Any debate over separation from “culture” in relation to music style is pointless nonsense. All of our worship styles are contextualized to our culture. That is not to say that traditions of the past do not have value. It is just important to be humble enough to realize that those appeals are often the purview of preference rather than some objective standard. Are there better practices? Absolutely. However, we should be slow to ascribe divinity to things we prefer just because we prefer them. Where this debate gains some real and important traction is in more foundational issues of how the broader culture affects the church.
Firstly, we need to be very cautious in talking about corporate worship in terms of outcome. It betrays a consumer culture bias that values measurable data over everything else. How does one begin to quantify the work of the Holy Spirit? Is it measured in raised hands? Is increased giving our new metric? Is corporate prayer only valuable if people are miraculously healed in the service? Does singing together have an real world quantifiable value? There is a great deal of danger here so caution is warranted. A standard evangelical response might be to evaluate outcome in terms of moral transformation. And yet, if that person continues to sin (as we all do) does that mean somehow the worship “didn’t take”? Perhaps the most instructive texts regarding outcomes would be the famous justice passages of the prophets and the gospels. I am thinking of Amos 5, Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 specifically. It may be difficult to measure things individually but if the church as a whole begins to lift up the marginalized and oppose the oppression of the vulnerable then there might be something real going on in that congregation.
One of the greatest tragedies in modern corporate worship lies not in style but in the North American church’s uncritical acceptance of the influence of business and consumer culture on the church. The corporatization of church™ has been far more damaging than the inclusion of evolving music styles in our services. With the church taking its cues from the business world, we are seeing an “attractional” model of worship gathering that is highly problematic. These gatherings seem to have more in common with multi-level marketing conferences (“let us praise Avon”) than with the depth of the four-fold structure. The encroachment of advertising culture on the worship gathering bleeds it dry of its authenticity. The dark humour in all of this is that authenticity is the most “attractive” thing about church worship and yet it is the first thing to be inadvertently shown the door in a rush to be “relevant.”
Another way in which the adoption of the ideals of business culture have adversely affected the church lie in a massive shift in the Contemporary Christian music industry in the early 2000s. Much like the rest of the music industry, CCM began to feel the drastic effects of digital technology on record sales. They began to shy away from taking risks and focused on the one safe spot in the market: music for churches. Up until that point, the majority of worship songwriters were writing for churches and not for Christian pop radio. With the rest of the industry circling the drain, all of the polished songwriters, radio-ready production and studio musicians focused on “worship” music. And this new “worship” music began to dominate Christian pop radio in the form of Hillsong, Chris Tomlin and others.
How does this affect the church? Your average church doesn’t have the kind of talent pool that is accessible to big-budget recording projects. They and their worship pastors are doing the best they can with limited time and limited resources. Unfortunately that doesn’t diminish the expectations that they will be able to include new worship music in services. Also, Songs written for pop radio are most often composed in a range that is difficult for the majority of parishioners to sing. Male vocals are often in high tenor ranges and female vocals tend to be beyond the reach of your average singer. This poses additional challenges for worship team members. The obvious solution to this problem would be to lower the key. However, the grand majority of volunteer vocalists will not have the knowledge to be able to do that and many lay musicians will not have the ability to play it in a “non-standard” key. As mentioned in my previous post on leadership, navigating these challenges requires a steady and educated hand.
As far as trends go, I’m definitely not equipped to prognosticate on the future of worship. What I can offer is my sincere hopes and prayers for worship. I strongly believe in evolution of style. Embracing a diversity of styles from a diversity of sources always enriches the life of a congregation. What I would like see us move away from is the need for spectacle. Flashing lights, hazers, and other tools of novelty aren’t necessary for a transcendent experience. The more we rely them, the more they divert us from what we truly need: truth, beauty and authenticity.