Last week, a clip from CNN featuring Billy Corgan made the rounds in the blogosphere, especially amongst Christians. There comes a point, says Corgan when you have to leave your youthful angst aside and mature into more interesting topics like God. He calls God the “third rail” of rock and roll – the untouchable subject (like religion is the third rail of politics), tells Christian musicians to stop copying U2, and says “Jesus wants better bands.”

His comments are interesting, if not wholly original. Many have lamented the monolithic culture and sound of Christian music – especially praise music, with it’s formula of four chords, chimey delayed guitars, and anthemic choruses. In a consumer culture, people stick with what works, and ever since the rise of Delirious, Matt Redman, and Chris Tomlin around the turn of the century, that sound has been the template for contemporary worship music.

There may be some very practical reasons for this, though. For one thing, U2’s sound (and its imitators) thrive on a certain kind of simplicity. The Edge’s guitar playing (especially on records like “The Joshua Tree” and “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”, which provide the template for the aforementioned sound) is the amalgam of well-employed technology, a minimalist and punk-influenced aesthetic, and a compositional approach to guitar playing that is 100% in service to the song. In fact, one could say that of the bass and drums as well.

I think this is one reason it’s come to be imitated by praise bands; it’s not a technically demanding style of music to play. That doesn’t mean it’s inferior, though. As Miles Davis supposedly once said, the most important notes are the ones you don’t play. Minimalism is difficult to pull off, and it only works in ways that are enduring when it’s married to truly great songs. While “The Joshua Tree” endures as a great record twenty years later, most praise choruses have an expiration date of a few years. We sing them every Sunday until someone rolls their eyes and says, “This one again?” And then they disappear.

We should ask: has this sound become the template because musicianship is a lost art? Are we playing this music because we don’t know how to play anything else? While Delirious (one of the bands that established the template) certainly had roots in U2’s sound, they also had roots in other sounds. They were at times reminiscent of The Police, Queen, and Radiohead. They were great musicians, and could stylistically dabble in many directions, resulting in a catalog of albums that (sonically, anyway) are diverse and interesting. Many of their songs were musically demanding, requiring a band to know more than four chords and requiring guitar players to be able to play melodies think musically. (Those songs rarely became their hits, though.)

And they’re far from alone. While I think Corgan’s critique rings true at a certain level, at another, it rings very false. He has obviously not heard people like Gungor, Mars Hill Music, Indelible Grace, and many others who venture into other sonic territory. The U2 sound might rule the radio waves, and might have a strong foundation in the CCLI Top 10, but it isn’t the only game in town.

I’ll add one more observation here, from a more personal perspective. At Sojourn, we’ve experimented with a variety of sounds and styles over the years. One Sunday you attend, you might hear Bluegrass music, the next, you might hear indie rock, and the next, it might be Americana. U2 has certainly influenced us too.

But one thing I’ve noticed often – especially from those who are outside of our church – is that any song that doesn’t fit the template is immediately dismissed. “It’s not congregational,” they often say. In fact, whole albums I’ve released have been blasted with that comment.

Since we’re talking U2 here anyway, I think most of us would agree that U2’s melodies aren’t congregational at all. We don’t all have Bono’s range and passion. But you know who sings them? Everyone at a U2 concert. In unison. At the top of their lungs. (I’ve talked about this elsewhere here at TGC.) The same can be said of some of the melodies of the CCM songs that are imitators. The range is too wide. The melody too bizarre. And yet, congregations sing them robustly because they love the song and they love what it invites them to sing about.

I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve recorded some songs at Sojourn Music that aren’t congregational; that’s part of the journey of writing indigenous music with a community of young, developing church musicians. But I think as often as not, the dismissal of our songs has nothing at all to do with the singability of the melody, and everything to do with the genre of music itself. We’ve come to expect certain sounds that define worship for us, and when we don’t get that british pop sound we say, “Oh yeah, that’s not congregational at all.”

To those critics, I often just want to say, “Really? Come to my church. You’ll be surprised what you hear. People sing!” I know folks at Mars Hill and RUF (singing Indelible Grace tunes) would say the same thing.

