best we can offer, and it’s not just “emotional” differences. Sometimes we must seek to grow and stretch ourselves, not just settle for what’s easy or what we know. Just because some of us “criticize” or point out the flaws in one style, doesn’t mean that we are doing it to defend the other. We think the other stands on its own merits and doesn’t need defending. Some of us think that there are better choices and that the different styles aren’t equal, of the same quality, or that it’s just a matter of opinion.

  • David Manner Says:

    Craig,

    Thanks for your response. You have given me credit, however, for something that I did not state or even allude to in the article. I never stated worship was intended to reach the lost. That may have come through in the responses but not in the article. The point of the article is that in defending one by criticizing another we will never find worship common ground. If, however, as stated in the article we all honestly admit that our differences are primarily emotional and not theological, then as also stated in the article, maybe those are the places we can begin to find common ground. The article was not intended to elevate one above the other. It was intended to encourage us all not to denigrate one in favor of the other.

  • Craig Collins Says:

    I found this article somewhat insulting and offensive. To begin with, the article and comments of a number of responders reveal an ignorance of what worship is supposed to be. Worship isn’t about “reaching the lost.” Worship is for the adoration, thanksgiving to and praise of God. Period. Reaching the lost is evangelism and something different from a worship service.

    I teach voice, and many of my students sing on praise teams. I am constantly amazed at their lack of musical and vocal understanding when they first come to study with me. While I have found some contemporary songs of theological and musical depth, substance, and quality, the overwhelming majority of that I’ve seen and heard is dreck. It’s formulaic, trite, and patterned after shallow commercial music which is intentionally designed to have no depth, to require no thinking or work to access and enjoy it, and to reach the emotions through rhythm and repetition. Much of it is not suited for corporate worship because it is personal in its theology (I/me instead of us/our) and is unsingable for the masses. I have read more and more articles detailing how fewer and fewer are singing in worship, and spoken with more and more people who tell me that fewer and fewer folks in their congregations sing.

    The guitar and drums are not good accompanying instruments for corporate song, the keys of most contemporary songs are too high for most congregations, and the rhythms too tricky are the major problems. With only the words projected, it prevents congregation members from harmonizing or reading the music. Many singers can’t sing in tune and don’t sing rhythms distinctly/accurately, and to make matters worse they distort vowels and put accents on unaccented syllables (often the music is written this way), which make it harder for congregations to learn these songs. We shouldn’t have to sound illiterate (linguistically or musically) in praising God. If our efforts are sincere, God accepts them, but that shouldn’t release us from a desire, it not a responsibility to offer God our best.

    I believe that God deserves our best musical, theological and vocal efforts, not second-rate, easy offerings that require little of us.

    Music isn’t the only thing that separates those who prefer “traditional” worship from “contemporary” worship, either.

  • Shannon Lewis Says:

    “Is it possible that defending hymns by criticizing modern worship songs is really just an act of self-defense?”

    BINGO! But isn’t that what MOST of what we do in the church is, these days? It’s a sad revelation, but true at that. Thanks for the blog – good stuff. Thanks for posting!

  • David Manner Says:

    Todd,

    Here are two articles links I would recommend from my Friend Kenny Lamm from the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. One of the articles lists the top 100 most used CCLI songs. The other article offers criteria for selecting songs. Both are excellent resources.

    http://blog.ncbaptist.org/renewingworship/2014/10/15/toplists/

    http://blog.ncbaptist.org/renewingworship/2011/01/26/evaluatesongs/

  • Todd H. Says:

    I would kindly thank the author for the post and I would respectfully ask the author for a list or catalog of the 300,000 CCLI worship songs and/or hymns that he would like to recommend. In other words, if you could provide a “100 best”, or have certain criteria for what is best, it might help worship leaders and other readers. Thank you.

  • Duane Hines Says:

    I agree with Travis. No matter what style of music we bring to the corporate worship service, it all must point to God. My parents are examples of this. They like to listen to some of the modern songs while in the car but they go to a church where only the King James bible is used and they don’t anything after the 1956 hymnal. I say if that brings them to the throne room of God, then let it be. I happen to like the mix of modern and traditional songs and feel I can blend them well at the piano. No one will ever be totally and completely satisfied, so there will be a Sunday occasionally where I program just traditional hymns. And honestly it doesn’t hurt anyone to listen to either occasionally I don’t think. If there’s not an over abundance of either for the mixed congregation, everyone seems satisfied.

  • Rev. Vernon Payne Says:

    Being over 60 years of age, I was reared singing the traditional hymns, which I love. There are also many of the modern worship songs I love to listen to on the radio and some I enjoy singing in church. The thing I find difficult is that I can’t sing many of the modern worship songs because of the syncopation and irregular rythm patterns, and I have been schooled in music. I have observed that I am not alone in that regard.

    I recently attended a convention of churches from around our state. The music in every session was led by a modern worship band and vocalists. The music was almost exclusively modern worship songs. The conventioneers were primarily middle adults up through seniors. Perhaps 10% were younger adults under 30. Most of those in the congregation were standing, staring at the big screen without opening their mouths. I have observed the same in churches I have attended over the past ten years.

