Will it Endure?: The Search for a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music

"Our church won't do any songs over a year old..." Then write better songs. If you're sick of it after a year, it was never good enough. 
A tweet from worship leader Aaron Keyes, 20 September, 2013

Part 1—What If There Were Less New Worship Songs?

Every time I go to select the music my church will sing during worship there is one simple question lurking behind every decision:

I wonder if people will still be singing this song in a hundred years?

Because really, when I think about all the songs I could possibly choose from, there are so, so many that I sang in my church growing up 10-20 years ago that simply are not sung anymore, in any church, anywhere. There are lists upon lists of songs that worship leaders nowadays cringe at, either because of "cheesy", "outdated" music, or shallow, clunky lyrics. (I will put up a list of these songs soon.)

This situation strikes me as a huge problem for church music leaders and the congregations singing our songs. With contemporary worship music are we merely creating disposable music, music written only to be gotten rid of when its use is no longer of value to us?  Our worship music may have a parallel in the cheap and quickly built suburban housing that litters the outskirts and developing small towns around the city in which I live (Peoria, Illinois) as well as the city in which I once lived (Chicago). These everpresent and ever-increasing housing developments, with their banal beige and grey color schemes and shoddy vinyl siding tend to look run down in little over a decade. By their very form and substance they self-evidently show signs of being built too quickly, without consideration of how future generations might take up residence in them as homes.  After years of inevitable disrepair will these subdivisions once again be reclaimed as Illinois cornfields or will we perpetually engage in the wasteful cycle of leveling and then rebuilding our cheap and disposable housing?  In other words, whether it is housing or church music the question is what is the end game for the structures in which our families live and the songs our churches sing?

It seems we are living in a society that creates for the present only, disregarding the example of the past as well as any care for the future (for more thoughts on this phenomenon see Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock especially his chapter on "Narrative Collapse").  We are not thinking in terms of 1.) what from the past should I be preserving and helping to live in the present as well as the future? and 2.) is what I am creating in the present going to endure into posterity?  Instead, the current moment is what matters, which in turn creates a culture where songwriters and song leaders are always gunning for the next trend, forever asking "where is worship music headed" or "where is the cutting edge NOW"?  

As key evidence of a trend obsessed worship culture, note the absolute avalanche of worship albums released every year. Keeping up with all the new albums is impossible, because as soon as you think you might have listened to "everything" you will discover a church, an artist's collective, or an artist has already put on 5 albums over the past decade. Believe me on this, as I am currently in the process of trying to listen to a ton of recently released worship music and I often feel completely lost in the process. I mean to make no assertions about the motivations of individual worship artists who release lots of albums. By nature artists are continually creating and thus over a lifetime will have an overwhelming body of work. Which is to say, if I am going to complain about the number of releases from modern hymn/song writers I should also complain about all the hymns Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and Fanny J. Crosby left the Church. On one hand I admit: the amount of songs is an incredible blessing. The more music being created for God's glory and for the Church's worship, the better. At the same time, the current state of worship music begs the question: Just how many new songs will our churches be able to sing?

Let's attempt to begin answering that question by asking two other, purely hypothetical questions: What if, instead of continually pushing out new batches of songs every few years, worship artists intentionally held back and only released songs that had been tested over time in the local church and thus had some kind of proven longevity? Or what if worship artists intentionally started putting out two kind of worship albums: 1.) one kind full of songs intended for the Church to sing and 2.) another kind full of more "worshipful" and artistic songs meant for the greater glory of God. To be clear, I am not trying to hinder artists' creativity or musical output. Instead, I ask these questions in order to get worship artists to begin thinking about gearing their music and the way they release it specifically for churches and not the music industry (which is an ever-hungry monster pining for more product to sell.  What if artists, again with much intention, showed a lot more wisdom and discernment and evaluation before releasing worship music? My guess is there would be a lot less of it out there and that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Part 2—Will it Endure?: Searching For the Canon Contemporary Worship Music
The core problem with our fetish of the present is we are unable to create a canon of contemporary worship music, that is, a selected group of songs which we all can agree are worthy to be sung now and in the years to come. Discussions over canons (definition 3:c in this link) span every field imaginable, even if the word itself is not exactly commonly used.  There is the Biblical canon, that is, the sacred books deemed to be divinely inspired (among a number of other requirements) and thus universally accepted as part of The Bible (actually, there is no one Biblical canon as the accepted books differ between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox).  Every time someone asks, regarding a professional athlete, "Will they make it into the hall of fame?" they are essentially asking whether or not they will be allowed into their given sport's canon. Canons are most often made for literature, music, and film, where Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Bach, Mozart, Orson Welles, and Coppola are almost universally considered part of the canon, and David Foster Wallace, Pynchon, Steve Reich, Schoenberg, David Lynch, and Wes Anderson are still being debated about. 

