The Evolution of Modern Worship Music: Striking a Balance Between Expression and Message

In the realm of Christian worship, the evolution of music has been a dynamic journey. Just as Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch philosopher, and Catholic theologian, expressed concerns about the changing landscape of Catholic church music during his time, we find that modern praise music has also experienced a similar evolution.

Erasmus lived against the backdrop of the growing European religious Reformation. He remained a member of the Catholic Church all his life, remaining committed to reforming the Church and its clerics’ abuses from within.

Despite all his criticism of clerical corruption and abuses within the Catholic Church, which lasted for years and was also directed towards many of the Church’s basic doctrines, Erasmus shunned the Reformation movement.

“Modern church music is so
constructed that the congregation
cannot hear one distinct word.”
— Desiderius Erasmus

The advent of the electric guitar in the 1930s allowed the instrument capable of being heard in the mix of choirs and ensembles.

In recent decades, “praise music” has gained immense popularity within Christian congregations worldwide. Inspired by various genres and influenced by contemporary music styles, these songs have become a central focus of modern worship services, conferences, and Christian gatherings. The emergence of contemporary Christian artists and bands has coalesced into a highly recognizable sound and ethos and has emerged as a mainstay in many spheres of evangelical life.

Modern praise music has embraced innovation and experimentation, utilizing diverse musical styles and instruments to create a dynamic worship experience. From soaring anthems to intimate ballads, the genre caters to a wide range of emotions and preferences, allowing individuals to connect with a worship experience in their unique ways.

In the era of Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), the Catholic Church experienced a significant transformation in its music practices. This period marked a pivotal shift in the way music was utilized during religious services, particularly within the context of liturgical worship. One notable concern raised by Erasmus was the potential overshadowing of the lyrics’ profound message by the increasing prominence of musical instruments.

The baroque organ in Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark, by Dutch organ-builder Herman Raphaelis Rodensteen, 1554.

As musical creativity flourished, instruments began to play an increasingly prominent role in church music. Organs, for instance, gained popularity and were installed in many cathedrals, providing a powerful and rich accompaniment to the choir. However, this shift also brought forth a concern expressed by Erasmus and other reform-minded individuals of the time.

Erasmus, a renowned humanist, and theologian, voiced his opinion on the evolving musical practices within the Catholic Church. He believed that while musical instruments had their place, their excessive use risked overshadowing the spiritual message contained in the lyrics of hymns and chants. Erasmus, a strong advocate for the clarity and accessibility of the Word of God, argued that the focus should primarily be on understanding and internalizing the biblical message rather than becoming enthralled by ornate musical performances.

Erasmus’ concerns regarding the use of instruments in church music were not meant to diminish the role of music in worship but rather to restore a sense of balance. He emphasized the need to strike a harmonious relationship between the instruments and the lyrics, ensuring that the music would serve as a vehicle to enhance the message and facilitate the congregation’s engagement with God.

While Erasmus’ opinions were specific to his time, his insights continue to offer valuable lessons for contemporary worship practices. In the modern era, churches face the challenge of blending tradition with innovation, finding a balance between musical expression and the clarity of the message. It is essential to prioritize the lyrics and ensure that they remain central, accessible, and meaningful to the congregation, while still embracing the beauty and power of music as a tool for worship.

During the first half of the 20th century, churches usually had an organ, a piano, a choir, and a few soloists, singing traditional hymns and Christian anthems, but by the 1960s and 70s, the “Jesus People” movement had generated new kinds of music that transformed worship in evangelical churches. Modern worship songs really began widespread acceptance in the 90s as the Western church became more comfortable with the sight of guitars and drum kits on stage. And similar to Erasmus’ day, one of the concerns has been that the presentation style and volume of some of this music drowns out congregational participation, and therefore makes it a performance. The challenge lies in ensuring that the music does not overshadow the lyrical content, but rather enhances and reinforces it. The goal is to create an atmosphere where worshippers can engage with the lyrics, meditate on their meaning, and respond with heartfelt worship. When expression and message are in harmony, the music becomes a powerful conduit for spiritual reflection.

