Oh, how the worm has turned.
I remember a time—let’s call it 1985—when certain young music leaders (perhaps like me) could get a little frustrated with the tastes and sentiments of an older musical generation.
Couldn’t they see that the rah-rah, British Empire vibe of ‘At the name of Jesus’ belonged to another time? Or that the ponderous, stately hymns of our heritage, with their neatly resolving cadences, and their third-rate Victorian poetry, were just not a suitable musical language for 1980s Australia?
Couldn’t we have some music that at least nodded in the general direction of contemporary conventions, even if they were the musical conventions of ten years ago—since that was about as close to contemporary that we Christians ever managed to get?
There was a gospel note to all of this. We wanted songs in church that weren’t musical stumbling blocks to the outsider and newcomer; songs that said to them, “We’re not an antiquated culture club; in fact, we quite like Culture Club”.
In particular, we wanted to express our gospel joy in songs that had some drive and energy and tempo. Loud, enthusiastic Sunday nights come back to the memory. I can hear the rafters shaking as we belted out ‘Ancient of Days’, and ‘This, this is the day’ and a rocked-up version of ‘O for a thousand tongues’.
It’s not as if we didn’t also sing slower, more contemplative songs, ones where the tempo notation on the sheet music said ‘Worshipfully’.
But we were a generation raised on rock ’n’ roll, and for us joy and emotional authenticity in music almost always had a driving beat. Emotionally uplifting music was often fast.
(In fact, I still have a compilation playlist called ‘Happy songs’ that I whack on when I’m needing some emotional pepping up at the end of a long week, and they are all like this: Mr Blue Sky and Livin’ Thing (ELO), The Boys are Back in Town (Thin Lizzy), What is Life? (George Harrison), No Secrets (The Angels), The Power of Love (Huey Lewis), and so on. All of them fast, with a driving beat.)
But the worm has turned. The biter has been bit. Now I’m the older generation with the outdated musical tastes.
For the generation coming up, the energetic, upbeat songs I love are cheesy and lame. Their songs are slower, more contemplative, more intense. A song you can build and build, a song to close your eyes to.
The slow, earnest power ballad is now king.
Why has this happened? Lots of reasons (10,000 of them possibly).
Is it a broader musical culture thing? Has music slowed down more generally over the past 30 years? Perhaps, but not decisively. The last three decades have seen an incredible proliferation of musical genres and sub-cultures. (I remember having a deep conversation with one of my teenage son’s friends about the differences between death metal, doom metal and thrash metal, all of which he’d left behind in favour of prog metal.)
In other words, it’s not as if the earnest power ballad is now the dominant musical genre of our society—because there is no one dominant genre. Certainly rock is not the factor that it once was. (“Rock is just not a thing”, says my very musically aware 26-year-old son.) And this could well have influenced a shift away from energetic, uptempo music.
Perhaps it’s also a cultural mood thing. Is the generation coming through more bruised, more sensitive, more ironic, more emotionally expressive, or any or all of the above? Is life for them more in a minor key? Perhaps. (I find it hard to say, especially since I’m part of that generation that puts no trust in sweeping generational cliches.)
Whatever complex cultural and musical reasons lie behind it, there’s no avoiding generational changes in sensibility and vibe. And for the sake of the gospel, music in church will need to adapt accordingly—just as we needed to do in the 80s, and in every decade since, including that time when we went all Coldplay.
The time is no doubt coming when there will be four songs on Sunday morning—three of them slow and earnest, and one of them happy and upbeat for the old people. And so it must be.
But I do want to sound a note of theological unease.
The rise of the emotionally intense power ballad has also been driven by the slow invisible victory of a charismatic theology of music in many of our churches. It’s a victory won not by argument but by the music itself.
This theology says, in essence, that the function of music (and it’s the music, not just the singing) is to help foster a certain experience, a heightened state of feeling and consciousness that serves as a connection point between God and us. Music can ‘tune my heart to sing thy praise’ as the old hymn goes; which we take to mean: ‘it warms me up emotionally, and gets me in the state of feeling where this all matters to me and feels authentic and real, and I can connect with God at a deeper level and worship him, which is one of the main reasons after all that I come to church’.
And the earnest power ballad—slow, building, emotionally intense—is the genre of choice for achieving this, preferably with the lights dimmed. It’s music designed to mediate a particular experience that is seen as ‘spiritual’ and ‘worshipful’. It’s music to sway to.
I’m okay with some swaying. I occasionally sway myself (when standing up quickly). But I don’t want our theology to be swayed.
As evangelicals, we think quite differently about church and spirituality and worship and singing. We think differently about how we come to know God and relate to him and connect with him (hint: it’s through the word of God). Singing for us is a form of speech—to one another and to God. It’s a more emotionally-charged form of speech, but it’s one facet of the word-based personal relationship we have with God and with one another. Singing is not there to create an atmosphere. It’s a way of addressing each other in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to God (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16).
Generational changes in taste and vibe are good and necessary and unavoidable. They must increase, we must decrease.
But I have this sinking feeling that the rise of slow, earnest congregational songs also marks the rise of a different understanding of church and worship and singing.
Let’s be aware of this and actively resist. We don’t want to build our musical culture on theological sand.
We want to build on the Rock.
Another fascinating and related trend I’ve noticed in congregational songs written over the past 15 years: many of them are about singing. In song after song, when you get to the chorus, the response to the theme of verses 1 and 2 is to sing. “So let us sing your praise forever more … We lift our voices to you … And so we come to you in wonder and praise to sing … Cry out, sing holy … ”, and so on. (These are mostly fictional examples.)
It’s as if the purpose of the song is to enable singing—to motivate it, to lift it, to call on each other to do it, to cast it as the classic response to the wonder of the gospel. The point of the song is to get me to sing, which is not only strangely self-referential, but seems a bit daft since … I’m already singing, aren’t I? Perhaps more significantly, I think the point is to keep putting praise-and-worship-as-singing at the centre of our response to God.
Why is this? Is it because the musicians who write the songs see ‘singing praise’ in this way—as the high point of our relationship with God? I rather suspect so. It reflects an unspoken and probably unconscious theology of church and the Christian life that is not evangelical.
So I have developed a simple criterion for any new song that someone suggests we add to our congregational song list. I turn to the chorus. If the response it calls for is singing or praise or worship (all of which mean the same thing today for most people), it’s out.
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Today’s image is not a self-portrait. But a prize for anyone who can identify it, and explain the obscure connection to today’s post.