Can We Trust The Contemporary Worship Music Industry?

by Bobby Gilles

in Music Business,Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Painting of Charles Wesley

When you read articles like Michael Gungor’s “Zombies, Wine & Christian Music” post and this follow-up in Ragamuffin Soul, it’s easy to see that even Christian musicians are often suspicious or critical of Contemporary Christian Music. In some quarters of the Church — let alone the world in general — it’s derided as a joke or “subculture ghetto.”

Contemporary music for congregational worship gets no exemption. Worship leader/songwriter Vicky Beeching even wonders if a blindfolded monkey could write songs like many that churches across the globe sing each week.

Are the major record labels and other industry organizations doing a good job? Is the cream rising to the top?

Let’s look at pro and con arguments for the job the Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) industry is doing, here at My Song In The Night. I’ll also get into the politics of the music industry a bit (having been a southern gospel radio music director). But first, we must start with God’s Word. The Bible teaches us the kinds of songs we should sing in our worship gatherings, and it provides a wealth of examples in both Testaments, so we’ll examine a few of those songs. Let’s start with Paul’s instruction from Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (ESV)

Greek scholars tell us that, judging from Paul’s grammatical constructs, he’s saying that these “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are the way in which we are to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and thankfulness. So no matter what business model anyone uses, no matter what marketing campaign, church growth strategy or seeker program that might seem either effective or promising, if we want our worship to please God then the kind of songs we lead and write should be songs that:

  1. Teach the gospel
  2. Admonish one another in the gospel
  3. Are wise in their portrayal of the gospel
  4. Are centered on the word of Christ
  5. Stem from thankful hearts

Paul didn’t just give us principles though. Many scholars teach that his letters include texts of several early Christian hymns and creeds. Although song structures and poetic devices change from culture to culture, language to language and era to era, we should expect the subject matter of Bible songs to guide our songwriting and worship leading today. Let’s look at two of these sections, beginning with this one found in Philippians 2:6-11 (ESV):

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This possible hymn fragment, included in Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, is not in the least like the abstract or ambiguous lyrics found in many praise choruses.

To be fair, the best contemporary praise songs do move beyond vague feel-goodism, to something like the above passage. Witness the chorus of “Lord I Lift Your Name On High” by Rick Founds:

He came from heaven to earth, to show the way
From the earth to the cross, my debt to pay
From the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky
Lord, I lift your name on high.

This is a fine chorus, fun to sing, and a good example of how a poet can cover a lot of historical or theological ground in just a few words. Now let’s look at another possible hymn fragment found in the New Testament (Colossians 1:15-20 ESV)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

No one could sing anything like that and think “Which religion are we singing about?” or “Is this about Jesus, or someone’s boyfriend?”

Not all New Testament songs are as creedal. Read Mary’s praise (the Magnificat) in Luke 1:46-55, which she sang or exclaimed after the angel promised she would give birth to the savior. It’s simple but is still a great song, testifying specifically of the one true God. She praises him for what he has done for her personally, and then expands that praise to God’s acts of salvation in the history of Israel. Again, this is not a song you’d sing to your boyfriend or a vague “higher power.” Nor is it “me-centered” boasting of how much she’s going to do for God and what a great job she’ll do in raising Jesus.

What About The Psalms?
I won’t print any psalms here, since many bloggers have adequately shown that the psalms cover much more theological, historical and even emotional territory than most churches cover in their worship set lists.

The psalms resonate with us when we have doubts, when we’re heartbroken, when our world is upside down. The psalms ultimately point to triumph, the perseverance of the saints and the sovereignty of God, but they let us know that we can lament our pain. God isn’t uncomfortable with our cries of “How long,” or “Where were you?”

Please, worship leaders (and I’m including everyone who works in the CWM): understand that when you give songs to the church that cover the theological and emotional depth that the psalms cover, you are obeying the biblical command:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15 ESV)

This is God’s command to us. We dishonor God when our worship services become like carnivals and our worship leaders are happy-faced clowns. Every week, people come to church who are grieving, who have wilted under violence, betrayal, callousness, their own guilt, sickness, death of loved ones, and many other hallmarks of this broken world full of broken people. Our job is to point them to the gospel, which is the source of all joy, but we can’t begin at the ending. If your lyrics are all “Happy, happy, happy” then you are creating a huge barrier to entry.

This is, quite literally, seeker-insensitive.

Bring On The Minor Chords
And it isn’t just lyrics. In Michael Gungor’s post he mentioned his band’s “The Christian or Secular Game,” in which they listen to a short clip of music and guess whether it’s a “Christian” or “secular” song. He says it is easy to do because so much Christian music sounds disingenuous. I think a big part of it is that Christian artists and labels are often afraid of minor keys, and tones and arrangements that sound either too aggressive or sad. For instance we get past the “happy, happy all the time” lyrics and we write songs that portray Christ’s extreme sacrifice for us on the cross — and then we compose “happy, happy all the time” music for it.

This isn’t a new thing, concocted by major record labels. One reason why composers are retuning old hymns is that some of the common tunes for hymns are lacking in prosody (music and lyrics that fit well together, emotionally). Witness the most common U.S. tune for the Isaac Watts hymn “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed,” a bouncy little ditty that treats these lines as if describing fuzzy bunnies, frolicking in the field:

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut its glories in,
when Christ, the mighty maker, died
for his own creature’s sin.

The cross is certainly cause for rejoicing — without it we’d be lost. But songs like “Alas …” should make us feel the weight of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. We will be more joyful after we’ve reflected “It was my sin that held him there.” We should feel like that sentiment in the old African American spiritual “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” Then later it will cause us to dance with joy.

