The Return of the Curmudgeon: Disney-World Worship (Part 2): Musical Disproportionality

I’ve taken a few weeks off on the worship posts, for reasons I need not explain. I now pick up the series where in a previous post I observed similarities between Disney World and worship, noting that there are some not-so-flattering ways in which Disney World reminds me of certain aspects of evangelical worship. In this post I consider some of the ways in which we face problems related to the use of music in worship. For anyone who wants to know if I like music at all, or if I think music should be used in worship, see my “The Use of Music in Worship” in the book Authentic Worship.

In the Baptist tradition in which I live, music is highly significant in corporate worship. It may be that it is too significant, that it is overemphasized in some respects, yet I do not favor a Zwinglian approach that excises music from the public assembly. I do think we face some serious problems related to the use of music in corporate worship, though, and one serious issue is that music has a disproportionate place in our corporate assemblies. That is, we often emphasize the music over more equally important elements and expressions of worship. So, we have a problem with respect to the quantity of music we use, and then, we also have a problem with the quality of music we use.

With respect to quantity, I worry that we sing too much these days. Frankly, it’s wearing me out. It is as if we have to employ music in almost every aspect of the service. I’ll not be surprised if we soon start using background music to accompany sermons (and I’ll not be surprised if I learn this is already happening and I just don’t know about it). We sing and sing and sing and sing and sing. I find myself, in so many of the places I go (and I do travel a good bit in Baptist & Evangelical land) just praying that the music will come to a close. And we so seldom read from the Scriptures, or pray in anything but a cursory fashion, or recite a statement of faith or confession, or observe the ordinances. But we get plenty of music. More than plenty. I don’t know that this would be such a burden to me, except that we sing so much bad music.

Music enables us to give voice to a liturgical offering in which singing texts sometimes allows us to more fully express our praise than if we simply speak the words. Singing engages the whole body in a way that speaking does not. I believe this reality lies behind the repeated instructions in Scripture to sing to the Lord, and not to speak only. This is a fitting representation of what it is to offer my body as a living sacrifice to the Lord. Singing reminds the faithful that all of their being should be offered to God. If the people are to sing they must have music. I am concerned, however, that at both the textual and musical level we face some difficulties, not the least of which is the fact that we too often employ songs that are inadequate theologically. When I say “theologically” in this case, I mean it in its most literal sense – that our music doesn’t speak adequately about God. This inadequacy shows up, for example, in the manner in which some contemporary music fails to account for both God’s transcendence and immanence.

On the one hand, the music used in DWW is sometimes completely inadequate with respect to the transcendence of God. The music is maudlin, it is saccharine, and it lacks the richness, texture, and depth commensurate with the greatness and glory of God. This is true about both texts and music, by the way. I do not mean to single out contemporary music at this point. I could easily lodge the same criticism about Southern Gospel music, though its popularity is in some decline at present. One of my chief complaints is that too much of this music has us singing about us singing about how we feel about God, or how we worship him, rather than singing to and about God himself. (For those who want to quarrel that singing about God isn’t worship, please see, again, my piece “The Use of Music” for a correction to that tired old idea). I’ll not bother to names songs at this point; there are simply too many examples to name, and we sing them all the time – over and over and over (“na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na” – Do we actually sing this? Yes, we do. Surely we can express that we live and breathe and have our very being in Christ in ways more fitting than this. Can’t we? It’s seems that even some minor effort would enable us to do so.).

On the other hand, this music is also inadequate with respect to divine immanence. That God, the Holy One who is high and exalted is above us and beyond us, yet also near, with, and among his people who are contrite and approach the Lord in the name of Christ is one of the most precious truths of the faith. Rightly construed, Christian worship must account for both divine transcendence and divine immanence. In fact, you cannot truly have one without the other.

DWW makes much of immanence, but it is an immanence of man’s own making. On this account of immanence, intimacy and friendliness is key, and here again, we have this emphasis on singing much about how we feel about God, and less about God himself. And the music is made to match. There are two reasons why this doesn’t work. First, DWW doesn’t get transcendence right, so it is off to a bad start with respect to immanence. Second, the songs themselves often offer a cheap version of divine immanence that isn’t worth buying.

