What did Chris Tomlin ever do to you? or: Why I criticize a worship superstar

What did Chris Tomlin ever do to you? or: Why I criticize a worship superstar February 17, 2015

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Opening Sentences

What did Chris Tomlin ever do to you? You seem to take shots at him in nearly every blog post. Great way to treat a brother in Christ whose music has reached millions worldwide and brought the gospel to those people. – Glenn


This post is brought to you by the Ponder Anew mailbag. Our friend Glenn here has apparently taken offense to my occasional use of Chris Tomlin’s music as examples of bad church music. And I hear things like this often. Usually, they are more general, like “I liked what you said until you started bashing contemporary worship!”

What Glenn and others like him seem to be implying is that we shouldn’t ever call out sincere, well-meaning believers with whom we disagree, especially when the numbers indicate that they are doing good things.

I respectfully disagree.

Call to Criticize

I think there are times when we have to speak up. After all, if we’re going to be about following the model of Jesus himself, well, public criticism was something he engaged in quite regularly. So did Paul and the apostles. Certainly, there are times when we shouldn’t criticize, but there are clearly times when it’s appropriate, even necessary, as long as it’s done in the best interest of all involved.

Specifically, I call out believers in the contemporary worship scene (and the trends they represent) because corporate worship is important. It’s so very important. It’s the unifying, visible act of the church. For myself and those of you who are with me, I think it’s high time we returned to thoughtful, candid criticism of the things happening in Christian worship today. Even if we’re unjustly accused of being bitter and resistant to change, we’ve got to make our voice heard. We’ve got to speak up.

Since our friend Glenn brought him up, let’s look specifically at Chris Tomlin. Here’s why I so often make examples out of his music.

Because his music isn’t for congregational singing. 

It’s true that Tomlin’s music isn’t very interesting or imaginative. But those things aside, it’s not well-suited for group singing.

For instance, let’s look at a few things going on in this video.

This song is written to fit his own voice. The refrain even goes up to a high G, outside the range of most voices. Transposing doesn’t help, since taking it down would pitch it too low. In fact, if you listen closely to this video, you can hear female audience members either switching between octaves throughout the song, frying the low pitches, or simply dropping out altogether.

Then there’s the problem of having the soloist “worship leader.” He’s not trying to set an example for a congregation. He’s singing this song as he would when making a commercial recording, melodic and rhythmic ad libs, affected vocal production.

Above all, his songs and the way they’re led doesn’t allow the collective congregational voice to shine through as the primary instrument of praise. Those in the audience are reduced to simply singing along if they feel like it, like they would sing along to the radio in the shower or car.

And if they stopped singing, it doesn’t appear that it would make a difference. The worship music show would go on as long as Chris Tomlin’s voice held out.

Because he writes poor texts.

I’m frankly surprised we haven’t made a bigger deal out of this. With poor rhyming, mixed metaphor, and non-sequitur, Chris Tomlin is seemingly incapable of writing good poetry.

And like a flood His mercy rains

He wraps himself in Light, and darkness tries to hide…

And if our God is for us, then what could stand against…

I will rise on eagles’ wings / Before my God fall on my knees…

Theologically, many of his songs are not even identifiably Christian. And those that are, at least nominally so, don’t actually develop theologically beyond some mismatched imagery.

We need to be choosing texts for our congregation that are well developed, that teach, that edify, that will last, that will do them good to learn and internalize. Most of all, as we weekly reenact the Christian drama in corporate worship, we must choose texts that clearly set the gospel and its outworking in singable form.

I just don’t think Chris Tomlin doesn’t write texts that are good enough for a church that is committed to singing its faith. It’s okay to criticize them. It’s a serious issue. We’re talking about worship in the church, not a grade-school poetry exercise. We’ve got to choose well.

Because he is a worship superstar.

What is Chris Tomlin? Is he a recording artist? Performer? Worship leader? The answer to all is “yes,” apparently. He’s a big deal, probably the biggest deal in the so-called “worship industry” today.

One of the things we’re seeing these days in mainstream evangelicalism (And be warned! It’s starting to brew in mainline traditions, too!) is the celebrity minister, mostly pastors and “worship leaders.” These guys (and they’re always guys, with rare exceptions) develop these huge followings, with devoted fans, best-selling books, t-shirts, recording contracts, you know, the whole deal.

And like the headliners of a blockbuster movie, they are the draw. They’re the ones getting paid the big bucks. They’re the ones selling tickets and getting butts in the seats.

Chris Tomlin is a star. A rock star. Maybe the biggest rock star among a growing number of evangelical celebrities. And there are (seemingly) a million other guys who get butts in the stadium-style seats by emulating their brightest star. That’s become the thing to do.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the things we do in worship should be deeply considered, thoroughly rehearsed, and rich with meaning. I think it’s great when pastors write good books and church music programs develop a reputation for excellence. But I don’t want people coming to see an ego, a celebrity, a superstar. I certainly don’t want them to see my personality shining through. I want them to see the culmination of the Christian story in Christ himself.

This conflation of corporate worship and celebrity simply needs to stop.

And what makes him a superstar in the first place? It’s his recorded music, which sells to the masses, much like McDonald’s food or Wal-Mart particle board furniture. You know, the stuff that you buy because it’s cheap and easy, but in the end, it doesn’t satisfy, it doesn’t hold, it doesn’t last.

An Oppositional Offertory

It’s not that I just don’t like the guy. I actually met him once at youth camp when I was in seventh grade, and before he hit it big. If my initial opinions of him are still accurate, he’s a kind and sincere person, and I’m sure he’s trying his best at his current gig. But even if he’s a real prince, we are under no obligation to affirm his work as suitable for Christian worship.

Yes, there are times when we must speak up, must criticize, must plead with our fellow believers in all traditions to reconsider how they’re going about their kingdom work.

And I think this is one of those times.

Don’t agree? That’s fine, but it’s a conversation we have to have.

There is far too much at stake.315938096_9fde65e231_o

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  • Kenny

    I think we can agree to disagree on some points. I do agree that Chris Tomlin’s music is more performance than worship.

    As a soloist, I enjoy singing some of his songs, but as solo songs, not as praise choruses.

    Regarding your critique of his lyrics, etc. – “different strokes for different folks” is probably the best ideal here. Many of the same critiques could be used in the pop music industry today. But it sells. Big time.

    I lean toward your side on this one. It’s not leading praise, it’s singing to an audience.

    But he’s a talented singer.

    • Jonathan

      That’s all fair, Kenny. I would say that the only situation I could ever see using one of his songs was if I was serving a non-liturgical or pseudo-liturgical church and it was to be a solo. For instance, I have occasionally let kids sing pretty contemporary songs, as long as they use live accompaniment, usually piano, and sing it themselves.

      Good comments. Thanks.

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  • Dave

    The very idea of anyone being referred to as a “worship superstar” is revolting to me. If we don’t worship the Father, because of the work (sacrifice) of the Son, as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, then let’s just stay home – from church, these concerts and everything that focuses on a “superstar”. Just stay home.

  • “Yes, there are times when we must speak up, must criticize, must plead with our fellow believers in all traditions to reconsider how they’re going about their kingdom work.

    And I think this is one of those times.”

    Well I agree – this is one of those times, because I think you ought to reconsider how you go about your kingdom work. IMO, the positive encouragements you make in regards to thinking theologically about corporate worship are squandered by tearing down those who don’t fit your aesthetic preferences.

    I think you are mistakenly taking performances (i.e. recordings) and assuming that this is also what regular Sunday mornings looks like for those who use the songs, but that simply isn’t the case. And putting aside your subjective dislike of his poetry, the fact remains that many of his songs are easily transposed into congregational-friendly keys, and people can and do sing along. Like it or not, millennials are fluent in the genre of pop.

    • Jonathan

      It’s about meaning, not preference.