And as we know, plenty of “mainstream” contemporary worship music seems to have been created under a rule that only happy, bright guitar tones, major keys and peppy beats are allowed. I’ve heard several horror stories from worship leaders and songwriters around the U.S. who went to major worship conferences and played their songs for industry personnel, who told them to take out the minor chords, brighten it up and give it some pep even when the lyrics conveyed lament or repentance.

Okay, So We Can’t Trust The Contemporary Worship Music Industry? Mainstream = lamestream?
Not so fast. Chris Tomlin, Laura Story, Matt Redman, Paul Baloche, Gateway Worship, Gungor, Vicky Beeching and plenty other worship leaders and writers on mainstream labels have given the church solid songs of praise. And Integrity’s signing of John Mark McMillan is one of the more encouraging signs I’ve seen for some time that the industry is willing to expand their offerings.

Remember that when we talk about leaders of CWM labels, stations and publications, we’re talking about brothers and sisters in Christ, many of whom are highly skilled, who have dedicated their lives to the mission Christ has called them to, and who have the insiders’ benefit of seeing some of what works and what doesn’t. We should spur them on to support artistically-sound Colossians 3:16 music (just as we spur local worship leaders and “indie” songwriters on to the same goal) but an overly critical spirit is not helpful. They are getting a lot of things right, and making the job of worship pastors much easier than it has ever been.

Also, all indie artists and local worship leaders with bigger aspirations must check their (our) hearts continuously. Is some of our criticism due to the fact that we want to be on the inside looking out, rather than on anything solid? Would we be better off simply working on our craft and being faithful in serving God, at whatever level he has brought us to? Jason Blume includes this quote from producer/songwriter Steve Diamond in 6 Steps To Songwriting Success:

If you compare your songs to those on the radio and think, “My song is just as good as that, that has a bunch of cliches, it’s not really that good,” that is not going to help you as a writer. There are reasons why that song got cut — many political reasons behind the scenes. There’s the producer and the producer’s wife and the producer’s staff writers who are being paid to come up with songs, so the quality of songs on the radio isn’t always the measure of what you’ve got to surpass. They can always come up with those “average” songs. You have to be better than that in order to get your songs cut.

So Major-Label Politics Keeps The Indies Down?
I could spend hours listening to the songs of worship teams and leaders across this country who are not on labels, who don’t have publishing deals, and who may never end up on a page of Worship Leader or the stage of the Dove Awards, yet who have written some songs that I think are superior to some of the major label, awarded, CCLI hit worship songs we all know. I would certainly hope that the CWM is actively searching, at all times. And I would think that the thrill of discovery would be one of the biggest bonuses of laboring in that field.

Having said that, a lot of “indie” music is unsigned because it isn’t very good. Let’s not become too idealistic about “indie.” In fact, I’d guess that a higher proportion of CWM songs are well-crafted songs than the total proportion of unsigned worship songs that are led in churches each week. Believe me, when I was in radio people would send me songs all the time, with the greeting “The Lord gave me this song and he wants you to play it on your station,” and they were almost always horrible.

And some of them paid a lot of money to get their songs on compilation CDs, marketed to radio stations as “grassroots.” The marketing implied that these were “needle in haystack” discoveries or hidden gems, when in fact the majority were poorly written, badly performed songs whose artists had bought their way onto the compilation.

The Most Important Perspective For An Unsigned Artist
As far as talent goes, who says it is likely or even desirable that the “cream” always rise to the top? The best worship songwriter in the world right now may be an unheralded widow in Hoboken, New Jersey who sings her songs to God each night, either never even presenting them to her church or perhaps having tried, and been told “We don’t do original songs here.”

“God wouldn’t let that happen?” Oh, really? What if God knows this lady wouldn’t be able to handle the attention? What if pride would ensnare her? Is she better off being unknown and loving God than becoming a worship “star” and falling astray?

If you feel you have a gift and if brothers, sisters and your shepherd(s) in Christ affirms that gift, you’d do well to work it with all your might and prayerfully consider all opportunities. But if they don’t come your way, don’t become bitter. Rather, praise God who gives you no more than you can handle.

Ultimately a better question than “Can we trust the contemporary worship music industry” is “Do we trust God?” But as to trusting the CWM, my opinion is:

Can we trust them to continuously give us choices? To supply churches with new songs?
Yes. And some of them will be very good. Some will not. But it has never been easier for churches to find good songs for congregational worship. Never. In. History. Worship pastors and leaders must think critically, and add new songs to their repertoire with care.

Can we trust them to supply us with all the songs we need? 
No, and I doubt any responsible member of the CWM industry would even say this is their intention. Pastor, you should encourage and help develop a songwriting community in your church, if even the potential for talent exists. You should also be a good hymnologist.

This goes for you senior pastors too. Many people get their theology from songs, because they’re catchy and memorable. Throughout the week, your members and attendees will probably be humming, singing and meditating on songs from your worship service. And on any given day, one of those members or attendees may be reflecting on a song from your worship service as they are dying, or as they are standing over the bedside of a loved one — saved or unsaved — who is dying. Make sure it is a Colossians 3:16 song.


Melissa Lynn Benham March 2, 2013 at 8:41 am

Good word, but I was kind of disappointed by the fact that you continually spelled Vicky Beeching’s name wrong.

Bobby Gilles March 6, 2013 at 9:09 am

Yikes, you’re right Melissa. That’s not the first time I’ve done so, either. I have some kind of mental block on remembering “Vicky,” not “Vicki” or “Vikki.” No idea why.

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