“I detest contemporary Christian music.” This comment, from one of my lunch partners immediately after I had finished presenting on that very topic at a worship seminar, drew me up short. I thought I had presented the case for utilizing truly new Christian music quite well, but I recognized that mind-set. Two years ago, that had been me. In my opinion, there was so much wrong with contemporary Christian music that I could not have imagined myself even investigating the topic, much less speaking about it.
Christian worship draws attention to the work of God in Jesus Christ by calling us out of our separate lives to participate communally in Word and sacrament. Worship is a bold statement that we as Christians place God above all powers of this world, including and especially our own. So, if worship is about the incarnate presence of God in our lives, I feel it should reflect the contexts of our lives…including geographical context, theological and denominational context, historical context, and global context.
With this in mind, I wanted to see if it would be possible to honor the past by utilizing a previously established—though by no means binding—Lutheran liturgical format for a service of communion, while inserting current popular contemporary Christian music (CCM) songs in place of those which are in the various collections of hymns and communion settings most often being used. I concentrated only on the songs Lutheran parishioners were sure to have heard on Christian radio stations, and focused on whether or not these songs could be utilized in a Lutheran worship setting containing traditional liturgical elements such as the Kyrie, the Hymn of Praise, and the Great Thanksgiving. The result was that I spent one month listening to and theologically evaluating the top songs from 2014 through 2016 as presented by Billboard Magazine on their website. Although the website categorizes Christian music in several ways, I utilized the category of “Christian Airplay,” as that would reflect the most popular songs on the radio during those years. I also chose to evaluate only the top 20 from each year, as there is some carryover from year to year in songs which ranked lower in the previous year.
It wasn’t an easy task. Much of Christian contemporary music is not gender-inclusive, and appears to use scripture either as “proof texting” or as a catchy sound bite. In addition, as Mark Allan Powell points out, it is permeated by “triumphalism, commercialism, [and] individualism…”. Most bewilderingly of all, I found far less mention of Jesus Christ than I had expected in music labeled “Christian.” I discovered a tendency for songs of hope, stick-to-it-tiveness, and militant growth in a general “faith,” all without mentioning the reason for hope or how we are enabled to grow in that faith. In evaluating 59 songs (although I listened to far more than that number and read lyrics from even more)—20 from each of three years with one overlap—I found only 17 which could be useful in an ELCA worship service. Several of those which I deemed “Lutheran” in theology as well as “singable” would need minor rewrites in places. And although Christian contemporary music is a different subgenre from contemporary worship music (commonly referred to as “praise and worship songs), it is what parishioners who are interested in this genre are listening to in their homes, cars, and at work.
“Christian music often occupies a major, even defining role in the lives of its more ardent listeners. The music…becomes a soundtrack for people’s lives. Individualistic piety and crass sentimentalism can be innocent enough in small doses, but some fans and performers seem to think that faith consists of little else.”
If one is a congregational leader in a place where many parishioners listen regularly to Christian radio stations, then I feel it is imperative to address some of the shortcomings of CCM with one’s congregation, just as it is important to celebrate and utilize those CCM songs which are familiar, easily learned and sung, and theologically faithful to the gospel (using a Lutheran lens). People need to know what they’re hearing and be able to evaluate it for themselves. “This requires teaching and has to bear some relation to the musical language that is in the ear of the people.” That doesn’t mean one ought not to sing a rousing chorus of “Move (Keep Walkin’)” by TobyMac, but one should be able to discern the theological content and whether or not the song points to Christ and not to ourselves. I could even see this being an interesting small group or adult/youth education topic. Mark Pierson, a pastor in the Baptist Church of New Zealand, calls this discerning approach “slow church.” In this ideal, a congregation will take the time to discern prayerfully the central things of worship and what it means to worship in that particular place, at that particular time, with the particular resources of that culture. Dr. Gordon Lathrop supports this view as well; “While the pattern of the action has a long history in many places, it always becomes local.”
One of the better resources I discovered for the discernment process is Sound Decisions: Evaluating Contemporary Music for Lutheran Worship by Dori Erwin Collins and Scott C. Weidler. Published by Augsburg Fortress, this thoroughly Lutheran look at CCM is well-organized and accessible to anyone—whether or not they have a seminary background. The authors lay out a four-step discernment process:
- Agree upon foundational principles of Lutheran worship.
- Apply a set of questions to a specific song in order to determine its textual and musical characteristics. The purpose of this step is only to gather information, not to make judgements.
- Compare the characteristics identified in step 2 with the principles in step 1, always taking into account the particular worship context. (emphasis added)
- Discern the song’s suitability for use in worship.
Collins and Weidler rightly emphasize the importance of correct performance practice which facilitates learning and singing CCM. This is an issue of great importance that needs to be fully addressed when considering adding this genre to worship rotation. As someone with experience in both “contemporary” and “traditional” performance practice, I will point out that there is a big difference between accompanying worship out of a typical hymnal such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship and deciphering the charts, lead sheets, verses, choruses, and bridges of CCM.
In my opinion, there is no such thing as “contemporary worship” as we tend to define it—worship utilizing musical instruments other than organ, and songs which have a more upbeat tempo and/or a back beat. Indeed, in my home congregation, contemporary worship for years was defined as the Saturday night service which was exactly like the Sunday morning service but accompanied on a keyboard instead of the organ! Contemporary worship is just…worship. I cannot overstate the importance of acknowledging this fact. Discerning the music used in our worship of God may need differing processes depending upon when the music has been written or where it has originated, but the criteria are still the same. Does the music we choose lift up the gospel message for all? Does it point to Christ? Is it singable within one or two iterations of the tune? Does the music address the culture, context, history, and personality of the particular congregation? Does it remind us that we are part of a global church and one body in Christ? These are questions which should be asked of all music used in worship, whether one toils over spreadsheets of the most popular CCM songs or chooses hymns based on the topical suggestions in the back of a hymnal.
It is extremely important to note that CCM is not a magic bullet that will “bring the young people back to church,” nor is it the only element of import in worship (that would be Christ and his real presence in Word and sacrament!). If congregation members are not inclined to listen to, and appreciate, CCM then it may not be the appropriate context for going “all in” on worship which features that genre of music. People respond to almost all types of music when performed to promote assembly participation. When worshippers feel confident in their musical participation (regardless of natural musical talent or familiarity with a particular genre) and the music reinforces the proclamation of the Word, then Martin Luther’s stance on worship is upheld: “We can spare everything except the Word.” In the end, it is our enthusiasm for being brought together as a community of faith, our joy and sorrow expressed in honest ways through words and songs, our ears and hearts opened to the Word, our partaking of the sacraments, and our deep growth in faith and relationship through the work of the Holy Spirit that produces lively and enthusiastic worship.
 Mark Allan Powell, “Jesus Climbs the Charts: The Business of Contemporary Christian Music,” The Christian Century 119, no. 26 (December 18, 2002): 26.
 Ibid., 22.
 Paul Westermeyer, Paul Bosch, and Marianne Sawicki, What is “Contemporary” Worship?, vol. 2, Open Questions in Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 11.
 Mark Pierson, The Art of Curating Worship: Reshaping the Role of Worship Leader (Minneapolis: Sparkhouse, 2010), 72.
 Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 87.
 Dori Erwin Collins and Scott C. Weidler, Sound Decisions: Evaluating Contemporary Music for Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1997), 6.
 Ulrich S. Leupold, ed., Luther’s Works: Liturgy and Hymns, American Edition, vol.53 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 14.