Many musicians and artists are working well outside the template that Corgan mocked on CNN. But they work against a reality that demands that sound. It has become it’s own 21st century traditionalism.

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46 thoughts on “Billy Corgan and the New Traditionalism in Christian Music”

  1. David says:

    Miles Davis’ use of space in his improvisation was only one aspect of his recordings– his playing and the songs themselves were still musically substantial. That’s not a good analogue for shallow contemporary praise songs.

    Why are we using rock bands from the last 40 years as our template for worship music? There’s a well of music and poetry going back 2000 years that (generally) has much more theological, musical and poetic depth.

  2. Mike Cosper says:

    Hi David.

    I agree! Miles isn’t a good analogue for shallow praise songs. That was my point. He’s a good analogue for the minimalist playing on a great U2 record (where the sum is greater than the parts).

    Also – I also agree about the importance of history, but we could go back almost another millenia, to the composition of the Psalms themselves. However, this article was about comments Corgan made about rock music.

    Thanks for reading!

  3. docdudleybell says:

    Corrigan has a point. I love his challenge, which I think is spot on. “Jesus wants better bands” though his love and acceptance is not predicated on the bands being better — he just knows we are missing out on huge, undiscovered troves of musicality and creativity! The antidote? Rich texts wedded to interesting melodies, sometimes challenging to play or sing or even understand. Oh wait — that’s hymns! Old tune or new tune, updated lyrics or not. RUF and Indelible Grace get it, and God is glorified because the point is God getting glorified, not us having an emotional moment (though that may indeed happen, which is great as long as the horse is in front of the cart.)

  4. docdudleybell says:

    *Corgan

  5. David says:

    Interesting points, Mike. I used to be bothered by the fact that people sing complicated songs in their own context without thinking about any complexities of range or voice leading. However, I’ve come to realize that in the corporate gathering of the Church … exclusively … we are concerned about immediate accessibliity. This is why the strophic forms were used with a familiar set of culturally normative melodies, so that the universal unity of the Church could be realized, that from local instance to local instance we are still about the community of God as one entity and we do everything in our power to serve (strive for) this unity, and for artists this means laying down our skills and preferences for the good of the critical mass. It’s not disingenous, it’s not selling out, it’s loving our brothers and sisters in Christ as we share in a desire to worship with them with immediate accessibility. Thanks for you labors for the Kingdom.

  6. Josh says:

    Missing the point. Corgan is talking about rockbands, not worship bands. The difficulties worship songwriters face getting new music in front of a congregation to be sung by them is a reality. But that is not the same thing as a christian band recording music as an artistic endeavor for everyday enjoyment. Christians have failed in the arts for a long time. Of course there are a few bright spots but we do waaaaay too much excuse making…wrapping theological arguments around our mediocrity.

  7. Marty says:

    Interesting and good post. For the record (excuse the pun) I love the new Citizens album from Mars Hill. Gaslight Anthem meets Reformed theology. Just brilliant. And while we’re at it, and I know it’s not exactly congregational praise, but Lecrae’s last album is superb. I’m not even a rap fan…!

  8. Aaron says:

    A few comments. . . . .

    Billy Corgan, I don’t think, is talking about liturgical or “worship” music here, . .but CCM music in general. Certainly alot of the bigger CCM songs lately have been liturgical songs, but just so we’re clear. . . .And, btw, I’m not sure his opinion is totally relevant. Smashing Pumpkins have not captivated the masses with a song for 15 years, so “make better bands” could seem a bit hypocritical.

    There is an inherent “singability” to anthemic music. U2 cornered the market on those, but other bands have too. And, I think the “all modern worship music is u2″ thing is played out personally. I actually haven’t heard any Passion/Hlllsongs tunes that rip off u2 in a long time. Dotted Eighth delayed guitars is not U2. That’s simplistic. Bono and the boys use the delay alot. But, the format of the melody and the minor vs. major tonicisations are not typical of worship music. There is a “style” that Passion/Hillsongs has, for sure. But, it’s not “U2″ and they’ve even branched out on their new albums to some Getty-like hymns (see “Man of Sorrows” Hillsong) and Mumford-esque stomp-grass (“Children of Light” Passion). Let’s just be fair with the broad brushes please.

