Worship Music is Horrible. And It Should Stay That Way.

I don't tell many people this, but I used to be a worship leader for ten years. I was behind a mic and guitar all throughout high school, college and into seminary. If I listed my experience leading worship on my resume, it would completely outshine all my other skills in breadth. But I don't list it. 

The truth is, leading worship was never my calling. Like so many other worship leaders I know, I flamed out. I stepped down from my position. For the longest time, it was even hard to stand among my fellow congregants and sing. "How many times are we going to repeat this chorus?" I would think. "Why does every song sound like an overblown anthem?" I frequently came late to services, hoping to miss the four (always four) songs that preceded the rest of it. 

When I look back on all this, I realize that my growing distaste for worship music coincided with my development as a musician. That's because that vast majority of contemporary worship music is horrible. Even some traditional hymns. Musically speaking, they're not challenging or interesting. They're never surprising. 

And that's all by design. I wish somebody had sat me down as an eager young Christian guitar player and said "Worship music is not about music." There was a reason why I could play all those songs--Amazing Love, How Great is Our God, and the ironically endless I Could Sing of Your Love Forever--within a few months of picking up the guitar. Worship songs, with their typical "G-Em-C-D" chord progression, are built with novice musicians in mind. You can dress them up with synth and electric guitar noodling and harmonizing, but they are necessarily simple by nature. 

Worship music's bland, utilitarian quality speaks to it's purpose: it's about participation. (Which seems to be a theme I'm stuck on lately after my posts on communion and ordination.) Even those old hymns--How Great Thou Art, Be Thou My Vision, Amazing Grace--were set to old folk tunes (often pub sing-alongs) so as to immediately engage and invite churchgoers into the singing. The danger in making worship original and interesting is making it inaccessible to non-musicians. Unlike a music concert, in which professional musicians demonstrate their artistry, a worship set uses artistry as a means to an end. Art is the catalyst that draws people together toward the goal of praising God through song. If the artistry is either too complex, or too sloppy, it risks failing in that purpose. 

This isn't always how worship has worked. Many of Bach's cantatas, for example, were commissioned by various Lutheran churches to be played during services. Their purpose was not primarily participation (although there was some). And I think there's a place for that kind of transcendent artistic expression, performed by one group and experienced by another, within today's worship service. Here's my favorite example, from who-else-but Sufjan Stevens: 

We need more of this in Church, I think. But not under the guise of participation. It's meant to be surprising in its artistry and progression. It's not a sing-along. It's a distinctive expression of worship with a distinct goal. 

But other worship music--what we think of when we think of worship music--is supposed to be much simpler, much duller. 

None of this, by the way, is meant to endorse shallow worship lyrics. So much of contemporary worship is peppered with sloppy theology and maddening redundancy. (I'll save that for another post, perhaps). But while the content should be deep, the form should not.

Worship should stay musically horrible. And I should learn to appreciate it more. I should learn to accept its invitation to join in one voice with my brothers and sisters, praising God without the inclinations of my sense of taste interfering.