Best Line of Argument on Contemporary Worship Music

The most helpful stuff on contemporary worship music I’ve read comes from those trained to discern the meaning of cultural forms (semiotics). That’s why media ecologists like T. David Gordon are so insightful. I’m not the prophet he is, but see his article, “The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music: Eight Reasons.” One point that has stuck with me:

One generation cannot successfully “compete” with 50 generations of hymn-writers; such a generation would need to be fifty times as talented as all previous generations to do so. If only one-half of one percent (42 out of over 6,500) of Charles Wesley’s hymns made it even into the Methodist hymnal, it would be hubristic/arrogant to think that any contemporary hymnist is substantially better than he. Most hymnals are constituted of hymns written by people with Wesley’s unusual talent; the editors had the “pick of the litter” of almost two thousand years of hymn-writing. In English hymnals, for instance, we rarely find even ten of Paul Gerhardt’s 140 hymns, even though many musicologists regard him as one of Germany’s finest hymnwriters. Good hymnals contain, essentially, “the best of the best,” the best hymns of the best hymnwriters of all time; how could any single generation compete with that?

Just speaking arithmetically, one would expect that, at best, each generation could represent itself as well as other generations, permitting hymnal editors to continue to select “the best of the best” from each generation. Were this the case, then one of every fifty hymns we sing should be from one of the fifty generations since the apostles, and, therefore, one of every fifty should be contemporary, the best of the current generation of hymnwriters. Perhaps this is what John Frame meant when, in the second paragraph of his book on CWM, he indicated that he had two goals for his book: to explain some aspects of CWM and to defend its “limited use” in public worship. Perhaps Prof. Frame thought one out of fifty constituted “limited use,” or perhaps he might have permitted as much as one out of ten, I don’t know. But our generation of hymnwriters, while talented and devout, are not more talented or more devout than all other generations, and are surely not so by a ratio of fifty-to-one.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

15 thoughts on “Best Line of Argument on Contemporary Worship Music”

  1. Given that the overwhelming majority of our hymnody post-dates the Reformation, I’m a bit skeptical of the 50 generations line. We’ve got some older outliers like Be Thou My Vision and a few Christmas carols, but the curve really starts in the 16th century and picks up rapidly in the 18th.

    There’s also an ahistorical bent to the argument: the idea that time sifts out inferior cultural products like chaff leaving only the best behind. I’d be surprised if the 42 Wesley hymns included in modern Wesleyan hymnals are truly the best by any kind of objective measure. It strikes me as just as likely that those 42 were the most popular in their day and age because of various cultural and religious trends and stuck because of it. They won the popularity contest, not a hymn-writing competition.

  2. I thought I’d get you, Paul. =) I actually agree with you on one big point you make. It’s not 50 generations, but rather, say 300 years, give or take. But I think the point still stands, because I’m not willing to dismiss English hymnody as a popularity contest. I’m willing to invest the popular decisions of the church with some wisdom and merit, even though I wish certain songs (especially from the gospel song era) would not be so popular… There really is such good spiritual food in, for example, Charles Wesley’s work. And I think “In Christ Alone” has immediately achieved such great popularity because it has that quality of a rich, enduring piece.

    Did you read the rest of Gordon’s article?

  3. Oh, I don’t mean to dismiss English hymnody (although I can see how my comment came off as dismissive). I love classic hymns. For a time, I read a selection out of a 18th century Welsh hymnal as part of my daily devotions. But there’s a difference between saying, “Stuff from the past has value and we are shortchanging ourselves when all we sing is ‘In Christ Alone'” (a sentiment that I agree with) and suggesting that age imparts grace, which is something Gordon does both in this point and in his other points.

    I call that an ahistorical idea because the discipline of history is all about complicating simple narratives. Good things survive. Good things fall by the wayside. Bad things survive. Bad things fall by the wayside. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike.

  4. That was a great article for me. It wasn’t the mathematics that struck me but the line about Beethoven being enjoyed 300 years from now. I was trying to come up with a CCM song that I could imagine being listened to 300 years from now…still trying.

  5. When we sing ‘contemporary’ (i.e. conforming to modern or current ideas in style, fashion, design, etc.) songs today we tend to sing them in the ‘popular’ style of our times. I wonder if in the past eras of hymn writing were those ‘contemporary’ hymns sung in the ‘popular’ idiom of the day or were they sung in a form outside the then popular fashion?

  6. I don’t really think Gordon was arguing against using contemporary worship music. He was just making the observation that contemporary worship music has in recent years been overused and is now regressing to the mean. It seems to me that his observations apply equally to the music of people like Ron Hamilton, Mac Lynch, Dwight Gufstason, Faye Lopez, Chris Anderson, and Dan Forrest as they do to the music of the Gaithers, the Gettys, Sovereign Grace, Chris Tomlin, and Casting Crowns. We should not use contemporary music to the exclusion of the rich musical tradition passed to us through English hymnody. We also shouldn’t use traditional hymns to the exclusion of contemporary music. Talented hymn writers in our generation should be encouraged and supported so that we can pass on a richer tradition of English hymns to subsequent generations.

