My Response To “8 Reasons The Worship Industry Is Killing Worship”

On October 19, 2015, Patheos.com published the post 8 Reasons The Worship Industry Is Killing Worship by Jonathan Aigner. By all accounts the post has gone viral among those who care about the topic of worship. This is both encouraging, and disturbing. First, there is much in the post’s content that is helpful, insightful, and accurate. However, in my humble opinion, the post lacks nuance and generosity in some of the conclusions made. This moves me to strongly disagree with a number of the statements in the article.

My time is limited for writing this response, which will reveal itself in a lack of editing and a few typos. Apologies. I may/will also be accused of leaving out particular ideas intentionally. That is not my intent, but I see the suggestion coming so I mention this at the beginning of my response. Please be gracious with me.

As well, when I sound pointed in my remarks, please read them as if the author and I are having a coffee and the conversation is passionate yet playful.

Context First: A Big Story And A Broad Vision Of Worship

According to the social media gurus, subtlety and nuance is out, and sweeping, provocative language is in. People listen when we cut it short, and say it strong.

When we’re talking about worship however, in all its forms, nuance will always matter. On the whole, we should alway be more like Ents from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, taking a long time to say anything important, anything of eternal import, rather than offering sharp sound bites that spark a conversation we may or may not be committed to curate.

As I’m sure the author of the 8 Reasons post would agree, we’ve all come too far in our worship conversations for rants that comprehensively demonize one worship form (or perhaps the medium through which it often comes to us?) without recognizing its gifts to a generation. It is also possible we haven’t come as far as I thought we had.

It’s a big story in which we live. A universe this vast and complex demands we become comfortable with some element of mystery and suspension of unbelief in regards to many facets of our human  – and Christian – experience.

Enter Robert E. Webber, a mentor for whom I and the author seem to share deep respect. Webber seems to have carried a broad love and vision for the Body of Christ at worship in a childlike heart that always left room for both diversity and discovery.

Reforming With Generosity And Humility

Following he and others’ examples, I have longed to have that kind of heart in approaching worship for the past 25 years – half of my adult life. I have pursued having same kind of heart as I invested the lion’s share of my vocational energies leading contemporary worship in a variety of traditions (primarily one, but not only one), teaching on the topic of worship in churches and university settings, celebrating liturgical worship and its potential to bring formation and re-orienting of the contemporary mind to Christ, and enjoying personal worship conversations (in person or via technology) with theological luminaries such as N.T. Wright, Jeremy Begbie, Robert Webber, and many others.

On the topic of contemporary worship, in one magical hour in his living room in Westminster Abbey, Wright only offered words to encourage, while gently course correcting, the modern worship movements of today. He recognized the part the music, and by inference, the industry, had to play. I found his generosity of spirit, yet his defined sense of worship praxis, fascinating.

With all due respect, that is not the driving spirit of reformation I hear in this article. And, if I may say, the article is clearly not just about the worship music industry.

The article is about contemporary worship music as a category of worship liturgy, and the industry that propagates it among us.

There are many important ideas that have been brought up by Aigner, and my impression is we would be fast friends despite our disagreement on some of the ideas below.

I would like us to have Webber’s broad-thinking, childlike heart, and Wright’s sense of correction-unto-renewal, as we continue.

My Brief Responses To The 8 Reasons

I read the article, 8 Reasons The Worship Industry Is Killing Worship, in one sitting a few days ago. Then I read a previous article from the author, called 3 Reasons Contemporary Worship is Declining, And What We Can Do To Help The Church Move On.

I then read 8 Reasons a second time to examine why so many have both appreciated, and shared, the article on social media. There are 8 basic reasons Aigner suggests that the worship industry is killing worship. He also concludes his post by telling us that he is boycotting (boycotting is “killing” when it comes to business) the worship industry altogether.

Here are the eight reasons he perceives the worship industry is killing worship. Please read Aigner’s post for details on each.

1. It’s sole purpose is to make us feel something.

My Response: That’s a wild overstatement. Yes, emotions. Yes, dollars. But emotions are good, and from God, and I think the author is missing a vital part of Christian experience using this language.

2. The industry hijacks worship.

My Response: The industry both feeds the worship experience in local communities, and needs radical course correction. “Hijack” is a word used of enemies. I believe this is too demonizing of the industry engine. However, there is merit in this section of the article.

3. It says that music IS worship.

My Response: Yes. I’ve said the same. We generally agree, though other statements thrown in with that section, in my view, betray a fixation on the Holy Eucharist that needs tending.

