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.

6 thoughts on “The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 2

  1. This might turn out to be a long comment, so bear with me…

    I’ve been on a long journey away from modern worship and really modern church in general. I doubted my faith for awhile and after careful study, I became drawn to the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The theology and doctrine made a lot of sense to me. They still do. But something else drew me in…

    The liturgy. Specifically, the beautiful chanting and incense. Now, I bring this up not to say that this is the superior worship experience but rather to point out that BEAUTY is what drew me in. The beauty of the truth in the liturgy AND the beauty of the sound and sense that came with it.

    See, I think what matters in this conversation is not merely the aesthetics but the actual framing of beauty as it sits within our community. Some churches have liturgy and hymns which are done in their church because they value the wisdom of tradition, but they have no real care for investing in it’s beauty. When worship becomes something that either promotes aesthetic formation, you get a worship experience that excites but doesn’t really challenge. When worship swings the other way and promotes formation as being separate from any aesthetics whatsoever, you get worship that is stale, benign and is challenging, but in the worst ways possible.

    In conclusion, my personal preference is Eastern Orthodox liturgy, but I see the value in taking the congregation by beauty. Christ is beautiful and if we worship in Spirit and in truth, let’s be concerned about challenging, forming and captivating our churches with a light shining on the beauty of Christ. This means investing time and thought into what we’re saying (lex orandi, lex credendi 4evah!) as well as the technical craft of the music, whether it’s a band with a worship leader, drummer, etc. or an a capalla choir.


    • In my experience, the Eastern Orthodox liturgy seems well integrated and I think this is a visceral aspect of the beauty. In free church settings over the years, I have had difficulty sometimes personally reconciling four different elements. Three are in the service and the fourth is perhaps a background knowledge or baggage I bring. One set of theological or doctrinal themes seems to be the focus of the statements of faith. A second set of themes seems to concern the lyrical content of the songs. Just looking at these two, in some churches, one could go for many years and never lyrically hear of many of the elements the state of faith. (This is quite unlike the Eastern Orthodox where the core professional aspects are sung every week, interwoven into the acts of prayer and worship.) A third element would be the teaching. Again, I’ve seen this quite decoupled theologically and doctrinally–where the worship leader’s song selections had different, if not even crudely inconsistent, theological themes of the day’s teaching or its underlying texts. The fourth element, I might consider would be the word and more specifically the background of its modern study. Maybe this is where I bring a Western baggage and certain contemporary scientifically informed understanding of origins, time, life, and history. At times, I have found it difficult to make since of these four elements of “modern worship.” Within the Eastern liturgy, I have wondered more so about the intentionality and integrated nature of these aspects–what’s is supposed to be believed, what is sung, what is taught, and what is revealed–I suppose both natural and special. In the critique of “modern worship,” I wonder if closing these gaps might be worthy of discussion and related to aesthetics. As it sits right now, much of the burden of making sense of the information and aesthetic of these modernly isolated channels is left to me, the attendee, the individual. At times, it’s been hard to do. Perhaps I’m being repetitive, but repetitiveness is a facile critique. Perhaps richer ones include beauty and wholeness, and the doctrinal commitments themselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again, Glenn, you’ve written a beautifully balanced piece which, I believe, opens the door for helpful critique (not dismissive criticism) of our worship – not just “contemporary” but “traditional” as well.

    One critique that I’d love to hear your response to, especially with your background as a recording and “performing” musician, is the influence of the professionalisation of worship music. As I see it the gift of the worship music industry has been a greater awareness of the impact of worship on our faith (hence conversations like this one) and the great resource of new music being offered to the Church.

    But, there’s also a potential downside. Songs are written and played in keys that make the worship leader’s voice sound good (not that help the congregation to sing), and the choices of which songs actually get recorded and how they are produced are, at least to some extent, influenced by market driven considerations (i.e. what sells – which is a legitimate question for a business to ask, but can be problematic when it comes to what actually facilitates deep worship). Also, the flood of new music can be overwhelming and can result in different churches having completely different repertoires, which makes worshipping together much harder.

    So, here are my questions: Would you view my analysis of the “worship music industry” as accurate at all? And if so, how would you respond to the critique that worship music is possibly being too professionalized? And, how would you suggest we respond to this situation in the local church trying to be faithful in worship, but also innovative and open to the new move of God?

    If all this doesn’t fit what you’re feeling you should be writing about, then feel free to ignore my comment. 🙂


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