    I think this site at the GC has really veered towards an elitiism that plagues the indie rock scene, and the rejection of anything “pop” by everything “punk” in general. That’s a conversation that goes back decades and it’s a cul-de-sac. We should really stop that. It’s divisive, and we don’t need it in the church. We have plenty of musical diversity. . .most churches attempting the big modern worship things do the “hillsong” thing differently anyway. Churches that are purposefully “trying” to be cookie-cutter should be encouraged to branch out. But, churches using the popular worship material in new ways shouldn’t be criticized as inferior or derivative, etc. . Those conversations are for the conservatory, not for the church where we’re striving for unity.

    Also, as a career musician. . . there certainly is a virtuosic difference between guitar solos on the TGC record and the typical “rhythm lead” of most modern worship music. However, that’s not the time to start trotting out “I wonder if we know how to play anything else” arguments. All of us have styles of music that we can’t play. I wonder if anyone on the new TGC record could play some screamo-speed metal stuff. If not, does that mean those guys have more virtuosity? The point was made about minimalism, but It sounded a bit like a back-handed compliment towards people who are actually just trying to serve the song with instrumental lines played. Sure, there’s a wealth of music that we don’t usually play as our “main diet” in the church. This is inevitable. Worship Pastors are trying to help their people sing. . many of them at churches where participation is a problem. Let’s be ok with this.

    If we’re going to get historical, remember that metric psalms with no accompaniment was very prominent post-reformation. So, just because we had Bach’s ornamentation, etc. . doesn’t mean that those things were used in the worship service for the participative moments for most of history. We could get REALLY congregational if we wanted to.

    Why can’t we have this discussion at the ecclesiological level? Each church has things that seem “congregational” because that’s the way they’ve done things there. It’s familiar. And, that’s how it should be, since we’re all supposed to be singing together. If Sojourn has a indie/rockabilly thing going on each week, . it will seem congregational to their people. If people walk into that from another format, it won’t seem that way (I’ve had many conversations about this sojourn reality). Isn’t that ok??

    So, I wish we’d let the churches that want to do 4 chords (theological bases covered, of course. . . .we’re not really having that conversation here) do them without feeling artistically put down. What makes the irish melody/hymn form of most of “The book of Luke” melodies more “right”? Why does Brit pop get the cookie cutter label more than bluegrass or american/Tom Petty rock? Certainly that’s been done too. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean we need a correction.

  9. Nathanael says:

    So, who thought it was a good idea for church music to imitate rock bands in the first place? Does a style of music that highlights individual performers really seem like a good template for corporate worship?

    (Note that I’m not against rock music per se, I just think that the aesthetic of rock and the aesthetic necessary for corporate singing in a church don’t exactly mesh.)

  10. Casey Smith says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for the well-written and insightful posts you’ve put up recently on TGC. We’re grateful for you and Sojourn Music [as well as Gungor, Mars HIll Music, and RUF] here in the UK.

    Just for good measure…”Every artist is a cannable, every poet is a thief.”

  11. Brian Hutton says:

    Music like any art or creative form EVOLVES ….I bet the styles of worship that were practised in the early church were a million miles different from the traditional styles he bemoans…so that said …what is actually his point?

  12. Andrew says:

    @David I agree with you completely about “accessibility” being one of the reasons we keep reusing the template that Mike Cosper has identified, and that this desire to remain accessible is often motivated by the desire to serve the broadest cross-section of worshipers in our churches. However, though I agree accessibility is an important value, my concern is that it has become a controlling and limiting thing rather than a serving thing. A crutch that discourages beauty, creativity and expression. If accessibility is an important value, I would suggest finding or developing a new accessibility which serves the whole. BUT, I believe we also need to keep developing creatively. I believe there can be a useful midway does both.

    1. David says:

      Well, that IS the point of the discussion… namely, what is appropriate and necessary for the corporate gathering of believers. It is possible to make a simple song creative and beautiful (not simplistic) and still make it immediately accessible. The whole point of hymnody is immediate accessibility, but I understand how the repetition (tradition) could be viewed by artists as stifling creativity. The corporate gathering, however, is not about creativity … it is primarily about accessibility as an act of love.

