Truth be told, I do want to play a bit of the blame game—not to blame any particular people, but to blame a shifting within our culture further and further toward absurdity, an “idiot culture” as I’ve quoted Carl Bernstien before. It is a collective guilt that I will own myself. I hope I can write these thoughts without self-righteousness and self-deception. I want to live better, more deliberately and thoughtfully, but I’ve got my own kitsch sentimentalities. Yet, in playing the blame game, when identifying what is lacking in Christian music, we must realize such failures are part and parcel to what is lacking in our American culture at large. If the American church is to blame for anything, it is that we have not nurtured a substantial enough resistance to the banalities of American popular culture. But it isn’t quite that cut and dried. Culture making is tedious and complex and it takes time.
Remember how a frog gets boiled? You turn the flame up slowly, so slowly that the frog isn’t able to understand what is happening until it is too late to jump out of the kettle. This is the gist of what has happened to church music in America. Really sincere intentions to engage our culture are now a decade later threatening the vitality of our worship life.
Why is it that contemporary worship leaders need theological and biblical formation? Without access to such wisdom we will most assuredly find ourselves with the frog in a hot kettle. The worship leader needs to hone her discernment, to possess a kind of prophetic sensibility to be able to detect and discern trouble. As the Apostle Paul admonished the church at Ephesus: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and from and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” And likewise we shouldn’t be pushed to and fro by the latest trends in culture and technology.
A blog posted by Marty Nystrom on the CCLI website outlines the top ten common characteristics of the top ten contemporary worship songs.
1. Universal Theme
2. Lyric Consistency
4. Lyric Originality
6. Musical Interest
8. A Well Placed Title
9. Balance of Repetition and New Ideas
10. Effectiveness in Worship
If you read through the explanation of these traits, nothing is said about biblical or theological precision, clarity or depth. In fact Nystrom states, “A lyric should not require an in-depth Bible study before it can be appreciated.”
Appreciated? Yes, if I am concerned about writing a song or leading a song that registers in the top ten of a CCLI’s most popular songs—if I’m concerned about writing a popular song in the first place—then I will be concerned about what people appreciate in a song. And a good pastor does concern him/herself with what people can appreciate. However, it is not where our concerns should begin or even end.
My reaction is not against those songs specifically. I’ve led and would be willing to continue to lead some of these top songs. Nystrom’s own, most well known song, “As the Deer,” is a classic. My concern is that he doesn’t offer any assessment of the theology of the songs. There is no question about how a song can teach and spiritually form a Christian. He claims, “the songs are effective in helping worshipers exalt Jesus.” Yet, there is so much that can be said about Jesus. It is naïve to think that just because a song names “Jesus” or claims to draw attention to him that the song is necessarily saying the right things about Jesus. Nystrom goes on to say, “these songs have been proven to incite worship in the hearts of people around the globe.” Well and good, but what about the minds of people around the globe?
Is it enough to recruit young, talented, charismatic and good-hearted people to become the worship leaders of our churches? We value seminary training for preachers. Why not for our musicians?