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The Worship Industry Exposed: How Commercialization Is Killing Authenticity


Christian Worship Industry

I remember the day the penny dropped, and why I no longer enjoyed commercial Christian music. A German missionary and I traveled from Tinderet back to our mission station on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. We got talking about Christian music and the bands we enjoyed. He had some recent Christian music in his car, so he started playing some of it. I could not help noticing that almost every Christian band sounded similar. It became monotonous and tiresome. The same can be said for contemporary worship music. I listen to very little modern Christian music these days, although when I do, I enjoy music from the Norton Hall Band, a worship band created by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Andrew Peterson whom I regard as one of the most creative Christian musicians out there, Nathan Pacheco, and a few others. This is very different from the contemporary likes of Hillsong Worship, Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, Elevation Worship, and so on.


I have been reflecting over the years on why I find it difficult to listen to popular worship music. I’ve come up with four reasons. Before I discuss these, I want to be fair and state that I’m not a worship leader, and neither am I a musician (although I wish I was). I do, however, love music, and I listen to a lot of it (I’m listening to the Dave Matthews Band as I write this). While my reasons may be subjective and, in some cases, generalizing, I know they are shared by others, so I don’t think it’s purely a matter of subjective preference.


Reason 1: Sound

There certainly are some good harmonies, melodies, and lyrics in contemporary worship. However, much of it is repetitive. As I mentioned when I discovered it in my friend’s car, there was a sameness to the next song from a different band. And so, while I enjoyed the first few songs, it did not take me long to find I was bored with them. The tunes from most modern worship songs are very familiar. They lack diversity in style and theme, following certain sounds, formulas, and structures which hinder the development of artistic excellence and innovation, creating derivative musical expressions. I appreciate that worship music needs to be simple enough for congregational singing, yet musicians and hymn-writers have been able to write fresh and engaging music, I think of Isaac Watts (1674-1748), Charles Wesley (1707-1788), John Newton (1725-1807), and more recently, Keith & Kristyn Getty and Stuart Townend.


The YouTube channel, Thoughty2,[1] made a fascinating video, Why is Modern Music so Awful? Talking presumably about secular music, he explains that when comparing music over time, algorithms have picked up that there has been a gradual loss of harmonic complexity in music as well as timbral diversity. That is a diminishing of texture, diversity, quality, richness, and depth of sound. Secondly, songs compete with the next song for attention and so there is an increase in loudness employing dynamic range compression which makes the song sound louder despite the listener’s control of volume. This affects the art of creating music and destroys its diversity. Thoughty2 confirmed my observations of Christian music.


Reason 2: Commercial

While Christian popular music has certainly become too commercialized, that’s one thing, but the commercialization of modern worship music is quite another! Earlier in 2023, one of the American worship bands came to South Africa. Tickets were going for about R700 (about $38). The musicians’ flights, accommodation, and all other expenses need to be paid for, not to mention the venue. But do we need to bring in a worship band from another country? Do we need to pay to worship God? It’s perfectly acceptable to pay to be entertained, but therein lies the problem. These worship events provide stunning high-energy performances with flashy productions not dissimilar to rock concerts equipped with smoke machines, professional lighting, and loud music that drowns out congregational singing. I have no problem with any of this for entertainment, but when worship becomes performance-orientated whether it be in a church building or a concert-type event we have lost sight of our Christian spiritual identity and have compromised with culture, appropriating its worldly elements into our Christian praxis. Worship is sacred, it’s not entertainment.


Reason 3: Emotion

On the one hand, we have performance-based worship, which is a contradiction, and on the other hand, such music promotes false ecstatic experiences. Modern worship music tends to be sentimental and overly emotional which may give an individual the feeling of experience instead of growing in a deeper understanding of who God is and their Christian faith. This may lead to superficial spirituality (I know because I was a part of this for many years). I remember listening to this kind of worship music and in one of the albums was an unusual laugh by the lead singer. Fair enough. But then I found worship leaders in South Africa mimicking this same kind of laugh when leading worship, even in my church—presumably to solicit some kind of emotional response. This overemphasis on emotionalism embraces a human-centered gospel, a “me-ology” rather than deep, rigorous theology where praise and worship are offered to God. Many worship songs of this sort have a crescendo where emotionalism is at its highest and where people feel the “presence of God.” Yet do we need music to fabricate some kind of “God experience”?


Reason 4: Theology

This sort of emotional worship usually lacks theological insight and depth. The lyrics and message are often too simplistic and focus on one’s emotions, needs, and personal salvation. Of course, salvation is something to praise God for, but the themes in contemporary worship are narrow and avoid some of the other rich theological concepts that play an important part in the Christian faith. More could be said.


