What’s wrong with our music?

Posted: January 20, 2012 by J in Church, General

Last year I wrote (at the canterburychurchplant blog) a post about the weakness of our music in our Gatherings.

I’ve never felt very satisfied with this state of affairs. I can’t help feeling weak music in the church reflects badly on Christ. Surely we should be good at singing!

So I’m back gnawing at this bone again.

Part of our struggle with music is that it’s so hard to find songs that say the sort of things we’re wanting to say, with music that suits.

Here’s what I mean: we want songs that tell the story we want to tell – the Jesus story. We want songs that speak of the mission of Christ, of God’s heart for the poor and the weak and the outcast. We want songs that celebrate community. We want songs of rescue, release and restoration. We want songs that adore the Trinity. We want songs that express worship and joy and thankfulness towards our great God.

And we want good music (tunes) to sing them to.

Now for my confession:

The old hymns are generally good at expressing wonder and worship. But many of them don’t manage to tell the story. Or they tell a different story that ends up with death and heaven. In fact, much of the hymn tradition is shot through with Platonic distortions, and it’s so often a trade-off, singing a mix of rival and incompatible stories.

The kind of songs we sing in the Sydney evangelical scene, I find generally lacking in emotional depth, and not suited to the weighty task of drawing the people of God to the presence of the God of glory. They also have trouble telling the story. How many of our songs manage to celebrate the incarnation, or the resurrection of Jesus? Or the work of the Spirit? Only a few. In general the theology is truncated and formulaic in its expression. The songs massively overuse the metaphor of a price being paid – an image very rare in Scripture. There is rarely a clear expression of God’s Trinity. Also, the music is often bland and two-dimensional. No one is moved. No one goes away singing the tunes. And the words are – well, much too wordy. Too many words. Not enough poetry. Not much poetry at all. I often wince inwardly at the hamfistedness of the lyrics.

We’re terrified, too, of some of the things that music is best at doing. Like repetition, that most natural of all musical devices. You know, where you get a chance to meditate on an idea over time. Also we’re terrified of intimacy. We can just hear some alpha male in the congregation saying ‘So Jesus is our boyfriend?’ But friends, if we can’t get close to Jesus and have our hearts touched, and pour them out in love to him in music, then when on earth can we do it?

Then there’s the Hillsong stuff, and other middle-of-the-road Pentecostalish efforts. Overall I think it’s got the most to offer. Much of it is shallow, but there’s so much of it, and every now and then there’s a good one. They do God’s presence better than others. They do wonder and praise better too. They sometimes achieve an emotional depth that we can only envy. Also they sometimes hit on the story and bring it to life. And the music is usually not boring. Sometimes you even go away singing it to yourself. But it’s still pretty limited, overall.

The churches I’ve been to that do singing/music the best are largely skimming the cream of this last category. Hmm.

I’d love to discover that there’s a great source of songs that we actually want to sing, that express what we’re on about, and uplift and inspire us, and stretch and challenge us.

Can anyone help us with this?

  1. Ben Hudson says:

    What songs are on your short list Jono?

    As for un-platonic hymns, how about: ‘Lo he comes with clouds descending’ (it’s been spruced up by Morrow somewhere on the internet). Or ‘Who is he in yonder stall’ – traditionally sung at Christmas, but it works anytime. (Nice acoustic version on Colin Buchanan’s Christmas album surprisingly enough).

    • Jonathan says:

      Yeah Ben I think those two are great, Lo He Comes is an all time classic. Haven’t heard the jazzed up version yet…

      I don’t really have a short list – that’s the problem. Or at least, it’s very very short.

      For non-Platonic hymns, My Song is Love Unknown has to be up there as an all-time classic. And I’m not thinking Coldplay.

      From Sydney i think a couple of Rob Smith’s are good: Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s strong Bands (a Luther hymn) is a classic, and Put a new song in my heart often does it for me. There’s probably a couple of others, but I’m listening to U2 at the mom, so can’t think of them.

      I think Martyn Layzell’s You chose the cross is good too.
      Beautiful Saviour by Townend works for me as praise, but then I haven’t sung it very often. That’s a problem too – when you find a good song, you want to sing it too much, it gets worn out. We need a good collection of the suckers…

      I’d like a tune for these words, Ben, for a worship song. Reckon you could help?