4. It’s a derivative of mainstream commercial music.

My Response: This conversation, if I’m honest, tires me. I’m surprised we’re still having it. Of course there is pablum in worship music. It is there in commercial music, too. Of course some bands sound like others they were authentically, sonically moved by – get in line (and the Crowder comment was unfair).

We grow up in a time and a place. Contemporary worship music and the bridge it builds between our cultural experience and the riches of our faith has, literally, saved my life and the lives of many others. Teenagers need more than classical music and choral hymns to survive the onslaught of the post-postmodern age. There is no “objective” sacred music, in sound or style. No one will ever convince me there is. God is always giving His Church a new song. Selah.

5. It perpetuates an awkward contemporary Christian media subculture.

My Response: Agreed, but the blame can’t be placed squarely on the industry. I hold local church teaching and theology culpable, and the dualism between sacred and secular that remains entrenched in the subculture. I hear some of that dualism in the author’s post. In other words, we may all be more culpable than we think. Let’s spread the ownership around a bit, yes?

6. It spreads bad theology. Mostly because it comes from the wrong sources.

My Response: Please. Of course it does, and does not. So do educated pastors’ sermons, and they are influencing as many people on a Sunday across the continents as any Christian radio station. Bad theology starts in the broken heart, and can be formed (and even healed) by education, experience, and friendship with Christ. There is much depth and beauty in contemporary worship music, and course-correction abounds. I would suggest the author get out more, and I don’t mean only to the next Worship Leader Conference. The story of what God is doing in and with today’s worship songwriters is stunning.

7. It creates worship superstars.

My Response: I agree that course correction is needed. However, I would add this. Many of those “superstars” are my friends. The author is correct – they eschew the label. The presence of humility, Christlikeness, aggressive distribution of wealth to the poor, and more mitigates against any view that they are living the superstar life. And I, for one, think we need heroes in many areas of our lives. The cashflow direction is an issue, and the fact that the CCM industry was modeled after the commercial music industry at another time is definitely a problem. But is crushing the “man” the answer? Not so sure. Selah again.

8. It’s made music into a substitute Eucharist.

My Response: We will agree here. However, it is the author’s basic thrust that “Music adds a valuable dimension [to worship], but it doesn’t usher us into God’s presence.” The Eucharist (primarily, or only?) does this? The term that comes to mind for me is, if I’m honest, “malarkey.”

I am a wannabe sacramental theologian, and one of my closest friends is Darrell Harris, the Chaplain of the Robert E. Webber Institute For Worship Studies. We agree about the vitalizing power of the Eucharist. However, aggressive statements in this section evidence a fixation on liturgical forms that leaves little room for hundreds of thousands of stories of people being ushered into God’s presence by a song.

Having been brief above, this brings up the big ideas I challenge after reading the article.

My Expanded Response To “8 Reasons”

This section is for those who would like more nuance in this conversation.

  1. I Agree With Many Of The Statements Made, Read Benevolently And Taken At Face Value.

I agree with the author, on “facts,” on many counts. The “Worship Music Industry” is accountable for many mistakes related to the formation of today’s modern worship culture, and hence the formation of Christians. It’s blemishes are obvious. Most of my friends in the industry itself are very aware of it’s faults – and some course corrections are afoot.

While I wouldn’t be as bold as the author in placing the entire blame on the contemporary worship industry for our “awkward contemporary Christian media subculture,” (here I blame distorted biblical, dualistic teaching in local churches, if I may be so bold), I do hold it accountable for making worship primarily about the music and distorting the great broad vision of worship represented from Creation onward.

Some of the author’s thoughts on the Eucharist, narcissism, self-referential worship, music being improperly presented as the primary essence of worship, questionable theology in (some) contemporary worship songs, worship superstars (a decidedly judgmental term when personally knowing some of those people as friends), etc. are perspectives we share to some degree or another.

However, permeating the document are subtle proposals that we boycott everything that doesn’t meet the author’s elusive and prescriptive litmus test for “healthy worship practice.”

It is here we diverge. Once again, we’re fighting for “purity” rather than “reform from within.”

Blowing things up and starting over was not Luther’s idea for reformation; that was carried out by another ilk of reformer.

(I’m an INFP on the Meyer’s Briggs. I wonder if the author’s profile ends with a “J.” Selah again.)

2. Sweeping Statements About The Incredibly Diverse World Of Contemporary Worship Are Unhelpful – Unless Reform Is Off The Table.

