- The Problem of the For-Profit Model
Ceding control over one of the most central practices of the worshipping community to for-profit companies is highly problematic. For-profit companies exist for one reason, to make money. Whatever secondary goals might exist for the artists are immaterial. This is a business; the profit-motive reigns supreme here. If something is deemed too risky to sell, it will not make the album. Projects that focus on the marginalized or seek to expand diversity will not often be advantageous financially. There’s nothing sexy about racial justice, difficult topics or even seeking to fill theological holes in the worship music canon. It is much easier to make a moral and theological case for these than it is to make a business case for these things. In acquiescing to a for-profit model, the church is being robbed of prophetic authority in worship. For-profit systems, by their very nature, do not “bite the hand that feeds them” and thus are impotent to challenge the oppression wrought by systems. It doesn’t challenge our current worldview; it offends no-one, and requires nothing of us but consumption. It demands nothing from us.
For a congregation to begin to become conscious of justice issues requires incremental movement over time towards those things. This is difficult to do when much of the worship music supplied to us focuses on the individual over the group. As mentioned in my previous post, individualistic language dominates much of these “hit” worship songs. This type of language counters our ability to cultivate solidarity with each other as well as the church universal.
The for-profit model also promotes homogeny over diversity. It makes financial sense to target homogeneous groups. This is congruent with a largely homogeneous liturgical practice adopted in the white evangelical context. We do not have to compromise our dominant white framework for our brothers and sisters. Our theologians are white, our worship music is white, our artists are white, and our corporate practice is washed white as snow. Sociologist Korie L. Edwards notes that “interracial churches work to the extent that they are, first, comfortable places for whites to attend.”
Worship music created by music corporations is relentlessly middle of the road both in content and in style. It does not push the listener or congregant to move away from their comfort zones and, in fact, it is in the interest of the industry to make music that lands solidly in the center of these proverbial “comfort zones.” Structurally, these corporate entities are set up to actively fight innovation in favour of a formula that sells. The kind of pop music “group think” that creates soundalike pop stars works in a similar fashion in the “worship” music arena. This becomes even more apparent once you see the same names appearing over and over again in the songwriting credits.
The problem is that writing hits has little to do with feeling or inspiration. It has everything to do with writing hooks, catchy lyrics and making sure the syllables line up between verses. More than a few of the professional songwriters that popped up in the analysis write both worship hits and mainstream pop. Therefore it may not be shocking that if you substitute “baby” for “Jesus” in some of these songs, they turn into top 40 love ballads rather easily. The concern of the professional songwriter is getting the song recorded by a well-connected and supported artist and then waiting on royalties. I don’t fault them for doing their job. However, good theology and prophetic truth are not part of that job description.
Of course I would not think to say that the Holy Spirit cannot work in that environment or through those songs. That would be highly presumptuous. All things are possible with God. However, God also spoke through Balaam’s ass. My point here is this:
Can we not aim higher than the braying donkey that is the pop music writing machine?
Is it really in the best interests of the church to be supplied worship music that is governed by little except consumer choice and demographic targeting? This should be deeply troubling to the conscientious Christian. Churches are wrestling with an exodus of millennials and waning power over the wider culture. They are desperate to remain relevant.
Unfortunately for the church, corporate America is often the loudest voice in the room. They have convinced us that to have the newest, hottest, most powerful, most “of the moment” worship song is the fix. It is difficult to do the hard and trying work of convincing people that another path is possible when several generations of North American Christians have been taught that the free-market will provide solutions to all our problems. To put it more bluntly, the baby boomers that make up most of our current church leadership, as well as Gen-Xers and millennials, have been indoctrinated with the idea that to “buy” our way out of problems is a social good. The church engaging in continuing “retail therapy” is highly damaging. We cannot solve systemic indifference through treating congregants as worship consumers.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination: Second Edition. Fortress Press, 2001
Camacho, Daniel J. “Do Multicultural Churches Reinforce Racism?” http://www.danieljosecamacho.com/blog/2016/2/9/do-multicultural-churches-reinforce-racism
Gordon, David T. “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons.” Second Nature, 27 Oct. 2014, https://secondnaturejournal.com/the-imminent-decline-of-contemporary-worship-music-eight-reasons/
Lindenbaum, John. “The Pastoral Role Of Contemporary Christian Music: The Spiritualization Of Everyday Life In A Suburban Evangelical Megachurch.” Social & Cultural Geography 13.1 (2012): 69-88.
Powell, Mark Allan. “Jesus Climbs the Charts: The Business of Contemporary Christian Music.” Religion Online, 18 Dec. 2002, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2627.
Wildsmith, Erin E. “”Western Individualism and the Christian Community: Towards a Faithful Expressing of Church in the West’’ McMaster Divinity College. 2013.
Wilson, Jared C. “What’s Wrong Creating A Worship Experience?” The Gospel Coalition, 17 Jan. 2017, https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/gospeldrivenchurch/2017/01/17/whats-wrong-with-creating-a-worship-experience/