      Jesus my friend
      My pride and my boast
      You stood by my side
      When I needed you most.
      You took on yourself
      my flesh and its sin
      And walked here among us
      A man among men

      Jesus my friend
      You sweated for me
      Your own precious blood
      On a criminal’s tree
      And cried to your Father
      Through pain-shrouded skies
      And sweated our sin
      Till your veins ran dry.

      Jesus my friend
      Breath of my breath
      You rescued my life
      From the dark tomb of death
      You came to your Father
      In victory crowned
      To bring us to God,
      Healed of our ancient wound.

      Jesus my friend
      My master and King
      To you I belong
      In you will I sing
      Held fast in the bonds
      Of kinship forever:
      One flesh, one blood;
      My saviour, my brother.

  2. It is a well-established fact that the only people who can write decent church music are Old Black Dudes (Thomas A. Dorsey, James Cleveland, Blind Willie Johnson) or Poor White Trash (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe). Middle-class evangelicals just suck at it because we have no experience of worldly suffering or deliverance so our attempts to manufacture it in church music end up sounding trite. However, listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “I’m Glad Salvation Is Free” or the Stanley Brothers singing “I Saw The Light” and you believe it.

    Here’s what we need to do – Think about the person you that would usually be the music co-ordinator for your church (you know, the clean-cut guy/girl who plays the piano). Now don’t give them the job! Give it to the long-haired kid in the Megadeth shirt. He’s going to make more mistakes, but at least your church music folder won’t be filled with Pale Imitations Of Bands Who Suck (U2, Crowded House, Coldplay, etc).

    In the meantime, I repeat my call for an evangelistic prayerbook service with a full soul band (think James Brown in ‘The Blues Brothers), perhaps in Parramatta on a Friday night. I’m gonna do it one day…

    In the meantime, I’ll take a crack at those lyrics of Jonno’s.

    • Jonathan says:

      Wow! Great post Luke. You don’t pull your punches… I laughed a lot reading this!
      I think you’re right that musical failure is related to shallow life experience. Trouble is, we are so committed to shallow life experience.

      I’m not sure about your long-haired kid, but I’m all for ejecting to cleancut pianist! (Sorry all you CCPs out there – luv yous all really! Just keep your day-jobs).

      When you get that prayerbook service together, let me know, I’m there.


      • Charlie Ellis says:

        Hey Jono, I found your post buried in my in box and it caught my eye. I love to worship God with music. I’m all enthusiasm, with no talent. The church I’m at currently usually begins the Sunday service with 30 mins of singing (around 6 songs). Here are some of the songs they’ve used in the not too distant past, although this isn’t their most up to date list. I’ll let you seek them out on You Tube or elsewhere. I find these songs uplifting, engaging and encouraging.



        ‘Above All’ – Lenny Le Blanc, 1999
        ‘All Heaven Declares’ – Noel and Tricia Richards 1987
        ‘Amazing Love’ – Graham Kendrick 1989
        ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – Nicky Chiswell 1990
        ‘For All You’ve Done’ – Darlene Zschech and Reuben Morgan 2002
        ‘Glory’ – Reuben Morgan 2002
        ‘Hallelujah to the King of Kings’ Mark Peterson 2005
        ‘Here I am to Worship’ – Tim Hughes 2000
        ‘Highest Place’ – Mark Peterson 1998
        ‘Hosanna’ – Brooke Fraser 2006
        ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’ – Stuart Townend 1995
        ‘How great is our God’ – Christ Tomlin 2004
        ‘Jesus, what a beautiful name’ – Tanya Riches 1995
        ‘Let the peace of God reign’ – Darlene Zschech 1995
        ‘Lord reign in me’ – Brenton Brown 1998
        ‘My hope is built’ -Nicky Chiswell 1998
        ‘My Redeemer Lives’ – Reuben Morgan 1998
        ‘New song in my heart’ – Rob Smith 1999
        ‘See Him Coming’ – Mark Peterson 2003
        ‘The Heart of Worship’ – Matt Redman 1997
        ‘This is our God’ – Reuban Morgan 2008
        ‘Victory Chant’ – Joseph Vogels
        ‘What the Lord has done in me’ – Reuban Morgan 1998
        ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ – Darlene Zschech 2000
        ‘Worthy of all praise’ – Rob Smith 2004
        ‘You loved me’ – Trevor Hodge 1996
        ‘Your grace is enough’ – Matt Maher 2003

      • Jonathan says:

        Thanks brother for taking the trouble to share some good songs. Enjoy the singing!

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