Contemporary Christian Music and Worship: A Variety of Composition From Christianity Today
In its series on “worship music,” Christianity Today Magazine has published an article by Lawrence R. Mumford, PhD, a professor at the Biola University Conservatory of Music, looking at what Contemporary Christian Worship Music is. Mumford spent many years playing in praise and worship bands, as a minister of music in two Los Angles churches, and writing pop music. Mumford describes it, looking solely at the music, as a “subgenre of the American popular music that emerged in the mid-1960s and has been pervasive in society ever since…. This relatively recent pop music, with its almost infinite branches, includes soft rock, hard rock, country crossover, folk rock, punk rock, alternative, adult contemporary, rhythm and blues, hip-hop, and so forth. It has always been a model for CCM, and a few creative CCM artists have been musical innovators in their own right.” Truth be told, CCM has its origins and roots in the “Jesus Movement” of the 1960s, part of the hippie counter-culture (with elements of mysticism, revivalism, and communal living), and the Charismatic Renewal Movement (with strong elements of unexplained spiritual experiences described as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, supernatural power of the Spirit and mysticism), particularly in Australia where some of the most popular praise and worship songs originate.
What are the characteristics of this music? Rhythm with an off-beat accent, more rhythm with a rock beat, and a middle of the road vocal sound designed to appeal to a wide audience. And do not forget the guitar solos and other improvisations that fill in some gaps in the music. Mumford describes:
“Nearly every pop and CCM song displays three musical traits that do not occur in hymns, traditional choral and organ pieces, or classical symphonic music. These are:
1. Consistent syncopation. This refers to an off-beat “kick” or accent to at least one beat in virtually every bar of the music, and often a complex of these rhythms. Such syncopation originated in African music and was brought to the U.S. from the 17th to the 19th century. Syncopation does not occur consistently in the classical music of Europe, primarily because that continent did not enslave large numbers of Africans.
2. A drum set percussionist playing a constant “rock” beat. This includes placing accents on the second and fourth beats of a measure in 4/4 time, which is itself another subtle syncopation.
3. A pleasing middle-ground vocal style that is neither rankly amateurish nor operatic. Additional musical traits that are common, although not found in every song, include a chord palette with occasional “modal” chords (unusual chromatic chords that originated in British and Appalachian folk music), a guitar playing supporting chords, an electric bass playing in a complementary fashion to the drummer, and improvised instrumental solos and fill-in patterns.”
This music is not found in the “traditional” music of the church, the music that up until 20 or 30 years ago had been the standard in the church for centuries. Although he offers no explanation for it, Mumford finds the fact that the CCM style is not found in the worship music of the church astonishing. Mumford observes “if I were to play “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” followed by “Here I Am to Worship” on the same keyboard and with the same vocalist, I would be performing in two musical languages.” The music is not a development or outgrowth of our history, our shared past. Rather, it is something new and different, a radical departure:
“CCM is therefore not merely a stylistic development of church music from the past, like the change in art styles from the Renaissance to the Baroque. It is instead a radical departure from the past, and might be compared to the difference between a cathedral and a skyscraper. Both buildings shelter their occupants from the elements, and both may be identical in height and square footage—but they are made of very different materials.”
When there is such a radical departure from the way things have always been done, a radical departure from precedent, there is usually required strong justification for such a move away from what has been established. The usual answers given for using CCM in the church today are given on grounds of relevance — read outreach — (those old hymns just do not speak to me or seekers), or to reach our children (gotta play the music the kids like), or the need for an experience in worship (I do not get anything out of traditional church). Mumford offers several explanations for how this music has come to play such a prominent role in our churches today:
“Several arguments have justified the inclusion, and even the dominance, of CCM in many churches today. It is identical in style and instrumentation to the popular music that every attendee hears constantly on the radio, in stores, in television ads, and in many films. It also complements the often large collections of recordings that baby boomers and younger consumers have amassed since as far back as the years of the Beach Boys and the Beatles. When CCM is performed live—especially with lighting effects, backdrops, loud amplification, and so forth—it evokes the excitement of the stadium rock concerts that many of us have attended.
