Why does church music suck?

Posted: October 21, 2014 by J in Church

I’ve written before about the weakness of our church music. 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, repentance, 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. Seumas says:

    The Psalms. This is the source you are looking for.

    Only being half tongue-in-cheek. I don’t know why (well, I do) more churches don’t sing words that are a God-Inspired expression of what God desires us to say to him.

    On your other points I would say, clearly not all hymns are irretrievably Platonic. I think you like to read Platonism into things sometimes. There is enough of a history and breadth of hymns that there are some goods ones in there.

    And clearly some songs really are about Jesus as my boyfriend. If Hillsong’s success is due to churning out enough songs that some are good, surely the same is true of the hymn tradition. But if sheer number of songs is what we need, isn’t this an odd, Christianesque version of monkeys on typewriters?

  2. J says:

    Hi Seumas, thanks for your comments. It would be so good to be able to sing the psalms wouldn’t it.

    There are some great hymns, you’re right. Which makes it a pity that we keep on singing the Platonic ones instead.
    Reading Platonism into things is no doubt a failing of mine, a weakness of the flesh. Probably I won’t be cured of it until I finally shed this corporeal shell and soar up into heaven. In the mean time, at least ‘it is well with my soul!’ 🙂

  3. dan says:

    Hey J. I think our church is generally in that category of skimming the best (mostly) from the pentecostals. We also use some hymns. Some of them are awesome. (eg. Come thou fountain, how great thou art, how marvellous etc.) Check out this song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uV_86niyJSs Not really congregational, but tells a bit of a story and has a verse on each member of the trinity. Also this one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8u0pGvb30U We sing this as a congregation. Last verse is especially good. Not sure either of these would suit your gathering though.

    This is also one I like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJpHhCDLXaI&index=15&list=PLBD754796AF125D2D All about Jesus. Lots of moments from his life. The repeated refrain is, ‘My God takes the broken and makes them whole.’ I like it.

    And this one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwU_6PYfzF0

    And yeah, Psalms aye? Agree. If only someone would write decent tunes for them… Here’s one. Psalm 36. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEF7IoQ3eUk

  4. Hey…I blog about this all the time….check out my list of great songs for congregations (well I find they are well received…some good poetry etc)….. http://sevennotesofgrace.com/church-songs/
    Also one of the categories is Church songs shortlist….check that out in the menu. Blessings from Brisbane!

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