CCM as Worship Music
I couldn't tell you how surprised I would have been as a kid to have walked into church and heard the music I listened to on our local Christian radio station being played to the congregation. I would have been less surprised to see the preacher in a polo shirt than to hear the church band jam out on a grand piano and electric drum set to "Jesus Freak" during the taking of offering.
Christian music was not for the church.
Church was about worshiping and getting closer to Jesus; Christian music was about asking questions and dealing with the stuff of Christian life the way that boy bands dealt with the stuff of relationships.
Church was about solemnity and spirituality and communion; Contemporary Christian lyrics dealt with realistic struggles people walking with Christ faced as they lived their Monday-to-Saturday lives.
But in a lot of ways, something has changed. Flip on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) radio and you'll probably just get a preview of the set the band will play at your super hip church on Sunday. You'll chant about how "Our God is (insert positive adjective here)", build up a few choruses of "How (insert affirming adjective here) is Our God", and have a pep in your step as you go about your merry week, just to hear the same barrage of canned happy on your car ride home.
CCM died. It's gone. We've had its funeral and played "God's Not Dead" for the invitation. While it is true that all music is worship (of something), CCM has become a watered-down version of everyone's favorite uplifting Psalm set to a familiar chord progression and sanitized for the masses. And that music is then sung by congregations when they gather on Sundays. Every CCM band is now a worship band, and CCM has just become a slough of the newest, sleekest-produced worship record.
Is that good or bad?
I realize that I'm speaking in generalities. Not EVERY band does this, and not EVERY church sings these songs, but it is a surprisingly representative observation. And that is BAD. You had to see that one coming.
I will begin by saying worship music is good. It is needed. It is for praising and singing to our Father about just how awesome He is. It is GOOD to ascribe worth to God, to praise His majesty, to remove our desires from the equation and give Him the glory that He is due.
But what happens when we start writing songs that do that, only to package them in a friendly wrapper and secure a marketing deal to sell records, book shows, and score some radio play? We commoditize worship. Selling our "Praise and Worship" should raise some questions about what, exactly, we are praising and worshiping.
The problem deepens. When our praise is packaged, sold, and bought on a mass scale, we create the very thing I am calling problematic: the genre of "worship music." When we make CCM nothing but the selling of what may be sincere and genuine worship (despite my cynical leaning) we erase what CCM was there to accomplish in the first place.
This is not an idealistic world. We have evil and temptation hitting us daily and we struggle with our faith. We are human, it is going to happen. If we put that struggle and those wrestlings on the back-burner and forget it then we do not ever grow in our faith. Without growth, there is an even deeper disconnect with what we believe in. It is sad when Kelly Clarkson can sing "What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger" and metaphorically it relates to Christians more than any Chris Tomlin song. If we have a one-dimensional view on Christianity then we honestly do not understand Christianity.
Once, CCM existed to artistically handle those questions. They embraced the doubt, asked important questions. Since I referenced DC Talk earlier, I'll bring them up again as an example.
On the "Jesus Freak" album was a song called "What If I Stumble," which you can hear at this link in a new window. Let's look at the chorus:
What if I stumble
What if I fall?
What if I lose my step
And I make fools of us all?
Will the love continue
When my walk becomes a crawl?
What if I stumble
And what if I fall?
What an important question. What an important concept that this song asks questions without providing direct answers. Questions are crucial, because we are built to ask them. Doubt is the gym where faith becomes stronger.
If our Christian Music market has become over-saturated with feel-good anthems that two monkeys with access to Christian lingo and a bongo could write, we lose the heart of the psalms, of the Lamentations, of the purpose that so much of Scripture serves: asking questions and seeking God in the middle of them.
What Do We Need?
A revolution within the church. Not just in the music, but the teachings as well. However, this article is focused on the music, so let's keep it there for the time being. We need a worship music revolution within the church because, as I mentioned in my last article, that is where the church musician typically begins their experience with Christian music. There is only one issue with this: it probably won't ever happen. Do you want to know why? It's because creativity does not exist for a church musician.
Church musicians are, largely, puppets. A worship leader picks through songs that are already written and recorded and makes a set-list. That set-list is sent out to other musicians who learn the songs and then perform them for a congregation. A worship set is essentially cover band, but instead of drunks singing along to "Friends in Low Places," you have people yawning and standing awkwardly singing the same Hillsong songs that they heard on the radio on the way TO the church. We wait on the next big song to be written (or stolen/performed) by a megachurch or Tomlin to come out so we can take the song and play it. If you think about it, how crappy is it that we only perform songs that the congregation knows well? We are scared to implement new songs either originally written by the church or songs that are not in a top 40 christian list. They might not be able to sing (or stand) along.
Why is everything arguably original in the church (sermons, bulletins, classes, etc) except for the music? A pastor intent on delivering nothing but the Word doesn't just preach popular topics, so why should our music be different? How worship(y) is it that we are catering the worship to the audience, instead of the audience and band worshiping to God?
You sing every lyrics to every Tomlin song out there but without the belief behind it, it means nothing. Sadly, I believe this is where worship music is heading. I believe that worship music before sermons may not even be needed if this trend continues. There are plenty of people that purposely show up to church 15-20 minutes late because they know the format and that the number of people that do this will grow.
Originality / Creativity
Would you stop going to church if your worship band began writing songs and playing them instead of the popular songs you hear on the radio? What if we shook up the whole worship team format and truly had a worship band? There are many churches that pay their musicians and many more that only pay their worship leader and a worship position could easily become a full time job if we implemented creativity on the church stage. I mean, isn't that what megachurches have done? Whether their motive is to create worship music or make money (because they are doing both really well), they actually started something and now the smaller churches are too lazy to do anything other than lean against the megachurches for their creativity.
I am not saying that churches have to write the next big hit. That is not what worship music is about. It isn't for anyone other than God and when we have ulterior motives involved, then it isn't worship music at all. What if churches had a full time band on staff that wrote originals solely for the church and not for a label? I realize that this is purely speculation and not entirely practical; it is expensive to do this sort of thing.
I don't have the answers, but there is a problem we need to address: Worship music has become a celebrity culture, and we worship at the altar of "great songs" that are easily adaptable to a church setting.
Something needs to happen. I do not have a definite answer on what that something is, but there needs to be a change. Something about the human heart reacts positively to song, and song has historically been a crucial avenue for asking and dealing with important questions. If the only people questioning faith are "secular" artists, we relegate questioning to a Christless world. We subconsciously separate questions and doubt from Godliness and send them to some place where they are bad and unnecessary. I challenge you to read through Scripture and take note of the sheer amount of questioning, existential doubt, and commitment to creativity; I challenge you also to see how Jesus responds to those asking questions: "I recognize your question, and I am capable of standing up to them. I know you have questions, and that is okay. But as for you, questioner, doubter, struggler, mourner, realize two things: I am the Truth, and you need to follow Me."