What I Learned Listening to New Worship Music For An Entire Year Part 1: no melodies, beards, cuss words and Mumford and Sons ripoffs

Let's play spot the differences: One of these images is of Mumford and Sons, one is a worship band, and one
is of Civil War soldiers. Can you tell which is which? It might be harder than you think.
I have intentionally listened to new "praise and worship" music over the course of the last year. Here is my initial listening list: The Great Worship Music Binge of 2015. And here are the songs that made my final list of songs I plan/hope to sing in my church: The Best New Worship Music.

I had hoped my experiment would only take a couple of months, but I felt compelled to keep listening and listening in the hopes of being fair to all the potential "new" music in existence. The process soon became overwhelming and my ears grew weary and tired. I decided to have short but concentrated listening sessions: an evening here and there, a few afternoons right in a row.

Eventually, I came to a consensus of songs I liked, though I still feel like I have done a gross disservice to the numerous songs I have failed to even get to. Oh well...

Throughout this process I began to make a number of observations and reflections on what I was listening to. Here now are my thoughts.

To start with, as a worship pastor and song leader, my greatest needs in learning new songs were:
1. To find good gathering songs, calls to worship that will help the people enter in into worship and God's presence.
2. To find upbeat, joyful songs. Is it possible to sing really upbeat songs without fearing I'm manipulatively hyping people up?
3. To find songs/hymns for times in the Church year that often get overlooked, for instance finding good Lenten, Holy Week, and Pentecost hymns.

Pre-reflection #1: My Favorites

After listening to so many artists and songs you can definitely say some cream started to rise to the top as far as who/what I liked the most. If you go through my list you will see a few artists on there more than any of the others: The Getty's, Audrey Assad, and Sandra McCracken (also represented through Rain For Roots). On top of that there is something of a sub-genre within worship music that I tend to prefer more than any other, which I suppose could be called: "re-tuned folk hymns". Represented by the three artists I already mentioned as well as by various church congregations who put out their own albums and artist collectives like Cardiphonia, Bifrost Arts, and Indelible Grace, there are numerous artists and composers utilizing folk melodies or folk-like melodies for both old and new hymn texts. Of all the styles and forms of "worship music" in existence I am drawn to this one the most, especially since I would say basically all of the greatest "classical" or "traditional" hymns fall into this category. To me, these kinds of melodies strike the best balance between accessible sing-ability and aesthetic beauty.

Pre-reflection #2: Fernando Ortega Where Art Thou?
One artist conspicuously absent from my final list was Fernando Ortega (although he is singing on two of the songs of other artists: The Getty's and Audrey Assad). Unfortunately, Ortega has not put out an album for a few years and my congregation already sings a number of his songs ("Sing to Jesus", "Children of the Living God", "Trisagion", "Grace and Peace", "Let the Words of My Mouth", "Good Shepherd", and a number of hymns influenced by his style). However, Ortega has said on Facebook that he is currently in the process of recording another album. So perhaps sometime in the next year we'll get a new batch of re-arranged hymns and original songs to sing in our churches. (Get busy Fernando!)

Now on to the reflections;

A Warning: Some of these reflections are intentionally tongue-in-cheek or snarky, while also being serious. Hopefully you get the joke (if there is one) and simply enjoy the read.

Reflection #1: This whole project was an impossibly daunting task. 
Actually, it was an exercise in absurdity, a chasing after the wind, a vain pursuit of the worship music Holy Grail. Actually, the whole experience felt like something in between these two images:

Reflection #2: It's tough to listen to a bunch of songs at once. 
Eventually everything becomes beautiful white noise. Eventually all worship songs start to sound the same. Eventually good theology in lyrics becomes annoying. This can't be a good thing, can it?

Reflection #3: Sinning while listening to music
This whole experiment goes against the entirety of my principles and practices for why and how I listen to music. It was the antithesis of enjoying art or entering into worship. My approach to art is always slow and reflective and repetitive. There are numerous albums and books that I did not like the first time around. For instance, I basically loathed The Great Gatsby the first 2-3 times I read it, but now, having read it 5 or so times, I see it as a beautiful masterpiece that has shaped the way I see the world (e.g., I reference Gatsby a few times every year). But in listening to this much music in so short amount of time I had to rely fully on my instinct of what constitutes a good song. Often I would not even finish a song, but only listen to a verse and a chorus before I "knew" the song wouldn't be a contender. Please realize, according to my personal code, I repeatedly and consciously committed a "mortal sin of listening to music". I am grieved inside.
This is every song I unfairly
skipped over talking back to me, 

pleading for a second chance.

Reflection #4: Not in MY church!
I am positive there are a number of songs I would like as a songs in themselves, but my brain would not let me enjoy them because I was listening for one specific reason: find songs that people can sing in my particular church setting. Some songs will simply not work for congregational singing. These are songs that won't work because their range is too high, because they are rhythmically all over the place, because the melody is too boring, or because I can't imagine even attempting to replicate such epic sounds in my tiny congregation.

For instance, here are a few songs I really like, but for one reason or another, I cannot even remotely consider them as appropriate for my church to sing, not lyrically, but musically. Honestly, these are good songs and good worship songs, just not for my church:

"Here's My Hands, Here's My Heart" by Seeker and Servant
"Be Enthroned" by Jeremy Riddle/Bethel Worship
"Since Your Love" by United Pursuit
"Lion of Judah" by 10,000 Fathers Worship School"
"O Come to the Altar" by  Elevation Worship

Reflection #5: Where Have All the Melodies Gone?
Let this stand as a fact: I spent a vast amount of time listening to the most recently released, most prominent, and most widely sung worship songs. I listened to ALL of the songs on Worship Leader Magazine's end of year lists, like this one from 2013: http://worshipleader.com/top-20-worship-songs-of-2013/11111
I did this for 2013, 2014, 2015, and the first half of 2016. If you see me, give me a hug.

Then, I also went through all the songs I didn't already know in this article: 

And yet, hardly any of these "top" songs made it onto my final list. Why is that?

Here is my observation: there is an overabundance on non-melodic melodies. There are so many songs that I don't mind, that I kind of like, that are a lot of fun, that have great theology, that have wonderful production and a lot of creative musical ideas...and yet, I would never consider singing them in my church primarily because they lack a compelling melody. They blandly go back and forth between 3 notes, over and over again. What is happening here?

Honestly, people are doing some great work. There are great live concert recordings out there, great "in the studio" live recordings, and some amazingly produced studio recordings. The glut of new songs and recordings is overwhelming. But there is not much I think is worthy of being sung in a church setting from a musical perspective.

Let's take this beloved song as an example. I swear, if it weren't for the chord progression underneath it and some of the vocal improvisations, you could almost consider this "melody" some kind of simplified chant:

Actually, I might try making it into a chant sometime, just as an experiment. I'm curious to see how it will turn out.

However, let me say this: If I was the one writing some of these songs or if my worship leader introduced them to my congregation, I would be excited about them and even think my leader was a great songwriter. That is to say, if a lot of the more popular contemporary songs were local expressions of worship I would be delighted to sing them. They would be wonderful gifts to my congregation. But as an outsider listening in there is not all that much that I find compelling in the songs themselves. There is some great worship music going about. People are singing about Jesus' resurrection, about victory over sin, about having no fear in being covered by God's protection, about lifting up the greatness of God. All great stuff. And yet...what I continually exposed myself to was some of the most boringly repetitive melodies I have ever heard...

Reflection #6: If you are a male worship leader you need a beard! And slicked back hair! Get with the program! I'm one of them, so I should know.

Reflection #7: Worship songs with Cuss Words!
This is a strange one for me and it has only happened in the past few weeks, but there have been a few "worship bands" that have released songs with "explicit" lyrics. They say the "F" word yo! I am thinking particularly of King's Kaleidoscope's "A Prayer" and Coastland Commons' "In My Failure". Here are some thoughts I shared about this apparently growing phenomenon on a Liturgy Fellowship Facebook discussion:

This is a weird new age we're living in, for sure. I'm probably going to come out as the "prude" in stuff like this, but I don't know how this is edifying for corporate worship. I don't buy the "it's authentic" line. I don't think it will ultimately prove to be constructive to use "extreme" language in this way. There are other way to be "authentic" or to point the Church to raw expressions of prayer and lament. My fear is this kind of expression will open a floodgate of putrid language at the expense of "being real".

What if I wanted to write a lyric saying "When I lust and want to f**k every person I see. When addiction cries out and I want to put that s**t in my veins. When my hatred leads me to want to put bullets in everyone's brain..." I'm just afraid where this all could lead...

Another worship pastor (who's opinion I always respect) responded by saying that yes, while this may not be appropriate for corporate worship, it may have a place in the "prayer closet." I know what he means and I think he may have a point. Still, I have my doubts. I'm trying to think of what Paul would say: "To the saints who are in America and are faithful in Christ Jesus. I have heard that is is said..." Obviously there are much bigger issues to address than cuss words, but I have trouble seeing this practice as a good thing.

