This is the first entry in my series of important issues for Christian artists in different mediums. Before you read this, I would strongly encourage you to read the two posts that precede it, Ten Issues All Christian Artists Should Consider #1-5 and #6-10, as they form the foundation of the series and address issues which are concerns to all mediums.
The quality of praise and worship music in the Church is a contentious subject, affected by denomination, upbringing, geography, and taste. There are those who do not allow instruments in the church, others only sing hymns, and still others only sing songs written by top song writers like Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman. While some of the differences in styles and types of worship music reflect our different ways of glorifying God, this does not excuse us as song writers, worship leaders, musicians, and congregational singers from seeking aesthetic excellence. This list, as with all the lists in this series, is not comprehensive or in any particular order, but is meant to serve as a starting point for the worship artist.
1. Don't Support CCLI
Christian Copyright Licensing International is an organization that takes an annual royalty from all churches with members from 1-200,000+. Here's how CCLI explains their function:
When we sing songs in a worship service there is no “fee” or “charge” to perform works of a religious nature. But when we retype the lyric, whether it’s for an overhead projection, power point computer projection or photocopied lyrics in the bulletin, it is expected that we will compensate the owners of the lyrics for that usage. The licenses required and the royalties they produce involve Christian Copyright Licensing Incorporated (CCLI) www.ccli.com .
Yes, you read that correctly. If you project or copy the lyrics of songs written to glorify God, you have to pay someone. Of course, if the lyrics come from a hymn or another song in Public Domain, then you are free to use them without paying a fee*. Churches must report to the CCLI what songs they sing, and the CCLI then pays the artist a royalty based on their reports. One of the major problems with this is that artists are encouraged to write songs which will be song a lot, not songs which honor God. Take a look at the language the CCLI uses to explain this arrangement:
CCLI income is very sizeable for major Christian Music publishing companies, oftentimes larger than their Performance income. There are many songwriters unknown to the general public or Christian consumers at large who are among the most well-paid composers in the Christian music genre based on their CCLI income.
If the CCLI was an organization which outlined how pastors or Christian counselors could be "among the most well-paid" in their industry, the organization would be almost universally condemned as anathema to the teachings of Christ and Paul. So why does this organization get away with seducing song writers into writing worship songs for profit?
I am not arguing that praise and worship artists should never be paid for their service, but I am saying that the CCLI system is horrifying and dangerous to the spiritual life of the Church. I would like to encourage praise and worship artists, worship leaders, musicians, and congregations to write new songs which aren't governed by CCLI and to sing songs which are in public domain.
For more information about the CLLI, read this compelling blog entry by Warren Smith entitled, God, Mammon, and the Worship Wars.
2. Remember what your job is
The task of leading worship or writing worship music is not to be taken lightly. You are aiding people in the act of worshiping the holy, mighty, loving God. The words you write and the songs you chose will shape the worship that the congregation will offer. With such a momentous duty, it is important for us to search the Scriptures for passages will describe what it means to worship in song. For example, while the Psalms are often quoted when people are sorting out what worship is, verses like Ephesians 5:19 are rarely dealt with: "speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord in your heart." It is imperative that we are not selective when we look at what the Word of God has to say about worship.
In addition, remembering what our job is requires that we are concerned with aiding others in worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth. As worship leaders there will be times when we would like to arrange a song in a particular way because we enjoy the way it sounds, but such an arrangement might not be conducive to worship. As song writers there will be times when we wish to write a song in a favorite genre--country, hard core, rap, ska...--but if the music does not lead others into a place where they can sincerely worship the Lord without distractions, then we shouldn't write the song. The wrong way to approach writing a worship song is to first decide on a genre or style and then write the lyrics.
One test we can use to identify our motivation for choosing particular songs or writing in particular styles is to take notice of how we envision performing the songs. When we imagine ourselves leading the church in worship, what to we see the congregation doing? If they are in shock of the song, in awe of our presence, impressed by our abilities, enamored by our hip-ness, or in any other way drawn to the music or musicians, then your motivation to worship or write is likely misplaced.
3. Worshiping God in Truth means being in reverent awe of Him
I believe as a consequence of worship artists who are paid to write songs which will be popular, not songs which are theologically and aesthetically excellent, most modern praise and worship songs deny or ignore the fact that we are commanded to fear the Lord.
Joyful songs of praise are important to our worship, however, they cannot be shallow, giddy, saccharine pop tunes which lack any spirit of reverence. There is a way to be joyful and still recognize God as almighty and awesome.
