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The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 2

In part 1, I named five of the more common criticisms we hear about modern worship: It is so noisy; there are too many monosyllabic chants (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…); it looks too much like a concert; the songs are so repetitive; and, it’s too much about ‘me’. 

I addressed the first three in part 1. It’s worth noting that the comment thread for that post is full of some wonderful thoughts, rebuttals, and more. Of special note is a blog my friend, Joel Clarkson– a brilliant orchestral and choral composer and arranger–wrote in response, calling worship music to a higher ‘glory’.

Now, to the final two critiques.

First, the critique that the songs are too repetitive. No one would deny that this is true, is true, true, true…(Sorry). The question is whether this is in itself problematic. While studying for a series on 1 John at our church, I came across these paragraphs from N. T. Wright on how John’s writing style is repetitive and why repetition can be a good thing:

“Sometimes when we sing hymns, the hymns tell a story. They move from one idea to another, in a linear fashion. There is something satisfying about this. We all like stories, and even when the ‘story’ is a sequence of ideas, it makes sense to us. We feel we have been on a journey. We have arrived somewhere where we were not before.

But sometimes, in some traditions at least, the things we sing in church are deliberately repetitive. We use them quite differently: as a way of meditation, of stopping on one point and mulling it over, of allowing something which is very deep and important to make more of an impact on us than if we just said or sung it once and passed on. Quite different traditions find this helpful: the Taizé movement in France, for instance, uses some haunting brief songs or chants; but you find the same thing in many branches of the modern charismatic movement, where repetition is an essential part of worship. True, some people find these tedious, and want to get back to old-fashioned hymns as quickly as possible. This may be partly a matter of personality. But it may also be that such people are unwilling to allow the truth of which the poem speaks to get quite so close to them. Repetition can touch, deep down inside us, parts that other, ‘safer’ kinds of hymn cannot reach, or do not very often.

Wright compares the modern charismatic movement– certainly a primary seedbed for modern worship music– to Taize traditions in their use of repetition. He even notes that many find it tedious and prefer the linear narrative structure of older hymns. But– and here’s the point–this may be due to personality rather than (a superior) spirituality. The New Testament writers demonstrated similar differences in personality and thus writing style. Paul is (largely) linear, building his case methodically. John is poetic, repeating his themes of light, life, and love by weaving them in and out of his teaching.

Worship ought to appeal to our cognition; but there is also a need for worship to go deeper than our understanding, to lead us into a mystery. Often the way that happens best is through repetition, so that we are no longer focused on connecting the ideas but on letting the truth work its way in us. (Another example of this is the Christian practice of ‘breath prayers’.)

Secondly, the critique that the songs are too ‘me-focused’. Once again, we acknowledge the legitimacy of such a critique. We must be careful to make our worship Trinitarian and Christ-centered. But is the inclusion of ‘me’ language’ inherently dangerous? Should we avoid the personal pronoun, or at least singular personal pronouns (I, me, my)?

Enter, St. John, again.

John’s Gospel is different from the Synpotics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in several ways that are relevant to our discussion.

For one, John overlaps with the synoptics in roughly only 10% of its material, leading one scholar to call it a ‘maverick’ among the Gospels.

Secondly, John depicts Jesus in remarkable personal settings. Matthew gives us Jesus’ lengthy ‘Sermon on the Mount’; Mark shows us Jesus on mission, doing miracles on the way; Luke gives us Jesus’ stories. But John gives us extended one-on-one encounters with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and the Woman at the Well, Jesus and Mary, Jesus and Martha, Jesus and Pilate, Jesus and Thomas, and finally, Jesus and Peter. Melanie Ross, a professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity, highlights John’s ’emphasis on personal faith’, drawing a parallel with non-liturgical evangelicals.

Thirdly, John is less sacramental than the Synoptics. If the shape of the Gospels are an expression of the worship in early Christian communities, then the Synoptics are where we find the ‘fourfold shape’ of Christian worship: baptism, word, prayer, table. The story of Jesus is told along this shape. But John, says Robert Gundry, downplays ‘sacrament and liturgy’. Jesus’ baptism goes unmentioned; the ‘Words of Institution’ are missing from John’s passover scene. The emphasis instead is on the words of Jesus and the work of the Spirit, an emphasis that many modern worship settings embody.

Prof. Ross’s summary of her reading of John provides both an affirmation of evangelical worship styles and a caution within it: ‘If the one event of Jesus requires four Gospels’, then ‘the single confession of faith requires a diversity of liturgical expressions’.

So, yes modern worship can be too ‘me-focused’. But worship must make room for a personal encounter with Jesus. And when we do, we find the power of Jesus’ words and the presence of the Spirit to give life. This is what we learn from the Gospel according to St. John.

[Melanie C. Ross, ‘Evangelical versus Liturgical? Defying a Dichotomy’]


A few final notes: First, to say that our critiques of modern worship are thin and cheap is not to say that (a) there is no truth to them, nor (b) that there are no critiques of modern worship. If you know me and my work, you know that I think that we should be diligent in wrestling with the way we worship because the way we worship becomes the way we believe. Corporate worship is not a throw-away, do-as-you-please sort of thing. It is the center of our life together as the people of God, and it is what shapes us and prepares us for mission.

Secondly, do not mistake what I have done in these two posts as an apologia for modern worship. I have not come close to that. All I have done is to say that none of these things– loudness, rock concert aesthetics, repetitive words, and personal language–are in themselves enough to dismiss modern worship. We cannot be lazy and look for one of these elements and then rush off to the blogosphere to roundly condemn the whole movement.

Finally, I believe the best critiques come from within. If the people within the modern worship movement refuse to think critically about what we are doing and why, then the ones who critique us will be the ones who don’t really know us or understand what we’re up to. So, pastors, worship leaders, songwriters, music publishers, record labels: Don’t shy away from the hard work of critical reflection on our calling. It is our life’s work. Let’s make it great for the glory of God and for the good of the Church.

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