Reflection #8: The continual influence of mainstream pop music.
It has been a long held, basically cliched insight that modern worship music would not be what it is today without the pervading influence of the band U2, most specifically the idiosyncratic guitar work of The Edge. Which is to say that a lot of worship music is U2 filtered through Coldplay filtered through Matt Redman/Chris Tomlin, filtered through Hillsong, filtered through Bethel Worship, filtered through Elevation worship, and on and on down the line of aural degeneration.

But the pop music bleed over into worship music by no means ends there. Perhaps the most recent and most prevalent "secular" music knockoffs are attempts to create the epicness of Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons (both of which are bands beloved by bearded white male worship leaders!). For instance, there are numerous songs that utilize the soaring "oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh...." of the iconic Arcade Fire song "Wake Up". Honestly, if you listen to enough worship songs composed in the last decade you will realize this is seriously a thing. What is also a thing is re-creating the stomp-folk, down home hootenany, suspendered, be-banjoed, hipster faux-authenticity of Mumford and Sons. I actually think this trend has been on the wain for a few years now, but there are numerous songs and groups that were obviously reaching for both the sound and look of Mumford, like this song, which also manages to fit in an Arcade Fire "oh oh" for good measure:

I guess what I want to know about this video is how absolutely intentional was it for the lead singer look like, be dressed like, and sound like Marcus Mumford? Also, there's a guy in overalls playing a banjo. More prominent bands like Rend Collective have also (seemingly) intentionally tried to hitch a ride on the Mumford wave, as in this song, which I include here because I can hardly stand how ridiculous it all is and how much they're ripping of M&Ss who are a decent band but are not worthy such blatant, pandering mimicry:

Man, that is one foot-stomping, wash-board beatin' worship hootenanny! 
This song actually makes me hate Mumford and Sons a little bit, and they're a band that I basically like. Even Matt Redman got in on the action, which I found thoroughly annoying. 

OK. Enough of all that. What I find interesting is hearing Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Adele, Taylor Swift, Fleet Foxes, Chvrches, Passion PIt, and a whole slew of EDM artists permeate so many worship songs. Sometimes the homage sounds derivative and sometimes it is done excellently and compellingly, like the best homages do. Which is to say that sometimes by emulating your heroes you create something new and innovative unto itself. There are times when modern worship music feels right on the verge of doing this, that it is not pandering in order to capitalize on a trend, but is create something beautiful in its own right.

Which leads to my next point

Reflection #9: Caught in the paradox.
While this might sound blatantly contradictory, I'm turned off by melodies that sound too contemporary but also too "hymny" or "folksy", that is, too much like a stolid old hymn tune. I'm drawn to something in the middle, that attempts to musically meet the tastes of the old and the new. I am afraid though that this middle ground will lead to bland or overly-simple musical choices. What I dislike on one hand is the flashiness of new music (or the lack of a discernible melody—see above for that!) and on the other hand the stodginess of old music. I also hate any amount of cheesiness in both old or new songs. And guess what? It is truly difficult to describe why I have the reactions I do. I am discovering that taste is really difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, what I cannot stand is a folk melody that is desperately trying to be a folk melody. That kind of over-eagerness is off-putting.
Here ends part 1.
Check back next week for part 2 of this article. 
In the meantime, here are some more articles on worship and worship music:
The Golden Ages of Worship Music: Which One is Yours?
Worship Music's "Good Old Days": Featuring Vineyard Music, Delirious?, Revival Generation, and Darrell Evans.
Chasing the Ghosts of Worship Past—a worship leader's lament

Past Articles in the "Worship in Full Spectrum" Series
Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music
I Don't Care If the Church Will Sing It In 2065
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


Shannon "Saint" Lewis said...

Though maybe I'm too generous & would never bring down the hammer quite as hard as you did, I agree with a fair amount of what you say here. As a worship songwriter, & a worship pastor, it's a constant challenge to walk that line between creativity, & serving my people with songs that meet them where they are, challenge them to go further, & are welcoming to SING.

Kim said...

Lol I like the pictorial comparison

lyka said...

Want worship guitar lessons? Want to learn to play the guitar quickly and with excellent technique? You’ve come to the right place. You can learn to play worship songs on your guitar and avoid hand pain and other problems that can limit your guitar playing. Watch the short video below to find out what’s in our main Worship Guitar Class program.. http://www.worshipguitarclass.com/