  7. Cecil, I agree with your read of Gordon—especially if we clarify that by “contemporary music” we mean “music written during our lifetimes.”

    What I mean by referring to “CWM” in my title is that pop, country, hip-hop, and other contemporary musical idioms are in fact that: languages that mean something. And the question is, can musical form communicate something that is inimical to worship? And then, do pop forms (especially) in fact do so?

    Here’s a great quote from Munson and Drake’s Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, a book by two Grove City profs (Gordon is also at Grove City) that I’d encourage all Christians to read:

    Early on, we Christians bought into postmodernity’s aesthetic relativism hook, line, and sinker. Some still fight for goodness and truth; we know that the goodness of God’s will and the truth of his Word are absolute, but the forms they take are said to be culturally determined and morally neutral. Wasn’t it the Pharisees who cared about form? As long as we get the substance of the gospel right, it does not matter how we proclaim it, or so we think. But we’re inconsistent. For all our aesthetic relativism, we fight over forms today as much as ever. It’s just that now we have a guilty conscience about it, because deep inside we have come to think that forms have little to do with the “big” issues.

  8. Enjoyed that. What fundamentalist wouldn’t appreciate Getty’s (gracious) refusal to take propitiation out of his top hymn because the PCUSA didn’t like it?

    Ok, so Getty says, “Contemporary worship seems to be more about an immediate emotional connection with no particular theological depth or long-term approach.” If he gets to make this broad-brush criticism of church music, and I think he’s qualified to do so, then do conservative Christians get to say, “Hey, um, why don’t we just avoid using and even listening to such music?” And do we get to ask our brother Keith, whom I respect and value highly, “Are do all of the styles used with ‘In Christ Alone’ serve equally well to communicate the precious truth of the song?” Can we ask him, a bit more pointedly, “Don’t some styles serve ‘immediate emotional connection’ and thus tend to obscure the theological depth?”

  9. You’ve got some term slippage here, I think. It doesn’t read to me like Getty means the same thing by “contemporary worship” as you do. You are using it to denote a certain set of instrumental practices–drums, electric guitars, etc–while he employs it to describe quite literally “music written today (by people other than us).” (-:

  10. Actually, I make that very distinction in an earlier comment, Paul. I think it’s an important one to make, because, while age doesn’t impart grace, neither does contemporaneity impart depravity. We need new stuff. I think my previous comment stands…

  11. Ah, I stopped reading comments after our first exchange. I see it now. “Idioms” is definitely better than what I came up with for you in “instruments.” But I still don’t think you mean the same thing by “contemporary” as Getty. He’s not thinking about “idioms” but chronology.

  12. Mark, thanks for clarifying. I agree that musical forms can be inimical to worship. I would suggest, however, that “worship” is too broad a term to be useful in discussing musical idioms. Worship can be formal and orderly (1 Corinth 12:26ff) or spontaneous (2 Samuel 6:5ff; Hebrews 13:15), public or private, joyful, sober, sorrowful, etc. Musical idioms are more or less appropriate for worship depending on the occasion of worship (i.e. place, participants, purpose, etc.). With regard to “pop” music, the genre “pop” music is too broad to make any statements about a particular tune’s appropriateness to a particular occasion. I can really only think of a few genres of music that are categorically inimical to worship (e.g. aleatoric music, screamo, death metal, etc.). These forms of music don’t seem to be effective vehicles for communicating anything beyond chaos and randomness. Other forms of music are more or less appropriate depending on the occasion of worship.

    I’ve read a few books that address the issue of worship music (Measuring the Music http://goo.gl/yrPj3b, Music in the Balance http://goo.gl/gD79a8, Art and the Bible http://goo.gl/WZpc4D). These book failed, perhaps intentionally, to give a detailed, reasonable, and biblical account of the complex issues involved in making and performing music for worship. Fred Coleman does an admirable job in a short amount of time here (http://goo.gl/wxnvLa). I listened to the 6-lecture version in undergrad. He seems to be sensitive to the complexities involved. Scott Aniol has also been helpful (http://f.cl.ly/items/1C0y1R25043V0P0L3y2h/Aniol%20-%20Correcting%20Categories.pdf). Many of the complexities involved are beyond my grasp at the moment, but I am trying to work through them. I will look at the book you recommended. The preview was interesting.

  13. I’m with you, Cecil. Looks like you’ve done some good study. I think you’ll enjoy Munson and Drake.

    And I hope you’ll get a chance to pick up our new book at BJU Press when it comes out!

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