The plugged-in revolution

woodysguitarWriting in the May edition of Touchstone magazine, senior editor S.M. Hutchens sees all sorts of dangers in contemporary church services that emphasize performers and egocentric lyrics. Hutchens begins his essay, “Please Me, O Lord,” by describing what he witnessed during his return to an evangelical congregation:

On a recent visit to a fairly typical Evangelical church, we were treated to one of its regular features. A handsome young woman, attractively dressed, stood before the congregation with an eight-inch microphone, the head of which she held gently to her lips while she writhed and cooed a song in which she, with closed eyes and beckoning gestures, begged Jesus, as she worked her way toward its climax, to come fill her emptiness. The crowd liked it.

Kenneth Tanner, a friend of this blog commenting on the post “When bad music happens to a good God,” made a similar critique when he cited Marie Barnett’s “Breathe” as “perfectly awful” and “a classic of the new erotic-worship genre.”

Jim Remsen explores the theological tensions of worship wars in a recent feature story for Knight Ridder Newspapers. Remsen mentions the book Give Praise to God, which the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals is using to promote a more systematic approach to worship.

Remsen offers two witty summary paragraphs that get to the heart of the debate:

The alliance extols the approach of the late Rev. James Montgomery Boice, who led Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia — and the alliance — until his death from cancer in 2000. Steady as a metronome, Boice took his worshippers through: call to worship; doxology; psalm reading and responsive song; creedal confession; (lengthy) pastoral prayer; Scripture reading with pastoral explanation; offertory; singing of “the great hymns of the faith” (often derived from psalms); long sermon of “systematic expository preaching” through the books of the Bible; hymn; benediction.

In the feud often called “the worship wars,” critics have called regulative worship outdated, puritanical and chilly as the northern European climes that nurtured it. Michael Horton, an alliance leader, counters that it is “logocentric and theocentric,” whereas much current worship bespeaks consumerism, marketing and “a modern therapeutic orientation in its preaching, liturgy and music.”

In an essay distributed by the alliance, church musician Leonard Payton offers an incisive list of 11 factors for identifying the “worship and praise choruses” that often draw large congregations but also agitate many Christians who long for lyrical depth:

These marks might be 1) small, guitar-based chord vocabulary; 2) slow rate of chord change rather than one chord per melody note; 3) performance by a “worship team,” i.e., several people in front of the congregation leading at the same time; 4) lyrics without multiple stanzas; 5) lyrics that predominantly emphasize the subjective experience; 6) lyrics that can fit on a single overhead folio; 7) a visible claim of copyright; 8) lyrics that speak to God vaguely without a lot of cumbersome detail about his attributes or actions; 9) repetition of the song within the service; 10) people in the congregation closing their eyes, raising their hands, and gently swaying to the music; 11) an induced state of “worshipfulness,” etc., in short, an overall music package that is rather strongly indexed to commercial, American popular music of the last three decades. (In the most extreme cases, some worship services are merely sanitized rock concerts, i.e., no foul language and no cloud of marijuana smoke up at the ceiling.)

Payton’s essay is most striking because of the daring solution he proposes:

In some sense, the minister needs to become a musician and poet. I would add quickly that we are not necessarily talking about years of piano lessons or about aping popular music. No, the post-worship-wars-minister of the Word will be able to write poetry intended for the congregation’s use, will be able to furnish the text with a melody intended for four generations to sing at the same time, and will be able to teach it to the congregation whether or not he has an instrument.

Back in 1999, Michael Hamilton wrote a worship wars cover story for Christianity Today (archive subscription required for full article). In that report, Hamilton mentioned a United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., that offers such baby-boomer comfort quilts as the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” and a new “Amazing Grace” set to the tune of the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

Thousands of churches across the nation are making similar musical choices, and to report on it is to step into a river of passions.

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  • dw

    Hutchens, I think, goes a little too far with the “feminization” argument, but he’s right on in a number of areas.

    I’m happy that we’ve been able to keep 1-2 hymns, sung from the book, in the service. There have been some very heated conversations within my little church (OK, we’re not little anymore, not since we crossed 500 in membership two years ago) between the P&W lovers and the hymnal lovers. I’m pretty firmly in the hymnal camp. I want depth and poetry in my music. The P&W people, though, are passionate about their Matt Redman tapes and Maranatha CDs, and they just can’t agree with the hymn people on anything. That’s why I’m amazed we’ve been able to at least keep 1-2 hymns in the service.