I hesitate to say this, but the author’s sense of freedom to write off vast expressions of contemporary worship songwriting, its level of artistry, and its place in the wider body of worship work of the 20th-21st century Church, is virtually inexcusable for a thoughtful article on such an expansive idea as worship.

It’s called a “new song,” and God is, apparently, the one who gives it to His Church (Ps. 40:3).

A statement like, “It’s sole purpose [the industry] is to make us feel something,” is simply unfair. The statement is a caricature of the worship music industry. It’s not that cut and dry.

I note that here the writer is subtly blurring the line between contemporary worship music and the industry that delivers it. But they are two different things. Each, in my view, has a vocation (author Marva Dawn suggests that vocations are had by more than just people).

On the music end, unless feelings are actually anathema in the Christian faith, and someone forget to tell God, the biblical writers, and me, I will contend that emotions are a welcome, desirable part of being human and being a Christian.

Should we also kill off the wider music industry for making us “feel something?” Carrie Underwood, watch out. Especially when you sing “sacred” songs vs. “secular” songs. Someone apparently knows when feeling something is good or bad, permissible or manipulative. And if the country music industry perpetuates work that is both good and bad, perhaps we should kill that too.

A hundred thousand stories later, and surfing on the basic affective anthropology in Jamie Smith’s Desiring The Kingdom, missional people and movements continue to be inspired by, renewed by, and even shaped by the contemporary worship experience.

Emotions of a generation moved – thank you very much.

The “worship music industry” we should apparently silence has actually delivered much of that powerful music to the local church. Even more classical or traditional music.

What if the industry actually has a vocation, and it is simply distorted? I’m glad God doesn’t write off everything that is disoriented in its vocation.

God seems to be more interested in redemption, catalyzed by revelation, repentance, awakening, and forgiveness.

I know teenagers who are alive today because of God using a contemporary worship song to crack through the layers of their self-destructing heart. I myself have found vast reservoirs of strength for living the life of faith from the music that arose within the contemporary church and the “industry.”

The author’s intimates that it is all self-referential and indulgent. That writes off a large portion of my faith story to date.

But no big deal. Apparently, again “Music adds a valuable dimension [to worship], but it doesn’t usher us into God’s presence.” Darn it. I must have been manipulated emotionally, and brought into deeper intimacy, reverence, and commitment to Christ despite the Christocentric lyrics and the rise and fall of the music (music to which I could actually relate coming from my background).

Malarkey, again. Music can welcome us, like a beautiful doorway, into the presence of God. While I won’t raise it to the sacramental nature of the Eucharist, to minimize its inherent power to take us to a place of encounter with God in Christ, just to make a liturgical point, is a lesson in overstatement.

All formation in our lives is not accomplished by the Eucharist and the liturgies that surround it. I’m sorry – it’s not – and I am a deep lover of sacramental theology.

I might add that all that is not explicitly denoted as sacramental does fall into the category of non-sacramental. (This is another view rampant in the Body of Christ that furthers the dualism we have between sacred and secular, and resists the category of “creational” as the overarching category of life.)

3. A Negative View Of Emotional Connection In Worship Is What Got Us Here In The First Place.

I will forever be convinced that God breathes refreshed revelation of His Person and intent (along with a “new song” – Ps. 96:1) into every generation in order to heal it, engage it, and propel us with renewed faith into His preferred future for His Church.

The contemporary worship movement was a reaction to the dry ritualism that preceded it. 

There was, and is, emotional healing to be done in the church. Graciously, God breathes on the gift of music in our generation to open the heart afresh to Himself. Not all healing will happen in a liturgy, in silence, in a message, or in a counseling session. Certainly Oprah and Dr. Phil won’t (at least in public) point people to Christ for such a restoration of the emotions.

I have a further hundred stories of how the passionate, loving, and pursuing God has brought health into the emotional life of a generation using the contemporary music of the Body of Christ in a time and a place.

Aigner says:

“The industry, as with the mainstream music industry, must engage us on a purely sensory level to find widespread appeal in an entertainment-addicted culture. It must make us feel something on a purely emotional level. It strikes a match for the initial excitement of the spark. It must hook us in to be profitable. And so, the quality of theology, poetry, and music suffers accordingly. And we trade the beauty of God’s story for the initial excitement of sensory stimulation. Singing love songs to Jesus is not the point of gathered worship.”

What if singing a love song to Jesus is indeed one of the points of gathered worship – in the spirit of the Song of Solomon tradition? What if we’ve gotten too focused, however, on a revelation of God’s heart He intended to pour into a generation with the highest identity crisis and suicide rate in history?

