There’s a lot of modern Christian worship music out there these days. And some of it makes big money.
But is God pleased with all that modern worship music offers?
Before we examine the answer to that question, let me give a little backstory to justify why I think I have any perspective to offer here at all.
While still in high-school, I started playing the drums professionally. At first, it was only a few gigs here and there, and some early work in a “professional” studio environment. Regardless, by the time I was 16, I decided that I wanted to be a professional musician for the rest of my life.
I went to a small private college that ran a focused music program. After failing to convince my family that I should major in music, I became a business major and obsessively played music for the next two and a half years (while barely passing my classes).
Music was my original passion long before writing ever became “a thing.” In fact, I nearly failed my college English class, and when I turned in a short story to the little private college’s publication, the editor patted me on the back and said, “Stick to music, bud.”
Eventually, I got in a band that toured nearly half the states in the US, and played some gigs with people like Jeff Deyo (formerly of Sonicflood). I played in the New York Tabernacle with a choir, did studio session work, played in mega-churches (which pays surprisingly well), did countless student camps and conferences, blah blah blah.
After a year of full-time music, I realized something: life on the road playing contemporary worship music was not for me.
Now, I was blessed to have a great group of bandmates. We still love and respect each other, and we were real in our devotion to Christ.
But we saw a lot of weird things on tour that sullied our perspectives on the industry. We also had to combat a lot of weirdness that continually rose up in ourselves due to the way that industry was handled.
Namely—we saw that it’s a business. And businesses are driven to differing degrees (but always to some degree) by money.
This is an obvious problem with no clear solution.
Every night that Hillsong United or Jesus Culture get on stage to perform for a sold($$$)-out crowd on a professional tour, they have to put on a certain face, a certain demeanor, regardless of whether it’s an organic expression of devotion to God.
They sing in breathy tones. As the music builds, they start bouncing and singing louder. The breathiness gives way to full-out belting, and arms swinging through the air.
The question that repeatedly pops into my head is: “Is any of it real?”
In my experience, much of the time it’s. . . mixed.
Why? Because it’s an industry. A business. A performance for people and for God. And the musicians are caught in the tension, forced to continually re-train their focus on what matters.
I think of the Hillsong leader who, in 2019, came out as being an atheist. And Michael Gungor and his wife, who came out as being atheist/agnostic/I-can’t-quite-tell-what. These people put on the face. They did the dance. And we bought what they were selling.
I find that profoundly disturbing, and saddening.
It also makes me wonder if the industry itself had a part to play in their breakdown of faith, like the seeds sown on the path in Matthew 13:4. Did the hypocrisy in the culture make them doubt the reality of the power of the Gospel?
Let’s turn to Scripture to examine these issues.
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” – John 4:23
God demands that we worship him in spirit and in truth. Not in pretense.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:1-2
Does pretending to experience spiritual rapture fit these verses? Not at all!
How about the idea that worship can only happen with a specific genre of music? Of course not.
So, why do we call an entire genre of music “Worship music,” and why is it so instantly identifiable as a distinct style?
“But Samuel replied: ‘Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.” – 1 Samuel 15:22
What do you think? Is the modern equivalent of “burnt offerings and sacrifices” in that verse, “worship music and church services”? I believe that sometimes, it is. Especially when we read the next verse from Isaiah.
“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” – Isaiah 29:13
Wow. That one cuts right to the heart of the issue, doesn’t it?
The reason why so much modern Christian music feels false is because it is emotionally false.
Is the worship music we’re singing renewing our minds, or numbing them with platitudes? Do our songs make our hearts soar like the Psalms do? Do our corporate, big-money worship songs meet the following criteria from the book of Hebrews?
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’” – Hebrews 12:28-29
This admonishment to worship acceptably with reverence and awe comes with a warning, that we should do so in fear, knowing that God will punish those fruitless boughs with the fire of his incomparable holiness. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be one of those fruitless boughs.
I, like you, go to church every Sunday and sing the songs with the congregation. I worship, I enjoy it, and it refreshes me. I totally expect that not everything we do will be genuine.
I listen to Hillsong songs, and Jesus Culture songs, and Bethel Music songs, and see the good and the bad together. I enjoy some of their songs. Others, I don’t. Some of that comes down to personal taste.
I’m not saying modern worship music is always disingenuous. In fact, a few “big” artists I personally know have really refreshed me with their genuineness.
But to say that there’s nothing wrong with the structure of the modern worship music industry, or that there’s no conflict of interest, or that the music automatically glorifies God because the lyrics and style seem to be geared toward that—those claims are both naïve and untruthful.
The spirit of it matters. The attitude matters. The honesty of the music itself matters.
I don’t know how to solve the problems these issues pose. But I do believe it is helpful for us to be aware of them, to acknowledge that they’re real, and to focus on the genuineness of our worship.
Maybe, if we are faithful in this, the next generation will rise up and lead boldly and honestly in this complicated industry.
Lord, forgive us if we’ve ever worshipped you in pretense but not in truth. We love you, Jesus. More than everything else. We long to worship you honestly, and for you to smile on us and approve of our worship. Give us the grace to live this out!
Spend fifteen minutes worshipping God in quiet prayer, with no music. A while back, someone told me that if you can’t meet God in total silence, you’ll never really meet him while the music is playing, either. I tried it out and became convinced that this is the truth. Try it yourself, and tell me what you think.
PS: Here’s a couple original songs my wife and I did in the last few years that are intensely personal. She wrote them, and is the one doing the singing, and I did the drums and percussion.