overcoming average(?)

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worship music vs. christian music (redux)

with 5 comments

[In my original post on this subject, I made a disclaimer about how I’m not an expert. I maintain that I’m no expert, but it’s not like I’m pulling this out of nowhere. I’m sure there are points of view other than those I discuss here, but what I have included are what I think are the major views that people on both sides of the stage hold to. I realize the danger of speaking in generalities, and I know there are exceptions to every claim I make here. You may very well write this whole thing off as the ranting of some snobby musician, but please keep in mind that I’ve tried to discuss this as even-handedly as possible.]

Worship takes many different forms, but the first thing that comes to mind in modern times as “worship” is music. I believe that this portion of a modern American church service is probably the most divisive issue amongst the churchgoing public. (I think the reason for this is that everyone, with a few exceptions, loves music.) Aside from what that divisiveness says about us a culture and what the meaning of “worship” really is, I’ve decided to wade into murky waters here and talk about the worship music that’s so familiar to us.

After spending some time over the past few weekends with different church worship leaders who have a passion for quality music, I realized that I may have failed to really draw a distinction between the Christian music (that I have ranted about before) you’re likely to hear on Christian radio stations and the music that is meant for congregational worship in a church atmosphere. I’ve long held the opinion that the two are different and should be, but I thought I should further explore that idea.

Have a conversation with just about any church worship leader or music director and you’ll be sure to pick up on how difficult their job really is. I’ve been able to spend some time with a few quality ones very recently and I don’t envy their position. It’s a job I could probably never do. The part of the job that is seemingly the most difficult is in relation to the music itself. Every musician whose heart is consumed by music wants it to be the best it can, but church members typically aren’t musicians themselves and there’s a lot more of them on any given Sunday.

I think that’s where the major problems come up; not that most churchgoers aren’t musicians, but that churchgoers often don’t know what they really want, which is as much not their fault as it is anyone else’s. If it’s an easy song to sing that most people know, the worship band gets complaints that it’s growing stagnant and doesn’t play anything new. If the band plays a song that is on the cutting edge, they get complaints that no one could follow along. If it feels like a concert atmosphere, it’s too loud; if it’s not high enough energy, it’s limp and ineffective. Churchgoers are not the only ones to voice complaints like this. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s the pastors that are the loudest voices about things like this. Rather than go on another rant of some kind, I’ve decided to simply lay out a couple points and explain the inherent and unfortunate discrepancies between what is wanted and what is needed in worship music.

• Song Selection— My experience with playing at several different churches in front of many different people seems to lean towards the typical churchgoer wanting to hear what’s either on the radio or that one song from that last live worship album they bought. The problem with that is there’s constantly new songs being pushed on radio or released online. If they got what they wanted they’d constantly be learning new songs instead of focusing on what the words are saying to them. Also, there’s simply not enough time in a typical church service to throw in that awesome Hillsong United song that has two different choruses and runs at 10 minutes long.

• Creativity— Ask a churchgoer, or the musicians for that matter, and you’re likely to hear that they want the music to be as creative as possible. I believe their intentions when they say this, but I’m not sure if either group knows that truly looks like. Some of the more forward thinking Christian artists out there that try to write music to be used in church (David Crowder, Phil Wickham, Gungor) don’t get played much at all. Please hear me on this: with creativity comes complexity. There aren’t many amateur musicians that can play what Gungor or Crowder can play and there are even fewer vocalists that can sing what Phil Wickham or Brooke Fraser can sing. If there are so few vocalists that can do that, what chance does the average churchgoer have? In addition to this is the quality vs. quantity issue. When you make a huge dish of food for a lot of people, the quality is never as good as when you make that same dish for four people. Likewise, when you play a song that a group have people have sought out and memorized every word and chord change because they love it so much, the creativity/complexity/quality can be much higher than playing a song with the mindset that people who have never heard it before will easily catch on and sing along to. To put it another way, when you go to a party where there’s loud music on, you don’t expect or necessarily even want to hear the most creative music in the world. You probably want songs that are easy to sing or dance along to. That’s nothing spiritual or age biased, that’s just human nature. Everyone loves Johnny Cash until you hear him in a club.