      And you’d probably be surprised how much I know about millennials. I am one, after all. I myself am “fluent in the genre of pop.” As a matter of fact, popular songs have marked some of the best times of my life. I remember being a teen in the 90s and listening to “Someday” by Sugar Ray all those times at the lake. I remember being sick in love and listening to “Crazy for this Girl” about 13 million times on my Sony Discman. I remember the first place I ever drove myseIf was to Warehouse Music, where I bought a Stroke 9 CD. I sang closing time in Karaoke one time. I go back a ways, too. I do a killer Sinatra impression. I ought to share it with you sometime.

      But I never thought it strange that those idioms were absent from church.

      Then again, my dad’s generation was fluent in their own music, too. When my dad was in high school and college in the mid to late 1960s, if his LP collection is any indication, he was listening to the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and Glen Campbell. That was for listening. But on Sunday, he had a different music with a different aesthetic for a different setting. There was no disconnect there.

      Something to consider. Thanks for chiming in again.

      • Thanks for your reply, Jonathan.

        I think you’re right that there should be no disconnect. But what is for one context a disconnect is the opposite in another context.

        As I see it, and mentioned in a comment below, we are being mistakenly ethno-centric if we think that there is one particular style of music which is appropriate to all times and cultures. The gospel transcends culture (i.e. it doesn’t expect to wear certain garments, eat certain food, speak a certain language). Even Paul’s call to worship in Col 3:16 involves a variety of genres. Some of the Psalms are long and deep, others are incredible short and simple. Some are repetitious, some are not. (Hymnody is musically very simple in comparison to the Händel I’m rehearsing right now!). The point is that the various types of songs come from being filled with the word of Christ, and are sung to edify one another.

        What I see, is that you are, in fact, conflating meaning and preference. I absolutely agree that we need to be thoughtful, that we need to prioritise the congregational voice, that we need songs which deeply and beautifully help us sing the gospel. But I think you’re wrong to discount entire genres of music as being able to accomplish this. And I think you’re demonstrably wrong to say that CCM songs like those of Tomlin are inherently unsingable. Come to my church – I can demonstrate that this is not the case.

        We can point at bad examples from CCM, and from Hymnody, but that ought not discount the good examples or good practice of either. There are pitfalls to every genre, for sure, but I don’t think they are insurmountable in either Hymnody or CCM (or folk, or gospel, or traditional Islander music or…..).

        If your local context doesn’t resonate with CCM, fine.. Mine does. It doesn’t resonate with Hymnody so well (sadly, as I enjoy it) because of particular cultural factors which ought to be taken into consideration. It would be detrimental to congregational singing to abandon CCM in our context, so we need to be aware of the pitfalls of the genre, and seek to prioritise the congregational voice, and choose (write!) songs which marinate in the gospel.

        So my point, which I hope you will consider, is that your good and right encouragements such as those I just mentioned are what you should focus on – these transcend musical genres. Unless you just want to be preaching to the choir (pun intended) by alienating people through focussing on genre preferences or critique.

        What is more important to you: that people sing hymns, or that, whatever the musical genre or cultural context, the gospel is congregationally sung?

        • Jonathan

          You make some good points, and thank you for doing so graciously. I’ll let most of it stand, but I want to make a few points in response.

          1. Traditional worship is not a “style,” nor does it make use of only one style of music, though some single congregations might. That’s not what I’m advocating here, nor do I think it’s particularly helpful. The difference, I think, is in the level of artistry. Art music (maybe not the best term, but it’s helpful here, at least for me) incorporates a vast realm of culture and style. On the other hand, commercial music, though we’ve categorized it in several different genres, is a much less diverse thing.

          2. It’s not as much a cultural issue as we’ve made it out to be. In all the places I’ve served and attended, which for my adult life have all been traditional in some sense, there has been a broad demographic representation, honestly much higher than I found in the contemporary circles I grew up in. Race, education, economic status, age – it doesn’t matter. The idea that we can’t expect certain contexts to understand traditional worship is simply not true. Now, if they’ve never been exposed to it, and it’s never been expected of them, it’s not a change that will happen overnight, but certainly corporate worship should lift us out of the mundane. The fact that it’s not as easy shouldn’t stop us. Speaking about age specifically, the fact that there are so many successful school music programs should tell us that young people are quite capable of understanding and achieving this. I’ve seen young people of every stripe who are hungrily driven to traditional worship, because they’re desperately seeking boundaries and a reference point other than themselves and their culture. And that’s a very positive thing, I think.

          3. I wouldn’t say Tomlin is inherently unsingable, but again, it’s inherently impossible to sing together with any degree of accuracy. If you know the recording backward and forward, you can possibly do so, but then again, Tomlin doesn’t sing it here as he does on the recording. You get a different improvisation every time. Hymns, assuming we have printed music (which is also not so freaking hard to follow as we make it out to be) give you the same thing every time, save tempo. They are meant to be sung as a congregation.

          • Thanks Jonathan,

            I think point 3. is highly debatable and depends on the context. Besides, there exists notation for Tomlin & Co’s songs, and moreover, there are possibilities for music leaders to equip their congregations with resources which help them learn, both visually and aurally. Again, it comes down to cultural context (sorry, but I find even your definition of multi-culture to be still rather ethno-centric, I’m afraid). The congregation in my context has no problem learning songs by hearing them (and I tend to teach line by line if possible). There’s nothing inherently superior to learning music by reading it.

            Btw, if you’ve got a group of young people hungry for traditional worship – great, go for it! I’m not the one arguing for a binary position 😉

            But I suppose what I’m really interested to know is how you’re using the term ‘Traditional’ (and how it relates to ‘contemporary’) if you don’t mean it as a stylistic description? What would your wiki entry on ‘Traditional Worship’ read like?

            You’ve said ‘artistry’ vs ‘commercial’ but that doesn’t really clarify for me why you’re not talking about a stylistic or genre thing.

          • Btw, my question as to how you are using the term ‘traditional’ if not about a music style, is not rhetorical – If you’re using it differently then how I understand it, then it clearly lies at the heart of the matter, and I’m very keen to understand what you mean by the term.

            I think we actually agree on a lot of core issues, including the problems in appropriating commercial recordings wholesale (even if I think your solution is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater).

          • Jonathan

            Traditional refers to:

            1. Historic Christian liturgical worship, and its many derivatives, with the gathering, proclamation, thanksgiving, and sending.
            2. Whatever amounts to traditional in a particular denominational context. What Southern Baptists would consider traditional is much different than Episcopal, for instance.
            3. A vast, diverse continuum that is ongoing, not stuck in the past.

            Of course, there’s more to it than that, but those are the three things I think of when I use the word. Musically, one of the hallmarks of the traditional church is using traditional church instrumentation to accompany singing, but I stop short of committing to that. I do think the organ is an ideal instrument for the church, if it’s played sensitively.

          • Thanks Jonathan, that was a helpful clarification.

            I’m right with you that our gathered worship ought to allow us to enter into the redemption story via the historical, formative pattern of “gathering, proclamation, thanksgiving, and sending.”. And I would readily acknowledge that coming back to this pattern, even informally, is a much needed corrective for contexts which use contemporary music (and to reiterate my original comment, I think you’ll be more successful at making your point less about style and more about this – and actually be heard by those who need to hear it – if you didn’t tear down contemporary songwriters).

            It’s possible to be liturgically grounded and contemporary – I’ve experienced it.

            Thanks for the dialogue.

  • Dave

    Music is a tool to be use for a higher purpose. Music is NOT worship; it is a tool to be used in worship.

    • Brian

      Wrong. Music is not a tool, unless of course you are Hitler. He used it as a tool to manipulate. Stating music is a tool shows a profound lack of understanding about the fine arts in general, and raises a disturbing question as to what is not a “tool.” James Joyce rightly states that art used as a “tool” is pornographic.

  • Brian

    I do appreciate your comments, and yes, pretty much agree with all. But here is why people will violently oppose your opinion. They don’t care. They want what they want and be damned what anyone else says. Example: the growing body of clinical evidence against meat and meat product consumption AND the damning evidence against factory farming pretty much lays to rest any logical reason for that steak, chicken beast, bacon, or salmon. The science is on the side of vegetarians. But try to make that case to pretty much anyone. They simply don’t care.

