Worship Music: Good Taste, Different Tastes, and Pop-Tarts

Enter a discussion about church music styles today, and sooner or later you will encounter one of two buzzwords: “taste” or “preference.” “Traditional music just doesn’t suit my tastes,” somebody will say. “We all have different preferences, but the important thing is that we’re all worshiping God.”

True enough. Our tastes do, indeed, differ, and trying to make someone else like what you like is an exercise of questionable value – first, because it’s unlikely to work, and second, because there are better ways you could be spending your time. So in case you’re afraid I’m going to launch into a tirade about how everything written after 1904 is garbage, hang with me for a little longer. I know better.

Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I’ll be honest: singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” gives me more chills than “10,000 Reasons” ever has, and I’d choose a performance of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion over a Casting Crowns concert any day of the week (and twice on Sundays). Those are my preferences. Nonetheless, while I unabashedly maintain that Bach was one of the greatest composers of all time (okay, THE greatest), I’m not about to tell you that you’re an uncultured swine if the only time you hear “classical” music is when you’re on hold with your dentist’s office.

HOWEVER…

I don’t believe that music is only about taste. In fact, I believe that some music is good and some music is…are you ready?…inferior. You may now call me a snob. (But if you keep reading, maybe you’ll reconsider).

Honestly, I’ve learned to appreciate some contemporary worship songs. Though they lack the complexity of church music from past centuries, many of them have engaging melodies, thoughtful lyrics, unity between text and music…in short, artistic integrity. Fifty years from now, congregations may very well still be singing them.

Then there are the other songs. The ones that are purportedly new, but seem to have the same accompaniment as the new song you heard two weeks ago…and the one from a few days before that…and last month…and so on. The melodies wander aimlessly, the harmonies are weak, the texts lack imagination, and sometimes even the grammar is sloppy. These are not stylistic issues; they are issues of craftsmanship, of working within a given idiom to create something meaningful, beautiful, and enduring. A recent article I read provides an excellent summary of some basic components of good songwriting. Nowhere does the author suggest that, to write a good song, one must simply imitate the composers of 100-plus years ago; instead, using contemporary examples, he points out key musical and lyrical elements that differentiate a fresh, original song from one whose words and music are hackneyed and ultimately forgettable.

“But…but…” some might say…”that song made me feel feelings! And the person who wrote it loves Jesus!” Okay, yes, both of those statements are probably true. Pop Tarts make my taste buds feel feelings, and the people who make them probably like to eat, but that doesn’t mean we have to buy them. More to the point: the people who make them know what kind of junk goes into the recipe. They know better – but they keep making Pop Tarts because consumers like them. Songwriters know – or should know – what constitutes a good song. And yet, so often, it seems that somebody sat down at the piano, spent thirty minutes tinkering around with a melody, threw in some sentimental thoughts about God, and sent it off to the publisher. And because it has a CCLI license, heaven forbid that anybody express a negative opinion of that song.

Is that really the best we can do? Are so many of us really willing to settle for that? Psalm 33:3 exhorts us to “Sing to Him a new song,” so we are clearly encouraged to worship the Lord with our own modern music as well as the music of our heritage; however, the second part of the verse says: “Play skillfully with a shout of joy” (emphasis added). Whether a songwriter’s skill lies in grand orchestral and choral works intended for majestic cathedrals, or in simple but beautiful melodies paired with well-expressed, worshipful lyrics to be sung with guitar and piano, surely our Creator – the One who gave us beauty, and hearts and eyes with which to perceive it – deserves the very best we can offer Him in return.

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