      Just as the preacher “dumbs down” his sermon, not using everything he’s learned, not trying to stand out as “more creative” than any other preacher … the church musician faces the challenge of aiming for this goal of accessibility while avoiding using all he/she knows … while engaging in something that is, culturally, a staple of creativity. It’s a parallel tension of performing from a stage in a Church and not wanting to perform or give a concert during worship service, even though culturally it is what is expected and what every musician desires to do. It would not be a display of striving for unity, nor promote accessibility … it would in fact alienate. Our creativity in this context often alienates because it’s primarily about our preference or a teachable moment for the critical mass that doesn’t know better rather than being a servant. It’s self serving in the name of glorifying God with His gifts.

      What I do know is that we are to love the brethren and strive for unity, laying down our preference for God’s purpose, alienating the least amount rather than trying to be relevant to a particular demographic. What I doubt is whether we need to “keep developing creatively”. This certainly is NOT necessary to edify one another through singing hymns and spiritual songs. So what REALLY is the goal behind this focus on the arts? I’m all for Christian artists glorifying God with their creativity as Christians in a secular workplace, but as much as we hate it, the corporate context is necessarily different, and is not an example to the world of what we do to glorify God beyond the world knowing that we are His by our display of love for one another, and this first and foremost occurs with less rather than more… for the sake of immediate accessibility. “What you do for the least of these my brethren, you do unto Me.”

  13. Isaac says:

    I hate to come across as judgemental, BUT why do we care what he says about anything relating to the church? Next week, Satan suggests tempo changes for childrens musical.

  14. Dan B. says:

    “The U2 sound might rule the radio waves, and might have a strong foundation in the CCLI Top 10, but it isn’t the only game in town.”

    Not to sound like a hipster over here, but yes, there is definitely MUCH better Christian music out there than what’s on the radio. I agree that there is an entire world of music that is artistically/lyrically solid and worthy of wide release, but sadly it is not as widely distributed as the stuff you’ll hear on K-Love or Air-1. This shows the world a different face of artistry than what Christian music actually has to offer, and because of this the world has a very skewed view of Christian music.

  15. I don’t know that Corgan was necessarily talking about congregational music, but Christian music in general. For congregational singing, I do agree that the music should not be too complicated and something that all sing, that “they love what it invites them to sing about.” But more broadly, I think one of the issues he’s addressing is that we’ve separated the words from the art form, as if only the former matters. To glorify God with the art of music, allowing the arrangement to communicate lyrics, is just as worshipful, if not more. It’s what I think separates Gungor from others of that genre.

  16. Justin says:

    I would agree with Corgan. I’ve said myself for the last 25 years (when I really started getting into Christian music) that stylistically Christian music is always a year or two behind, mostly because (CCM particularly) is trying to copy what’s popular. But I’ve always separated Christian music between what was INTENDED to be used as worship music and what intended to be listened to in the car. For stuff that’s supposed to be for worship, I would hold to a higher lyrical content standard, and expect maybe a simpler singability, but there are some great old hymns that are anything but simple.
    I’d also like to throw out two names for Corgan that he’s probably missed (as has most of the Christian music scene). That’s Mike Roe and Terry Scott Taylor and their associated bands (77s, DA, Lost Dogs, etc.). These guys would not fall in the U2 imitator category, they are in the category with U2 themselves (since U2 is being used as the benchmark). But to note, I wouldn’t use any of their music for Sunday morning worship even though they are on highest rotation on my ipod.

  17. Shaun McDonnell says:

    I really liked the way the author wrote this article. It hits at all points of view and also points out WHY praise bands typically emulate the sound of U2.

    That said, some of the comments are concerning. Why in the world does our worship need to have some vast amount of theology? Are we trying to prove ourselves to God? No, worship is strictly for the adoration of God. This is why I think the Bible specifically points out that worship should be simple. Just look at the simplicity of how the angels worship in Revelation. “Holy, holy holy.” It’s repetitive and it is very adoring and God-focused.

    Rich texts? Why? How do complex rhythms add any adoration to God?

