In Defense of Modern Worship
It was during a family dance party to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” that our patriarch commented about the vapid lyrics. “They just don’t make them like they used to,” he concluded. I teased back: “Sure, because ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Duke of Earl’ were so profound!
Musical preferences are profoundly etched into us. One generation’s trash is another generation’s treasure.
Modern worship has a bullseye on it. It’s a fairly regular occurrence that I read a blog or a reflection in a book decrying the insipid lyrics we sing in our churches or hear a complaint from a congregant about modern worship.
Last week I defended the treasure of hymns for the church. This is my defense of modern worship.
A few disclaimers:
1) I am not claiming that all modern worship is good: there is a plenty that isn’t good;
2) I am not making an argument that modern worship is any better than any other era of music;
3) I am not making an argument that your church should primarily sing modern worship; there’s nothing wrong with a church that chooses songs that are several decades or several centuries old.
With that said, here are four reasons that we should enjoy modern worship:
1) Modern worship obeys God’s command to sing a new song.
We are commanded to sing new songs to God. The Psalmist tells us, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth!”[i] There will never be a moment for all of eternity that the well of worship will run dry. God is infinite and so our praise is endless. We are called to participate in new expressions of praise to our limitless God and join in singing with all we are!
2) Modern worship is musically fresh.
Modern worship’s structure is typically: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. This lends to music that is slightly more musically diverse than classic hymns, but slightly less lyrically diverse. Why do I say that? Because there are typically three musical sections of a modern worship song, with a chorus that repeats, while most hymns repeat the same tune three to five times, but have different lyrics for each verse. So hymns typically have more lyrical content while musically, modern worship is more varied.
It should be noted that if you go back further into the church’s musical tradition (early church music and Gregorian chant), those were primarily based on the Psalms and were, in general, far less lyrically rich than even modern worship.[ii] In fact, in some of the Psalms themselves, you find quite a bit of repetition: see Psalm 100 and 150 for example. But modern worship engages a broader swath of music and does so with more diversity in each song.
3) Modern worship is jubilant.
One surprise when you dig into what Old Testament worship looked like is that it was loud. In the Psalms we are told to “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.”[iii] We are told to “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”[iv] And, every drummer’s favorite verse: “Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!”[v] While there are certainly hymns that live up to this call, on the whole, modern worship excels in jubilant worship.
This of course isn’t to state that worship shouldn’t be reverent and even somber at times. A healthy worshiping body includes both calm and contemplative moments as well as dynamic moments of praise and weeks that are more reverent and weeks that are more jubilant. Most of us have a mode of worship that is more comfortable for us: quieter and meditative or louder and jubilant. It’s healthy for us to grow in both directions as worshipers.
4) Modern worship is theologically strong.
This declaration might surprise you the most. In fact, the most pointed accusation I hear against modern worship is that it is theologically weak. Granted, by its very nature, modern worship has not been vetted by time as our favorite hymns have been. However, it takes only a cursory glance at hymns to find hymns that are very theologically weak and likewise it takes only a cursory glance at modern worship to find theologically rich songs.
Let’s consider a few theologically weak hymns. In “He Lives,” we sing that we know Jesus lives because “He lives within my heart”: that places the foundation of our beliefs in our feelings, not on the Word of God. In “Away in a Manger” we sing that “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”: that smacks of a Savior who is not fully human. “I’ll Fly Away” can encourage escapist theology. “In the Garden” is sentimental and leans toward an individualistic faith when we sing “And the joy we share as we tarry there none has ever known.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not for a minute suggesting that the hymns don’t contain some of the most powerful and rich lyrics ever composed. They do! “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Amazing Grace,” “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” and on and on! Gems all! And certainly there is dross in modern worship. But there is a lot less dross you might think if you examine modern worship closely.
A sampling of the top of the charts of modern worship finds songs rich in biblical truth. Consider some of the rich theology in the following modern worship songs:
What a Beautiful Name by Hillsong
You were the Word at the beginning
One With God the Lord Most High
Your hidden glory in creation
Now revealed in You our Christ
This is Amazing Grace by Phil Wickham
Who brings our chaos back into order
Who makes the orphan a son and daughter
The King of Glory, the King of Glory
Lord I Need You by Matt Maher
Where sin runs deep Your grace is more
Where grace is found is where You are
Where You are, Lord, I am free
Holiness is Christ in me
King of My Heart by Bethel
Let the King of my heart
Be the mountain where I run
The fountain I drink from
Oh, He is my song
Let the King of my heart
Be the shadow where I hide
The ransom for my life
Oh, He is my song
Cornerstone by Hillsong
When darkness seems to hide His face
I rest on His unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale
My anchor holds within the veil
If heaven is a place where every tribe and tongue are gathered, heaven will be a place of worship that is diverse beyond our comprehension. It is to our credit, then, when our musical preferences grow. I have been richly fed by Gregorian chant, traditional hymns, classical music, spirituals, urban and traditional gospel, bluegrass worship, as well as contemporary and modern worship. In heaven we will get to appreciate them all—and more!
Let’s appreciate the gift of all types of worship God has granted the church, and lean into preparing for heaven a bit more by appreciating more and more of the songs we get to sing for eternity!
Next week, I want to pick up one final objection against a subset of modern songs that I didn’t have room to properly address here: that they are too intimate and turn Jesus into a heavenly boyfriend.
The other two parts of this three-part series can be found here:
[i] Psalm 96:1
[iii] Psalm 33:3
[iv] Psalm 47:1
[v] Psalm 150:5
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