What if that is exactly what the Heavenly Doctor ordered at a time, in a place, for a generation – or a select group within a generation – at a moment in history?

I find the quote above to be a sweeping statement without nuance. Yes, money confuses things. I agree that the industry needs to own up to some distorted views of worship (I also took the time to call for change and a broader vision of worship to be embraced by the Christian music industry, the Christian radio industry, Christian colleges and universities, Christian songwriters, worship leaders, pastors, and worshippers here).

I live and breathe in these worlds pastorally, and it’s not so cut and dry. Yes, the industry promotes music that is formulaic. Yes, the Dove Awards can be… awkward. Yes, the worship music industry can be money-driven. Yes, the music is emotionally connecting.

But as for it being all wrong, worthy of demise, and feeding an improper emotional connection with God in worship?

Please.

Many of us have seen too much transformation and healing in lives through the contemporary worship experience to swallow that paragraph like a baby chick.

And as for the quality of theological import and creativity in “all” contemporary worship music, I humbly suggest the author get more deeply in touch with some of the current songs (and songwriters) that reveal a welcome course correction in the contemporary worship movement.

4. Church Music Sounding Like Radio Music Is Not A Problem. It’s Just Not.

Dualism, again, is the bandit worth killing here. We grow up in a time, and in a place. The sound of what we create, though not entirely innocuous, comes from within the context of our experience.

While we must be discerning, the “sound” of the music is not the primary concern (though it matters). The lyrics and direction of the music are what is of primary concern. Music is creational – not inherently sacred or secular. The lyrics move it in either direction. It’s time we simply owned that and moved forward.

An entire generation has been impacted by the music of faith arising indigenously from that same generation. Sure, discernment is important. Yes, we need to be aware of the values of our age bleeding into our church environments. Yea verily, there is often a blind imbibing of culture that occurs when young worshippers unwittingly combine their faith with their cultural moorings.

But to write it off altogether with statements like,

“…And because the industry is committed to creating christianized versions of popular forms, there is little creativity. It just copies the marketable sounds and adds jesusy words. (Does the David Crowder Band sound like Hootie and the Blowfish, or is it just me?)”

– in my view – is wildly unfair.

First, I don’t know David Crowder personally, but if I were him I’d be pained by the tiny box into which the author freely puts his life’s work and vocation.

Second, I would ask the author if the worship music (and liturgies) he personally embraces are not “copying” forms of another age? Or is there a brand of sound and style that is “other worldly,” and some have the key to sensing when it is actually present?

Just because one can’t see the majesty in a flower doesn’t mean it’s not one of the great architectural feats of creation.

I would suggest the problem may have something to do with perception, and not just “objective data that we all would believe if we were reasonable people.”

5. I Hear High-Culture vs. Pop-Culture Intimations That Skew The Statements.

I humbly suggest that all that is stated in the article is not only solely coming from honest assessment of the effect of contemporary worship music on today’s Christian psyche.

It has the ring of an argument from someone who – like myself to some degree – prefers to host and linger in a headier, more thought-centric Christian experience in worship rather than a primarily emotional and visceral engagement. Again, I refer to Jamie Smith’s work, and the “love” gateway through which today’s post-postmodern may enter first into the Christian experience.

Demanding that we all “get it” regarding the Eucharist and good Christian theology before connecting with God as our loving Father and forgiving Lord through music may be a noble adventure in futility. I humbly offer that indeed the Spirit may resist such judgements on all Christian “popular” media, given that the Spirit speaks in a time and a place through all believers offering their creativity from their point of faith – not just from the wise and learned.

If God is real, He can be experienced. I believe He wants to be experienced – in the Eucharist, in the hearing of the Scriptures, in the passing of the peace, in a sharing in true koinonia – and in the emotive connection afforded by many expressions of today’s contemporary worship music.

While this may irritate a cross-section of us (as it does me at times), not every “new song” will come out of the wider, beautiful, technicolor church sounding like a classic hymn or conveying a complex Trinitarian reflection (tip of the hat to Torrance).

Who, exactly, is allowed to write songs about the Scriptures, a personal revelation of God that is in accord with those Scriptures and is designed to serve the wider Body, or doctrinal and devotional reflections on faith? 

As Begbie suggests in Behold The Glory, artists often must do theology in spite of its (lessening) cultural attachment to (predominantly white) European philosophy. Every artist is not a classically trained theologian. But many do Christian theology by living in the Scriptures and experiencing what Bono sang in Beautiful Day – “What you don’t know you can feel somehow….”