    Not having an emotional moment? Um, that’s not even Biblical. Worship is supposed to have emotion. Throughout the bible worship is not only spiritual but it is physical. There is dancing, singing, jumping. How can we not overflow with some sort of emotion when we are praising the one and only king?

    Hymns? I like hymns but we are called to “sing a new song.”

    -Shaun

  18. Jen says:

    I guess Billy hasn’t heard of Theocracy. There are a lot of christian musicians- you just have to be looking and I don’t see why Billy would be looking to even know about them.

  19. Brian Ottinger says:

    Thats what makes guys like these guys so refreshing

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGbfJb3qbSg

  20. Ann says:

    I read this article and felt completely out of the controversy. Our church is in a battle over the old hymns and some of the newer hymns.

    I think there must be some people in newer churches who don’t have a background in hymns…only the worships songs. However, many in our church stubbornly resist anything that doesn’t come out of the old hymnbooks. So our youth group sings wonderful worship songs, and it stops when they get out of the youth group. They often go elsewhere. Nothing wrong with emotional connection to the songs.

    I would like to sing more worship songs, but I want them to be biblically sound. I am totally against what one of our youth group leaders called, “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. But Biblically sound new songs. Townend, Getty, Card. More of that, please

    Ephesians 5;15-20
    15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  21. Solomon Tingsam Li says:

    Billy Corgan as the same point as many other Christians do about the music. I agree. Jesus would want excellence. Not to say that Christian artists aren’t putting out stuff to their greatest potential, but I would venture to say that those Christians with greater musical potential should be recognized more. People like… Derek Webb for instance. I suspect Billy and Derek would probably get along quite famously if you put them in a room together. And wouldn’t we all want to see that?

  22. Marsha Stevens-Pino says:

    I think the church has said this in waves throughout the years – Wesley used bar tunes to put his lyrics to, and 40 years ago we were all singing along with Larry Norman, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”

  23. Sherie Daniel says:

    I agree but would like to add that God is Who created us and gave us the gift of music… to play it, or write it, or perform it, or whatever we choose. And personally, I know I could not create the music I have been since age 12 by myself. It is God working, or playing, with me, and through me. He is the original song writer!

  24. Jay says:

    I’m not sure that “Jesus wants better bands” is even relevant. If you’re an artist, try to honor God in whatever way you can. In the Church, find stuff that is true to Scripture and resonates with congregation. The “Jesus wants better bands” mentality reeks of musical pretentiousness. It’s as if “better” has an objective definition. Ultimately, and please know I’m not accusing Mr. Cosper of this, we need to take ourselves less seriously and God more seriously.
    Also, as an aside, there are plenty of great artists that try different things, probably are very pleasing to God, but just don’t get sung in churches or played on the radio. That’s a totally fine scenario.

  25. James Ward says:

    What about the browning of America and the wealth of music coming from the Global South? Although much of it is analogous to dominant culture praise music in lyric content, it will require a new part of the white church’s mind to turn to musical diversity with its instrumentation, its vocal timbres, its percussion. If the pundits are correct, white culture is going to become a minority worship culture. And I am not even mentioning Israel Houghton, Joe Pace, and a wealth of black gospel artists that form a parallel universe to this discussion.

  26. AStev says:

    I’m glad he’s leaving the angst behind, but the main problem when Billy Corgan starts talking religion—and I say this as someone who LOVED The Smashing Pumpkins during my own angsty high school phase—is that Billy Corgan is fairly certain that he IS god. (Full disclosure, I still like a lot of their old stuff, though I have quite outgrown it and listening to it now feels a bit like playing with legos as a grown man.)

    Back to the main thrust of the article, a huge thank you to Sojourn and similar artists out there who are exploring new worship waters… you have been an enormous blessing to me, but more importantly, your art makes little of itself and much of Christ. Which is a concept that, sadly, Billy Corgan would find extremely alien.

  27. david burke says:

    I write as a pastor. I love it when the musos choose and present music that enables the congregation to sing from the heart and with a head directed by Scripture. I love it when musos prepare me and the congregation for the preached wood and lead us in a heart-response. I detest music with bad lyrics and where the message is ‘look at us, aren’t we clever to to make these beautiful sounds.

