This following is something I wrote some time ago. I still feel the same way about much contemporary Christian musical worship, and will follow this up with a critique of a contemporary song. Enjoy!
It seems that when it comes to Christian sub-culture, criticising the worth of ‘Christian’ things is immensely controversial. For example, an honest critique of Chris Tomlin or Tim Hughes or Hillsong could erupt into a ‘how dare you!’ You may be labelled as heretical for suggesting that perhaps their albums, from an artistic standpoint, are actually not very good.
The issue of corporate worship is one that divides many congregations. The church is made up of sinful people from many different backgrounds that, if not for Christ Jesus, would probably never otherwise come together and meet. Is it possible to get both teeny-boppers and metal heads to love and serve each other anywhere else? Jesus is the glue that holds all together regardless of our personal tastes. In the church, we sacrifice our own interests for those of others and we do not want to offend our brothers unnecessarily.
Though when it comes to analysing music from an artistic standpoint, these neighbour-love factors are not completely necessary. To judge a piece of art is partly to understand the cultural formation and context for which something artistic exists. It actually doesn’t have to be something that one personally ‘likes’ to be understood as a good piece of art.* Furthermore, not all forms of art made by Christians are appropriate for corporate settings. Some art has different contexts and use.
If Christians release music, which by-and-large are for corporate worship, they should still be open for artistic criticism. Why is it that they so often avoid criticism?
First and foremost, Theological criticism is completely necessary. If there is not an artistic criticism, there must always be a biblical one. The implication of false views of God and the Bible have enormous ramifications in a corporate setting. Christians need to be discerning people, testing all things.
Secondly, artistic criticism. For the sake of unity, this is really a secondary issue. A critique in this area is not because of a desire to destroy the art, but rather critique it in light of its cultural context.
It is still possible to criticise an intended worship album as a fitting example of a genre. Being live and within the realms of its genre (with the crowd cheering and sing-a-longs, etc.) we could still deem something as good for its purpose by which it is written. Even from this point of view, many of these albums sell and they sell because they cater to a certain group or genre called ‘Christian’. The flood of groups that produce albums like this at such a fast rate should arouse some suspicion. For if there is a pragmatic function to them, they should be criticised because they may very well be unbiblical in its motivation – consumerist culture.
Why is it that much of the contemporary worship scene is dated musically compared to the secular scene? My real reason for asking this is the biblical mandate: ‘Do all for the glory of God’!
How then is it that Christians actually justify bad or mediocre art or pure mimicry?
It almost seems like Christian music takes on a Manichean ideal of soul vs. material, though in this context lyrics vs. music. The Manicheans believed that the material world was evil and only the soul was good. Just think of higher, spiritual things and reject the material. It appears that some of the motivation for not critiquing certain songs as ‘bad art’ comes because ‘the lyrics are good’ and it doesn’t matter what the music sounds like. I would argue that this is partially Manichean in it’s criticism (and I stress partly – only the soul-material distinction).
It could well be an excuse for lazy and pragmatic song writing.
The effect of Hillsong’s corporate worship is felt all over the churches and taken as the staple way to do things. Due to the influence of Hillsong or Bethel’s sound, coupled with pragmatic-minded worship leading, such a sound has become the sound of Christian music. What I notice from other churches less influenced by a pre-conceived notion of ‘worship’ music, is that the sounds appear to be influenced by ‘secular’ artists. They are free of this contemporary Christian sound and call upon other influences.
This will not do as any form of ‘remedy’, because as a complete copy they would be guilty of doing the same as many mainstream Christian artists. Any guitarist knows that you simply copy other people and their licks, but sometimes this is to create something new. Maybe perhaps a form of musical ‘evolution’.
When you listen to some bands you can say ‘they sound like such and such’, though distinct from them at the same time. My criticism of contemporary Christian music is the lack of distinction and almost complete imitation of mainstream artists.
As I said at the start, sometimes we need to forsake our own interests for the bettering of others. Though I have expressed some opinions, I understand that for a corporate setting, it is not always appropriate to push for other genres and sometimes one has to forfeit their ‘rights’ for the sake of others and the unity of the body.
As a Christian artist (or an artistic Christian?), my question to myself and others is whether or not we can do better in our art rather than mimic what ‘works’? Watching out for pragmatic use of music, but also watching out for pride in our music too. God is the truly original Artist, and He has given us the gifts to sub-create from His creation. From this reason alone we can surely excell and do better, because our motivation is far higher and greater!
*I’m indebted to Hans Rookmaaker’s art theory and observations.