    Not convinced? Listen to conservatives and their comments on global warming.

    They don’t care.

    We live in an entitlement culture. And to hell with the consequences.

    Don’t stop your “preaching.” More need to hear it. Just don’t be shocked by what good “Christians” will say and do.

  • James

    In fairness to Tomlin, ‘if our God is for us, what can stand against’ is a reference to Romans 8:31.

    • Rick

      Yep…it is pretty ironic that the closest thing to Scripture on this page were the very lyrics he was criticizing!! Not a shred of Scripture anywhere in sight.

      • Stan

        I don’t think “sewing” together various Scripture passages in an unthoughtful way, really accomplishes anything. I believe Jonathan’s point was that the text (whether quotes from Scripture or not) do not take us to a higher place in our understanding of who God is and how we are to live in God’s kingdom…there is no “path” upon which to go with that particular set of lyrics. It would be like a preacher rambling on and having the congregation flip from one verse in a particular book of the Bible and then switch to another one without any coherent, prophetic message. It just fills space and the congregation has nothing to take hold of. Chris’ use of these phrases does the same thing. Thanks, Jonathan for articulating your criticisms well.

        • James

          Stan, you’re right about that hypothetical sermon you are referring to. With no connectivity, such humbled thoughts would certainly be difficult for a listener.

          In this post, however, Jonathan utilized lines from various songs. These four lyrics were removed from their original context and critiqued. I’m not critiquing the critique. Such work is important!

          But like I said, to criticise the aforementioned ‘if our God is for us’, when it is actually a Scriptural verse, doesn’t do justice for Jonathan’s argument.

          • Stan

            I’m sure Jonathan will respond…at our church we take care in matching our worship music to Scriptures and the overarching theme/Festival Sunday. It takes a lot of thoughtful effort to “make sense” of what we accomplish in worship. By “accomplish” I mean the work we do as a congregation, choir, clergy, etc. in order to practice our faith principles so that when we go out into the world we are prepared to bear witness to God’s work in our lives and the lives of all in the world. I don’t have a particular “favorite” style of church music, but I do care very much for how all fits together in worship that is participatory in the best way that is possible. So, folks like us DO sort through musical choices very carefully and have standards of worth…life is too short to be haphazard in that regard.

      • Jonathan

        Why do I need to add proof-texts? That’s not honoring Holy Scripture, nor does it prove anything, and it can be dangerous. We can make the Bible say anything we want it to that way. That’s why we read, looking for what the text meant in its historical/grammatical context, and find the broad themes that arise.

        I like what N.T. Wright has to say about faithful biblical interpretation.

        “For too long we have read Scripture with 19th-century eyes and 16th-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first first-century eyes and 21st-century questions.”

        • Rick

          No one is asking for proof-texts that are yanked out of context! I’m just saying that all I see here is inflammatory, unsupported statements that are misrepresenting a brother and are disconnected from Scripture. It works great to fan the flame with those that are ignorant of Tomlin and his music (other than hearing the name and hearing a few measures of one song), but it misrepresents him.

          BTW, do you apply these same critiques to the authors of the hymns in your hymnbook?

          • Stan

            I don’t think any flames are being fanned here, but I do see dialogue/debate going on, even if it hasn’t moved in any particular direction. Jonathan is not attacking the person, but using examples of the person’s music to illustrate his points. He is doing very well with his position.

          • Jonathan

            I’m not misrepresenting. I’m calling it as I see it. There’s a difference.

            I did cite Jesus and the apostles If you’re looking for an ace-in-the-hole Bible verse, I can’t give it to you. It doesn’t exist. Instead of prescriptions, God gave (most of) us minds capable of thinking hard about these important things. Quoting verses in the hopes that it would “baptize” my opinion just doesn’t fly.

            And judging from the responses I’ve gotten so far, both pro and con, only a few of which have been as reactive as yours, it doesn’t appear most people find what I wrote to be inflammatory. They may disagree, but they aren’t reactive about it.

            Oh, and I would be interested if you could give me some examples of which hymn-writers are guilty of the same things as Tomlin? Other than some vapid old gospel songs that nobody really sings anymore (including me), I’m not sure who you’re thinking of.

          • Eric Kaelberer


            Obviously this post struck a chord with at least one person. That is good. All that you wrote is accurate, given in a spirit of Christian charity, and frankly, needed. The vapid nature of so much of what passes for “worship” today is frightening. There are many folks today who are what I label, “de-churched.” These folks still believe in God and even in Jesus, but the church is not for them. Too many rules and regulations, not enough true grace, too much of a theology of glory which leads me to have to aspire to be more like Jesus and not enough on how His incarnation, His coming in our flesh, yes, in His coming to take our sins upon His flesh (the Theology of the Cross), this emphasis on “me” and “now” often leaves eternity and eternal joy behind. On this Ash Wednesday I am even more aware of the disparity in worship types and the unintended consequences.

            Jonathan, you are doing the church at large a huge service with these posts, these comments, these questions. When you strike a nerve, praise the Lord… and thank you for the pastoral approach in response. God bless you.

    • Jonathan

      You’re right, James, and you’re right to say so. The issue is that he says, “…who can stand against?” Just to be sure, I checked all major Bible translations, and they all put “us” at the end of that sentence. He dangles the preposition for no apparent reason.

      • James


        I’m not a fan of dangling. In any circumstance! Which is why I appreciate that in the previous line he does end the question “What could stand against” with the word “us.”

        I’m not a member of the Chris Tomlin fan club. I don’t go to his concerts. But I certainly enjoy some of his songs. As far as their sing-ability in corporate worship, the few thousand voices singing with him on this Amazing Grace rendition would disagree with the conclusion that these songs are not meant to be sung in chorus. You may be right about the shallow writing and musical inferiority of these songs. But these songs are meaningful to people. Millions sing these contemporary songs. While I would be inclined to favor Mozart’s Requiem or Vivaldi’s Gloria, Domine Fili Unigenite is my favorite piece of the movement, I can not discredit the reality that millions of today’s Christ followers connect with God through Tomlin’s music.

        I certainly have no intention of inciting any more tension than there already is. I recognize this is an incredibly important topic for you and for many others who so greatly appreciate music in the church.

    • Bob

      I believe it’s “if God be for us, who can be against us?”

      Slight differences, but they are differences.

  • Bruce Cornely

    One of the main detractions in worship these days is the performance personalities of “leaders.” Clergy have always been somewhat the central figure but now they seem to be competing with the others “on stage.” The “worship leader” who imposes his will on the congregation that they sing, and uses his voice as a big example for them to follow. Even the arm-waving song leader, the most non-essential of all on stage, waves vigorously to attract attention and blares their voice into the microphone. Congregations have sung without this kind of “leadership” deriving rhythm and tempo from the organ for HUNDREDS of years. The more people there are “on stage” the more distractions there are for the worshiper.

  • Margie Calderon

    Keep up the good work Jonathan. In my opinion you are correct about corporate worship. As you know, worship is the most attacked area of a ministry because it can bring down the presence of God like nothing else. May people continue to listen to your criticism and see it for what it really is. A continued call to stay true to the gospel and to Jesus Christ our Lord and savior.

    • “As you know, worship is the most attacked area of a ministry because it can bring down the presence of God like nothing else. ”

      No.. worship is the whole of life response to what God has done for us in Jesus, who through his once-for-all sacrifice has torn the curtain which separates us from God’s presence. Through Christ alone we have access to the throne room of God. When two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, God is already with us – we don’t need to sing the right songs to bring God’s presence down.

      “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:19-23 ESV)

  • Susan

    A scholar named John Stackhouse Jr. wrote two blog posts a few years ago about Chris Tomlin, and turning down the volume on Sunday mornings.

    If you’ve never read them, you may find them interesting. His argument is close to yours, and he continues to defend himself in the comments.