• Volume— This is perhaps the single most contentious issue in modern worship music. Most churchgoers want it to be “rockin!” like that Chris Tomlin concert they just saw. Other churchgoers want it to have a more respectful or solemn tone. Every musician wants it to be loud. Almost every pastor doesn’t want to scare away the congregation with volume. I could very easily write an essay twice as long as this blog post on this single issue, but for now I’ll just say this: some people love when it rains and others hate it; if God can’t make everyone happy all the time, then neither should you.

I would love to say that I have any kind of a solution whatsoever, but I don’t. The fact remains that there is a fundamental difference between the music that is produced for the purposes of entertainment for Christians and that which is produced for the purposes of congregational worship.

While we’re on the subject: that stuff on Christian radio you hear is primarily produced for entertainment. If it’s a recording that is sold somehow, then it was primarily produced for entertainment (even if it’s entertainment for a specifically Christian audience). If you are able to connect with God in any way while listening to a song, that is a bonus for you and the songwriter who gets satisfaction from it. Christian songwriters usually do get personal satisfaction from that and hope to achieve that when they write a song. Christian songwriters are most likely worshipping God when they’re writing and performing their music, because it’s what God made them to do. They also know that to get everyone everywhere to connect to a song is impossible and that entertainment value is literally the least they can hope for, so they create to the best of their ability and hope that as many people as possible are able to connect to God through their song. It’s simply the difference between an artist’s realistic goals and their idealistic hopes.


Here’s the difference. “Worship Music” can be any music that contains the truth, but because not all people in a church setting can connect to the same kind of creativity, the songs are often relegated to the lowest common denominator. “Christian Music” is any music that’s written for the sole enjoyment of Christians. Where we often fail is confusing one for the other out of place; producing Christian Music at the lowest common denominator, or expecting Worship Music to have more creative and artistic merit than a large group of people could not only understand, but echo back in their own voice. I have the utmost respect for those worship leaders striving to achieve the balance and living in the tension.


Written by matt

January 14, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Posted in God, rock and/or roll

5 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Christian Music, matt quillen. matt quillen said: let's try this again. worship music vs. Christian music: http://wp.me/p2wuK-6s […]

  2. Interesting, Matt. We have been to a variety of churches and believe me we have heard all kinds of music. I love the upbeat music that tells us of God’s love.


    January 15, 2011 at 1:15 pm

  3. I have found volume to be an interesting issue. Volume levels can be measured objectively, yet perceptions of volume are far more subjective and influenced by a variety of factors.

    Look at a pipe organ as an example. Those things are loud. Some get louder than many rock concerts I’ve attended. To paint with broad strokes, it’s relatively safe to say that older congregants are more sensitive to volume levels than twenty somethings. But, rarely does grandma complain that the organ postlude was too loud.

    However, swap out the organ for a drum kit and it’s all of the sudden too loud. Actual DB levels do not matter. In this case, volume means style.

    Let’s look at another case. A song has a prominent electric guitar lead line weaved throughout. The guitarist is playing a tele through a poorly-setup POD patch, and though the notes are technically accurate, they sound like icepicks in your ears. The volume level is not excessive, but the notes cut through the mix in a way that makes them seem loud.

    In this case, volume means mix / tone. This is why good sound engineers are so critical.

    Our church has been going through a stylistic transition over the past couple years, moving slowly to a more modern format. As expected, some love it and some don’t. We’ve heard plenty of complaints and praises alike. One thing we have noticed, however, is that volume is often a red herring. The other thing we have noticed is that even when people are not crazy about a modern style, they are more receptive when it is packaged in a way that eliminates as many distractions as possible. This includes musical excellence, talented sound techs, appropriate lighting, etc.


    January 19, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    • in my opinion, throwing everything about style and digital/analog differences out the window, the whole volume thing can be solved with simple eq’ing. when , for example, certain upper midrange frequencies stand out (guitars, snare, hi-hat) too much, it’s psychologically way louder than it actually is and feels like nails are getting hammered into your head. that’s why 95db can feel excruciating if something’s out of balance. symphonic orchestras are usually much louder than that, but everything is balanced so no one complains about volume. but that’s just been my experience


      January 19, 2011 at 2:51 pm

      • Yup, exactly congruent with my experience.


        January 19, 2011 at 2:54 pm

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