So,both with respect to lyrics and music, too much music employed in worship today is theologically deficient, formulaic, and banal. Much of this wouldn’t even make the stage at Disney World, to be completely honest. We use the term “artificial” to refer to something that is not “natural” or that is an imitation of what is real. I fear that too much of the music we use in worship these days is just that. Singable, memorable, well-crafted tunes, with fitting harmonies, settings, and instrumentation are too often a rarity. DWW provides music that is something like the products that fill the Dollar Store. There may be a lot of them, and they may be easy to come by, but they lack quality and they will not last. While the church has always used “disposable” music, historically we tend to cull that music and maintain the best songs. Too often these days we seem to maintain the “disposable” and dispose the valuable.

Here is a little test for a congregation to consider, to examine the extent to which we may suffer from the malady of musical disproportionality. Be honest about this. If forced to decide between keeping music in the worship service or keeping baptism and the Lord’s Supper, what would the people choose? I fear that in many of our congregations that decision would easily go in favor of the music, and the ordinances would be dispensed with summarily. We would not treasure those signs of faith given us by our Lord more than we would our music, some of which won’t last past the next year, much less endure for centuries. I understand that my critique will sting some, and some will be just plain angry at me. But I think these are questions we need to ask and answer, and quickly, if we are to recover a healthy life of worship in our congregations.

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  1. Michael   •  

    WOW. Thanks. I think if people are honest they would say they are praying the same prayer: “Please Lord, make the last song.” Not to say we have it all figured out, but in our community of faith, it is actually rare that we have music so that when we do, the songs are carefully chosen and well crafted so that we are not just singing countless nananananana’s. This has forced us, as a new church plant, to really think about what worship is and what other elements can aid us in this act during the times of our corporate gatherings such as the Lord’s Supper and sharing a meal with one another, reading and response to Scripture, baptism, and guided interactive prayer stations.

    Peace be with you.

  2. Heath Lloyd   •  

    Thank you for this thought provoking article. I think of two things:
    1. The obvious: we live in a consumer-driven culture that gluts itself on entertainment. We bring this attitude into church, into “worship” — to quote the modern philosopher K. Cobain, “here we are now — entertain us.”

    2. Attatched to that is a heavy emphasis on “feelings.” When we go to church we want to “feel good.” Thinking about our sin and what it cost the Lord Jesus really does not lift my ego up – all that blood and broken body. As to reading the Scripture, don’t just stand up there and read to me – BORING! “Worship” is looked upon as an escape from all the tumult of the world – come on worship leader, come on “pastor” make me FEEL GOOD or you know, I’ll try somewhere else. And we can’t have that.

    Please, brother Nelson, continue to think differently and Godly, and continue to train men thusly.

  3. Doug Short   •  

    Excellent post- one that I will share with my congregation (a church plant composed mostly of college students). I have repeatedly told my congregation that it is God’s Word which is the “power unto salvation,” and,thus, the more of His Word that I can put before them, the better off we all are. That means that we limit the number of songs we sing so that we might incorporate more Scripture readings into our services, pray more as a congregation in response to those readings, and take communion weekly. And (surprise!) college students are responding positively to this. Unfortunately, church growth books have convinced us that you cannot grow a church this way, but I think that they forget Who it is that grows the church, the means that He utilizes, and the type of growth He is interested in.

  4. Roger Simpson   •  

    Do you see any linkage between what you call DWW and the structure of the music?

    For example, old time hymns (actually they are “only” a few hundred years old so I guess they are “young” compared to the time line of Christianity) usually are sung in the same key during the whole song and they have verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus. The music is the “same” each time through.

    Newer songs generally include syncopated rhythms and/or several modulations, and/or complex combinations of verses, choruses, bridges, and tags. The stuff that the “praise team” is singing may contain relatively complex harmony with dissonant chords. Also different parts may not only be singing at different pitches but also different stuff in terms of time.

    I guess at least one reason that churches did away with hymnals is that most of today’s music is so complex there is no way you could put any given song on one page in a book. Also, the notation with complex repeats etc. is way over 90% of the congregation’s ability to read the music.

    I think there is tension between the so-called “modern music” and the people’s ability to actually sing it. The guy in the pew may like music that has certain style but I don’t think that equates to his being able to sing it. It is my experience that due to the cutback of musical education in many schools the average person is probably less prepared now that his parents or grandparents would have been 20 or 40 years ago to deal with complex music. Yet to me it seems like most “youth oriented” music is also “complex”.

    Looking at the lead sheets of some of the most popular worship songs is like looking at a wiring diagram of a super computer to most people including me.

    Do you see the same tension I do in terms of what people in the pew “like” and of what they can actually handle musically?

  5. Ed Stetzer   •  

    Wow. You are curmudgeon. ;-)

    I won’t bring my guitar to the next faculty meeting.


  6. Alvin Reid   •  

    Thanks David. As you know I probably appreciate (and employ) more contemporary forms than many, certainly when considering faculty types. But I do give much thought to this as I take young musicians with me.
    I would add a couple of details. First, we should sing a good theology over a period of time. Even well-sung, theologically rich songs can be less than helpful if we focus on soteriology, for instance, and never touch on eschatology. We should instruct theologically through our songs as well as our sermons.
    The issue that bugs me most about more contemporary songs is practical–too many are simply sung in too high a key. One of the features of hymns easily sung in various vocal parts is their ability to allow people to sing regardless of their register. And, most hymns (though not all!) are sung in a reasonable key. If worship leaders would think more of the congregation than their own vocal range (or that of Tomlin, Wickham, or other tenors!) they may actually reduce the consternation over the songs. Add to that the fact that some newer songs may be wonderful and theological, but are not really corporate, and confusion sometimes reigns.
    At any rate, thanks for weighing in regularly with precision and common sense.

  7. Roger Simpson   •  

    One more comment about songs in church.

    I’m 66 years old. I probably know the words to dozens — maybe a hundred or more — hymns and church songs. Many of them (not all) have lyrics that convey theological truth.

    I was talking about this with my wife this afternoon. We were talking about music styles in the church because several couples in our age group have left our church recently over “music styles”. [I know this because they stated to us “off the record” that music was the reason they left.]

    I asked my wife how many sermons she remembered over the years. We have been attending evangelical churches since the early 1960s. She said she couldn’t remember a single sermon.

    I can only remember two sermons — one from the early 1970s and one from the mid 1990s. If I was in a hospital bed or lost in a jungle what would be the main linkage I’d have with Christianity? There is no doubt that accumulated teaching would inform me in some way, but most of linkage with Christianity would be songs I know or Bible text I’ve memorized. That is what would keep me going.

    So who says music is only “secondary”? I think churches should stick to some type of music that is “learnable” not just showy during performance. Then they should sing them enough so people actually memorize them. The purpose of music is not to entertain, like a rock concert, but to edify and put treasures in the bank for future withdrawal.

    I’ve been in churches where the people really like the “congregational” music. However, 80% of them are not actually singing it. They may be standing and waving their hands while the choir and/or praise team is singing but they are joining in.

    This is not a trick question: At the end of the service or one, five, ten, or twenty years later how many people are going to have any rememberance as to the words of those songs? All they did was see them on big power point screens and heard song leaders / praise teams / choirs “perform” them.

  8. Roger Simpson   •  

    The last sentence in the next to last paragraph should be “. . . . they are NOT joining in.”

  9. Clarence Martin   •  

    Having ministered for a number of years I have found out that people’s basic theology is what they have sung. The simpler the tunes the more that is gained from the words.
    Maybe that is why the elderly like the melodic hymns from the past.

  10. David Nelson   •  

    There is no doubt, as several of you point out, that what the church sings is formative with respect to the church’s theology. The church has understood this for centuries, but it is true that we sometime forget and sometimes ignore the significance of this reality. I plan to offer some insights into the selection of music for the congregation in a future post that I hope will be helpful.

    Ed, actually I was hoping you could be our guest “song leader” for our Faculty Workshop in August. I was able to get a deal on Stryper’s old unitards on eBay and thought you, Hutchinson, and Ashford could sport them that week.

  11. Jon   •  

    Dr. Nelson,

    Thanks for these great reminders of what we should be doing in our corporate services. It is far too easy to aim for catchy tunes and leave solid biblical truth. Hymns were used to teach theology because the people were illiterate. Many in churches today are biblically illiterate, and so the need for theological songs is as strong as ever!

    If they wear the outfits in August, no one can post pictures on Twitter!

  12. Roger Simpson   •  


    One last thing. I’m not making excuses for old guys of my generation who check out on church (or go to some other local congregation) just because they don’t like “this modern music”.

    What I’m saying is that independent of style: whether it is disco, hip-hop, Gregorian chants, Reggae, industrial rock, acid rock, soft rock, Bach Cantatas, or stuff from the Broadman Hymnal I believe the key thing about music for congregational singing is that it should focus on both (a) being relatively simple to learn and sing, and (b) have words with “thelogical content”.

    Both requirements (a) and (b) for congregational singing are transgenerational. I believe a lot of the so-called “culture wars” with music in church are a waste of time because the music being fought over does not meet requirements (a) and (b) independent of its style. If you exclude music that doesn’t make the cut then you don’t have to fight over it. As a side benefit, people of all ages will actually be able to sing the congregational music and benefit from it.