The question of canons is not so much "Is this a great work of art or is the artist a great artist?", because there is really too much out there to decide on.  Instead, the question is "Is this a work worth preserving for all subsequent generations?"  Or to put it in practical terms "what works of art or novels will we have time to teach to our students in a given school year?"  Therefore, every time a teacher decides to teach on a given person, book, work of art, or historical event in their classes they are, unconsciously or not, making a case for the canonicity of that person/work/event. They are throwing in their vote that this person/work/event is worth remembering, partaking of, and learning from both now and on into the future.  

And so it is, I would say, with the music we sing in our churches. Every week we are casting a vote regarding what we think is worthy church music and what is not. In years past hymnals were the "canons" of a particular group or church denomination, but not only are hymnals falling out of fashion (which to me does not negate their worth) they are also becoming increasingly difficult (I would say all but impossible) to assemble (which to me does take away from their viability as a tool for church musicians and the general worshipper.) [For more thoughts on this here is my recent article "Hymnals = Vinyl" or follow this link to an insightful article on the difficulties and benefits of publishing a modern hymnal.]  In order to illustrate what I mean at some point in the future I might put up a list of worship music resources. But then again, I might not. My list would be vast, but probably not vast enough and I am afraid the whole process would break me. There would simply be too much to compile. If someone were paying me 30K a year to keep up such a list, then maybe I would make one.  But here is what I know there is so much to choose from in such a list that not one among us would ever get to it all. On one hand this should strike a sense of wonder in us at all the great music and texts available to us for the Church to sing.  At the same time, however, this points back to the greater ongoing problem in modern worship music, which is that there is simply too much to choose from.

The simplest answer to this problem would be to create a new kind of hymnal, perhaps online, containing a periodically updated set of songs worthy to be sung by the Church. This would be a new measurement of Church song, containing both old and new hymns/songs. The collection could draw from song leaders and church musicians across all backgrounds and styles where together we would discern what the Church should be singing. It would mean that over time certain song/hymns would get voted out and yet have the chance to re-enter if song leaders thought they should be in the collection. But is such an idea only an idealistic pipe dream or perhaps (on the flip side) an editor's nightmare? Would we ever be able to decide on a set of songs, both its number and its scope? Would it create more division than unity? I think such a project would be beneficial if it were possible, though it would take an incredible amount of work.

All this pondering leads me back to the beginning of my article where I lamented about all the worship songs I never sing anymore.  What are we do to with the trash bag of songs we once sang, we once connected with on a deep emotional, spiritual, and perhaps even physical level; with these songs that discipled, taught, comforted, challenged, and sang us through the seasons of our lives? I do not exactly have an answer to that yet, but in the midst of this lamenting a few categories begin forming in my mind.

In the past 20 years:

1.) There are songs I simply cannot sing anymore, for a number of reasons, songs I have grown to detest.
2.) Songs I simply do not sing anymore, that is, songs that fell out of fashion with my tastes, also for a number of reasons.
3.) Songs I still sing and hope people sing for years to come.

Some time this summer I will put up these lists of songs and hope to unpack why exactly these are songs I either have come to loathe, be indifferent towards, or still sing fondly.

But first, as a introduction to these lists, here is an article answering a few questions from a colleague and friend of mine who has given me some pushback on my need to create a "Canon of Contemporary Worship Music." 

Other Articles in the Worship in Full Spectrum Series
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship

Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary
The Multiverse of a Worship Song: Matt Redman's "This Beating Heart"
Why I've Never Sung Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" At My Church


Shannon Lewis said...

I love Aaron, & I know the heart that his quote comes from, but even he - one of my favorite worship songwriters - has written "disposable" songs...songs primarily penned for the culture & time it was written in & for, but which haven't proven to have a huge, long-term impact. Does that mean he shouldn't have written them? Or that He, & anyone else who might have, shouldn't have sung them? Absolutely not. I have studied hymnody, & there are thousands & thousand of them I've never heard - many who were mere lyrics that never got so far to be set to music. Should they have never been penned?

As worship songwriters (modern has no bearing in the conversation - simply doesn't matter what style or era), we write songs to be the most Biblical, God-honoring, & singable for our cultural context, & if the songs is sung for a year, God be PRAISED! A week? Praise the Lord! 10? WOW - AMEN! 100? That's a special target that no one can aim for & hit, but it sure is incredible when it happens. I hope I do it one day, but I'm happy to write one if it helps one person from my own congregation to connect with Him only once.

Shannon Lewis said...

Btw, regarding CHOOSING songs, I try to find a balance: historic or to-be-Classics, plus popular-this-moment-but-probably-fading-fast songs... I probably choose the former far more than the later, but there's room for both in a worship set, as long as they help your congregation give voice to their corporate response to God in the moment.