    I had an epiphany about the same time the church bought new hymnals. We were meeting to pare down to which books the church should buy, and after a lot of flowery language about praise songs and overheads I snapped, “Look, why don’t we just dump the hymnals altogether? It’s obvious we don’t need them since we don’t sing anything written before the First Bush administration. Let’s save our money and get some transparencies and be done with it.” After a few seconds of awkward silence, I was informed that we had to buy the hymnals to procure the CCLI permissions for the praise songs. That’s when it sank in — this is less a debate about music and more a debate about the changing nature of music in a post-modernist culture. Hymns are a corporal music form; we sing them, together, from book or from memory. They’re like “standards” or Broadway show tunes, where you get a piano and a couple of beers in Dad and pretty soon the whole family is singing every song from Oklahoma or My Fair Lady. Praise songs are a personal music form; we listen to them, personally, and we react and emote alone. They are performance-based, just as rock music was and still is. I mean, try getting the whole family around the piano to sing “Enter Sandman” or anything Limp Bizkit’s ever put out.

    What I’m trying to say is that the P&W vs. hymn debate is a contentious battle within Christianity, but it’s also a small skirmish within the greater war between modernism and post-modernism. However, I get the sense that in 100 years Christians will look upon this self-centered P&W music the way modern Christians look upon Sankey hymns of the Victorian era. They’re quaint, of the era, and won’t merit more than a couple of mentions in the hymnals. Count the number of times you see Ira Sankey’s name in your church’s hymnal and you’ll see what I mean.

  • Lee Anne Millinger

    Boice’s strict liturgy followed by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals has one glaring omission, to my mind. While it is definitely logocentric, it lacks theocentrism because there is no room for the Lord’s Supper. One of the trends of the “emerging” church movement is a return by Protestants to more frequent, even weekly, celebration of the Eucharist. Boice’s liturgy gives the appearance, at least, of neglecting the sacraments, something that would make even Calvin wince.

  • Dave Watson

    Just a rejoinder to Lee Anne Millinger’s comment – Some leaders of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (like Michael Horton) do advocate weekly communion (Horton was first ordained – or at least studied – I believe – at Reformed Episcopal Seminary – He’s now a member of the United Reformed Churches of North America – a federation of churches – most of which have left the Christian Reformed Church) – John Calvin promoted weekly communion too. I believe that Tenth Presbyterian – the late J.M. Boice’s church – has an early service at which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated weekly.

  • Lee Anne Millinger

    Dave, thanks for the clarification!

  • Rick Jensen

    It’s really fascinating – I’m a worship leader at a Presbyterian church in Seattle, and what we are finding is the people here, the post-modern/post-christian culture, are really turning away from the CCM approach. They value the organic, the natural, the beautiful and thoughtful – and they find it in the old liturgies and old hymns.

    At our church the service is liturgical, drawn from many sources; the whole service is about what God has done, and our response to it. We sing lots of old hymns, typically ones we have rewritten the music to (no, not “Amazing Grace” to an Eagles tune! You can check it out at the links below). We are very specific with liturgy, explaining it as it happens, making sure music is not the focus; we stand off to one side, no one is in the center but the word (pulpit) and the table (we have communion each week).

    People from contemporary & traditional backgrounds shake their heads and leave when it doesn’t live up to their expectations.

    But the pagans stay and hear the gospel and become believers.


    Rick J

  • scottie

    DW, Hymns aren’t the only “standards”. I have been in Vineyard churches for that last ten years, and some of the praise choruses are the new standards. Our church has a bonfire every labor day, and we sit around with a few acoustic guitars and sing songs all night long that we know from memory. I’d say those are classic standards if everyone can sing them without an overhead or powerpoint.

    There is also another word that is two edged, but we can’t ignore, and that is “relevance”. Some of the old hymns were actually drinking songs or folk songs that were rewritten for their time. In the 1700′s, these songs were relevant. The message in these songs is still relevant, but the music behind these songs is no longer relevant. There is a need for new songs to be written. It is talked about in Psalms, about singing a new song unto the Lord. These new songs need to be written in a form that is relevant to the generations that worships God with song.

    I also want to respond to the comment about praise songs being “performance-based”. This is simply not a true statement. First of all, I’ve seen plenty of hymns sung or played in churches where it was totally a “performance”. The pastor or pianist are going to town and showing off their mad singing and playing skills. The type of music has little to do with performance. Secondly, I’ve seen praise choruses sung acopella where the worship leader has litterally walked off and the congregation sings on and on. I have never seen that happen in a traditional worship service where hymns were the only form of worship music.

    To finalize my comments, I want to say that I love the hymns. Some of them have incredible lyrical depth (some are just wordy, though) that say things in ways that can never be improved on. Songs like How Great Though Art, The Woundrous Cross, Amazing Grace, can hardly be bettered. Oh and one other thing about self-centered songs. Isn’t Amazing Grace a self-centered song?