    The modern worship music in an older congregation prevents participation, except, perhaps, in the spirit (where true worship is to happen anyway). But I like to be involved in the singing. Of the 20 or so songs that were sung during the convention, I knew three or four. I enjoyed singing those particular one because they did not have such irregular rythm patterns.

    I also have a question. Why is it necessary to stand for thirty minutes while singing praise and worship songs. I don’t mind standing through a song, but when we began to repeat the same phrase for the tenth time, I’m going to sit. I know that’s my prerogative due to physical constraints I have, but I feel a bit intimidate by doing so when all around me are still standing. That is another reason that cause older adults to complain about modern worship.

  • Kevin Says:

    We must continue to wrestle with this issue. Honestly, there is bad theology in both contemporary music as well as some of the beloved hymns-and there is solid theology in both hymns and some contemporary worship songs.

    I’m concerned with theology and truth. One of the things I’ve noticed is that sometimes in contemporary songs, there is an endless repetition that seems to play more on the emotions and psychology (trying to produce spiritual feelings) than speak Truth to the mind and heart. I’ve preached and taught for many years and in many places and venues-recently I noticed something at a gathering of college students: Prior to the service, all the students (and adults) are jostling around, having fun, texting on their phones, etc… the band comes out and starts playing and immediately half the crowd raises their hands and starts jumping up and down or swaying.

    What happened for 30 minutes was a highly personalized, emotional experience for those present-akin to the prophets of Ba’al working themselves up into a frenzy. I’ve seen this kind of thing enough in churches and on retreats/conferences and on college campuses to know it’s not an anomaly.

    I’ve also been in contexts where it’s 4 hymns and a sermon and the hymns were so dated those under 65 had a difficult time understanding what they were singing due to changes in language. And, just like in some contemporary worship-some of the theology in our hymnals is questionable.

    Truth should be center in this conversation-and then contextualizing worship and preaching so people can understand. We must be aware of that factor. And, honestly, we could use a strong dose of repentance from pulpit and the worship leader mic for our proclivity to ‘perform’ to produce desired results. It’s not about us. Never has been, never will be, never should be.

    There is a profound difference between trying to manipulate people toward an experience or by leading, God showing up and people having some experience. This goes for not only worship leaders, but those who preach who often know how to ‘play’ the congregation.

    We need to trust more in God, in His Word, in His Spirit and His authority and less on our machinations and skills. This worship conversation should continue-but we must ask better questions: it’s not so much about when the song was written, but rather: Is it true? Does it glorify God? Is it theologically sound? Are people able to understand what they are singing and hearing in the worship service?

    As long as our gatherings are multi-generational, this will be an issue.

    This is also a teaching moment for our congregations, but that’s another post.

  • Rev. Rusty Weller Says:

    This issue really is very simple: What does God want sung? There are inane hymns that offer little convicting or worshipful content, that’s true. And not all new music is repetitiously akin to spinning a Tibetan prayer wheel; some is soul-touchingly inspired. But the decision on what to sing during worship is solely God’s call! Or it should be. He alone knows what we need to be singing. Anyone, therefore, who selects the music or leads it must first check with the Almighty. Preachers do that for their sermon content — or they should — and so should music directors. If not, they’re using a selfish dart-board approach to musically doing God’s will: hit or miss — and the evil one wants the latter, doesn’t he? Our worship leaders MUST hear or at least sense the voice of God in answer to their prayerful question of what to sing. Nothing should be sung or said from the worship platform without God’s prior approval. Unless, that is, the person is “in the Spirit” at the time, because the Almighty has the right to change plans mid-service. And leaders must be ready to do just that, yielding to the Spirit regardless of the printed order of worship. Bottom line: We must worship in Spirit and the truth, not guesswork, of what God wants us to do.

  • Scott Childs Says:

    I used to be that ” blended guy ” who really believed that medleys of new and old songs were the key to bringing together ” the masses ” in worship. Sadly what I saw first hand is that the young folks would gladly sing the old hymns ( which I dearly love) but the ” baby boomer ” generation who are the most onnoxious , self absorbed people group in human history, refused to worship to the newer stuff. You would think that these older ” Christians ” would want to set an encouraging example for younger generations to follow by joining in with them in their kind of music, but sadly, many years of experience has taught me that this simply isn’t the case. I love music that is scripture based and glorifies the name of Jesus…..period. Unfortunately , many so called Christians have canonized their favorite songs while demonizing those written in the last thirty years. Do you really want to see an end to worship wars?! Tell the old people to remember that this whole thing is about CHRIST and not about them and you might be on the right track. If you are seventy years old and you just love everything about your church. Then quite possibly you are going to a church designed to reach seventy years old! I thought we wanted young people to be in heaven too?! Silly me.

