(Lisa Robinson)

Over the past couple of weeks I have listened several times to the latest Newsboys work, God is Not Dead.  I confess, I really like this album.  It speaks of the supremacy of Christ and our receipt of His gift sourced in the love of the Father towards His creation.  It makes me think of God’s overarching redemptive plan told through all 66 books of the bible.  It reminds me of the promise of hope found in Christ and His eternal reign and rule.

However, I recently encountered some negative feedback about this work, and the Newsboys in general.   It was familiar criticism because the same words have left my lips in relation to CCM offerings – lacks substance, too simple, boring, not theologically sophisticated.   Basically, the gist of such criticism is that such music is not worthy of time or attention, with an indirect implication that God cannot be honored with such banal worship nor can the worshipper be enriched because of it.  This sentiment comes with the notion that only music packed with doctrinal significance and consistent theological articulation is pleasing to the Lord.

Admittedly, I have been rethinking how we consider Christian music, and “worship” music in general.  I have examining the fruit of such critiques.  For I too have responded to many songs with highly critical lens of doctrinal integrity (according to me of course) and comprehensive theology.   The motivation behind such criticism is the desire to see a song accurately reflect upon the character and work of the triune God and fill our souls with divine truth.  But now I am rethinking this type of criticism and its counter-productive characteristics.

Yes, I am coming to the understanding that nit-picking at music and especially music that encourages us to offer praise and thanksgiving to God and reflect on his greatness can actually discourage the praise we are commended to offer.  This motivates me to ask a few questions with regard to why we find it necessary to be over-critical of worship music, to the extent that it can appear to have no redeeming value.

The first question I have to ask is why we expect a song to deliver a concise theological treatise?  When I look through the pages of scripture, we are commended to extol God with gratitude, sing hymns in our heart, to Him and to each other.  We are not told that they should be rich in substance.   Read through the Psalms.  Sometimes it is just as simple as “praise Him”.

I am questioning how fruitful is to expect the song to organize our theology.   Perhaps a song does not necessarily need to do this.  Rather, we bring in theology to the song offering, even to the simplest of lyrics.   If we sing, God is good or Jesus saves, we should not criticize the song because it doesn’t tell us how exactly God is good or Jesus saves.   We should already have that articulated so when we sing simple lyrics the richness of what we already understand, motivates the worship of song to our great God.   This is a function of good teaching not good song writing.

Now, I do recognize that some songs have troubled lyrics that are inconsistent with the nature and self-revelation of God.  I think such inconsistencies deserve to be noted.  But that is different than criticizing a song because the lyrics or musical 1-4-5 arrangements are too simple.  To criticize a song that encourages the praise and worship of God, and especially one with no inconsistencies,  is to say that our musical and lyrical preferences supersedes our praise of God.

The second question I have to ask is how we consider such criticism might impact the worshipper who simply wants to praise God without dissection of how the song could be better.  Nate Claiborne offers some poignant sobering thoughts with How to Worship When You Think the Song Sucks. (I encourage you to read it – it’s good).  Specific to the impact of criticism, we writes;

How do I worship when I think the songs suck?” you might ask. Well first off, you don’t express that you think the songs suck to anyone else. You may ruin a genuine worshipful experience for them by your complaining. While they were perfectly fine worshipping to that particular song, your comments could forever taint it for them. You are certainly free to mentally critique the artistic and theological merits of the songs you sing each Sunday. But when you decide one or more are duds, don’t rain on everyone else’s parade.

When we ruin someone else’s worship experience, I do believe scripture would liken that to a stumbling block and something we are not to do or be with our family in Christ.  While I was not impacted by the negative reaction to the album I was enjoying, it made me realize that perhaps there are those with a higher level of sensitivity who might be impacted with such criticism.  This leads me to publically apologize if through my criticism, I have tainted a brother or sisters worship experience.  Please forgive me,  don’t mind me and carry on!

The last question I’d have to ask is if worship music criticism does not point to a deeper issue and that of being critical in general.  While I can’t speak for individual motives behind each rendering of criticism, I have found with my own self it stems from a prideful arrogance that somehow my standard should set the precedent for how we worship God.  Yes, I stated correctly – pride and arrogance.  Not only that, we can come off as people without hope who find no beauty in the simplest of creation.  We should not be this way.

So my critique is this – stop being so critical.  Worship God with music that honors Him with whatever lyrics are consistent with His character, from the simplest to the most compact.  Allow others to worship Him as well.  Don’t ruin someone else’s worship experience because you don’t think the song has value.  If it directs us to the Lord, that is all the value we truly need.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    59 replies to "A Critique of Worship Music Criticism"

      • Ed Kratz

        And how does your comment (the first one you ever posted) not violate the spirit of your comment worse than the post itself? There are thousands of blog posts on this site and only one that critiques Christian music. I don’t think there is too much to be alarmed about here.

    • Dr Steve H Hakes

      Some good points in the article, and useful qualifications. I think the term, worship experience, interesting. Of course the main thing is us being worship 24/7, rather than doing worship, or enjoying worship. Living sacrifices.
      Another site that has raised interest on this theme, is http://lestyouforget.wordpress.com/2008/04/11/bad-worship-songs/#comment-398 .

    • […] [Note: This post was inspired by my friend Lisa's blog about worship music criticism.] […]

    • Suz

      The music program at my church has gotten to the point where my husband and I dread coming to services – it’s 65% of the service and extremely repetitive. Most songs sound like they could be secular love songs if not worse. And yes, I seriously question the biblical basis of some of the songs we hear. We love our church, church family, and the message our pastor brings, but the music kills the experience. We often leave feeling drained and depressed. So what exactly are we supposed to do? Arrive late every Sunday? We should be able to speak to leadership about how we feel on the subject. The idea of just “shutting up” is not exactly wise either. I understand not complaining to everyone, but don’t you think the leadership should know?

      • Andrew Hague

        Yes, of course you should complain, you won’t be the only ones and in the end if nothing changes you’ll leave and probably become like so many of us post-congregational believers for whom church is simply depressing and mind numbing. The idea that you shouldn’t crit church music is crass. Every other art form gets criticised. Just read the way that contemporary classical music gets torn apart in the press as well as pop music culture. And anyway, pop has it’s own critical measure in the shape of sales. By contrast worship bands think everyone loves this kind of sub radio 2 bland stuff, because no one tells them otherwise. Just let these worship song composers tweak their lyrics into the saccharine love songs they really are, e.g. from ‘Jesus I love you,’ to ‘Baby I love you,’ try them out on the record buying public and you’d soon get a real critical measure of artistic creativity.

    • William

      The topic you have chosen is one that is laced with a lot of emotion, probably for you and definitely for me. Here’s why, I have a hard time squaring how “rock” music (News Boys music genre) which is somehow perceived to lead us into a deeper spiritual relationship. At the basic core, rock music came out of generations ago who were rebellious, into drugs and didn’t live lifestyles that were God honoring and sang songs that had nothing to do with God. So today the reason the “Christian Rock Bands” are so prevalent is because of the money, the thrill of having a concert and selling CD’s, and Christians have bought into it. If you act like the world, live like the world, adapt the same values of the world then the line of godly spiritual and Biblical values becomes blurred. Many folks today have a hard time differentiating between the carnal and spiritual, between the secular and the sacred. Why, because they allow their emotions to drive their thought processes rather than their thought processes being guided by the Word of God.

    • Andrew Hague

      In the end, criticism of any kind of Christian music can have only two criteria,
      1 the quality of the words and
      2, the quality of the music.
      There are no specific holy and unholy styles. If you’re looking for musical styles that do not have examples of immoral or humanistic progenitors then forget the 19th and 20th centuries. So don’t knock rock ‘n’ roll because some rock stars also went in for sex and drugs.
      However, rock/pop is by nature individualistic. It really is all about me, and that’s why you’ll find few pop style contemporary worship songs with in depth content and corporate focus. In the same way, pop love songs don’t really explore the complexities of living in a relationship with another person. They just glide over the surface emotion (there are exceptions)
      For me as a composer, the musical shortcomings of worship pop are a) the predictability (any song that you can instantly join in with on first hearing cannot have musical worth) and b) the soloistic nature of the writing. Little or no account is taken of the average range of the human voice or the ability of most congregation members to sing like a pop star. The pitch is often too high and the ornamentation too great. Of course the soloistic nature is a direct result of the individualistic nature of the material and the personal pronoun nature of the lyrics. The great hymns from the 3rd century up to the present day do try to articulate the mystery of the gospel, and that, I would argue, should still be the aim for those entering the world of worship composition. By all means write personal love songs to Jesus using cliched pop chord sequences, but please keep them to your private devotions. As for the psalms, yes a few psalms do basically say ‘Praise the Lord’ in a number of ways, but the structure of the parallelism and simile etc has a certain primitive creativity. But the vast majority of psalms are much more gutsy. When you feel alone and your faith is at rock bottom it can be so comforting to read or sing ‘My God, why have you forsaken me; why are you so far from me?’ Most worship pop gets nowhere near this. This is pretty typical – sent to me as a ‘song of the week’

      Back to our first love, nothing between us
      Back to Your heart, to the start of it all
      Where we found You
      Out of the ashes, into the fire
      You are refining our hearts in the flames
      Of Your presence

      Consider by contrast this lyric, written for a funeral.

      In this death, I do not ask to forfeit pain,
      But to gain the strength to love through loss
      and cross the bridge of waiting.

      These words from the Iona tradition have feeling beyond sentiment, poetic beauty and reality. It is OK to criticise music for worship just as it’s OK (even good) to criticise all art. If we don’t there really is no resistance agains the bland sub radio 2 offerings that threaten to swamp those of us who still grit our teeth and try to attend church.

    • William Orris

      God bless you for your post and insights. The accuracy and conciseness of your thoughts are indeed a breath of fresh air.

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