  28. Brian says:

    The weakness I see in the argument that this accessibility some are so concerned with is that if it becomes too “accessible”, it is then made all the easier to unconsciously shut off our minds while singing along, subconsciously and robotically mouthing or humming along, not having our minds engaged by the lyrics of the song and actually considering what we’re singing. If we have to stay focused to figure out what the words and the music are doing, we’re actually processing them, not simply spouting off a small range of good, but in some sense “cliched” words that we’re used to hearing used in praise and worship songs. Am I calling for the incorporation of songs by groups like Skillet or Red, no, but there are plenty of inoffensive songs out there that are just as theologically acceptable as the songs commonly used now and that would bring fresh blood into musical worship, both musically and spiritually (ex: music by Matt Papa or Jason Gray).

  29. David Ward says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for your insights. I would like to challenge your conclusion about why people seem to be able to sing difficult songs at concerts or during congregational singing. You stated that even though a song might be technically too difficult for them to sing that “congregations sing them robustly because they love the song and they love what it invites them to sing about.” First, people might sing them robustly, but not accurately (or well). I’ve heard many people sing various parts of a melody in different octaves when the range got to low or high for them. But if the song is powerful and their hearts are in tune with the meaning of the lyrics it won’t bother them, and neither will it necessarily bother me as a worship leader. Second, I am inclined to believe that the main reason they know and can sing the songs is that they have heard recordings of the songs many, many times. We just don’t have that luxury in a normal congregation made up of people with different musical tastes and different music listening habits. If we want our people to sing our songs, we shouldn’t expect them to download and listen to our worship bands’ arrangements just to be able to learn difficult songs; rather we should strive to make them simpler, more repetitive, and more beautiful and compelling on the first or second listen.

    1. Matt Boswell says:

      David,

      You have struck the compelling reason that Sojourn produces records containing the music of their church. Their recordings enable the congregation to sing songs that are familiar not only in a gathering, but allow them to meditate on the content of those songs away from church. With as many resources as are available today it becomes easy to make playlists on iTunes, or elsewhere of the songs you sing as a church.

      Ultimately the goal is not technically “accurate” singing, but informed “affectionate” singing.

      Matt

    2. Aaron Britton says:

      Thanks for your comments David, I echoed some of them above. Let’s get over the “singing loud at a concert” argument for congregational singing. It’s like the “yelling loud at a football game” guilt trip from certain sermons. Different contexts. . different purposes. . .and different expectations.

  30. Jason Stevens says:

    Well Billy should listen to the praise and worship music I do, look up For Today, Impending Doom, This Divided World, War Of Ages on YouTube and see what I mean. Becomming the Archetype has a great cover of how great thou art. =) There are churches who play disciple, skillet, thousand foot crutch and mix it in with air one top songs.

    1. Brian says:

      Awesome/interesting as that sounds, I’m not totally sure of how well some of those bands lyrically fit into the praise and worship context. Skillet and TFK are literally two of my four or five favorite bands, but their songs vary in how well they fit that environment lyrically. For instance, “Broken Wing” is a great song, and has a nice, Christian mindset behind it, but it lacks explicit mention of God, Jesus, etc., which somewhat defeats the purpose of the singing- praising God with our words and lifting our thoughts up to Him vs simply providing a nice, entertaining show. Then again, there are a few songs by those bands that, while being vastly different from what is conventionally sung on Sunday mornings in church gatherings, would still work just as well as, if not better than, some of those conventional songs.

  31. Jared says:

    Great article.

    Can I just say how odd (and cool) is it that we’re reacting to comments from the author of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”? I loved that song in high school.

    Anyway, I just wanted to throw in my two cents that I agree more with Corgan than with the article here on the sole point that Christian music (I’m painting with a broad brush intentionally) is leaving a lot on the table in terms of depth and quality. The bands the author mentions (i.e. Indelible Grace) are exceptions that prove the rule, not examples of a much wider trend (and let’s not forget that IG just writes the music, not the lyrics).

