Since they are obviously in need of defending.
Lawrence Henry has made the classic case against modern praise songs–they have trite lyrics and bad music. They are “whitebread,” lacking the soul of gospel. In short, they have virtually nothing to commend them.
It’s a claim frequently made. So frequently, in fact, that I wonder whether it is the dividing line between those who have been to Christian colleges and those who haven’t.
Or perhaps it demarcates the “post-evangelicals” from the rest of their “separated brethren.” I don’t know.
I hear the complaint most frequently from those who have walked the Canterbury, Rome, or Constantinople trails, but who retain the “evangelical temperament” (if there is such a thing). Usually, such individuals fail to name one of the praise songs they are belittling (thankfully, Henry gives us one).
In almost every case–as in Henry’s–such complaints lack the sort of nuance that demonstrates a genuine depth of thought that takes seriously the potential value of praise music. It is easy to write off the popular and as trite. It is hard to look for value in what seems valueless.
I offer, then, three cheers and a jeer for the evangelical use of praise songs.
Cheer Number 1: Evangelical worship songs are, on the whole, easy to sing, easy to remember and relatively simple. They also, on the whole, present truths that are theologically sound. As such, they allow an outpouring of emotion often more easily than the sometimes more cerebral hymns. When I want to tell my wife I love her, it turns out that sometimes the best and most effective way of doing it sounds trite to the outside observer.
Cheer Number 2: Like the hymns, many evangelical worship songs take their choruses directly from Scripture. Their simple structure and emphasis on singability allows them to get stuck in the head rather easily. As such, they are beneficial for fulfilling Paul’s exhortation that we should be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody with your heart to the Lord.” In Paul’s words, worship songs are “songs the Spirit uses.” Evangelical worship songs can–and have been quite often for me–be such songs, and are well-fitted for the task.
Cheer Number 3: The evangelical worship service and its emphasis on the emotional often allows maximal freedom on the part of the worshipper (this is particularly true of Pentecostal services). Such freedom allows the worshipper to respond as the Lord is leading him at that particular moment.
A jeer: The complaint about the triteness of worship songs ignores a deeper and more troubling ailment: the lack of Scripture in the evangelical worship service. The last six years (yes, even post-graduation) I have attended Singspiration, Biola Universitie’s Sunday evening all-worship service, on a semi-regular basis. In recent years (upon graduation), I have noticed a considerable drop-off in the amount of Scripture being read during the hour long worship service. This phenomenon is true of the other Sunday morning services I have attended in recent years, which makes me think that we as evangelicals have deeper problems than the songs we sing.
Yet trite songs are not the problem, if such songs are placed in a carefully crafted context replete with the Word of God. Worship services need to have a narrative, and that narrative needs to be thoroughly Biblical. If worship leaders can achieve that, then the simplicity of worship songs becomes an effective way of helping worshipers respond to the truth of the Gospel.
One final point: the argument against trite praise songs often ignores the gems that have been written since the 1970s (“There is a Redeemer,” “Blessed Be Your Name,” “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”) and the “trite” songs within the hymn tradition like “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” and “I Surrender All,” both of which compare to many modern choruses.
Other thoughts from around the blogosphere: