One Jonathan Rodebaugh writes about some of the theological shortcomings of popular contemporary worship songs. He also has a catchy title (“Wearing Jean Shorts to a Wedding”) that is very descriptive of modern worship songs and church atmospheres. I agree with much of his argument, but I wanted to add something: most of his criticisms of contemporary worship (CoWo) music could be applied to any period of church history. Perhaps Mr. Rodebaugh does not think that traditional hymnody is in every case superior to modern songs, but I think he should have acknowledged both the shortcomings of many hymns and the high quality of some modern music.
Of the seven problems he spells out as the roots of the issues with “CoWo”, problems 1 and 2 (artists writing songs for album sales and radio play, and churches with weak doctrine profiting from commercial music success) probably are modern problems. They’re not without parallels, though; Mr. Rodebaugh might have objected that Benjamin Franklin, not known for his devout faith, profited from printing psalters and hymnals. But the other five – lyrical content, song structure, setting and culture, instrumentation, and functional Pelagianism – I think apply to a lot of traditional church music as well.
Any hymnal I’ve ever seen includes songs that try to make the church out as the successor to Israel, or compare the Christian walk to the Exodus and 40 years of wandering. Then there are songs like “I Come to the Garden Alone”, “My Jesus I Love Thee” which certainly are not much better than modern Hillsong or Chris Tomlin. Personally, I find the inclusion of patriotic and nationalistic songs in hymnals repugnant. And don’t forget about Christmas carols and hymns, which often have blatantly bad doctrine.
Song structure of hymns was often purposely simplistic to keep it easy to sing with. Many hymns are set to the exact same tune. At the other extreme, some hymns are very difficult to sing unless you know them well already.
The setting and culture of churches has been an issue since the first century, as witnessed by Paul’s rebuking the Corinthians for dividing their celebration of the Lord’s supper by socioeconomic status. Likewise, the majority of churches in Europe and North America, being state-sanctioned and membership often mandated, were cold and filled with people who were at best nominal believers. American churches at the time many traditional hymns were written were explicitly segregated by race. Besides that, the New Testament almost always depicted the local churches as gatherings in people’s homes, not in ornate buildings. Showing proper reverence for God without making it about ourselves is a fine line, and has been difficult for churches of every age.
Overuse of instrumentation is mainly a problem in the very large, seeker-focused churches today, and I’m sure flashy performances were not unknown in the large and famous churches of the past, either (think giant organs and highly-trained choir boys performing for royalty).
I confess I don’t fully grasp his point about Pelagianism. My understanding is he is claiming that selecting music for its appeal to the unbelieving is equivalent to denying the work of grace in salvation. There seems to be a step missing, I think. I agree that we should select songs for their truthfulness first and then for their musical quality, but I think God is honored as much by truthful music set to modern rhythms as he was by 18th century hymns, 1st century Greek spiritual songs, and pre-Exile Hebrew psalms.
My standard for good worship music is this: First, are the words true and in agreement with scripture? Second, does the emotion of the composition convey those true words past the cynical parts of our mind so they can be embedded deep in our memories and thoughts? Third, is the performance focused on the words and not just on pleasing the musical parts of our brains? Like Rodebaugh, I agree that many if not most modern worship songs are worthy of criticism; however, the same standards must be applied to traditional music as well.