  • Anna

    I am struggling with this one. I don’t think Chris Tomlin would be particularly keen on being called a worship superstar and I don’t think he sees himself that way. Now personally I don’t gravitate toward much of his stuff, and I actively seek out highly meaningful music. I do however believe that Chris is doing the best he knows and that God is doing things through his ministry. But while you target specific people, you are on to personalities rather than content, which is something you then say not to focus on. You also run the risk of the ones who relate to his music being alienated and never seeking deeper worship if you create that divide. Not everyone is at the same stage of readiness. Philippians 4:8. Focus on what worship is, and what it isn’t will become abundantly obvious. I am all for seeking beautiful, well crafted, meaningful music for worship, not so much for the finger pointing.

    • Jonathan

      Anna, you bring up a good distinction. As I said, I think he’s doing the best he knows, and I think he’s genuine. He probably doesn’t see himself as a “worship superstar,” nor would he ask to be called that, I’m sure, but it’s hard to deny that’s what he’s become. And perhaps God is doing things through him. As it is with any of us, that says much more about grace than it does about the individual. But just because God might work through him doesn’t give him a pass. God can work through whoever God wills, but we are still accountable to make adjustments when necessary.

      • James

        Words being used here in reference to whether God is using Tomlin are “perhaps God is doing things through him” and “God might work through him.”

        So the question becomes, at least to me, is God being glorified through the music Chris Tomlin makes?

        I read this in your blog. Absolutely left me stunned. “I want them to see the culmination of the Christian story in Christ himself.” That’s a beautiful sentence. I get that you have a prophetic voice, crying from the wilderness, earnestly seeking that your readers would value rich theology + music. Or, at the least, get them to appreciate that the songs of our heritage required something more than a goatee’d guitar player plunking “G-C-D” chords to make them what they are today. But, seriously. The Kingdom may not need these blog posts of yours hammering away at Tomlin and whoever else is cool. The Kingdom needs you writing things that unburden my soul from the constant need to always be right and the constant need to tout my opinions.

        • Jonathan

          That’s fair enough, and thank you for the admonition. I think the kingdom needs the question of how we worship brought up in an endless conversation, which sometimes (not all the time) involves speaking up and naming names. That being said, I don’t write posts like this all the time, and perhaps I have mentioned C.T. enough for now.

          I certainly am not always right. I’m always in need of grace and mercy. But I hope there is always a nugget of truth.

          Is God being glorified in any of us at any time? That is the question. I certainly hope God is glorified in what I do, even when my humanness blinds me spiritually, even when I’m sick and tired. But I can always be better and reflect more clearly the divine within me.

          And if nothing else, at least I can say James Taylor has been commenting on my blog!

          • Stan

            when I hear badgering of a “prophetic voice” that is delivered through Jonathan I can only think of my visit to St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany two summers ago. It just so happened that the Sunday I attended worship there, the congregation and senior pastor commemorated the anniversary of the death of J. S. Bach. Bach was one sorry, badgered church musician by the clergy and town council of his day for being “out of touch” with the melodramatic pietism that was so prevalent in 18th century Germany. But, yet, whose grave sits at the edge of the chancel (“heaven” in symbolic/theological terms)? Whose statue resides outside the church on the plaza? Whose name is called upon by the successor clergy in the 21st century? Is it one or more of those clergyman who badgered J. S. Bach? No, it is J. S. Bach himself. Sometimes it takes a couple of generations for the “dust to settle” and for discourse to settle over issues such as appropriate worship music. If I were a betting man, I would say the likes of Jonathan and his viewpoints would parallel the likes of someone like J. S. Bach, who even the clergy now understand the gravity of the issues he struggled with and give great thanks for the willingness of prophetic voices to “stir the pot” when the pot definitely needs to be stirred. Keep up the good work, Jonathan! Hallelujah, Amen!

      • Anna

        I agree, it doesn’t give him a pass, and I would be all for encouraging him to go a little deeper, and we certainly need to take responsibility for the music we choose to use. I admit, I don’t use a lot of his stuff, but I have people in the congregation who love him. But this conversation takes time and I would rather step them through an exploration of worship, than explaining why I am not putting his songs in high rotation. We can speak truth and still be a stumbling block to others. Balancing the dynamic of acting and speaking with love, and seeking the best possible music with which to honour our God is one we continually need to find I guess..

        I do appreciate your thoughts and willingness to have the conversation

  • There is a difference between criticizing the man and criticizing his work — in this case Mr. Tomlin’s lyrics. Jonathan makes very clear that he is not doubting the Mr. Tomlin loves Jesus. He is calling Mr. Tomlin to work to a higher standard. More importantly, he is calling churches to a higher standard. Not as a matter of law, but as a matter of love. If worship is indeed a sacrifice of praise, why would we think it okay not to offer the best that we have?

    Nor can you really dismiss Jonathan’s critique by simply waving your hand and saying that “well, it is all subjective” as if that settles it. Jonathan’s whole point is that this is NOT merely a matter of taste. It is a matter of gospel witness. What sort of gospel are we proclaiming? We must be willing to ask ourselves the hard questions.

    Marshal Macluhan was onto something when he stated that “the medium is the message.” Singing together as a congregation is a theological statement. The choice of music that actually fosters such singing is an invitation to proclaiming a gospel that believes that we are “atoned into a community” (to quote Scot McKnight), not merely offered a one-on-one personal relationship with Jesus.

    Let’s be brave enough to listen to what Jonathan says and ask ourselves the hard questions he poses.

    • Jonathan

      Excellent comment, Dave. Thank you.

    • “Singing together as a congregation is a theological statement. The choice of music that actually fosters such singing is an invitation to proclaiming a gospel that believes that we are “atoned into a community” (to quote Scot McKnight), not merely offered a one-on-one personal relationship with Jesus.”

      Right. However, the kind of music which fosters such singing is culturally bound (the gospel, after all, transcends culture). There is no one single genre of music which applies across time and culture as ‘the’ appropriate style. What we need to be doing is finding those genres which naturally resonate with our local context and seek to appropriate it in order to facilitate congregational singing of the gospel. For many in the west (and elsewhere indeed) the simple harmonic structure of pop-rock, and contemporary fluency with said genre, makes it more helpful for fostering congregational singing than C19th four-part choral singing. In other contexts the opposite is going to be true.

      • Stan

        I would strongly disagree with what you posit. Maybe people readily “recognize” those styles of music, but in terms of engaging in corporate singing, apart from the finest sacred poetry one can create, mostly non-syncopated, whole, half, quarter, eighth notes (and dotted components to them) with a natural rising and falling of melody in a range for an average voice are the best ways to engage congregational singing. Think of the simple, yet profound folk tune “New Britain” which most people sing the hymn “Amazing Grace” to. It has a beautifully and predictable rise and fall of the melody line and a predictable rhythm with no syncopation. This type of melody is a great model for singable congregational song. This text and tune has been around for hundreds of years and will still be around for hundreds of years to come. Why? Because they are compelling, interesting, and accessible.

        • Stan, I’ve no doubt that in your context, that is true. It’s culturally what you’re adjusted to. If you visited my context, however, I would demonstrate that people can and do easily engage with contemporary styles (which may or may not involve syncopation) as well. In other cultural contexts, it will be different again. There is no one-size-fits-all.

          I’m not arguing against hymnody (which is not always as simple as you describe) – I’m just saying that the arguments against contemporary music are unwarranted, and the principles we all agree on can apply to both hymnody and contemporary music.

          (btw, I’m a professional classical musician.. and a lover hymnody)

          • Stan

            Yes, I gathered you are a professional musician. Congregations sing/engage in worship best when there aren’t barriers in their way. Keeping melodic and rhythmic structures predictable and simple with rhyming poetry that is prophetic, profound, long-lasting is key breaking down the barriers for engagement, not complex or unpredictable structures.

          • “Congregations sing/engage in worship best when there aren’t barriers in their way. Keeping melodic and rhythmic structures predictable and simple with rhyming poetry that is prophetic, profound, long-lasting is key breaking down the barriers for engagement, not complex or unpredictable structures.”

            I absolutely agree.

