An Important Dialogue About Worship Music

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought6 Comments

This has been floating around in many of the online circles I run in.  It’s a very, very good dialogue between three guys who I admire for thinking theologically and pastorally about worship–Kevin Twit, Mike Cosper, and Isaac Wardell.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  • On the topic of songs and “singability” of modern musical idioms:
    • It is often said that a lot of “contemporary” music is unsingable…too many flourishes, too many pop-vocal-isms.  People say that about U2’s music–too high, too irregular.  And yet, for many reasons, you attend a U2 concert and you find thousands of people joining in songs, where many people who would normally say “I’m not a singer” or “I can’t sing” find themselves singing away. There is something profound about this observation.
    • Indelible Grace has been criticized that some of their hymn resets have vocal lines which are unsingable because of all the extras and flourishes.  One such song criticized was “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.”  And yet, as Kevin Twit (IG founder) shared, when they led a worship service for thousands of leaders in their denomination, everyone was singing in perfect unison.  (Listen to their live Ryman recording for proof.)
  • On the topic of contextualization of musical form:
    • Music in worship, in relation to how singable and accessible it is to a congregation, is largely based on cultural context–both the context of the city/area the congregation lives in and the “culture” of a given church community.
    • Mike Cosper (Sojourn Community Church) makes an interesting (and true) admission that their music would fail miserably in a context like the church Isaac Wardell (of Bifrost Arts) serves in.


One thing I wrestle with was something that Isaac Wardell said.  He made the point that as has the privilege of traveling and visiting many modern urban church plants, he notices a striking homogeneity.  All the music sounds the same, all the leaders look the same, all the people dress the same.  He comments that there is almost a special “uniform” for these folks (plaid button-down shirt).  He laments that there is little contextualization going on for all these urban centers where the churches often say that they are being quite contextual in their ministry approach.  

I get what he’s saying.  And I agree with it in part.  I also know that we live in an era of globalization and mass cultural export due to technology.  People talk about technology’s “westernization” of the entire world, and I think a similar thing happens to our American youth cultures and urban centers.  There is a surprising amount of homogeneity among college-age and young adult folks, such that the urban young adult culture of, say, Chicago can look strikingly similar to Philadelphia.  The artsy urban culture of Denver (where I live) people say resembles Seattle.  I’m not saying everything is bland sameness and that there aren’t cultural distinctives to each city.  Of course there are, which is why I agree with Wardell in part.  I just struggle to see that his observation is as stark as he says.  I’m open to challenge here.  I could be flat-out wrong.

6 Comments on “An Important Dialogue About Worship Music”

  1. One thing I might add to the discussion on "singability" would be the missional aspect of worship. I like to think "would somebody who hadn't been to church, be able to sing along?" I know that everybody comes in with a different level of musical ability, but some songs with either very little structure or convoluted structure can making joining in very difficult. (a different form of Christianese if you will)

    This is yet another reason I'm more prone to use hymns in worship. Because as Kevin always said, "the good thing about hymns are all the verses are the same, If you get one you can get the rest" There is, for the most part, a uniform structure in hymns that allows you to be able to pick it up as you go. (there are of course many more factors that make some songs more singable than others; breathability, etc.)

    Also, on the "On Jordan's Stormy Banks" point. That is also a testament to the sheer quality of the melody. Christopher Miner has amazing talent, it's a difficult melody that is immediately familiar. It has that quality as if you feel as though you've heard it before or always known it. I hope we don't sell our melodies short in hymn rewriting. Settling just for simplicity at the expense of real beauty. I believe there's a balance somewhere in there we need to find.


  2. I agree most with Isaac's sentiments in the video. I'm just not a personal fan of the "Bono effect" because it doesn't work in my context. I am pretty hardcore into multigenerational worship, and so college kids and octogenarians just aren't gonna be into the same things. People sing with Bono because they're his fans; they LOVE his music. The Marva Dawn quote really reflects the context I work in: it's to diverse to hit everyone's preference (thankfully, the congregation is EXTREMELY generous about those issues, nobody complains :D). But I find that the more I streamline and simplify the melodies, even on a Christ Tomlin song, the more people will wind up singing. The other thing is that at a Bono concert, people aren't gathered around faith, they're gathered around entertainment. The band is there to provide an aesthetic experience, and singing along is not only optional, but it's simply that; singing along. My personal philosophy is that our church band doesn't exist to give the congregation something to "sing along" with. The congregation is the performer, or the choir, and we as instrumentalists simply exist to accompany them in their worship of God. Now, a "truly spiritually minded person" is gonna come prepared to singing anything and do their best even if they can't find the syncopated groove, but I've seen even some of them give up on tough ones, and I think it's more pastorally sensitive to meet people where they are and remove any obstacles to their participation. When we sing hymns, 19 of 20 times we're using the original melody because everyone already knows it, and I just want them to sing the text with whatever melody. And traditional hymn melodies are usually perfectly singable. The re;tuned hymns take up most of the space on my Ipod, but I'm not able to use as much of them as I would like to if the congregation were full of people just like me.