    The cynical side of me can’t shake the idea that a lot of this lack of depth is industry-driven: easy, simple, feel-good, lack of offensive nuance, with a smattering of “Christ” and “God” and the new buzz-word, “Gospel” thrown in music sells, and it sells well.

    But all that aside, still an interesting article.

  32. Ryan says:

    This is a topic that often comes up for me, as someone who is a musician and a pastor, these are two worlds that often seen incompatible. When I was younger I would often become discouraged because I would work hard to be able to do something descent with my instrument and would be asked to tone things down and to just play what’s on the album. As I’m now older, I understand the mentality behind that now – worship is about directing attention to God. The music is only there to serve as a vehicle for directing our adulation to Him. I’m not convinced I agree with that mentality – music is a form of worship itself, not simply a facilitator of worship – but I understand why it exists.

    However, I’m also convinced that this mentality is at the core of the problem. I’m going to be brutally honest, and I apologize to anyone I offend with this statement, but I’ve listened to many of the artists presented in this article and the comments as being “different,” and to my ear, they’re really not. What I hear is music that is functionally almost identical to the U2-esque bands they’re reacting against. The aesthete has got more in common with 2000s alt-rock than 1990s alt-rock, and the theology leans more towards reformed, but other than that, the music is structurally, harmonically, instrumentally and melodically almost indistinguishable. Still the same diatonic melodies being thrown out over the same chord progressions over the same verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus structure.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing, assuming that you take the perspective, as stated above, that the music is solely a vehicle for worship. However let’s call a spade a spade here – none of these “new” worship artists are doing anything materially different. It’s the same basic music but with thicker glasses and bushier beards.

    Of course, this begs the question: How different is too different? Is the Sunday service really the place for musical experimentation? I’m not sure what the answer is. On the one hand, I’m not convinced the church would be the best platform for the next Stravinsky. On the other hand, I think that when we skirt away from anything outside the norm for pop music, when we’re afraid of five note chords or the harmonic minor or instrumental interludes or anything like that, we do our congregations a disservice.

    Worship music is like preaching: While it is important that we meet our congregations where they’re at and don’t go over their heads, going to the opposite extreme and treating them like they’re stupid can be just as punishing.

    1. Ryan says:

      It occurs to me that when it comes to playing difficult music, the limit may not always be the congregation but rather the worship leader. Now, in smaller churches this is entirely understandable, and this is why we need simple, streamlined music that’s easily reproduced (however, I don’t believe that this needs to be the only music that’s out there). In larger churches, however, this is often revealing of a deep disconnect. Why is it that many churches expect a seminary education from their pastors, but are perfectly happy to hire worship pastors with no formal training? Why is it that we stress the need for mentorship and self-study amongst our pastoral staff, but are completely content to allow our worship pastors to spend their entire ministry without taking a single vocal or instrumental lesson? We strongly encourage young pastors to be well-read in the venerable theologians who have defined our faith – Calvin and Spurgeon and Tertullian and Aquinas – but when a worship pastor doesn’t know who Mahler is, we don’t even bat an eye.

      My point is that we don’t tend to take the worship pastor very seriously. We don’t expect him to be good, we just want him to be hip. If he’s got cool hair and a good stage presence and gives passionate intros to songs, then who cares if he doesn’t know what a 9 chord is or if he sings from his throat?

      1. Aaron says:

        The same reason we don’t send our pastors to Stand-up comic camps. It’s about content, more than delivery (not that delivery, or music style is absent from the discussion. . but everything in it’s proper place)

        Because we need the worship pastor to be theologically trained, not necessarily professionally musically trained.

        Because being someone who is able to lead others well in song is not necessarily (rarely?) apart of a formal musical education.

        I have a music degree, know who Mahler is, and I’ve led worship for 14 years without playing/singing any of the classical music I studied. The format of most churches is contemporary today. We’re not training classical violinists, just like we’re not training professional public speakers. We’re training PASTORS in both instances.

        We had a local voice professor from the University REFUSE to sing Amazing Grace at a funeral at our church because he didn’t lead others in singing. Rare example. . but there is a difference in what we’re looking for.