            It also sounds like a lot of songs in the contemporary worship genre. 😉

          • Stan

            not “a lot” by my experience, but folk-like contemporary music with words by those such as Brian Wren, certainly!

          • Stan

            Andrew, I should also invite you to the AGO West Region Convention June 28-July 2 here in “paradise” (San Diego). C. Michael Hawn from SMU will be presenting on “global” worship music and from his fairly new book, “New Songs of Celebration Render.” This book looks at the “seven streams” of contemporary worship music. He will also lead a “global” music worship service. You will get lots of wonderful ideas to bring back to your congregation. Google “AGO West Convention 2015” and you will get the link to our convention website.

          • Thanks – I’d love to come, but sadly on the wrong continent.

            A global perspective is great, because it confronts us with our own prejudices.

            Fwiw, we have an up-tempo, guitar-driven song I wrote (with simple enough rhythm, melody and harmonic structure) which our congregation enjoys singing, and it incorporates a declaration of the gospel message in several different languages in the bridge section.

            Do also check out Greg Scheer’s excellent work with http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/publications/global-songs-for-worship-cd/


  • Gerald

    I understand that you disagree with how many of your brothers and sisters worship, and I respect that you are honest about it. I’ve seen a lot of posts on here that I don’t see eye to eye with and just go on about my day. But come on…this just seems like you’re out to stir up a pot. This whole post just seems like it’s going out of your way to troll anyone that has anything to do with contemporary worship.

    You say in the post that you want to have a conversation. And you’re right. There needs to be conversation about this. But you seem so unwilling to have any sort of discourse with those who disagree in the comments. You read what they say, and then just brush it off by either saying “it’s about meaning, not preference,” or you reiterate that you don’t agree and think their just wrong. That’s not a conversation. It’s just a trap.

    • Jonathan

      I do try to steer the conversation around the issue of preference, because that’s not what any discussion of worship is actually about. I mean, to be ridiculous for a moment, I think David Crowder’s beard is unsanitary and a bit creepy, but that has no bearing on the meaning behind the corporate worship. And conversations here are great, but my hope is that something I write causes people to go out into their places of life and worship and have these conversations with each other, because I think there’s been a real dearth in good conversations over the past few years. That being said, I don’t think it’s a trap to continue defending the points I’ve already made. Perhaps I am stirring the pot, but sometimes that needs to happen. Other times, it’s best to leave well enough alone.

      If I’ve made you feel unheard or seemed like I’ve been short in the comments, I apologize. I do make it clear in my Discussion Guidelines page that I don’t always make time to respond, as I usually feel like I’ve said all I needed to already. I don’t intend to trap, and I’ll be more careful about that in the future.

      Thanks for clarifying, friend. Blessings.

    • Stan


      To be honest, I haven’t heard any in-depth discourse on how contemporary worship brings about the deep discipleship on one’s faith journey and commitment to building God’s kingdom. Go for it and we can discuss the theological and spiritual components of your viewpoints.

      • Todd H.

        Stan, I think we would agree on many points. But if I may, — for the sake of understanding and clarification — if I may ask, what if we suggest or offer a plan of discussion about the deep discipleship on one’s faith journey and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What if we offer or suggest the matter to a senior pastor. And let’s say if the senior pastor were to say, simply, “Have you been here?” And if we say, “well, we’ve seen cutting-edge videos and heard emotional testimonies,” but the pastor answers us, “Yes, but have you been here? Have you actually had a good chance to witness — up-close and personal — the growth among our classes, our study groups, our service groups, and our other ministries?” How shall we answer, then, to that senior pastor?

  • Pastor Eric Kaelberer

    Jonathan, again, thank you. Your critique is not of the man but of the “music.” One point you make so well, and did in this post, that I want to extol all the more is that Church Music and Hymnody is a corporate gift of thanksgiving, sometimes of contrition, nearly all of it is to be shared by the family, not “done to” or “done for” them by a soloist. I am not saying that solos and choral pieces are not welcomed. Surely they are, but this form of song is not the “main thing.” Thank you again and God bless you.

  • David Johns

    Great comments – I’m with you all the way.

    Keen insights regarding the entire contemporary scene.

    You are breath of theological, liturgical and musical fresh air.

    More power to you, Jonathon.

    Many blessings be yours, in the name of Jesus.

    David Johns

  • Jimmy Johnston

    As a worship leader and senior pastor in a church I disagree about some of the things said in this article. Some of Chris Tomlin’s songs are not for congregational singing but there are many hymns we sang growing up in the Baptist church that were hard to sing or didn’t make sense too. To throw out all hymns is no more appropriate than throwing out all contemporary music. The Scripture says to sing with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. I think it’s clear it’s not all hymns. I agree that far too much of a rock concert feeling has swept into our worship services, but that doesn’t mean I am going to stop singing contemporary music and return to all hymns. Not sure that’s your beef here either, I’m just saying it takes all forms of music to reach all people, and I’m pretty sure true worship isn’t about style or music anyway, but an attitude of the heart! Thanks for writing an article for open and honest discussion

    • Jonathan

      Hi Pastor. Thanks for your comments.

      A couple things. I’m not in favor of getting rid of all new music, but I am in favor of getting rid of most commercially recorded music, especially the kind that marketed as “worship music,” for the reasons outlined here. That’s a horribly simplified explanation, but it’s succinct enough, I hope. Some hymns are difficult, yes

      I do think it’s dangerous to believe that it takes all forms of music to reach all people, because that’s not what corporate worship is about. The function of music in worship is to theologically serve the liturgy. I do believe in using a wide variety of musical forms. And even a cursory look at a hymnal will show you that it is a very diverse collection. I was raised Baptist, as you were, in a largely contemporary setting, but most of the hymns I learned initially were 19th and 20th century gospel hymns. Those aren’t all bad, but they’re hardly representative of the diverse riches available in a good collection of hymns.

      Lastly, I take your point about Paul’s admonition. This in and of itself is not really a firm defense of any kind of music, or at least any text, other than the Psalms themselves. The only thing it tells us is that they sang Psalms, hymns, which were existing compositions that would have been familiar in some way, and spiritual songs, which were probably brief songs performed extemporaneously, as a sort of impromptu testimony. I don’t know that it is normative for us today, and I don’t think it can be used as slam-dunk evidence that any and all genres of music are fair game, especially since it doesn’t foretell of the explosion of American recorded popular music.

  • Timothy Michael Powell

    I would add that those of us who choose the music that is used every Sunday absolutely have the right to criticize the choice, manner, and quality of the poetry used to worship God. It isn’t just a “agree to disagree” thing. We curate this stuff all the time. “Great music, shame about the poetry.” “Wonderful poetry, boy the tune is dreadful.” I get hundreds of choral octavos a year that just go in the bin because I choose to find something better. And I pick songs from CCM that are easily sung by the congregation with limited syncopation and vocal range with meaningful, well-written texts. That’s our job, calling, and hopefully (but rarely) training as church musicians. Yes, there are some hymns in the hymnal that I don’t necessarily agree with either, but at least in our hymnal, better minds than mine with many more years of theological experience have wrestled over the texts and tunes. When we just grab the top 40 hits off the radio and transfer them to Sunday morning as soon as the mp3 downloads simply because people like them, we run the danger of allowing “those who know the least about worship” to determine how it is done. WE know the most about worship and the tools of the trade….if a song overuses a rising minor seventh interval followed by a rising half-step modulation, then we know that it is trying to be manipulative. Those who don’t know this are likely to be manipulated. If a song talks about the intimate love of the redeemed sinner for the God who redeems, yet uses grunge guitar and a musical texture more reminiscent of teenage angst and anger than joy, then WE are the ones who have to make the call that the song is inappropriate for worship (and I really LIKE Nirvana). Why is it so hard to separate the entertainment purpose of CCM from the needs of a worshiping congregation?

    • Jonathan

      Again, a fabulous comment.

  • Dave S.

    I just don’t get it. With all the that is going on the world…and much of it truly evil, why waste time judging and picking at other Christians and their particular ministry. Chris Tomlin is not the Enemy. At my place of worship we sing a few songs Tomlin wrote and they seem to be a good fit. “How Great Is Our God” is a powerful anthem that has touched many hearts.