Where this issue of reverence has had the most negative affect is in songs which speak of Christ's work on the cross, the depth of our sin, or other serious issues. While we should be filled with joy for what Christ did on the cross, this joy must include an acknowledgement of the price Christ paid. To fail to do so is to dishonor Christ's work and means that we are not worshiping in Truth. When we sing of Christ's hands being nailed to the cross for our sins, how can we use melodies and a style which sounds as if it was taken from a top-40 teenage love song?
Some popular worship songs sound like they were love songs written to a girl. In such songs we sing of love, beauty, passion, the desire for an intimate relationship, and the desire to see the person's face or to touch them, among other things. In some of these songs our love for God is disturbingly similar to a teenage infatuation. Where such songs go astray is that they present our love of God without acknowledging the righteous fear that we are called to have for Him. Instead of the kind of love we have for a father who is our judge and provider, someone who is not our peer, such songs reflect the kind of love a teenager has for a peer of the opposite sex. The lack of fear and reverence leads to shallow, theologically unsound music.
As artists and leaders of worship music we need to seek to understand what the Word says about how are are to fear the LORD. A good place to start is to notice the tone and language Paul uses when he talks about Christ and what He did for us.
4. Your model does not come from the radio or television
For the last 20+ years worship music has started to look more and more like a sub-genre of adult contemporary music. The way worship artists are marketed (we can thank the CLLI for teaching them that the job is profitable), the way worship leaders and musicians carry themselves and act on stage, and the style and content of modern praise and worship music all reflect an unhealthy lineage from secular, commercial, pop music.
The objectives of someone leading a congregation in worship and a musical artist who is striving to succeed in the pop music market are completely opposed.
A pop artist entertains his audience.
A worship leader assists others in worshiping God.
A pop artist writes songs that he believes will be pleasing to the largest audience possible. This usually means simple, trite, inoffensive lyrics--lyrics which appeal to people's best impressions of themselves.
A worship artist writes songs which glorify God and aid others in worshiping Him. This means the lyrics are both symbolically rich and theologically profound; they identify the worst aspects of our character (our sin nature) and glorify the best in His.
A pop artist desires to make him/herself an icon, and idol, and image. Image sells.
A worship leader/artist desires to vanish. Not to be filmed or photographed or lifted up as an icon of worship, but to shift every single bit of honor to God. No matter how much a worship artist says with their lips that they want all the glory to be given to God, if they are signing autographs and taking pictures with adoring fans they are giving lip service.
The bottom line is that worship music should not be entered into as an occupation, at least not in the same way that musicians and writers launch careers in the music industry as a whole. Worship bands are not just bands with songs that praise God. The very idea of writing songs and leading others to praise God is that our focus is not on ourselves and our glory, and it is not on pleasing or entertaining the audience. For any musician in the music industry, creating an image for ourselves and pleasing and entertaining the audience are foundational to any success.
Before we write or sing we must remember that what we are doing with music is fundamentally and profoundly opposed to what is done in the secular, commercial, music industry.
5. Strive to write lyrics and use language excellently
I have avoided making broad statements about the state of modern worship music, but here I must be blunt:
(Most) Modern Praise and Worship music lyrics are embarrassingly bad.
They are theologically unsound, poetically childish, and often they are linguistic nonsense--a pile of religious-sounding words thrown together without any order or purpose other than to evoke the feeling of the sacred which is a left over from the time when song writers used those same words in their proper context.
If you are going to write a worship song, a song to glorify our wonderful God, make it a work of excellence. Have something to sing about and express it in a varied and complex way. When a song has simplistic and repetitive music the listener and singer will drift into a dream-like state where they lose all understanding of the meaning of the words they are singing--all they know to do is sing. But we want the congregation to worship not only with their lips, but with their hearts and minds--in Spirit and in Truth.
Ask yourself when you write or choose a song for worship, will these words encourage the congregation to meditate and consider the meaning behind them, or are they just a collection of religious sounding words?
Read good poetry and prose and hymns. Consider men like William Cowper who wrote There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. Cowper was a famous poet who published works of his own and translated Homer. This was a person who studied language and the way words relate and interact with each other. I'm not asking all worship artists to be published poets, but I would ask them to be students of language. The desire to glorify God through lyrics is good, but it is better to have such a desire and seek to fulfill it through artful work.
For a detailed discussion of how certain religious words (holy, wonderful, mighty, praise, glory, honor, etc...) have begun to lose their meaning in modern worship due to their senseless repetition, read my blog post entitled, Worship Music and Dead Language.
As always, I would love to hear all your responses to this, and if there are any points that should be added to this list, please let me know.
*Of course, if a modern artist takes a Public Domain song and adds a chorus, they own the rights to the "new" song. Both Chris Tomlin and Todd Agnew have taken Amazing Grace and added their own chorus, giving them rights to the song. Every time my church sings Amazing Grace with the five "new" lines from Chris Tomlin, he gets paid.