  • Canon Glenn Davis

    I am troubled by Stephens M. Hutchens’ essay, `Please Me O’ Lord` ( published in the May 2004 (Vol.17, no. 4). In his Touchstone essays, Hutchens’ consistently criticizes Evangelicalism. He even holds Johann Eck and Desiderius Erasmus in high esteem–which explains his belief that faith and works are required for salvation. It is my observation that Hutchens maintains a general dislike for the Reformation and for Evangelical theology in particular.

    It is difficult to refute Hutchens’ essay, not because of sound argument and content but because he makes vast leaps in logic. First, he confesses his temptation to sexual lust by the singing performance of a young lady at an Evangelical church. `It did, perhaps, bring me closer to Jesus, but by bringing me closer to the sinfulness of my own heart, the kind of heart that would be excited to lust by a pretty woman begging to be filled….` Was that her fault or his? The Church Catholic has a long and varied tradition of worshiping the Lord with both head and heart. The words of our precious Savior in John 4:23 affirm that we should worship the Lord in `spirit and truth.` Some academics stress the intellectual exercise of worship over against the emotional, but in Biblical worship the mind, body, will and emotions are engaged in the adoration and exaltation of God. A recently published anthology, For All the Saints edited by Dr. Timothy George, summarized worship spirituality, `Spirituality is about the whole person. Not the mind alone, nor the emotions alone.` (Jonathan Edwards’ book, *Religious Affections*, is the seminal book on this subject.) As the Psalms contemplate the attributes and character of Yahweh they respond in rapturous praise of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

    Second, Hutchens observed that the singer’s husband supported her ministry and from that Hutchens deduces that the Evangelical home is feminized. He states, `One can only account for these displays by Christian wives and daughters by the unquestioned acceptance in Christian homes of feminist assumptions about obedience not owed to husbands and fathers.` A wife sings with great passion calling out to Christ, her husband observes her commitment to Christ and blesses her, and that is wrong. I don’t get it. In what way did the husband capitulate his role as male head of the family? At times our female worship leader at Lamb of God is anointed by the Holy Spirit is so strongly during worship that others are lead into that divine romance between the bride (her) and our heavenly Bridegroom (Jesus). How has our worship leader’s husband given up his male headship by sitting admiringly a few feet away as his wife worships? Women are allowed to participate in ministry even though the government of the church is divinely delegated to men.

    I have found that when women are allowed to worship with both head and heart, they experience Christ intimately. When they love Christ more dearly, they are able to trust Christ more completely. When women are able to believe Christ thoroughly, they are able to submit to their husband’s leadership without reservation. Thus, heart and mind worship does not lead women to be independent from their husbands; on the contrary, it develops a greater degree of submission. Submission defined is the voluntary yielding of the heart to the authority of Christ in another person (Eph. 5:21-22). Genuine worship develops a yielded and submitted heart in all of us.

    Third, Hutchens implies that this sexualized, feminized worship and belief is typical of the complete Evangelical tradition. How can he conclude that all Evangelical churches are dominated by female thinking and leadership? I attended an Evangelical seminary, I substitute teach at an Evangelical high school, I visit Evangelical churches, and my parish is Evangelical Catholic. I do not observe what Hutchens is decrying in these settings. True, there is an egalitarian movement within Evangelicalism, but it is not affecting all churches. Hutchens condemns Evangelical tradition as hopelessly mired in its own presuppositions. `The young woman displaying herself before the faithful with her sexualized–and hence secularized–religion is not simply an example of unfortunate excess, but, I believe, a symbol of a whole tradition (emphasis mine) gone awry, caught now in the glaring intensification of what it was in its beginning . . . .` Thus, Hutchens asserts that the complete Evangelical tradition is bankrupt and is therefore an illegitimate expression of the New Testament church.

    Now, we have gone full circle. Hutchens’ disapproves of Evangelicalism; he sees a woman singing, and concludes that everything wrong in that picture (if it was wrong) was brought on by the Reformation and the Evangelical Awakening of the 18th century. This essay is not about worship or families or females, it is about Hutchens’ distaste for Evangelicalism.

    When I first became a presbyter in the ICCEC, Fr. Kenneth Tanner assisted me in understanding the Catholic worldview and imagination. Through conversations on the phone and lengthy emails, Fr. Kenneth drew me into the wonderful mindset of the Church Fathers. In many instances, Kenneth quoted S. M. Hutchens. Hutchens’ insights into the early church were personally helpful. But I am disappointed that Hutchens disregards the Evangelical tradition that I love so dearly. So even though I find this essay lacking, I do not dismiss his writings entirely.

    Christus Victor,

    Canon Glenn

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