    God help us all focus on what is important.

    • Jonathan

      I’m not judging Chris Tomlin. As I said, I have every reason to believe he’s a great guy. His music strikes a chord with people, obviously, since millions sing his songs every week. But they just aren’t that good, particularly the poetry. I mean, look at the text you cited, which is actually probably one of his better ones. The rhyme scheme he’s going for is evident, but the actual rhymes don’t happen. There is no theological development, just some disjunct, unrelated, isolated theological imagery. Some of it doesn’t even make sense. “The splendor of the King / clothed in majesty / let all the earth rejoice… Rejoice because of what? But he doesn’t tell us, he just throws out a tiny bit more imagery, and cuts to the refrain, which doesn’t seem to relate to anything else. This sort of thing happens all over contemporary worship, but Tomlin does it in nearly every text, if he even bothers to say anything theological at all.

      And since you invoked God’s help in focusing on what’s really important, well, corporate worship is really important. In fact, for most of church history, it was assumed that as we worshiped, so we believed, so was it with our faith. If that’s true, how we worship has everything to do with the outworking of the gospel in our own lives. And we should find something better to sing than this stuff. Who cares if the music appeals to people, or as you put it, has “touched many hearts.” It’s simply not worth singing, especially to the degree that we’re apparently singing it. This isn’t tearing him down, it’s not picking at him, this is just a fair critique of his output, which should cause us some genuine introspection and concern. It’s time we stop blindly accepting this kind of thing because it sounds cool and alludes to a few, possibly interesting things about God. We’ve got to be more discerning.

      Beyond that, nobody seems to be thinking any further about the implications of these sorts of worship superstars (and that’s what he is, regardless of how great a person he is). Don’t believe me, check out his videos. Look at the number of his songs on the CCLI chart. Check out his merchandise. Watch his demeanor in performances. This isn’t worship music, this is popular music with a pseudo-christian message.

      • Stan


        I applaud your stand and challenge to the contemporary Christian pseudo-worship scene. I have an interesting story that sort of relates to the piece-meal text issue: our church’s Cultural Events Committee hosted a very large high school, college and church choral festival a few years ago. The clinician we invited to conduct the event chose the music, which I dutifully ordered. Some of the music I did not know, so was curious about the texts (yes, I’m always curious about the message, which is more important than the music itself). One particular octavo caught my attention because of the annotation by the composer (I won’t mention his name because he was already embarrassed when the “mistake” was pointed out to him). The octavo was lifted out of this composer’s opera, “John Brown,” with the composer saying in his annotation: “‘Blow Ye the Trumpet,’ from my opera ‘John Brown,’ was the name of Brown’s favorite hymn.” Here is the text: “Blow ye the trumpet, blow. Sweet is Thy work, my God and King. I’ll praise my Maker with all my breath. O happy is the man who hears. Why should we start, and fear to die, with songs and honors sounding loud. Ah, lovely the appearance of death.” The text was extremely puzzling to me. When I went to the hymn, “Blow ye the trumpet, blow,” the text by Charles Wesley, none of the words that followed the initial phrase matched up, but I recognized several other lines as other hymn titles/phrases. My curiosity got the best of me so I emailed the composer to ask what “hymn” this was, knowing full well that it wasn’t really a hymn, but rather a compilation of several hymns. Sure enough, the composer wrote back and said that indeed he swallowed the ‘myth’ hook, line and sinker when he set “John Brown’s favorite hymn” to music in his opera and discovered his error when others started questioning him. So, for those who think the meaning and power of texts don’t matter all that much because “so many people like it”, they should think again. I say, “what is the point of a song if the meaning is basically meaning-less and doesn’t challenge us to grow in our faith”? This is why I feel that it is important that we sing what we mean (“believe”) and believe (“mean”) what we sing! Worship music should coordinate with the Scripture readings, prayers, thematic development of the sermon and liturgical season, etc. Then the entire worship service comes together in a powerful/prophetic way because the people have participated in the shaping of the whole of worship. Otherwise we move blindly on with no sense of direction in our spiritual journey as a faith community. Worship is important and should always be done well with much thought, never based on the lowest common denominator of feelings. Don’t get me started on that! LOL!

        • Michelle Staton

          Great comment – are you a fan of Eric Routley?

          • Stan

            I studied under Erik Routley 🙂

  • Jay Egenes

    Many of Chris Tomlin’s songs are in fact quite singable. Not all of them are. You can decide whether you like the lyrics or not, and whether any given song works in the context of your congregation. (As an aside, many close followers of P and W worship would argue that Matt Maher, Matt Redman or Tim Hughes, for example, write new worship music that is theologically richer.)

    Many songs by today’s hymn writers, such as David Haas or Marty Haugen, are quite singable and have strong lyrics. But not all of them do. And quite honestly, I love some of the old hymns but can’t figure out why some of them are still in the hymnal. Again, you have to decide what works in your context.

    We should not assume that a song being in the top 20 of the local CCM radio station or the CCLI top 100 makes it a good song for our congregation to sing. Neither should we assume that inclusion in a denominational hymnal or new music resource from a denominational publishing house qualifies a song for our congregation.

  • Ryan P


    1. Do you have any recorded material?! I would love to hear it and evaluate/assess it based on your claims and statements of beliefs on what worship SHOULD be. Reply with a link on this post if so.

    2. I’m curious as to how many souls (roughly) YOUR music has helped win for the kingdom of God. As I’m certain Tomlin’s is countless.

    3. This sort of reminds me of a conversation (though not fully applicable) a famous Evangelist was approached with, when told by a visitor that he did not agree with his style of Evangelism, the Evangelist replied – “well then sir, let me ask you, how do you evangelize? – Visitor – “well………I don’t really”. Evangelist – “well I like the way I do evangelize better then the way you don’t.”

    Have a good day sir.


    • Jonathan

      A couple thoughts.

      1. Corporate worship is not about evangelism. People are evangelized as a byproduct through liturgy and doxology. If Chris Tomlin wants to put out his music, that’s fine. We need to choose well when it comes to what we do in the church, and we have to be honest about the connection between “rockstar” worship and celebrity. The purpose of congregational music is to give another dimension to our sacred storytelling.

      2. Tomlin does not get a free pass because he’s popular. The music we choose must be good; it must be good theology, good poetry (or at least make sense), and be well-crafted music that congregations can sing well. He consistently misses the mark on all three of those things.

      3. We need to stop depending on music to do our dirty work for us. Evangelism is about relationships.

      4. The gospel is not about numbers. God works through us as God wills.

      4. I think I detect some reactivity in your words, and I wonder exactly what power the music has over you that makes it that way.

    • Stan

      Jonathan is correct. Worship is not about evangelism. It is about discipling a faith community and from worship the faith community goes about evangelizing. We have been unfortunately inundated with “TV Evangelists” (which succeeded “Radio Evangelists,” which succeeded “tent meeting evangelists,” etc.) as role models for “worship” when those television shows are not really worship. When Jesus sent out his disciples to “evangelize” they did not establish worship services to do that. They are two totally different enterprises. Having said that, there is certainly nothing that prevents the Holy Spirit working on an individual, who may have been invited by a church member to their faith community, and as a result of the proclamation of the Word through Scripture, prayers, preaching, music, might respond to God’s call to become a disciple as well. But, that is still not the primary function of worship. I think we should be careful and not confuse the two.

      • Jonathan

        You’re right, Stan. Also, the sacraments, which many of us Protestants have hugely de emphasized.

  • Kurt Kelley

    I would like to see one of those articles bashing Chris Tomlin. He is one of the few CCM Biz guys that I respect, because SOME of his earlier songs had rich content. How Great is our God is like a modern ‘How great Thou Art’. ‘Forever God is Faithful’ is also very Scriptural. As for his more recent songs, one must consider that he is under contract and constant pressure by his employer to pump out more ‘CCM Hits’ for Christian hit radio, like K-Love and Way-FM.

