Why Good Church Music Is So Hard to Find

Why Good Church Music Is So Hard to Find August 1, 2012

Worship Week continues on Bill in the Blank at Patheos with a post by Keith Guilford. You can connect with him on Twitter or leave a comment below.

This guest post is in response to Why I’ve Stopped Singing in Your Church:

The current American Evangelical culture seems to have become quite different than the secular American culture, but really the similarities are striking. While one culture might read books by famous pastors or TV evangelists and the other about 50 shades of light black, both are experiencing the same troubling problem of finding quality.

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Where has all the quality gone?

Quality is hard to find these days. Television is full of overnight celebrities that can’t act, sing, or dance. They are just famous for being famous. Modern Christian music is mostly repeated power chords copied from bad secular musicians and the lyrics usually repeat capitalized pronouns to the point of near torture. Television and music aren’t the only affected aspects of our culture. The Christian book stores are full of “fill in the blank” bible studies and the modern movies are mostly repeats of successful movies of the past or comic book remakes.

The upturn in consumption of media has produced more media, but not better media. More people are consuming more media in different ways than ever before. Some listen to church sermons on their mp3 players while working out, while others read blogs and books on their tablets during their train ride to work. Take a short walk down any urban street and notice how consumed people are with various forms of media.

Cashing in but missing out

This revelation has grabbed the attention of the companies that produce and market. To cash in on this new trend, they have taken to producing more, but society lacks in numbers of talented individuals to produce these new movies, songs, and books.

The marketing of this media is a sort of hypnosis of the general population. A few famous people are payed to talk about or mention how much they like something, and suddenly we find a relatively unknown pastor at the top of the New York Times bestseller for a writing a book that does nothing but badly rehash 50 year old ideas from C.S. Lewis.

The marketing executives are preying on our laziness. They feed us quantity and disguise it as quality. Those of us that eat what we are given rather than finding quality of our own drink up the garbage as if it were fine wine. A lazy existence is one that reads the popular books and watches the popular movies because we think everybody else is doing it. Pretty soon we’ve eaten so much garbage that we can’t taste quality because our bellies are full of mediocre food.

Is church worship following the crowd?

There are numerous studies on social pressure, and this probably isn’t the place to dive into how we tend to copy what we see around us, but take into account the typical evangelical worship service. Think about how the most moved people all react to being moved by raising a hand. If this action were a real personal response to a feeling of movement, the actions would all differ as our experiences are all different.

Instead, we see a lazy action. We see a copy of someone else.

Many have recently complained about the music in churches being too simple or not having much quality, but the real problem isn’t the music. The problem is with the culture that produces the music. The continued promotion of mediocre musicians and the copying of the music has saturated the entire industry with cheesy lyrics and repeated samples from nursery rhymes. This is true in both secular and christian music, but probably more true in Christian music as it borrows heavily from itself as well as the secular world.

As Christians we must remain diligent about surrounding ourselves with quality in all ways. We must find a church that not only preaches quality, but puts it back into the community so it grows. The church must, once again, become the breeding ground for quality.

We must stop the lazy culture of copying before we can have better music, more fulfilling sermons, and ultimately a better relationship with God.

Do you agree with Keith that the degrading of quality in culture is to blame for mediocre church music? Do you even agree that church worship music has been degraded at all? Leave a comment here to share your opinion.

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  • Steve Wilburn

    While I would agree, to a certain extent, that the quality of musicianship and writing have taken a hit in the last half century (Bach and Shakespeare are probably rolling in their graves), I think Keith misses a very important reality that is the same today as it has been for hundreds of years.

    The truth is that mediocrity has always been the rule, not the exception, of artistic expression. For every Mozart there were dozens of other court composers who never wrote anything of lasting value. For every “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” there is an “In the Garden”. What the hymns have going for them is several centuries of vetting to allow the best to rise to the top.

    Today, as in all times, there is a great amount of artistic production going on in the church. For us it’s in the realm of contemporary worship songs. Most of these songs will be lost or forgotten in the next half century. Some will be remembered nostalgically as a remnant of a different time. And the few, very best will be preserved in the Church’s hymnody to be sung for years to come.

    The trick is, it takes all the bad writing to end up with the few gems that will serve the church in posterity. So while it’s easy to bash simplistic, low quality writing, it’s that writing that’s necessary to allow the great artistic expressions of worship to develop.

