Now that I got your attention with that headline, I should probably start by saying that I don’t really dislike all worship music or even worship as a genre in general. I started thinking about this a few weeks ago, and then I saw this photo on my niece’s instagram page and knew it was time for a new blog post:
My initial thinking on this topic came out of my own experience of trying to write a “worship song.” I put the phrase in quotes because genres in general tend to bother me. Our human obsession with categorizing everything puts some of life’s greatest experiences into boxes that keep us from fully experiencing them. This is especially true when it comes to God, and I’ll do another song/post on that soon…
Every time I’ve sat down and tried to write a worship song, it has ended mostly in frustration. Why? Probably because I’m thinking of worship as a genre and not as a lifestyle. I’m thinking of worship as songs that have simple chord progressions and catchy melodies that are easy for congregations to sing corporately. Songs that compel you to close your eyes and lift your hands, and may even move you to tears by the end. In short, I’m thinking about it way too much.
On the other hand, every time I’ve sat down to write a song with no preconceived notions of how it should be, and I write from wherever my heart is in that moment, it has ended in me creating some of my very best work. Why? Because I’m not overthinking it. In my mind, there’s no pressure for a room full of people to be able to catch on and sing along at first hearing. There’s no pressure to conform to a genre of simple chord progressions and catchy melodies. And there’s no pressure to quote or paraphrase a Bible verse (though all of the songs I’ve ever written were inspired by my life’s experiences as I walk in relationship with Jesus.) When there’s no pressure, it’s much easier to write from the heart.
So, more than anything, this post comes out of my own frustrations with trying to write a worship song and failing repeatedly. However, there are certain things that characterize worship music that have gotten under my skin, and I’ll share them here — but just keep in mind where this topic originally came from as you read. And please don’t be offended if you’re a Chris Tomlin fan. 😉
1. The Lyrics Are Often Disconnected
I’m referring here to lyrics that emphasize God as some giant, majestic faraway deity that’s difficult for us as humans to relate to, instead of talking about or to him in a relational way — in a way that puts him right at the center of our being and who we are in Him. I think I should repeat that I’m not referring to all worship music here, nor even the majority of worship music out there today. But, as an example, compare the lyrics of this song with the lyrics of this song, and see if you understand what I mean. I don’t mean to criticize the writer of either song, as I’m sure both have written music with the intention of glorifying our Lord. But that intention can often (unintentionally) serve to put Him on a pedestal and out of our reach.
As another example, let’s consider John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves.” One of the most well-known lyrics appears in the third verse: “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.” David Crowder’s version of the song, released four years later, changed the lyric to “heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss.” In my opinion, the rewritten lyric feels disconnected and much less poetic than what John Mark wanted to communicate in the image of a sloppy wet kiss. There’s something less tangible, yet so much more relational about the original lyric that seems to disappear in the rewritten version. Certainly, the newer lyric feels more comfortable in a church setting. Mentally, it’s easier to grasp. It was also more popular and propelled the song into greater rotation on the radio… coincidence?
We often prefer that which makes us comfortable. But I don’t think Jesus intends for any of us to stay in our comfort zones very long…
2. Worship Music Tends To Emphasize Emotional Experiences
I can’t tell you how many emotional experiences I had before I really encountered Jesus for the first time. The ironic thing is, most of those experiences happened while I was in a formal church setting, while my encounter with Jesus happened while I was walking around a shopping mall, my mind about as far away from God as it had ever been. I don’t think worship music is necessarily written with the intent of creating an emotional experience that brings hundreds of people down to the altar, but I do think that’s often what happens. And usually, the bigger the band, the larger the room, the more people in attendance, and the more fog machines there are on stage — the more tears will be cried and the more people will be saved. Or, at the very least, we’ll pray an emotional prayer inviting Jesus into our hearts. Whether or not we experience a real change that continues after the event is yet to be determined.
I know I probably sound incredibly judgmental right now, but I truly don’t mean to judge. The reason I can say all these things is because I’ve been there so many times. Even today, I am the girl that says “O.M.G” when Hillsong’s “Oceans” is played in a worship service. It is a beautiful song.
Music in general is great at creating emotional experiences, and worship music is no different. I think we often mistake emotions for real encounters and when we sense no change days after a church service, we start to wonder if God was there. Or worse — we start to wonder if He’s even real. Not that our encounters with Jesus should be void of emotion. Mine have been just as emotional as those experiences I’ve mistaken for the real thing. But I think there’s something different that takes place when it is the real thing. And when you experience it, you know the difference. As followers of Jesus, sometimes we get too caught up in our mission that we try to make everything about a church service as perfect as possible — from the music to the message to the altar call — as if our efforts are somehow going to lend God a hand. I don’t think we really help God though. He helps us. We should keep that in mind when we’re striving to create anything, whether it’s a worship song or a worship service.
3. Worship Music is Way Overplayed
As is any music on the radio. But I’m not so much talking about the radio here as I am about church services in general. Go to any church in the Bible Belt that has a contemporary worship service, and you can bet you’re going to hear “Oceans” or some other tune by Hillsong or Chris Tomlin. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But I think more churches should encourage their musicians and creative leaders to write original music, rather than playing the same songs that were written by famous Christian singers over and over again. I’m blessed to attend a church that encourages such, and as an artist who’s all about being “original,” I’ve been praying hard and trying to get over my struggles with worship music so I can write a song of my own. At the same time, I know that most of what I write will probably not fit into the Christian music stereotype, and I’m okay with that. I want everything I create to be totally inspired and completely uncontrived. That only happens when I’m writing out of my own real life experiences and writing from my heart. I might say “Jesus” in a song, or I might not. Either way, as a singer-songwriter who happens to be a Christian, you can be certain that whatever you hear was somehow inspired by my relationship with Him.
That said, maybe I should write a worship song about my struggle to write a worship song… 🙂 If that’s something you’d like to hear, comment below with your thoughts.