Worship Wars; or, praise malaise

occhiovivo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the most e-mailed NPR stories of this past week caught my eye: “Modern Hymn Writers Aim to Take Back Sunday.”  Songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty feature prominently.  They are well known for writing the Irish-inflected hymn “In Christ Alone.”  Keith Getty issues a gem of a quote on what I would term the contemporary “praise malaise”:

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

This resonates with me.  My formative worship experiences were with Lutheran hymns.  Compared to the vapid choruses of today’s jangly ballads, traditional worship songs offer a rich textual landscape.  They are heavy on rhyming and light on repetition.  They paint a strong narrative revealed in patterned stanzas.  And they draw from a vivid, diverse lexicon, producing images which the worshiping mind can continually engage with and readily grasp.

Not so for most contemporary praise songs.  I am not at all trained in music, but when it comes to wordsmithing, I will throw my two cents in.  Some praise choruses drag the worshiper through a lyrically parched salt flat.  Sometimes it seems as if one can go for a couple of Power Point screens without seeing a polysyllabic word.  Another regrettable phenomenon of praise songs is when the subjects and objects are predominately pronouns (I/we/you/me).

There are ubiquitous words that, for better or worse, have little impact on a congregant like myself:

fire
flame
grace
great
hands
love
mercy
sing

Worship music is supposed to cultivate a worshipful mood.  But those who are more abstraction-oriented than affective need to chew on the specific reasons for praise.  These words help:

atonement
banner
blood
Calvary
crowns
diadem
foe
majesty
might
prince
wretch
scepter
tempest

I guess there is a little bit of a martial strain in this list.

To put it all out there, here are some praise songs that I find textually deficient:

Blessed Be Your Name
Consuming Fire
Happy Day
Your Grace is Enough

And here are some hymns that I think could bear to be studied by today’s songwriters:

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
Loud Rushing Planets
O God, Our Help in Ages Past

I’m not totally set against contemporary worship music.  I like to sway to drums and feel the guitar solo as much as I like to rattle off baritone.  But it would be great if more contemporary songs could be just as textually rich as the great hymns.

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