    Thus the quandry of any successful Christian songwriter who has ‘MADE IT’ in ‘the Biz’. While his early songs were probably inspired by his passion for worship and the Holy Spirit, once you make it, there is no time to wait on Holy inspiration. It now becomes a race against time, to stay relevant and significant in the eyes of Christian music fans. Especially as Tomlin progresses deeper into middle age, while CCM hits are being mass produced by younger, cuter, trendier entities like Jesus Culture, Hillsong United, Planet Shakers, etc….

    So it becomes more about coming up with catchy sounding hooks and tunes, and following the current CCM song musical formulas, which seemingly require that all songs must begin with a delay-driven, ‘Edge from U2’ sounding guitar intro. Moreover, they must incorporate the typical 4 chord pattern, enhanced by a full-on, instrumental section that MUST be in 4/4 time only. Also, the bassist must not be allowed to play anything but one note peddles on the root. NO walking or flowing bass lines allowed in CCM. Plus, it must be sung in a key that 90% of church members will not be able to sing in.

    Therefore, Chris Tomlin has little choice, if he wants to remain employed in the CCM Biz, but to follow the formula and give the people what they want. Catchy songs that will tickle the ears, and go over on CCM radio. To paraphrase a current catch phrase: He aint got time for no theological depth or accuracy! Aint NO ONE in CCM got time for that!

    • Stan

      Well, gee, poor guy (Chris Tomlin)…Charles Wesley managed to compose over 6,000 hymns and never felt the pressure to produce. The Holy Spirit gave him the energy and inspiration to write theologically rich hymns with an amazing amount of compelling imagery. I dare say there will be many more of his hymns sung in the 22nd century than Tomlin could ever dream of having his sung.

    • Kurt,

      Interesting analysis. It sounds like you sympathize with Chris Tomlin.


  • Brian

    Just a question. How much of this discussion should be about the “music,” (notes, rhythms, harmony, etc) or the text? Or is it difficult for a mind raised and fed on contemporary pop music to separate the two? Example: the text “Amazing Grace” can be sung to numerous tunes, sometimes with funny results. Somehow I don’t think Tomlin music will hold up to that.

  • Todd H.

    With all due respect to Tomlin and his followers: Although Tomlin might be a talented singer — as stated by the first response above — he is obviously not classically trained and not properly trained. Emphases in his vocals are placed where they don’t belong. Utterances that mimic hissing don’t belong. Unpredictable, improper inflections: well, they simply don’t belong. He can sing on key, but deviates and goes into an inflection when it doesn’t belong.

    When recording a demo tape more than 25 years ago, I was urged to use a “crack in voice”, or a “break in voice”. It is heard often by singers such as Tomlin. More than 25 years later, I still am astounded as to why. Why the unnecessary crack in voice? Perhaps to deviate from “old folks”. Perhaps to sell. Perhaps to avoid being, so-to-speak, an old ancient who needs to make it real and get with the times. Perhaps to be, so-to-speak, “21st Century”. Whatever the reason, these kinds of cracks in voice don’t belong. Neither do improper, untimely inflections in voice.

    I’ve heard worship singers lead, and they sound like Tomlin. They have the same wrong, untimely, hisses and changes in inflection.

    How did these things come to be? I do not know. Nothing wrong with that lyric. But the crackle in voice? Misplaced and untimely, and bad.

    I don’t deny that Tomlin and his followers have earnest faith. But they don’t sing properly, and they’ve proved it over and over. They employ things that simply don’t belong, and never will.

    Being a talented worship leader is more than knowing a C chord from a G chord.

    Not sure to what degree Tomlin intended the song in the video to be a congregational corporate worship song. But it just doesn’t do it.

    • Stan

      That sort of parallels the way people “lead the corporate singing” of the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events. Just sing the notes as written without embellishment, crackles, etc., so the people can follow. Otherwise it becomes a solo performance or even possibly “entertainment.”

      • Todd H.

        You make an interesting point. I confess that I actually don’t think I ever minded the Star-Spangled Banner embellished with a tonic high note for the “Land of the Free…….EEEEEEE…..” unless there were excessive or improper, unnatural trills or wild deviations from natural song. In other words, I haven’t minded it as a solo.

        But if Tomlin were to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, he would no doubt add the crackles, the hissing, the “hip”-ness, the unnatural trills, the deviant, etc.

        Tomlin has skills. But he utilizes the unnatural, the deviant, the untrained, the very odd-sounding “cutting-edge”. Youth seem to be eating the stuff up in droves.

        I can’t explain it. But then, musical preference is an odd thing, isn’t it? Imagine Conservative Christian former U.S. Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan’s iPod playlist. Very ghastly, to say the least.

        But back to the subject at hand. Worship music leadership should be that of the trained voice, the proper; not the deviant un-trained voice.

        • Stan

          I ALWAYS assume corporate participation for a song meant to be sung corporately, whether our patriotic songs at corporate gatherings such as a sporting event or other civic gathering, or worship songs at corporate gatherings of a faith community. So, therefore a song leader/cantor should encourage the gathered masses to sing rather than to embellish or crackle, which causes the masses to shut down any attempt to join in.

        • Tomlin’s performance style (and yes, all leading of congregational music involves an element of performance.. fact.) is irrelevant to the question of whether his songs, and contemporary songs in general are suitable for congregational singing. Indeed, just as there are myriad commercial recordings of traditional worship music in which such arrangements would not work in most congregations, so too, commercial recordings are not necessarily intended to be the way in which contemporary songs are incorporated into normal Sunday gatherings. As I’ve commented before, to ask whether contemporary music can successful facilitate engaged congregational sung worship, the answer is a demonstrable ‘yes’ – depending on the cultural context.

          Having said that, it *is* a good point that song leaders be careful not to add unnecessary vocal affectations. I personally have to be careful that I don’t use all of the resonators I use in my day job – that too would be distracting and unhelpful. A healthy, breath-supported clean tone is the ideal to help people sing along, even (especially) in contemporary styles.

    • Pastor Eric Kaelberer

      Thank you, Todd. Your comments were thoughtful and hit the mark.

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  • Brian

    Great article. One thing I have found out in my discussions with CCM vs. “traditional” is that teeth start gnashing when I say today’s contemporary has turned in to the new traditional: it i the same week-in and week-out, 52 Sundays a year. There is no variety at all in music, just like in the days of pipe organ, where it was the same style week after week. It would be interesting for the CCM crowd to sit back and realize it’s becoming predictable, just like the “old days.” In our previous church, the worship leader actually asked what I would suggest, and I said, “Silence the drums and just have regular guitars maybe.” The next Sunday, he did–six guys up front with guitars and the singing was LOUD. I to this day appreciate his listening to me and not getting defensive. Same music, but different approach.

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  • Les Love

    We recently relocated, and after visiting several churches of differing denominations we found very little distinctive differences in musical expressions. Almost all were more modern media enhanced, younger audience oriented experiences. The interesting aspect that most had older congregations, yet their explanations for their musical expressions were to “attract the youth” who were clearly not present. My conclusion is that their efforts are not working. I look around during the services and find few participating in the singing. Vain repetition of verse drives any predisposition to worship far from me. The old wineskins need have no fear of being burst with new wine, for that wine does not exist. The old is simply being discarded, thrown out as having no further use, without regard to the remaining , intoxicatingly rich elixir that lies within them.

    • Pastor Eric Kaelberer

      A very wise observation. Too much trickery to try to get folks (younger) into the pews. Sometimes I think the “older folks” (I am 58 and remember the 60’s and 70’s well) are truly repristination worshipers. They long for what they had during that era. Tried and True Hymnody, the use of the Organ, 4-part singing, the choral, etc., these are considered passe while that which was discarded is sought after. Interesting times, indeed. Kyrie Elaison!

  • Regina

    My husband and I have a huge problem with old hymns being “Tomlinized” such as Amazing Grace. But many churches want that which is sad. Not sure what the hymn writers would think of music in the churches today. I think Fanny Crosby would be very sad indeed.