“The pop style also contains a richness of emotional expression that may explain why it has come to dominate worship when, for example, the big band jazz or swing-era singing of the 1930s and ’40s did not. The famous American music composer Aaron Copland, after writing several jazz-influenced pieces during that era, said, “I felt that I had done all I could with the idiom, considering its limited emotional scope …. American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz models: the ‘blues’ and the snappy number.” As a result, the Greatest Generation tended to turn to classical composers for ceremonial, patriotic, and especially worship music. In other words, they danced to Glenn Miller on Saturday night, but on Sunday morning they worshiped to classical choral music, the tribute music of Copland, and traditional hymns and Johann Sebastian Bach-like organ preludes, because this music met their emotional needs better than the era’s popular styles.
“On the other hand, boomers and younger listeners who enjoy pop classics may be familiar with sensitive songs like “Abraham, Martin and John,” “MacArthur Park,” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It is hard to imagine any of these as jazz-era hits, yet they all sold millions in the late 1960s. They proved that pop was capable of expressing a range of emotions, and that it could be performed with a full orchestral background. Some would call these songs miniature classics, and the best of them could even be compared with the piano/vocal genre in classical music known as “art song.” When CCM albums like Amy Grant’s extremely popular Age to Age (which includes an arrangement of a Bach fugue as the introduction to one song) were released in the early 1980s, the subgenre joined the mainstream as a powerful artistic force. Artists were able to speak to an entire generation of Christians in its own language, and in a voice that ranged from a roar to a whisper.”
Mumford points to four basic reasons which could be used as the basis for an argument that CCM should dominate our worship in our churches:
- It is identical in style and instrumentation to the music we hear every day;
- It complements our own music collections;
- It evokes the excitement of the stadium rock concerts that we attend; and
- It contains a richness of emotional expression that meets the emotional needs of people today.
That is not to say that CCM/pop music is the only genre of music that is out there for our public consumption, just the most popular. “But the simple truth is that our culture has not eliminated all other styles. The most obvious competitor is film music, which is a compendium of both classical and popular elements displayed on a large canvas…. Musical theater is also extremely popular, and might be called a hybrid, falling somewhere between popular songs and classical music’s “light opera….” In addition, churchgoers frequently attend local symphonic band, choral, and orchestra concerts and recitals, none of which are usually dominated by pop songs.” Mumford concludes that contemporary praise and worship music should not be used to the exclusion of all other forms and varieties of music that we have in the church. “[T]o ignore all other kinds of music does not reflect contemporary life. Such a practice will not only prevent young churchgoers from recognizing and remembering hymns and other sacred music from the past 500 years, it may even produce in them an underdeveloped artistic sense (“Jesus loves little Johnny who plays a guitar, but forget little Billy who plays the trumpet”). This may also make it difficult for young people to enter and function in a culture that still values intellectual achievement and the art of music in all its guises.”
Mumford’s conclusion is right on the mark, but I am afraid that it gets lost in translation given some of the assumptions that run through his article. First and foremost, is that the culture in which we live defines who we are as Christians. Because we listen to pop music every day, we should have that style of music in the church. Because we drink Starbucks, we need to make part of our church resemble a coffee house. There was a time when the church was seen as the transformative instrument in the world, acting on the surrounding culture through the transmission of the Word as the body of Christ. No longer — the culture is acting on and transforming the church, and, in what seems to be a trend, we are allowing it. In the name of relevance, outreach, mission and doing the work of God. The world says do not bring your best to God. Instead, bring what has mass appeal. It is popular so it must be good. And that is exactly what we are doing, and what we think we are supposed to do. I wonder, though, if this does not come from a worldview that does not see Christ at the center of Scripture, and, hence Christ at the center of our lives as we live and breathe, and, instead, comes from a worldview that says Jesus died for me, I am a Christian, now lets get on with the main point of Scripture, God’s promise to Israel of an earthly kingdom and let’s do some kingdom building to create the circumstances that will bring Jesus back to establish His kingdom on earth. In the former, Christ defines our identity and everything depends on Him and what He does. Holy Scripture is alive to work in and through us to make us who we are, to lead us to the foot of the Cross and to receive the forgiveness of sins, and life through the Word and Sacraments. The focus is on the saving work of Christ and the power of the Word. In the latter worldview, everything depends on me. The main purpose and plan of God is kingdom-building for His chosen people, Israel. We can choose to join in this work, giving our lives to Christ, and set about the work of getting people saved and protecting Israel so they can live in Jesus’ earthly kingdom which He will establish for His people, Israel. Sacred Scripture does not have the same life giving power, and is, instead, an instruction manual telling us how to live a God-pleasing life, and telling us about the promises of God for Israel and the blessings He wants to give us. The focus is on this life and receiving blessings now. Not the Cross. Not the empty tomb. What really matters is what I do, and I have the power to do it.
