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:

The Thinklings
Boundless Line
Think Christian
Scott Kay

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

5 Comments

  1. Comment on praise songs…

    Some comments on Matt’s post on praise songs…….

    Reply

  2. Well said, Matthew. Henry’s arguments are both elitist and musically uninformed. Musical styles change constantly. The Scriptures exhort us in a number of places to sing a “new song” to the Lord, and this even happens in the book of Revelation as it describes the worship of the saints before God’s throne.

    Henry and others are stuck in a musical nostalgia while the musical art moves forward. The encouragements to write new songs are not a condemnation of the old, but a recognition of the creative power humans have been given by our Creator God, and an acknowledgment of the living Holy Spirit within us. Every generation of authentic Christians has created its own, new art. We honor the old, because it represents a time of the Spirit moving in history, but we also honor the new for the same reason — the Spirit still lives and moves and breathes new life into the church.

    As a musician, let me also point out that congregational singing as a worship experience is a tough thing to do. So many people are musically challenged that they freeze up. You can’t worship when you’re uptight about the worship vehicle. Singing aloud in a group is only done culturally at sporting events (National Anthem) and in church. Many people don’t like the sound of their voices and have had no formal musical training. (This is especially true today, where schools have drastically cut back general music education.)

    Praise music tries to use familiar musical phrases (the sort you hear in pop music radio broadcasts) so that a generation familiar with the style will be able to join in confidently, and also (as you point out) remember the songs later, during more private experiences of God’s presence.

    Charles Wesley borrowed some of his melodies from taverns for the same reason — his congregations could join in and sing music they knew.

    As for Henry’s horror about “combos!”… the account in 1 Chron. 15:28 as David brings the Ark home sounds loud and spontaneous to me. More celebration than art, I would guess. I can see Henry off to one side (with Michal), shaking his head in disapproval.

    Reply

  3. Charlie,

    Your comment really…struck a chord (couldn’t resist), particularly this part:

    “Henry and others are stuck in a musical nostalgia while the musical art moves forward. The encouragements to write new songs are not a condemnation of the old, but a recognition of the creative power humans have been given by our Creator God, and an acknowledgment of the living Holy Spirit within us. Every generation of authentic Christians has created its own, new art. We honor the old, because it represents a time of the Spirit moving in history, but we also honor the new for the same reason — the Spirit still lives and moves and breathes new life into the church.”

    As I thought about it more last night, I realized that many of the hymns reflect the musical styles of the periods and geographical locations in which they were written. As such, it seems hymnody has always followed the popular musical traditions of the past. If critics should criticize anything, it’s probably the homogenization of music that has resulted from mass media and the corresponding effect on Christian praise. Perhaps what’s needed are more local, more particularized musical styles.

    Also, having been attending a higher church Episcopalian church for some time, I think the singability factor matters a lot (as you point out). Many of the older non-evangelical hymns are VERY difficult to sing without musical training. The irony, of course, is that while the emphasis is ostensibly on corporate rather than individual worship, it makes it harder for the body to sing together because the songs are so tough.

    Reply

  4. David the Hobbit January 6, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    A little late but I’ll join the conversation…OK, I grew up with the stately and theologically deep hymns of classic Anglicanism and the beautiful hymns of Catholicism. I’m sorry but a mega church full of trailer trash singing “Thank you, thank you, Jesus” over and over just cannot compare to “A Mighty Fortress” or “Panis Angelicus”. The Church should not only tend to souls but should also culturally uplift, not dumb down.

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *