LIMA — First there is a countdown. For five minutes, the clock counts down second-by-second to zero, and a soundtrack of recorded music builds to a crescendo. At zero, there are four clicks. The kick drum and the electric bass pick up the beat. A guitar joins in. Then another. And, suddenly, there is song.
It sounds a lot like the run-up to a rock concert, doesn’t it? A U2 concert, say. Or maybe Bon Jovi. But, no, it’s the start of a church service. And it is a scene that is repeated regularly on Sunday mornings throughout America. For those who grew up attending traditional services in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations, the integration of rock bands into Sunday worship services — as is common now at nondenominational evangelical churches — can seem a bit jarring, if not downright sacrilegious. Church, after all, is not supposed to be fun.
Or is it?
Jonathan Burkey, worship pastor at Lima Community Church, does’t think that church should be fun per se. But he does believe that the music he selects for Sunday services should be “spiritually forming.”
“There are a couple of things that the music does here,” he told me. “First, as I understand worship, as we gather to worship, the songs that we sing spiritually form us for good or for ill. So when I’m thinking about songs I think about their texts and I think about how they are spiritually forming and informing us as a people.”
And in the evangelical churches of North America, he explained, modern praise and worship songs — songs that draw heavily on rock influences — have been around long enough that they have become, for all practical purposes, traditional in their own right.
“Here at Lima Community Church it was around 1996, 1997, that we started breaking formally from traditional instrumentation in the church service — piano, organ, and four-part harmony — and started moving to [the] overhead projection of words that didn’t have parts on them any more. So essentially we’re teaching people melody. And then we started introducing rock band instrumentation. Let’s say I wanted to go do all hymns tomorrow, I’ve got 25 years of history that I would be disregarding.”
Daniel Stephens, worship arts pastor at Shawnee Alliance Church, notes that church music has always reflected the surrounding culture.
“What we’re trying to do with the music,” he explained, “is to speak the language of the culture to people, so that when we’re communicating to them the gospel of Jesus, that they understand it as well as possible. What the music was like a hundred, two hundred years ago, was vastly different than today. That’s why the music of the church, and even the way we do church now, the way we present ourselves, is different because we’re trying to speak the language of the culture.”
Speaking the language of the culture, however, can present a problem when the content of that language is occasionally at odds with Scripture. As contemporary Christian music has become more popular, Burkey believes that many artists have become more interested in selling records than in being true to God’s word. And this is something worship leaders have to be aware of when they are selecting music for their Sunday services.
“There are some songs that their lyrics, if we really take them seriously, either we’re singing something we don’t believe or if we do believe it we’re in trouble, we’re in big trouble,” he said. “[They] have completely different notions about God than are actually in Scripture. The contemporary Christian music scene is more concerned with doing hits, radio hits, than it is with spiritually forming people. And that’s troubling. Our worship is being dictated by what sells, not by what is spiritually forming people.”
One of the most surprising things about contemporary worship music, is just how good it is. There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s, when Christian musicians tried to bridge the gap between traditional hymnody and rock and roll, and the results were largely laughable. But modern artists like Third Day and Phil Wickham — to cite just two obvious examples — deliver music that compares favorably with anything that is being played by their secular contemporaries.
“What the Christian music industry had to do to survive was appeal to church people,” said Stephens. “So they had to slowly evolve their music from the Gaithers-type thing into rock and roll. So I think that’s why you had this clumsy amalgamation of the two.”
Of course, as Burkey has noted, the fact that Christian music has gone mainstream presents its own set of problems.
“I think that the fact that Chris Tomlin and his people really care that they get their nickels and dimes when I play their songs at my church should tell us something about what has become of worship in North America.”
As it plays out in the local churches, however, praise and worship music is proving to be a powerful ministry. The concert-like atmosphere — with the lights, the sound systems and the applause — touches congregations and musicians alike.
“To me, the church service is kind of a weekly celebration of what Jesus has done,” Stephens said. “So the applause is just part of the celebration. It’s like saying ‘Amen.’ I agree with what we just said. To me, worship songs are prayers. They’re prayers from the whole congregation at once. So when we applaud at the end of it, it’s like a big celebratory ‘Amen.’”
Reach Dayton Fandray at firstname.lastname@example.org.