Another assumption is that, to be a Christian you have to show others that you are. And to know that others are Christians you have to have common, spiritual experiences — you have to feel something, feel different than before — we have to feel the presence of God in our lives. Emotions convey feelings that are personal to you. Music can express what you feel inside in ways that words cannot. CCM can tap into those inner feelings, and it is used to do just that. The most telling observation that Mumford relates is the powerful feeling that one gets at a rock concert with big screens, lights flashing, screeching guitars, booming bass, thumping drum beats causing us to sway in unison, raising our lighters and joining our voices and flickering flames with the band. Very moving, powerful. And that is what the music is designed to do — to inspire, to move, to tap into your feelings and emotions. It is designed to evoke a subjective experience in me that hopefully others will also experience at the same time. We are united because of this emotional feeling shared through the music, through the shoe, and through the band. And there is the rub. We cede power over ourselves to the music — “So I’ll stand with arms held high and heart abandoned, In awe of the one who gave it all; So I’ll stand my soul Lord to You surrendered — All I am is yours” — and ultimately to the band that is playing the music despite what the lyrics say — they are usually less important and serve the music in evoking that emotional experience. For CCM it is the power of the music that inspires you, that brings you closer to God. If a CCM song can touch your life and cause you to emote, it is evidence that you are a Christian. But our emotions betray us. We get carried away with them, and they lead us into some awful things — crimes of passion, cult experiences, bad relationships, addiction, despair, emptiness, loneliness. It is quite prophetic that our Declaration of Independence penned more than 230 years ago recognizes emotional experience as a — if not the — driving force for man when it holds as a self-evident truth the right of all men to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That feeling that emotion of happiness. Do we ever really attain it? Can we ever capture that feeling and hold on to it? Or are we always chasing it? And what happens when the music stops? I suppose we have to keep coming back to church for the music to feel closer to God.
The point of this post is not to say that CCM is intrinsically bad or that its proponents have bad intentions. The compass, however, is not pointing true north to the Cross of Christ. Instead, it is fixed squarely on me, my emotions, and my subjective experience, and the band’s power to evoke that experience through means such as light and video shows, rhythmic music following a specified formula. Rather than letting the culture define who we are, let Christ give us our identity. To be relevant to the culture does not mean the church must embrace it or become the culture. The church should always be an outsider in this world. The church is a haven, a place where people step outside of the mundane, everyday world, and into the sacred Kingdom of God. Everything we do inside of the church should show that we are indeed different. For we are strangers in a strange land, aliens here. But we are all a royal priesthood, sons and daughters of the King of kings, not just rock star royalty and groupies.
God also demands that we approach Him in the right way. He demands that, as royalty, we give Him our best, and we present our best to the world. Remember the story of Cain and Abel? Aaron’s sons who had just been ordained as priests? Ananias and Sapphira? Should we treat our worship services like any other event we attend any other day of the week? Or is this truly a special occasion, a special day when we gather on the Lord’s Day? Paul rebuked the Corinthians for how they were treating the Lord’s Day, and specifically the Eucharist. They too were only doing what the culture around them demanded. Yet Paul reminded them that when they gather together that they gather as one body in the very presence of Christ among them, sharing a common meal, and making a common confession. To be divided and to be focused elsewhere other than on Christ is to deny His very presence among us. Paul also scolded them not to eat food sacrificed to idols lest they lead those weaker in the faith astray. Just because we have freedom in the Gospel does not mean we should embrace all things or do all things. You do not want to cause someone to stumble in their faith or divide the body of Christ. With freedom comes responsibility, not anarchy as we often like to think. That white robe we wear is not our own, but it is the gift of Christ, washed by Him in His very blood. And it is this that we present to the world and to one another — Christ and His blood shed for us.
Music has always been an important component of worship and recognized as a tool that serves as a medium to convey the Gospel. But it has never been recognized as a means of grace or as a sacrament. Music is a servant, and where it is used in the Church it must be used to carry and convey the message of the Gospel. CCM has a place in the life of the church, but not, as Mumford concludes, to the exclusion of all other music and the traditions of the Church. It can and should present its best alongside of all other music that has served as a medium to convey the Gospel message. But it is Christ and the Message that are of utmost importance — NOT the music.