  • It’s not that complicated-
    We are a distracted society full of ourselves and too many calories to count. We have lost focus and find ourselves swimming in a pool of Kool-Aid and candy canes, way too much sugar and just enough mint to cover the smell of Vodka. We are empty and looking anywhere and to anyone to fill the abyss we hide deep inside.
    I wish this subject was about music or how well someone plays their instrument but it’s not. I wish it were about a new song or a new idea but we all know that’s not possible. The problem with worship is who we are worshiping. It’s not about how amazing the artist is or how beautiful the lyrics are. Worship is about the one who created art all together, it’s about the song we get to sing to our King, it about the lyrics of our heart lavished on our Savior.
    Who cares if we sing the same words over and over again, if the lyrics are sincere and move us to acknowledge exactly who God is? God is the creative mind behind it all every genius thought or line we take credit for was his idea in the first place. The angels sang one word and that one word said it all, “Holy Holy Holy!”
    Worship music is about the heart and leading people to connect with God in the spirit, it’s about honoring God not the vessel on stage. When we as Christians learn that a worship leaders job is to lead people into heartfelt, Holy Spirit lead worship then they will never have the time nor the want to pick apart a song or its lyrics. Selfishness not laziness is the reason our worship or music lacks life!
    We don’t need better musicians, songwriters or ideas we need better worshipers! My husband and are children, youth and college Pastors outside of Denver.We have young people with us that are ambitious, eager and incredibly talented. They work hard at their craft and I would do battle with them any day of the week. They are seekers and worshipers of God yet still they manage to be down to earth and relevant. A great song is written from a heart that has truly captured how great our God is.

  • Keith Guilford

    Thanks for commenting. You are correct that mediocre art far outweighs the good in terms of volume. I believe it always has. The problem with the evangelical culture today is that mediocre art is often passed off as good and thus prevents it from properly being vetted.

    The culture I speak of is one that seems to never participate in any vetting. Everything is promoted as good. I hear glowing reviews of almost every book in the Christian book store and all the music is termed “moving”.

    My theory on why this is taking place is tied to another trend in the culture. In recent years, the evangelical community has become a much nicer group of people (I don’t think meanness was ever pervasive, just the niceness was not as prevalent). Nearly every church is extremely welcoming and goes out of their way for members of the community as well as non-members. Walk in to a church for the first time, it is pretty impressive and I think a good trend.

    Also though, this “niceness” comes with a negative. We are too afraid to say something critical of anything Christian. It seems to me that Christian art is off limits when it comes to critical assessment. Just because something is Christian doesn’t mean it is good.

    If I were given a slot in the 4×200 Freestyle relay instead of Michael Phelps, for the soul reason of being a Christian, my three plus minute split would have cost the U.S. relay team a gold medal last night. My mediocre swimming skills do not belong in the pool with the best in the world. Critical examination of swimming speeds at the Olympic trials keeps swimmers like me out and is directly responsible for the improvements of swimming quality over the years. Had I swam last night in place of anyone on that team, we would never know the level of their greatness.

    Since there are no Olympic style trials for Christian songs, I think all who enjoy Christian music or books should take great care in what they promote because a little mediocrity dilutes the great by making it harder to recognize and enjoy.

    • Steve Wilburn

      I think those are some fair criticisms. Certainly in an age where technology allows anyone with the desire and a few bucks to publish a book or record an album it is far easier to saturate the market with mediocrity than before. Though I also think it’s interesting that in the midst of this cultural change there has been a backlash through shows like American Idol in which participants are told the raw, honest truth no matter how much it hurts. But, as you say, us Christians generally have the nice-bug so we’re not nearly as inclined to say that little johnny can’t sing his way out of a paper bag.

      And yet what has interested me in studying music and art history is that the vetting process I referred to happens almost outside the normal critical consciousness of any given society. Mozart was thought to be rather mediocre by some of his court patrons. He even lost an opera writing contest to his fellow Vienna composer Salieri (yup, that Salieri). It was only a generation later that his work was truly appreciated for its brilliance. Charles Wesley wrote hundreds of hymns for the early methodist church and yet we only use a handful of them today. It gives me great peace to know that it is history (perhaps providence is a better word), and not my own critical skills, that will deem what is worthy to be included in the worship repertoire of the church.

      That said, I should note that I am very discerning when it comes to the music I select for my own congregation to sing (did I mention I’m a Worship Director?). Some would say too discerning at times. Yet what always amazes me is how often I’ll know a songwriter or musician who writes music I find unusable, then come across something brilliant they wrote that I have to include. If they hadn’t written the mediocre, they would have never stumbled across the great.

      So to all artists, songwriters and musicians out there I say create, write, form as much as you can as often as you can. But know that just because you wrote something doesn’t mean I’m going to use it. And when you do write something great I’ll be waiting for it with open arms.

  • Dennis Lytle

    How can I contact Steve Wilburn and ask him to send me a list of some of “approved” songs?

    • Sorry, I don’t see reference to that name in this post. Can you clarify?