Discover The Roots Of Shallow Worship Songs

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

With Tongues of Fire by Paul Westermeyer book cover“CCM” or the contemporary worship record labels get a lot of blame for writing and publishing “dumbed down” song lyrics and exclusively bright, cheery (and some would even say frivolous) melodies, arrangements and record production. We’ve written about some of these things before here at My Song In The Night:

But we need to keep two things in mind: first, that the church is receiving great worship songs from major labels (think John Mark McMillan, Kathryn Scott, Matt Redman, All Sons & Daughters, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Paul Baloche, just to name a few).

The second is that the roots of what Michael Gungor called the “Christian music sound” and vapory lyrics extend far beyond the creation of CCM and the modern praise & worship music movement. From Paul Westermeyer’s With Tongues of Fire: Profiles in 20th Century Hymn Writing:

Gospel hymnody challenged the church’s broader historic hymnic consciousness. The Dwight Moody-Ira Sankey campaigns in the last quarter of the 19th century produced a body of hymnody that … contained cheery compound triple and dotted rhythms, enticing mild chromaticism, the almost exclusive use of major keys rather than minor ones, and a lack of dissonance or musical argument to create tension. It developed into the even lighter, semi-sacred, and more commercial music of the Billy Sunday era after the turn of the century, such as … “Brighten The Corner Where You Are,” … It often took over Sunday schools altogether and made inroads into mainstream Protestant services as well. Sometimes songs in this style replaced an entire hymnic heritage …

Indelible Grace founder Kevin Twit has talked about this as well in lectures at our church Sojourn, and elsewhere, pointing out that a gospel hymn like “In The Garden” is as far removed, lyrically, from the hymns of Watts, Newton, Steel and Wesley as the vaguest praise chorus today.

So What Does It Matter If The Roots Didn’t Start In The 1970s, 80s or 90s?

It matters because we shouldn’t blame any recent development or “industry” on a problem, since we are all susceptible, as were our forebears. The roots are in our own hearts, not in one decade or century. We often forget our responsibility (as songwriters, worship leaders or pastors) to lead. We forget that worship is, in part, an act of spiritual formation. We want to give people what works (meaning, what seems to get a good response, as far as our eyes and ears can tell).

And this was true before there was a formal “industry.” An industry is just a group of people. This is always about people: you, me, us, them. We want to reach others, and part of this involves giving them what they want. It certainly involves giving them music to which they can sing along and relate. But somewhere along the way, we may try too hard to give them too much of what they want and not enough of what they need (and remember that “we” are “they,” too — it is the responsibility of the entire church to teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs as we give thanks to God).

Defenders of shallow songs would say that Psalms and other songs and hymn fragments in the Bible range in complexity, length and theological depth. So why should every worship song be a four verse cannonball like “In Christ Alone?”

And that is true. Of course songs can range in complexity. As Harold Best has written, there is nothing inherently wrong with “shallow,” despite the negative modern connotations of the word. Shallow is simply not deep. And of course one person’s shallow is another person’s deep, for many reasons that may have nothing to do with intelligence or holy living. Sometimes when we catch a glimpse of God’s glory, all we can say is “Holy, you are holy.” This is good and right.

The problem comes if we drift into an exclusive use of slight, bright praise songs, because then we disobey the Bible’s own description of what congregational worship songs are supposed to do (Colossians 3:16). Shallow songs in the catalog of an artist, a church or a publishing house are not bad. What’s bad is their overuse. It’s like eating apples. They’re good for you, but an apple a day won’t keep the doctor away because they don’t contain all the vitamins and minerals we need. An exclusive “apple” diet isn’t good for anyone. Except apple farms.

  • How can churches continue to encourage and mentor worship songwriters?
  • What about seminaries? Are any of them doing anything solid or innovative in this regard?


Mark Snyder April 2, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Each song says something – it embodies a message. Usually this can be boiled down to a sentence or maybe two. If you do this for a set-list, and then ask yourself – what does this set list say, that is a great starting point. Next, we ask, what would we say, or should we say, in these set lists? What would we like to be saying? What is God saying to this gathering? That’s the starting point for worship writers or songwriting activities at churches.

Some songs that say what we need to say will be bright and simple, and some will be deeper and more complex. Properly balancing music style issues, cultural relevance, and the application of our God given creativity can yield an acceptable musical approach that serves our congregations. But careful attention to what we are saying is, for me, always the first thing.

@wbishop1213 April 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Good post. There’s definitely a negative reaction to the term “shallow.” Maybe better terms would be theologically simple and theologically complex songs. Both are needed in the same way that meat and milk are both needed in the lives of believers. An imbalance of either too much meat or too much milk can be bad.

As for seminaries, I know of a class at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary on the theology of contemporary hymnody. Other schools are beginning to offer similar courses.

Bobby Gilles April 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Good comments; I couldn’t agree more.

“Theology of Contemporary Hymnody” sounds like a great course.

Rob Still April 2, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Good post and great food for thought. Nothing new under the sun.

As planners of worship I believe we should “feed the sheep” with both ‘what they like’, and ‘what is good for them’. And like a good meal, it should have an artistic and relevant combination of ‘light’ and ‘heavy fare’.

Great to meet you guys at Killer Tribes!

Bobby Gilles April 2, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Thanks Rob – good thoughts. Kristen and I enjoyed meeting you as well!

Jono April 4, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Great post!

I buy and share your assessment of “shallow” (or better yet, theologically simple) music is not intrinsically bad. And that it can be used to bring glory to God and edification to man.

That being said, I don’t think the PRIMARY argument that church leaders are faced with over the music we choose for our services is over content . I think it’s primarily an argument over forms. I WISH the argument was largely over content… but my experience tells me differently.
Let me try to explain…

I don’t like how sad this song sounds.
I don’t like how there’s no crescendo in this song.
I don’t like that there aren’t any drums.
I don’t like that there’s no chorus.
I don’t like that this song is in an americana genre.
I don’t like that this song doesn’t sound like coldplay (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Or even, “I don’t like that this song has Thees and Thous in it…” which MIGHT APPEAR like a content argument, but I think a deeper look reveals that it’s really a FORM argument.

My experience has been that if you package a song in a musical style/genre/sound (INCLUDING how you script the lyrics… no thees/thous) that meets the CCM formula which congregants have come to expect (by listening to Christian radio and buying the latest Christian CD at Family Christian….), the song will likely be well received.

On the one hand… this is problematic to me because I really want to promote the kind of maturity that truly values the content of a song OVER the form (obviously without neglecting form…)

But on the other hand, if we had some CCM song writers that would just add some good content to their chart busting hits… I would be HAPPY to lead their songs for my congregants.

I have many more thoughts on this… but I’ve written too much already for a comment…


Bobby Gilles April 4, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Good thoughts, Jono. I focus more on writing about lyrical content on this site, simply because I’m primarily a lyricist. But you’re right in that form is important, and that (sadly) we tend to idolize our preferences. If a person feels like they can’t worship (or lead worship) unless they like the particular style or arrangement of music, then they don’t really know what worship is all about.

I do think there are plenty of good songwriters who work with what we might call the “CCM palette” of sound and production. But we should all be open to more sounds — new sounds, old sounds, regional sounds, loud, soft, sad, happy and contemplative sounds.

Zac Hicks April 30, 2012 at 4:57 am

Great post. Great thoughts. Thank you! I’ve overlooked this book too many times!

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: