Music at Mars Hill: God Is Able; Are We?

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

“Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” (Psalms 33:3)

It seems that Hillsong Australia has been living out its prolific worship music career under the careful instruction of this psalm. For twenty years now, Hillsong has written and released a live album of brand new songs every year, each featuring a host of different songwriters and worship leaders. On top of that, the church’s youth group band, Hillsong United, has released 13 live albums and 2 studio albums of their own. To say that’s a lot of new songs is a bit of an understatement.

God Is Able is Hillsong LIVE’s 20th album and is in many ways more of the same for this worship group. There are the usual emotional, slow songs like “Unending Love” and “Cry of the Broken” and upbeat rockers like “Rise” and “The Difference”. Ultimately, standouts like “God Is Able” and “With Us” will be picked up by churches around the world while many of the others will be left behind. The musical formulas present in these songs are far from transparent on this album. Everything from the structure and instrumentation to the chord progressions and melodies of these songs come from is to be expected in worship music. In fact, with each album of songs these formulas become more engrained in the music. The stadium-sized, Brit-rock style of Hillsong is so apparent and distinct that its characteristics and idiosyncrasies have become the dominant style of Contemporary Christian worship (especially among youth-oriented churches).

These song formulas are an easy place for both Christians and non-Christians alike to criticize the music of Hillsong and many similar worship bands. To a certain extent I agree with a lot of the criticism. Because of my opinion that the music itself is as important to a song’s worshipful function as the lyrics, the artistic direction of worship music is a serious concern of mine. Should the new song we should be singing to the Lord be one of artistic integrity or one of rehashed musical tendencies and tired lyrical devices?

While I don’t know the answer to that question, there are a few things I would say. First of all, check out the psalms. This beautiful collection of music and poetry is full of repetition and keyword God descriptors. Secondly, it’s important not to forget where these formulas and styles come from. Any music that lifts our souls and emotions and pulls us toward God can never be without its own set of particular musical triggers and styles. Whether its a certain chord progression or places where drums cut out or build up, its only once our relationship with God become dependent on the triggers and styles themselves is there room for warning.

God is Able is a predictably good followup to Hillsong’s consistent track record of albums. While the songs of the record are rather unchanged, they still work and Hillsong is still doing what they do best: churning out albums of songs made for corporate worship that call the Church at wide to praising God.

About Luke Larsen

Luke Larsen is a freelance writer, music lover, and indie game enthusiast hailing from the Great Northwest. His writing has been featured in publications such as Paste, RELEVANT, GameChurch, and Prefix. You can find him tweeting at @lalarsen11.

  • Matt

    Criticizing “worship music” is definitely a tricky undertaking. Let’s take “Friend Of God”, an older song covered by many bands/artists.

    Is it repetitive? yes.

    Is it particularly inventive with its chord progressions, song structure, or other devices? nope.

    As a work of art, “Friend of God” doesn’t do much for me. But as a vehicle for expressing the wonder of a God who desires a relationship with me–it’s incredible. I can sing the repetitive chorus over and over with joy.

    But I don’t play the song much on my iPod. I critique the song on multiple levels and I think that’s okay.

  • http://www.rendtheheavens.com Aaron

    I share some of your same feelings Luke… Hillsong stuff: Predictable? Yep. Repetitive? Yep. But… is it sincere? Yep. Do they pull it off? You bet they do. I’ve always maintained that nothing is cheesy or cliche if you really mean it, from your heart. I think what makes something manipulative or cliche is when people rely on formula to accomplish worship… as you mentioned in your post.

    Where it gets tricky is when it comes to our own hearts. I have to confess that I have been cut to the heart, totally convicted at times, when listening to bands like Radiohead, or Sigur Ros… where musically things are so thought out, so complex, so brilliant, so beautiful… I think to myself “Why am I not writing songs like this?” One of the most haunting memories I have is of when I was driving down the road in Nashville, listening to Christian radio, and I said out loud “This is SOOOO cheesy. This is SOOOOO overdone. This is SOOOO insincere.” And almost immediately, I felt like God spoke to me and said, “Oh yeah? Well then make something better.” In my life I’ve found it’s so easy to criticize, but it’s a lot harder to come back with an answer… with something “better”. And really, the best criticism of something is the practice of the opposite. The “positive” criticism.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts!

  • http://thefeedbackloopmusic.blogspot.com/ Luke Larsen

    Aaron,
    Totally agree. But if we all agree with the idea that one genre of music is more God-filled than another is absurd, where does that leave us as a Church who seeks to worship God?

    At times I find Hillsong so straightforward and formulaic that I am turned off from worship or even a bit depressed over modern Christian art. But where do I quite often turn when I am desperate to lay my life before God in worship? Its usually to songs like “Stronger” and “Hosanna”. But that’s just me.

  • http://www.rendtheheavens.com Aaron

    Luke,
    Right… that’s I think where it comes down to a personal challenge for me, really. The sincerity and the passion in Hillsong is what I’m attracted to. I think people will always be drawn to sincerity and passion. And I use their songs in church for corporate worship because they do a great job of being authentic and passionate, but also writing catchy pop melodies that people can learn really quickly.

    But there are other emotions, other experiences, other avenues of worship that I don’t think we’ve even touched yet, that could really be powerful and meaningfully expressed through different music. This is what I feel when I listen to Radiohead that convicts me. There’s a sadness there… a yearning, something deep inside, something not quite fully realized, not quite understood… there is confusion, there is chaos, there is pain. I have to think these were some of the things Jesus was feeling, in the garden of Gethsemene, for example. Or what Peter was feeling, when he denied Jesus. I resonate with these experiences, and they draw me to Christ in a different way… in a way that wants to understand Him in His pain, wants to sit at the foot of the cross, wants to dive into the gospel… It’s what I feel, when I knowingly sin. Is there room for this kind of emotion, this kind of “worship” in church? I hope so!

  • http://www.rendtheheavens.com Aaron

    And just to reiterate: I love what Hillsong is doing. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

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