  • David Milner Says:

    I would agree with the idea of using both types of songs in worship. After all, we have many different types of people in the congregation, some of whom love the old hymns, and some who love the newer styles. Since, I believe, most people do their active worshipping in the music portion of the service, I believe we do them a great disservice to insist on no more than one style of music. I have had this discussion with both sides, and I still believe we need to use both older hymns and newer praise songs in a worship setting. As a bit of an older guy myself, I enjoy “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “O For a Thousand Tongues” (all three versions, which make a really neat worship medley) and others. “Amazing Grace” never fails to move me. But the newer songs do as well. Growing up in the 1960’s probably helped.:-) As long as the praise and worship is sincere, I believe it is pleasing to God, regardless of the style. It is, after all, the attitude of the heart that is key. I doubt that many have ever heard the old gospel song, “The Great Speckled Bird”, but it exists and can be found in some very old songbooks. So if it appeals to you, be it traditional, CW, folk, modern worship songs, or whatever (up to a point, I think), use it. The Minister of Music should know his audience well enough to choose appropriate music. That is also key. Music is supposed to celebrate and elevate, not separate.

  • Yeahiamamthatguy Says:

    Fine. Stylistic biases are stylistic biases. Saying that it’s wrong is silly. This is akin to telling someone that despises country music that they now must like it because it has sound theological lyrics. Just because some have discerning tastes does not mean that they can’t worship. Then again, modern church is more about homogenization than it is celebrating uniqueness, so my argument will probably fall on deaf ears.

  • Glenn Says:

    Interesting discussion. My observation has been that a great many of these ‘newer’ songs are indeed repetitive to a sickening degree. In so many of these services there is way too much singing ‘how great is our God’ over and over and over instead of more preaching of the Word. The unsaved Need this preaching.
    The movement toward modern music began with the idea that churches could attract more young people by imitating the style of pop culture music. That is just a fact.
    Ministers need to spend more than 20 minutes in an abbreviated message and leaving the other 40 minutes to entertaining the ‘goats’. You can’t leave people floundering around without good solid instruction by the man responsible for this.
    I’ve observed this in person and on many of the TV preachers shows. Combine that with very sketchy Biblical hermeneutics and you have a recipe for widespread false conversion, hence the high numbers of people who think they are Christians but understand virtually nothing about the Bible, or the Savior.
    Its heartbreaking .

  • Travis Says:

    Same song, 300th verse, Old hymns, new worship songs, the battle continues. As for me, what matters most, is that we – as worship leaders – make 100% certain that the songs we use for corporate worship point people toward the throne of God. Anything less is unacceptable. Know the congregation where you serve, choose music that will help them to worship, and stop being a “worship leader”. I tell my choir/worship team that we are not worship leaders….we should strive to be “lead worshipers.” If I am not worshiping, how can I expect those in attendance at our service to worship? Just some food for thought.

  • Suzanne Says:

    Perhaps if contemporary worship leaders would not exclude and denigrate music written before, let’s say for example 1991, they would not incur complaints. Most people enjoy praise songs, but miss the rich heritage of church music that has now been thrown away by most contemporary worship leaders. Instead of arguing against the complaints, perhaps listen to why they are being made. Keep ALL the inspired music. Stop denigrating heritage. All of us grow up with pop music, so that’s not where the problem is. Some of us just happen to like the hymns that are being denied us now.

  • Marvinas2 Says:

    A lot depends on how a new song is presented to the assembly. If a new song is just sung by a choir or youth group with no preparation or explanation, it may easily become no more than a distraction to the worshiping assembly. A large percentage of today’s liturgical music groups – youth groups AND adult groups, cannot be understood when singing. Diction, enunciation is frequently totally lacking, so that the assembly hears only melodies and rhythms, and is not led to prayer by the theology or emotions expressed by the words. It can easily become just noise! Any new music should be explained to the assembly beforehand, the words ought to be presented to them in printed form, the intended message should be explained so that there is an opportunity for comprehension and appreciation of the music or musical form.

  • Beth Ross Says:

    What does Ralph Hudson have to do with this article? We no longer live in the 1800’s. Most lost people today do not know these hymns and do not relate to them or understand them. what are we here for? Our entertainment or reaching the lost?

  • Frank Says:

    So sorry you’ve been exposed to such emotional antagonism to new worship music. I haven’t heard such attacks in many years. I’ve seen the 7-11 label used in manuscripts for new songs, not as a term of hostility, but rather as an objective acknowledgement that this part of the chorus will be repeated many times. Obviously, many of our reactions to music tend to be emotional, being an emotively directed medium and all, and perhaps since many don’t realize that , they assume their feelings about a certain song are logic-based. My favorite, most important, part of worship songs, new or old, is the words, speaking, singing to our Creator. But I also realize that the flavor, tonality and rhythm of a tune can certainly express emotion, as certainly as the Benedictine chants of old, well-intentioned though they were, give us a certain feeling. I guess those monks enjoyed singing them.

  • Patrick Watts Says:

    “Oh for a thousand tongues to sing…”

    Ralph Hudson didn’t arrange a “7/11” song back in the 1800s, he arranged a “4/24” song!

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