    • Michelle Staton

      I agree with you Regina. The young people in many churches are being robbed of a rich heritage.

  • Regina

    It’s been so long since I’ve sung the original Amazing Grace. Most of the churches are singing new versions of hymns changed mostly by Mr. Tomlin. I don’t dislike him and I’m sure he is a godly man. I just wish he wouldn’t mess with the hymns. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • But how do we answer when we are brought with these assertions:

    Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Casting Crowns, and Third Day are played and sung in growing churches. And God likes growing churches. Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Casting Crowns, and Third Day are played and sung in our breakfast gatherings. Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Casting Crowns, and Third Day are played and sung during our worship services. Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Casting Crowns, and Third Day are played and sung by the young and old. It doesn’t matter if not everyone is singing. That’s not the goal. The goal is to lead in worship of the Lord. Some people prefer to clap. Some people prefer to dance. Chris Tomlin is bringing thousands, if not millions, to Christ. Radio stations play Chris Tomlin, and if you criticize him you are criticizing their judgment. Pastors, teachers, preachers, worship leaders, record distributors, label executives, music groups — the whole world over — love and appreciate Chris Tomlin. And if you criticize him, you are criticizing their judgment. In fact, you are criticizing the judgment of pastors and worship leaders everywhere by calling into question their gracious acceptance of Chris Tomlins’ offerings to Christ.

    What’s more, the guitar is accessible to people and the organ much less accessible to people. Modern instruments are accessible to people, and the old instruments aren’t as accessible.

    If there were better worship leader music — better than Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Casting Crowns, and Third Day — then it would be in our churches and garages…

    …and in our homes and in our schools…

    … and on our satellite audio systems and radio stations….

    and at our breakfasts….

    …and in and high schools…

    … and in our teachers’ meetings….

    … in in our student ministry groups….

    • Stan

      my response is that those assertions have totally missed the point. No need for further comment.

  • God has ORDAINED Chris Tomlin to be popular and accessible and loved and cherished. Churches around the world are cherishing this music!

    Not only that, but God has ANOINTED Chris Tomlin to bring honest-hearted music to worship leaders and praise leaders around the world!

    And while we’re on the subject of being honest-hearted, why — why do we CRITICIZE Chris Tomlin, who is WORTHY of our acceptance! These songs are WORTHY to bless our congregations!

    Why do we CRITICIZE those who are bringing to the world — all over the world — this wonderful, ANOINTED Christian worship and praise music?

    • Jonathan

      The pneumatology behind these statements is problematic. And to assert that we should use his music because some churches who use it are getting butts in the seats is blatantly problematic. Of course I’m questioning radio stations (seriously?), pastors, and worship leaders. The point is his music isn’t good for congregations, and his words are bad poetry and are theologically vapid. The function of music in worship is to serve the liturgy; to serve our sacred storytelling so that on Word and Sacrament, we can grow more fully into covenant kingdom people. It’s not to make us feel close to God or to say nice things about Jesus. In fact, if a song doesn’t tell any part of the Christian story, it cannot possibly even be Christian.

      And those pastors, worship leaders, and radio stations that I (and a lot of other people) are questioning are the ones who have largely bought into a false model of Christian worship, one that makes people come but doesn’t allow them to sing their faith.

      Lastly, music in worship is to largely be sung, not just clapped with or danced to. Singing is the standard we see throughout Holy Scripture. Whatever else we do, God’s people are to be a singing people.

      • Jonathan, you make several assertions!

        Pneumatology? Are we supposed to know that term in order to discuss our brother in Christ? How many of us find ourselves immediately ready to discuss hermeneutics, exegesis, eschatology, pneumatology, or soteriology! What percentage of us? Can’t we use terms that are simpler?

        But to the point:

        Yes, Radio Stations and satellite channels. Hasn’t God given us radio stations and satellite channels and the Internet to broadcast God’s Holy Word? If we rebuke Chris Tomlin, we are rebuking the station managers who play him! We are, in essence, rebuking pastors and teachers, are we not?

        If I can jump to your comment about singing worship and praise music, God created the guitar and the lute and the cymbals and the percussion instruments. Don’t you agree that God COMMANDS us to use the harp and the lyre! Wouldn’t you agree that God COMMANDS us to use the cymbal and the drum? (Psalms 150)

        Psalm 150 King James Version (KJV)

        3 Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.

        4 Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.

        5 Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.

        Why would God COMMAND us to use instruments if they’re not so crucial to worship, as it says in the Psalms?

        • Stan

          “Yes” to all, Todd

      • I agree with you Jonathan that a kind of post-hoc defense of something because it seems to ‘work’ is problematic. Numbers do not always equal faithfulness, and there is a real danger in music – both contemporary and traditional – to let such factors influence us. But there is a point in there which I still think you are ignoring.’

        To say something like ‘the guitar is more accessible’ gets at the idea of contextualisation and vernacular, which I think is totally absent from your paradigm. The reformers were adamant that the Word of God be accessible in, and worship services be performed in the vernacular language of the people. Why ought this not also be the case for the musical aspect of gathered worship? After all, there’s some truth in the proverbial idea that music is a language.

        So it may well be true that organ-led music is akin to leading the service in latin for some, if not many, contemporary cultural contexts (and I’ve been a part of thriving, growing churches where the organ was part of the cultural context, btw…)

        The kind of music that helps people sing, is always going to be the vernacular, and in our contemporary western context, that is often going to be pop-rock style. If you are serious about not making this about preference, then I think you have to acknowledge this. There is nothing inherent about a contemporary style of music which prohibits the hearty engagement of the congregation in singing the gospel story. (And if you don’t think Tomlin in particular is a helpful writer for this.. that’s a pastoral decision for sure.. There are plenty of contemporary writers who couldn’t honestly be described as lightweight or vapid. I personally have no problem encouraging people to sing “You laid down Your perfect life, You are the sacrifice, Jesus, Son of God”. My point is not to defend Tomlin per se, but to defend the faithful, God-honouring use of contemporary musical styles in corporate worship where they are cultural appropriate).

        It’s a tangent btw, but I disagree that lyrics alone make a song “Christian”.. see Francis Schaeffer’s ‘Art and Bible’ for a more holistic idea of creativity as a doxological pursuit 😉

        • Stan

          It is about the message, not about the music. What is the point of the music if the message doesn’t tell the story? Music serves the message. Yes, it doesn’t “have” to be a pipe organ accompanying the congregational song, but it is certainly better equipped to do it well for a large gathering of worshipers. But I diverge from the main point…”it’s the message.”

          • Stan, I completely agree with you that the content – the lyrics we sing – is vital. We ought to be helping our congregations sing the great story of God’s redemption.

            My point is that Jonathan is wrong to imply that a) contemporary music styles necessarily inhibit this and b) that in championing particular musical forms as superior, he has overlooked the importance of cultural contextualisation and the stylistic “vernacular” – that is to say, in some contexts the organ is as well equipped to help the people engage in singing the gospel as a service held in latin.

          • Stan

            I would say that the organ or (if they can afford this) an orchestra would be the best accompaniment for large assemblies to sing the congregational songs. It doesn’t really have to do with cultural context, but rather the best way to support good congregational singing. Contemporary praise bands are very limited in their ability to support large congregational or assembly singing.

  • And if we shall judge Chris Tomlin — and Hillsong and Casting Crowns — we would in essence be in JUDGEMENT against all those who love and cherish and adore and appreciate and clap their hands to this music, this ANOINTED music!

  • Stan

    the point that Jonathan is trying to make. Here’s a challenge for you, Todd: read all the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth (using a “spiritual lens), from the triumphal entry, to his visit to the Temple, to the upper room, to the Garden of Gethsemane, to the court room, the courtyard (Peter), Golgotha, etc. in light of what you are trying to say. Then, maybe you will understand Jonathan’s concerns about worship and my response to your list of assertions. The human condition is an interesting study and God’s great gift to us in spite of that condition.

  • I’m afraid I have been disingenuous, to some degree, in my comments. I give permission for the webmaster to remove my comments on this topic. I regret any bad effects my comments may have generated.