A worship concert led by one of Hillsong's worship bands, "United." (Credit: Camille King/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Has "Big Worship" Ruined Church Music?

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 10:33 PM

Ah, the week after Easter, that season when we critique the music we’ve just been singing. My attention was caught when the New York Times religion reporter tweeted out a link to Bob Smietana's piece published this week bemoaning the homogenous nature of the present worship experience and how many churches did the same music over Easter weekend (and, by extension, every weekend).

Unsurprisingly, the article was alarmist in its claim: “There’s a reason every hit worship song sounds the same.” Like most such clickbait, it muddied the information it examined to create a narrative that would provoke outrage. This is par for the Internet course, but since people do complain so much about modern church music in such ways, it seems worth analyzing.

The article’s concern with “sameness” was at two levels: that the music sounds the same and that it all comes from the same few churches that function as gatekeepers of new music.

Thing is, there have always been a limited number of music “gatekeepers.” Back years ago, we called those arbiters of what is worth singing “hymnals.” Countless churches would work from a handful of major hymnals, often going decades without any updating to music, until enough money was raised to buy new ones.

Some of that was good. I love the great hymns of the past as much as anyone. “Let Us Love and Sing and Wonder” or “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” are rich and deep and worth carrying forward. Ancient hymnody, featuring the likes of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent,” hasn’t endured a millennium or more for nothing. There’s a reason we turn to “Amazing Grace” (no link even needed) when we want comfort.

These were the highlights of a hymnal, but spaced between those great works, most of what was placed in hymnals was mediocre at best. We still sang it over and over. It was what we had.

When I help a family that isn’t overly involved in church prepare for a funeral, they will almost inevitably pick from a dozen or so twentieth century hymns for the service — hymns that aren’t particularly profound in lyrics or music. Those songs are instantly recognizable for their sameness to other mid-century hymns: deeply sentimental, generally focused on the human singing as much or more than God, and so on.

The picks are less a testament to the quality of those songs as they are familiar because they were repeated over and over thanks to hymnals. (Or thanks to the Gaither music machine — perhaps one of the original “Big Worship” systems.)

I don’t offer musical critique in those moments with grieving families, of course. Good or bad in “quality,” those hymns provide memories of the loved one.

Yet, every time I hear someone complain about the sameness of contemporary church music or its alleged lack of theological depth, I think to those well worn songs of last century. Hillsong’s works such as “This I Believe (The Creed)” and “So Will I (100 Billion X)” go far deeper than, say, “In the Garden.” Stack Matt Maher’s “Because He Lives (Amen)” against its namesake; Maher’s is more interesting musically and more profound in its statement of what Jesus’s resurrection does for us.

(These examples are hardly all the same sounding and, I dare say, Smietana’s article shoots itself in the foot when it trots out as its first exhibit of sameness Phil Wickham’s “This is Amazing Grace.” If you are going to argue that a group of songs all sound the same, don’t start with one featuring a very distinctive and constantly present riff that identifies it before the first words are even sung.)

The whole “contemporary music is always just a bunch of emotional repetitions” critique has worn thin over the years, so perhaps that is why recent critiques complain about who is putting out the music rather than what it says. Smietana launched into the outsized influence of what might be called modern “Big Worship” — the few churches that output so much of today’s worship music.

The Australian megachurch I’ve already referenced, that renamed itself after its music program, Hillsong, set the model in the late 90’s and was followed by the likewise charismatic Bethel Church and the Southern Baptist megachurch, Elevation. If you know any contemporary worship music, you’ve surely run into these music making machines. These churches have their issues, to be sure, but the reason they have managed to capture so much of the church music realm is that they create beautiful works that speak deeply of who God is and attach those truth filled lyrics to emotional impactful melodies.

The article runs into trouble because it wants to imply some sort of oligarchic control by a few churches. Those I’ve already mentioned are huge, but so are big song writing names such as Phil Wickham, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin and the Gettys. The chart Smietana cites attempts to tie most of these to the “Big Worship” churches, but that proves virtually nothing. To be sure, the collaborations between these artists and churches happen, but wouldn’t one hope that Christians would work together?

Such argumentation totally ignores some of the newer worship “collectives” specializing in collaboration from across the church, like “Tribl,” that are emerging in the YouTube-driven music era in which we live. It is also unhelpful to treat groups like Passion, which do conferences to draw Christian musicians from all over together to worship, as homogenous.

Like the hymnals of old, yes, there are these “platforms” or “gatekeepers,” but also like hymnals, the modern Christian “songbook” has a rich variety of contributors from all over. When the critics attack modern music as being homogenous ideologically, they ignore that those contributing to these movements have broadly varying theological backgrounds and emphases. (Maher, one of my favorites that I referenced above, for example, is Catholic.)

I suspect the “sameness” complaint, when it boils down to it, is the same one every generation lobs at the next generation’s pop music. It falls flat for me, perhaps, because I have always enjoyed an eclectic mix of music: I’ll take the Moody Blues and Bob Dylan alongside my Coldplay and Taylor Swift, thank you very much. Give me good music.

We did “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” a true classic of Easter hymnody that appears each year at churches across the world, and Kristian Stanfill’s “Glorious Day,” a modern triumphant celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, this past Sunday. Neither seemed out of place, because both were good and true.

In the end, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes remarked, there is nothing new under the sun, not even how certain elements of the church world (like the world in general) will have an influence for promoting things like music. Or how others will bemoan what comes down the pike later on.

There are genuine places to be concerned, such as how Christian recording labels are largely controlled by secular companies with far more interest in what will sell than what is true. But, let’s actually look at the ideas the songs convey and how they work in worship. After all, there are more than a few stories behind the hymns of old and they’re less than ideal in character or ideology composers. What really matters is whether the songs focus us on God and focus on what is true.

You sure could do a lot worse than “This is Amazing Grace.”

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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