  3. I found Isaac's comment on hipster worship interesting and convicting, but also a little short sighted. Short-sighted because, as you point out, there are more and more enclaves of different cultures in different areas, particularly the more urban you get. You could see it as a "little Italy"//"Chinatown" effect – people of similar cultures tend to group together. That's why I can watch Portlandia on the East Coast and laugh at it, because I know those type of hipsters even in Raleigh. And there's validity to targeting a church ministry towards that sub-culture. That's why there can be many churches that "look" very different within a small radius of one another in the same city, and each can be very effectively/faithfully reaching one part of that community.

    But, more convicting, is the fact that many times I as a church leader will try to serve the people I find hip and desirable, and thus build my ministry to copy my ministry heroes – rather than humbly seeking to serve the people God has placed before me in the place he has put me with the gifts and talents he has given. So I try to make my congregation look like Sojourn or a Hillsong DVD or whatever. And I'll get frustrated when it doesn't add up to the fake ideal that I think should be there. And in that I miss the real call that God desires to work in and through my life.

  4. Miguel, I think you're making fair and valid points. I personally go back and forth on the issue of singability. Some days it seems more relative and open (according to Kevin Twit's thoughts), and other days (especially after conversations with folks in my church who struggle with singing some of our more syncopated stuff), it seems more rigid and narrow. The interesting thing about the "Bono effect," whether or not folks are there to be entertained, two realities are true: (1) They're singing with the leader; (2) the affections of their heart are stirred and pouring outward. Both (1) and (2) are part of the realities of corporate worship (not all the realities, though).

    Tim, well put. I appreciate your thoughts and heart. It's a lot more humble posture to minister to the ones God gave you. It reflects a pastor's heart and a deep trust in God's sovereignty. Sometimes, pastoring means pushing, but many times, pastoring means faithfully loving and embracing the flock you are overseeing. Keep up the good work, brother.

  5. Zac,
    I am late into this conversation but wanted to throw a few cents into the well. I believe there is tangential issue lurking midst the idea of \\\\\\\"context\\\\\\\" and it has nothing to with the demographics of our community. It has everything to do with the psychology of our congregants. Dual brain modalities. You know, the whole \\\\\\\"left-brain/right-brain\\\\\\\" thing.
    I personally believe that our personal brain modality affects what kind of rhythms and lyrical expressions we are attracted to. I would postulate that \\\\\\\"left-brain\\\\\\\" dominant folks lean towards very structured rhythms and melody lines while \\\\\\\"right-brain\\\\\\\" folks would lean more towards free-flowing rhythms and artsy metaphors inside the lyrics. ie; \\\\\\\"His love is like a hurricane, I am a tree.\\\\\\\" etc.
    The \\\\\\\"bono effect\\\\\\\" illustrates this well in my mind. The difference between a U2 concert and our church services is profound in that the music is THE ONLY ATTRACTION. Everyone there is singing because everyone there loves U2. I doubt that anyone that has no connection with them will pay the $50+ it takes to get a seat. Perhaps certain types of brain types are more drawn to them?
    We, though, have more that could and should draw folks to our services. Like the sound exposition of God 's Word and prayer and fellowship with other believers. Something is shamefully wrong if folks are only coming because of the music. Granted, it cannot be overlooked as a predictable first touchpoint with visitors. But we have to present more than just that.
    We need intentional diversity in our musical presentations. A diversity of rhythmic and lyrical styles not just a diversity of genres. It is deeper than that.
    Many preachers fail to see this as well. They lean toward their own \\\\\\\"left-brained\\\\\\\" structured, exegetical style of delivery and they attract a congregation full of left-brained engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. then they hire an artsy right-brained worship leader and wonder why they have conflicts in staff meetings!!? Or wonder why those engineers can't stand that whole stream of consciousness offertory song!
    Btw, I love exegesis! Just wish pastors would also become intentionally diverse in their delivery styles.
    Doesn't a missional mindset demand that we learn to speak in languages other than our own?

    How's that for a tangent ?


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