Monday, February 17, 2014

How to Avoid Writing Insipid CCM Songs

CCM, that's contemporary Christian music for you 'outsiders.' And if this isn't your thing, go ahead and look away now. This blog post is part of an 'insider' discussion on the shallow state of Christian worship, with a focus on some of the reasons contemporary praise music seems so insipid, at least to me.

These thoughts are in response to some of the comments on my Facebook page about a few questions and concerns I had after visiting a couple of contemporary church services recently (see original rant copied below the fold). My overall point is that, if the few worship services I attended are any indication, we have a very shallow - and passive - understanding of worship in 2014 America. Not a healthy trend, imo.

A few friends were wondering if I was pulling the ol' "traditional vs contemporary" complaint card that we've played countless times before. And the answer is no. Much of our disappointment with either camp is really a matter of taste and preference. I get that. And yes I know, corporate worship (by which I mean, the worship we engage in corporately, that is, as a body/corpus) isn't about me and what I like or want to get out of the experience.

But worship is about truthfully engaging and encountering God. One aspect of that worship engagement is congregational singing. My concern is 1) that a 30 minute set led by a band has replaced actual participatory singing and made the congregations' role quite passive, and 2) many of the songs these bands are playing are theologically weak, intellectually shallow, repetitive, and frankly boring.

I hesitate to link to some examples because my intent isn't to mock the song writer. (If you are truly interested, dm me on fb and I'll provide some sample lyrics I think are head shakers.) And yes, there are some traditional hymns that are just as bad or worse and should be thrown out of the hymnal. So again, not an old vs new argument - just a call for deeper theological reflection.

So with that in mind, here are four keys to avoid writing insipid CCM songs. I stole them from somewhere (can't remember where) and call them the 4 Ts.

1. Tune. Most CCMusicians have part of this one down. Lots of worship/song leaders can come up with a lick that sticks. Trouble is, they don't develop it past a ditty, so what we have is really a hook without a song. Composers! Finish the dang tune. Repeating a chorus 5x does not qualify as a fully developed song.

2. Text. Think through whether the song you're writing is "me" oriented (God loves me, he saved me, he does everything for me me me) or God oriented. And then, keep your POVs straight. Are we singing or am I singing? Try writing a text that allows the church to sing it with one voice, rather than a song that 200 individuals can sing at the same time. See the difference?

3. Thematic Cohesion. Don't mix metaphors. If you're exploring God's mothering love, stick with that image for a verse or the whole song even. It's not enough to slap a few biblical phrases and catchy metaphors together and call it good. “You are the light of the world, I run into your arms; You sing over me, King of Kings.” (Lyric copyright by Lyndon Perry; now all I need are 3 chords. Not.)

4. Theologically Sound. This one is trickier without giving examples. But in general, theology combines theme, text, and tune into a doctrinally solid expression of our relationship with God. The song doesn't have to be a mini-sermon, but it should capture the scripture's intent in what it communicates.

Okay, I've blabbered on quite long enough. This episode of As the Church Turns is over...for now. Unless you don't want it to be over. In which case you are free to comment. In love. ;)

(Beginning of the discussion, originally posted on my Facebook wall Feb 16, 2014.)

Turn away now, ecclesiological rant forthcoming.

Okay, now that no one is paying attention, here's the deal. I visited a couple 'contemporary' church services the past few weeks. And man, modern corporate worship must have passed me by while I was sleeping. Sure, I acknowledge that we are now fully 2014ers, but I have a few questions and concerns which I don't think are necessarily age-related. Hey, you're sitting in my pew, btw.

First, when did corporate worship devolve into binary activities, both passive? Stand and listen to the band for 30 minutes, then sit and listen to the preacher for another 30…if you’re lucky. Worship, by definition, is active and multi-faceted; yet the modern band-based, concert-style, darkened-auditorium format lends itself to inactive observation by the congregants, imo.

At the services I attended, there wasn't much to distinguish the opening set (warm up for the main event?) from a rock concert – except the presence of pews and a few choruses that mention Jesus. The music was loud, the lights were dimmed! (this absolutely threw me – if this is the new normal, I told you I must be waaayyy out of the loop because seriously, it reminded me of a movie theater where people go…and watch!), and the songs were insipid. I’ve been to rock concerts that have been more inspiring.

Second, speaking of insipid, where are these new song writers coming from? They need some major theological training. And composition classes. Or something. And why are some of these songs so popular? Church! It is not enough to slap a few biblical phrases, catchy metaphors, and out-of-context theological truths together and call it good. “You are the light of the world, I run into your arms; You sing over me, King of Kings.” (Lyric copyright by Lyndon Perry; now all I need are 3 chords.)

Finally (for now), I find that the length of the sermon increases in direct proportion to its lack of focus. Probably has a lot to do with the preacher’s preparation and study during the week. And I say this as a preacher. Remember Mark Twain’s quote: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Preachers, please, don’t keep talking past the end of your message.

As for some of the other modern adaptations that are present during the church gathering and worship setting – like caf├ęs and bookstores, projected announcements and song lyrics, sermon notes on the mobile app, even credit card tithing, none of that really bothers me. Those are cultural and timely accommodations that are neither here nor there when it comes to ecclesiology. But what we ‘do’ in worship – and the thinking behind it along with what that thinking fosters – does make a difference in our understanding of, service to, and relationship with God.

But then, what do I know? I still like 2nd Chapter of Acts. The text and the band.

Rant over. Unless you don’t want it to be.

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