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April 23, 2007

Seeking a truce in the worship wars

I've had the "worship wars" on the brain lately -- partly because of an interesting conversation I've been having here with one of our commenters, and partly because of this article by Warren Smith.

Now, a kind of unholy trinity exists that has turned the ministry of Christian music into the industry of Christian music. Christian radio promotes the songs, the churches use them in worship, and CCLI collects fees for the copyright holders. The big winners are the Christian record companies, many of them now owned by secular corporations, who sell records into the millions. The big loser is the church itself, which now pays to have itself marketed to every Sunday morning at 11 am.

Contrast this with the “old” method. Hymn books contain songs that are mostly in the public domain and have little or no licensing fees. They have historically been published by denominational publishers who make them available to congregations more or less at cost. They were not aggressively marketed or promoted because they are typically denominationally specific, reflecting the doctrine and liturgy of a particular church. But that is a key point: the hymnals are informed by and reinforce the theology of the church. Said plainly, hymnals are discipleship tools.

Contemporary worship songs, on the other hand, are a revenue stream for copyright holders and music publishers. They are aggressively promoted and now make up a significant share of the $4.5-billion Christian retail market. 

There's no denying that Smith makes a valid and often overlooked point -- but at the same time, there's a little more to it than that. I ran the article past Bob Welch, minister of music at Immanuel Bible Church, for whose judgment I have a lot of respect in matters both theological and musical. (It doesn't hurt that he used to teach me piano.) His response, in part:

I partially agree with the article. . . . However . . . I believe all music is usable - new contemporary, old contemporary, new traditional, old traditional. . . .

STYLE  is not mentioned in scripture ... only texts ... "Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual  Songs".

Again I have to side with the author of this article, it has become a huge industry. And, then, what should a minister of music do? Completely void the use of great contemporary songs so as not to be involved in the radical industry of contemporary "secularly owned" markets? Use only traditional songs "public domain" to satisfy older folks and quite possibly lose the youth? Great debates will go on until Christ returns.

My great hope is, IBC will continue to show great diversity of style use, while adhering strictly to only songs that declare the truth of scripture, Greatness of God, and identify His Son, Jesus Christ.

At IBC, I honestly believe we have never been at "war" over this. 

I can attest to that, and I think that the approach Bob Welch outlines above is one of the main reasons why. That's why I hope that more churches will move in the direction of what he elsewhere describes as "us[ing] what is good and meaningful from other times and traditions and blend[ing] them with the new expressions of today." When the focus is on the message of the songs -- meaning that theologically rich songs of all styles are chosen -- and the "best of the best" from each tradition is used, everybody wins . . . and the war is defused. And while this approach doesn't entirely solve the "marketing" problem Warren Smith raises, at least it helps to ensure that marketing is not and will not become the main goal.

Stay tuned for more music-related thoughts -- and some questions for our readers -- coming up . . .

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Christianity Today's current issue features an article on the Passion conference. There's a great discussion in the article on how the organizers of the conference (Louis Giglio and John Piper, among them) are using contemporary artists and songwriters, and encouraging them to use strong, God-focused theology in their lyrics.

Michael Redmond

This is yet another example of a principle that a lot of churches are loathe to face: Either the church defines the culture or the culture defines the church. There's no other option. In other words, if the church will not raise up and insist upon musical standards that honor God's house and recognize that Christianity is a historical reality (i.e., sorry, kids, the church wasn't founded last week), then whatever music happens to appeal to people at the moment will become the music of worship. Which means the church's music will be nothing but second-rate knockoffs of secular fads as they come and go ...

wl atwater

Its about the doctrine, silly !!!
The flesh is the thing of "preferences". So, it must be taken into account. If the doctrine is sound -who is to decide which frequency of vibration or rhythmnic meter accompanies. There must be something (style-wise) for all tastes. We must go where they are.

Michael Redmond

Yes, wl atwater, it is "about the doctrine" ... "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise" ... this applies to worship music as it applies to everything else. And it is as important to bring them where we are as to go where they are. We are calling them ~out~ of the world, let's remember!


I have a favorite maxim regarding this issue: "The best of the old, and the best of the new." There are old and new songs I wouldn't give a dime for. Yet, there are many old hymns often neglected today, which are a rich resource of Christian thought and theology. There are contemporary songs of yesteryear which are now today's "old standards". In all things, true worship music must be God-centered, inspirational, and founded on solid Biblical concepts. Trends are here today, gone tomorrow, but God's truth is timeless.

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