As I mentioned, I am generalizing. But this can be said of much of contemporary Christian worship music. And yes, there is some phenomenal worship music out there, but it’s not as popular as the flashy emotional kind. How then can we test what is good genuine worship music? Revisiting the above, the following may also be used to produce more meaningful and authentic worship: (1) Sound: Explore, experiment, and get creative seeking originality and beauty in worship music. Ask yourself, what would music sound like if it was to give expression to the magnificence and glory of our transcendent God? (2) Commercial: Churches, worship leaders, and their bands should endeavor to do everything they can to make worship a sacred activity without any trace of performance and entertainment, away with the black backdrops, the lighting, and the smoke machines. Worship ought to be sincere and modest. And for goodness’ sake, never charge people to worship, no matter what! (3) Emotion: There is a place for emotion, and some people are more emotional than others. However, the “worship experience” ought not to solicit emotion from worshippers. My recommendation is to make worship God-centred and Christ-centred, moving the focus from the worshipper to God where it belongs. This leads us to the last point. (4) Theology: Develop and broaden the lyrics of worship songs to cover a wider variety of theological themes to enrich and deepen one’s Christian faith. Worship is not about expanding the audience to include others by making worship more palatable for outsiders—it’s about worshiping God. Rather than over-used clichés, lyrics ought to communicate theological truth with clarity and accuracy, together with the complexity and diversity of the Christian faith in a way that is Christ-centred.


[1] Thought2. 2017. Why Is Modern Music so Awful? 24 April 2023. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVME_l4IwII. Photo by Thibault Trillet, available at: https://www.pexels.com/photo/group-of-people-inside-disco-house-167491/ *As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you.

13 comentários


Convidado:
30 de jun. de 2023

I happened upon this article. I’ve been a musician all my life. My husband and our family served as missionaries in both Zimbabwe and South Africa and we were a musical family. I smiled at some of the observations made. I am 80- still very active in Bible Study teaching. I go to a wonderful church- about 1800 members and our worship team is dedicated to teaching us to be a “singing church” and we are- everyone worships in our music. Repetition? Well. I grew up with five verses to each hymn and repeated the chorus every time! When I am worshipping I’m not being critical as you seem so easily to do. Emotion? Oh my goodness…

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Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
11 de jul. de 2023
Respondendo a

Thank you for your honest response. I'm not sure you understood my blog entirely, although you are correct, I am being critical. As I am sure you will agree, we are emotional beings. I think there is a difference between genuine emotion and hyped emotion, that is what I was getting at in that section of the blog. I look forward to the day when you and I, along with all the redeemed will stand together before the glorious throne of God lost in heart-felt worship.

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Convidado:
29 de jun. de 2023

Wow. Thank you for your honesty. My exact thoughts. As worship teamleader, in a smallish church I get flack for not singing all the modern songs. But then, all of the above are my reasons. I have started to doubt myself. This is my confirmation. Thank you.

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Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
11 de jul. de 2023
Respondendo a

You're welcome. It's not to say that all modern songs have issues, but many of them do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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Convidado:
27 de jun. de 2023

Yes and the problem is only getting worse.

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Convidado:
26 de jun. de 2023

Hi, Rob! Thanks for this post. It echoes and summarizes some of my thoughts from the past decades. The topic requires this kind of careful, nuanced thought (and more), because people immediately assume any criticism of any contemporary Christian music (worship or pop or whatever) is merely a matter of personal taste. But thoughts about the objectivity of beauty (in whatever form) and the depth of theological grounding (and explicit content) are not just matters of personal taste. I also agree with you about Andrew Peterson. :-) Scott

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Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
11 de jul. de 2023
Respondendo a

Graet to hear from you, Scott. Thanks for your thoughts. Love to your family.

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Jose de Carvalho
Jose de Carvalho
26 de jun. de 2023

This a great “food for thought” blog Rob. I agree in principle and would like to raise another point. I believe that mega bands in Mega churches give the church performance royalties. So, if I buy their music, I inadvertently support an organization whose moral authority has been in continuous question and am funding a kind of prosperity gospel and a celebrity Christianity culture. I am aware that there are different positions on this matter that I respect; however, for me, I am not comfortable with that.


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Robert Falconer
Robert Falconer
26 de jun. de 2023
Respondendo a

That's a very provocative thought, Jose. I never really thought of that. Thanks for sharing.

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