        1. Ryan says:

          Yes, we need them to be theologically trained, but we also need them to be musically trained. It’s not one or the other, it’s both. You seem to be drawing a sort of line that says that a worship pastor can either be musically trained or theologically trained, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from. Frankly, most worship pastors today haven’t got either (in my experience), but at least theological training is something that can (hopefully) be readily provided by the senior pastor.

          Now, I’m not saying we need to cram our churches full of prodigies, but when I get together with some of my friends and old classmates who are now worship pastors, and I’m distinguished from the group because I can read sheet music… There’s a problem. Musical training comes a long way in worship ministry. Instrumental proficiency allows the pastors to effectively build up the members of their worship ministry, most of whom are volunteers and amateurs. Basic training in music theory allows the pastor to easily transpose the music, reharmonize songs as they see fit, and translate the music to make it easier for beginner musicians. I’m certain I don’t need to list the many benefits that come from proper ear training, especially when it comes to leading rehearsals. And of course, being well-listened provides a wealth of inspiration to draw from when arranging songs or even writing your own.

          Formal education is indeed very useful when it comes to worship ministry. Now, I can’t comment upon what you do, because I don’t know you, I don’t know your music, I’m completely unfamiliar with you. However, when I hear someone say that their formal training isn’t very useful when it comes to worship leading, I always have to wonder – is the training useless? Or is the student simply not very good at applying what they’ve learned?

          In any case, the point is that musical training of some sort is a valuable asset for the worship pastor. It’s not entirely analogous to preaching for the senior pastor because preaching is rarely the entirety of his ministry, while music is, in many ways, the bread and butter of what the worship pastor does.

          Does this training trump theological training? No, but there’s been enough written about the lack of theological education amongst worship pastors that I feared to touch on such a topic would be redundant. Besides, as I said, given one or the other the church has an easier time taking the musically gifted individual and training them up theologically than it does with taking the theologically solid individual and training them up musically.

          There is still no excuse for worship pastors who don’t take lessons.

          1. Aaron says:

            Certainly it’s not an either/or. I totally agree with that. What we would need in this conversation about “lessons” is to know where we’re starting from. What is the current skill level of the worship leader? Yes, I have given worship leaders vocal lessons, since I was trained in those things. You also bring up some helpful applications of ear training and such. But, in your first post you brought up Mahler, which is a different discussion than aptitude on your instrument, and singing in tune. I think most of the larger churches you’re talking about probably have a guy who can sing/play in tune and can play their instrument.

            Also, the sheet music/chart discussion needs to be case-by-case as well because we need to know what context they are being asked to operate in? There are fabulous, world class musicians who cannot read sheet music. . would you tell them to go take lessons? I just think we need to deal with this at the ecclesiological level, case by case, and not try to solve problems that aren’t inherent to every church.

            I’ll say it again. . learning to lead others well in song is not taught at music school. I think one could continue to hone that task of leading others in song (mostly, by doing it thousands of times!!) without continually taking voice lessons, for instance, if you have a voice that people can follow and you sing well. If that’s the case I think I’d want to spend my time being a better Pastor and learning to plan services well, etc. . things that have nothing to do with music school.

  33. Cedric says:

    I was thinking about Corgan’s comments. IMO asking Christian worship music to make different sound other than U2 inspired is like asking Reggae music not to sound like Bob Marley. Certain people and bands define sounds and its hard to totally escape that sound or else it becomes a different genre of music. Enough said. More dotted eigth delay please!!!

    1. Ryan says:

      Isn’t that the entire criticism, though? That “worship” has become a genre when it should be a matter of the philosophy behind the music?

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TGC Worship


TGC Worship seeks to promote gospel-centered worship throughout the church by training and equipping leaders in the Word-shaped ministry of singing, songwriting, and service planning. The gospel changes our relationship with God from one of hostility or slavish compliance to one of intimacy and joy. The core dynamic of gospel-centered ministry is therefore worship and fervent prayer. In corporate worship God’s people receive a special life-transforming sight of the worth and beauty of God, and then give back to God suitable expressions of his worth. At the heart of corporate worship is the ministry of the Word. This multi-contributor blog is edited by Matt Boswell, pastor of ministries and worship at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.