Regardless of musical style, the songs we sing during worship should be honoring the Lord of the universe — a fact that should move us to true worship every time we think of it.

There are both traditional hymns and more modern choruses that praise our God well. Instead of choosing one or the other, let’s evaluate all the songs we sing, regardless of the generation in which they were written. Do the songs we sing represent God’s truth? Do they honor Him above all else? Are we reminded of God’s attributes, taking our eyes off ourselves and turning us to Christ?

As modern worship music continues to evolve, it is important to remain open to new expressions and styles while maintaining a focus on the timeless truths of the Christian faith. The essence of worship lies in the transformation of hearts and minds, as we encounter God and respond in reverence, awe, and gratitude. By embracing a spirit of discernment, musicians and congregations can ensure that the evolution of modern worship music remains rooted in biblical truth, enhancing the worship experience, deepening our love of God, and drawing our hearts and attention to His glory, power, and majesty.

While musical expression is vital, maintaining a balance between musical innovation and the message of faith is crucial. By crafting lyrics that reflect biblical truths, and embracing diverse musical expressions that resonate with the congregation, we can ensure that modern worship music continues to inspire and draw worshippers closer to God. Let us cherish the transformative power of music in worship, creating an environment where God’s message is celebrated and worshipers give back to Him the sacrifice of praise.

Theological Reflections on the Role of Music in Worship.

The people of God sing. The role of music in worship is biblical. After escaping from the Egyptians and crossing the Red Sea, the people of Israel sang a song to the Lord (Exod. 15). Singing was part of Israel’s formal worship in both tabernacle and temple (1 Chron. 6:31-32, 16:42). The Psalms bear rich testimony that in joy and sorrow, in praise and lament, the faithful raise their voices in song to God. Hymn singing was practiced by Jesus and his disciples (Matt. 26:30). The Apostle Paul instructed the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3: 16-17).

It is through the sense of the words that God’s people learn of the nature and character of God and of the Christian life. Noting that if one prays in a tongue, the “spirit prays,” but the “mind is unfruitful,” the Apostle Paul vows, “I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (1 Cor. 14:14-15).

Music and song continue to play a vital role in the life of God’s people today. Contemporary culture and modern technology bring new possibilities and new challenges to the music ministry of the church. People’s lives are surrounded with music—television and radio, the background music of video games, the muzak of shopping malls, CDs, and synthesizers. Yet much of the time music functions as “background” rather than as an opportunity for serious listening, much less participation. Outside the church there are few occasions or opportunities in North American culture for people to sing together. Much of the popular music (including popular Christian music) composed today is for performance rather than for participation.

[The] greater variety and options in music call for greater discernment and care in planning and implementing the music ministry of the church. The people of God sing; what they sing and how they sing are important issues.

In the interest of context, some recent news…Religion News Service, June 2, 2023.
Hillsong was extraordinary. That’s the problem.

Lentz famously baptised Bieber (Picture: Getty Images)

The first two episodes of the recent FX documentary, “The Secrets of Hillsong,” detail the downfall of the church in New York City and around the globe. First, we watch Hillsong NYC and its pastor, Carl Lentz, rise to power and influence. Over the course of a decade, tens of thousands of people, including young people from diverse backgrounds who had abandoned or never attended church before, arrived en masse to hear Lentz preach. Justin Bieber got baptized. Selena Gomez showed up. Hillsong NYC was a cultural phenomenon. It looked like a rock concert, with a buff, tattooed and yet emotional pastor pacing the stage amidst crescendoing worship songs and powerful words of prayer. All the cool kids lined up outside in their ripped jeans and leather jackets, waiting to attend one of the seven regular weekend services.

The problem of Hillsong arises with the desire to be an extraordinary church led by extraordinary communicators and extraordinary musicians creating an extraordinary experience. When it comes to church, we don’t need to be entertained. We don’t need to be wowed. We need ordinary churches with ordinary people doing ordinary work in communion with an extraordinarily loving God.

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