    There will still be some residual “culture wars” going on which I believe are due to failure of the people in the pews to accomodate each other. I don’t believe this is solvable, even in principle, by the church music staff.

  13. Brian Megilligan   •  

    Just a couple of for-what-its-worth thoughts:

    I wonder if your quantity vs quality distinction are artificially made into separate issues and instead are more related than you let on. I bet you wouldn’t mind at all the quantity of music in a worship service if the songs were 1) songs that you liked, 2)done with excellence, and 3) completely familiar and totally engaging those around you. Forty minutes of “Nelson’s Favorites” could feel like 15 minutes and you’d be surprised!

    Another dimension of “singing to the Lord” vs “speaking to the Lord” is that singing a melody (and rhythm) forces everyone into the same rhythmic cadence, which makes singing a fairly easy thing for a large group of people to do together–provided they know the song. Also, we could say that music consumes a disproportionate amount of time in a worship service, but songs take longer to “execute” than other standard elements of [Baptist] liturgy. Some may argue (you may be one of them) they take too much time, but that’s not my point as much as the nature of singing a slow-tempo song with several verses and a couple choruses will take longer than passing the plate, or dunking someone in the baptismal pool.

    You using this post to plug your book contribution is sneaky. I decided I needed to have the proper context so I ordered the book, read your chapter, and now feel that I have a stronger context for reading your post. You’re not as Crumudgeony as you were hoping, I’m afraid.

    Finally, DWW, a term I think I’ll use from now on, is criticized here for its lack of transcendence, and misrepresentation of immanence. You write, “On the other hand, this music is also inadequate with respect to divine immanence. That God, the Holy One who is high and exalted is above us and beyond us, yet also near, with, and among his people who are contrite and approach the Lord in the name of Christ is one of the most precious truths of the faith.” My question is this: what music of any epoch has ever come close to achieving this?

  14. Pingback: David Nelson: “A Curmudgeon on Evangelical Worship” « Matt Capps Blog

  15. Pingback: For those of you who have ever felt guilty about wishing the singing in church would just end… « Long Obedience

  16. David Nelson   •  

    Thanks for weighing in. Let me offer a couple of thoughts of my own:
    No, I don’t think I’d think differently about it if it was “Nelson Favorites.” I’ve been there, done that, and still think that’s disproportionate. Did I say that the quantity-quality distinction is unrelated.? Surely they are related. My point is that in some congregations we use music disproportionately compared to other elements of the service. I’ll stick with that claim. I think it’s fairly easy to demonstrate.
    Yes, singing songs sometimes takes time, and slower songs, if they have multiple verses or if repeated several times will take a longer amount of time. A prayer may also be extensive, as may a Scripture reading of a lengthy Psalm, for example. And, of course, sermons tend to be longer in our tradition, at least in some parts of it, and certainly some are (or seem) longer than others. I simply want us to think through the liturgical structures we employ. My fear is that we think less about the whole than we should, or, we think that the whole is largely about music and a sermon.
    I wasn’t a curmudgeon at all in the book.
    Creation is capable of expressing the nature of God, to the extent that it can. And different parts of nature display God’s glory in differing ways and with differing capacities. I suppose music is the same. Some music does a better job of it than other music does. My point is a simple one: Let’s use more music that does a better job of reflecting the nature of God and the truths of Scripture. I doubt anyone thinks “What a Mighty God We Serve” displays God’s greatness quite like “How Great Thou Art.” Oh, I’m sure someone might argue otherwise, but really. I’m a musical eclectic when it comes to these matters, but my disappointment is that we choose to use so much trite music that is just really bad at the textual and the musical levels. We can and should do better at this.

  17. David Nelson   •  

    I want to add one final point. I’ve had a lot of responses to this post, and some have been via email or in person. I want to make an observation about the nature of the responses. I’ve had many say to me something like, “You are so right about this. I find myself just wanting the music to be over each week at church.” Interestingly, the majority of those who object to my point about this are musicians. And this is a point I didn’t think to make, but should have. It’s easy for those of us who are musicians, and especially those of us leading the music, to enjoy all the music we do. It’s like singing a Bach cantata – it’s a blast for the singers, but the audience may not enjoy it to the same extent. So, we who lead need to put ourselves in the pew, so to speak, more often. Preachers should do this, and musicians should to. The sermon may not be so great if you’re not preaching it. The music may not be so great if you’re not leading it. Just a thought . . .

  18. Tony Brown   •  

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