Why Praise and Worship Music Isn’t

Belinda Luscombe wrote an informative for Time magazine concerning Christian song-writer Chris Tomlin.[1] The November 19th, 2006 article alludes to the nature, sound and purpose of Tomlin’s music, and in so doing reveals the principal short-coming of Praise and Worship music.

According to the main licensing agency for Christian music (CCLI), Chris Tomlin “is the most often sung contemporary artist in U.S. congregations every week… that might make Tomlin the most often sung artist anywhere.” CCLI marketing manager Paul Herman says, “He has really captured the heart of the church.”

Since Chris Tomlin obviously has a tremendous role in shaping the worship of the contemporary church, he has a tremendous role in shaping how contemporary Christians conceive of God and proper worship of Him. As such, his music (and Praise and Worship music as a whole) certainly deserves evaluation and biblical critique.[2]

So what is his music like? “Tomlin’s How Great Is Our God … currently the second most popular modern chorus in U.S. churches…is not particularly profound–the title pretty much sums it up–but it’s heartfelt, short and set to a stirring soft-rock melody that sticks in the mind like white to rice. That’s Tomlin’s gift: immediacy.”

The secular evaluation of Tomlin’s music, or at least his most popular piece, is that it is simple and memorable, with a soft-rock sound. Tomlin himself states, “I try to think, ‘How do I craft this song in a way that the person who’s tone-deaf and can’t clap on two and four can sing it?’ I hope that when someone hears a CD of mine, they pick up their guitar and say, ‘O.K., I can do that.’” To this, Luscombe responds, “Which is not the way people react to, say, Handel’s Messiah.” This off-the-cuff comparison to Messiah deserves some pondering.

There is certainly nothing wrong with desiring to write accessible music– music that can be easily sung or played. It would be improper to criticize Tomlin or other Praise and Worship musicians for having this desire. While Messiah is more complex than anything Tomlin has written, complexity alone does not make Messiah better. As Christians, we are to strive for things that are “excellent, virtuous, lovely, pure, and praiseworthy” (Phil. 1:10; 4:8). The characteristics of simplicity and complexity can certainly contribute to the goodness of certain music, but by themselves they are not determinative of goodness.

One danger in comparing the complexity of Messiah with the simplicity of Tomlin is failing to take into consideration the intended performers of the music. Messiah was written for choral use, not congregational. As such, it is not an extremely difficult piece. We sang several selections from it every year in (public!) high school choir. Tomlin writes for congregational use, not choral. Since he intends the congregation to perform his music, it would be foolish of him to attempt to mimic the choral aspects of Messiah. Regular attenders of a church with a choir should be able to recognize this distinction. The choir sings a different type of song than the congregation. This does not make one or the other superior, or inferior. Rather, each group sings songs appropriate for them.

What separates Tomlin, and Praise and Worship music, from Handel’s Messiah, is not complexity, but sound and purpose. After describing the nature of Tomlin’s music as simple and memorable, the author describes the sound of Tomlin’s music as “soft-rock” and “pop-sounding.” With this, two questions come to mind: why would one choose to write music with such a sound for the worship of God and is such a sound appropriate for worship of God?

Luscombe uncovers the purpose for his style by writing, “Tomlin is the chief American practitioner of the pop-sounding ‘praise and worship’ music that has replaced traditional hymns in congregations looking for a younger crowd. ‘We’ve been closing the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station’ says Matt Lundgren, worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. ‘Artists like Chris Tomlin help bridge the gap more and more.’”

The purpose of “Praise and Worship” music is to get the church closer to the type of music the world enjoys. Consider again the quote regarding the purpose of such music– “[to close] the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station.” Praise and Worship music is written and used because it sounds like the music on a secular rock and roll station: please note that this is not my evaluation, it is their own evaluation. The purpose of this music is to blur the line between what one would hear at church and what one would hear on secular radio. This is the reason that Handel’s music is “good” in the biblical sense of the term, and Tomlin’s music is not.

With his music, Handel meant to bring heaven to earth. With his music, Tomlin means to bring rock to the church. After composing the music for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Messiah, Handel stated, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”[3] Those who write and perform Praise and Worship music on the other hand, apparently state, “I hope this sounds enough like the current Billboard top-40 that people like it.”

Here we are facing one of the questions of the age. What determines acceptability in worship? Popularity? Chris Tomlin “is the most often sung contemporary artist in U.S. congregations every week.” Pragmatism? “Tomlin is the chief American practitioner of the pop-sounding ‘praise and worship’ music that has replaced traditional hymns in congregations looking for a younger crowd.” Tomlin is unquestionably popular, and churches which use Praise and Worship music seem to attract large crowds with ease. Popularity and pragmatism, however, do not determine what kind of worship God delights in: His Word is the sole guide.

It is entirely possible to demonstrate that Praise and Worship is aesthetically inferior to Handel (or Bach, Mendellsohn, Haydn –and a host of other “classical” composers who wrote music for church use), but one does not need to do this since the purveyors of Praise Worship music have already admitted to a more grievous sin than just writing trite music.

God’s Word admonishes us to not be conformed to the world (Rom 12:1), and to not love the world (1 John 2:15). When used in this way, “the world” refers to all those elements of secular life that characterize mankind’s rebellion against God and desire for self-satisfaction. One does not have to listen to a secular rock and roll station very long to discover that the music it plays definitely qualifies as belonging to “the world.” The music you hear on secular radio stations is sinful because it is the music of life apart from God. It is the music of rebellion and sexual gratification that glorifies man in all of his fallen-ness. Yet this is the music that Praise and Worship musicians want to “bridge the gap” to. This is what we are supposed to think when we hear it: “Hey that sounds like something I heard on the radio the other day.” How can music meant to sound like a rock and roll station be called, “worship” when God calls it “worldly”?

Such music touches the emotions, often in a profound way: it is meant to. If Praise and Worship did not create fuzzy feelings, it would not be so popular. Perhaps you think, “It’s not that bad. After all, it only sounds like the ‘soft’ stuff.” Is our God the kind of god that is sung to as a woman being seduced by a man? Is God adored in Scripture with soft caresses and tender kisses? Is eroticism acceptable worship? Praise and Worship stirs the emotions– but which emotions; and are those emotions properly worshipful of God? Oh if only our emotions could be touched by James 4:4, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

God is not glorified by his enemies. And He is neither praised nor worshiped by the vast majority of Praise and Worship music.


[1]http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1561156,00.html (Unless noted otherwise, all quotes in this Music Notes from this source.)

[2] (1 Cor. 2:15; Phil. 1:9-11; 1 Thess. 5:21; Heb. 5:14; 1 John 4:1).

[3]R.W.S. Mendl, The Divine Quest in Music, (London: Rockliff Publishing, 1957), 63.

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