Once again, it may be that angelic announcements come first to shepherds and those who don’t know any better, while schooled religious leaders are left waiting for a phone call.

I’m not decrying the role of the intellect and the emotional connection that can come through liturgical worship forms and careful theological study; I am simply suggesting we live a big, big world and human beings are infinitely complex.

God will have His way with us. The rise of the contemporary worship music voice, I believe, has had something to do with Him getting through to one or more segments of this generation.

May I add that at a crucial point in the formation of the faith of all 3 of my own children, contemporary Christian music (and worship music) provided-and-or-continues-to-provide a vital source of strength for their inner life-and-death battles.

Or maybe my wife is singing her heart out in adoration and thanksgiving as a Pandora station plays in the background, welcoming God to use her more and more as she ages, because she is being emotionally manipulated by a song (thereby avoiding the Eucharist in the middle of the day once again)?

Sorry. She’s been ushered into the presence of God by… yes… a song. The “industry” put it on Pandora. We listened. We found strength in our home. Personally, I’m not interested in killing that system completely any time soon.

Brian Wilson is a wonderful artist, but I want the Scriptures and lasting truth about God to be on the lips, and in the minds, of my family. He’s not a reference point for me.

Yes, we need great art. We will agree on that. But often I’ll take weaker art that reinforces intimacy with God and virtue development in the soul until that art can get better.

And yes, it should keep getting better. Now I’m turning my eye to the teaching pastors in local churches, of which I am one.

Again, I blame the awkward art culture in the church on church teaching, and even entrenched historic theological distortions, rather than on a worship music industry that may at times perpetuate (or be a caricature of) them.

6. There Is Precedent In The Christian Tradition For Extended Meditation On Vital Phrases – The Opposite Of “Mind Disengagement.”

The Lectio Divina tradition in the church alone shows us that continued repetition and reflection on simple words and phrases can have a vital, positive, formative effect on the worshiper of Christ.

A mentor once noted that contemporary worship may be providing one form of contemporary “silence” that is allowing for a focusing on specific and simple themes that are necessary to a Christian’s experience of God (Ex. Good Good Father and the loving fatherhood of God).

That same mentor once said that we need “thinking hearts” and “feeling minds” in the Body of Christ. I like to think we need “Great Minds” and “Great Hearts” leading the church.

May it be that the Great Minds of the Church recognize the place of the Great Hearts of the Church – and welcome them into the front seat to help drive the Church forward in our great calling to Christ-led worship.

7. Christian Music, Of Particular Styles And Forms, Cannot Be Demonized Without Casting A Shadow On Many Traditions.

The author says,

“When the mind is disengaged and worship is reduced to an emotional experience, worship descends into narcissistic and self-referential meaninglessness. It becomes, to borrow a term from my experience in evangelical culture, ‘unchristian.’ It turns us inward. How many times have we heard people say, ‘I can’t worship with that kind of music!’ or ‘I really felt like I could worship today!’ What they mean is, “I didn’t feel it” or “I was entertained.” True Christian worship happens when we engage with the Christian story through Word and Sacrament. When it’s done well, the only possible response is one that looks outside the self to the goodness of God and God’s work in human history, and searches for our place in God’s story.”

“True Christian worship happens when….” Really? That’s confidence.

I would never suppose to know that moment that true Christian worship happens. That happens in a heart – not a form.

I contend (and may I dare suggest that our shared mentor Robert Webber might have agreed) that the music of worship, in all its forms, can be a powerful vehicle through which the Word travels from the heart of God into our own, and should not be utterly distanced from “true Christian worship” as in the paragraph above.

However, I agree that worship does not need to have an emotional impact to be the right thing to do. Boring repetition has it’s formational place in us. Agreed.

I thank God he is not limited by our opinions.

And as for all music coming from Christians lacking artistic integrity? That’s a statement I submit is made from a lack of attention to the detail and a wider connection with all that is stirring in the Church in our generation.

8. Local Church Pastors, Christian Colleges & Universities, And Influential Christian Artists Are All As Culpable As Any Industry For The State We Are In.

What is taught and practiced in local churches is as important to our formation as what is getting radio play.

Again:

“True Christian worship happens when we engage with the Christian story through Word and Sacrament. When it’s done well, the only possible response is one that looks outside the self to the goodness of God and God’s work in human history, and searches for our place in God’s story.”

I agree. But hand that same statement to 400K evangelical local church pastors to get their response? Then suggest who may be culpable for treating worship as the frontier-form pre-show to the message. Selah, a third time.

By that I mean that we all have a part to play, and I’m willing to both repent of the past, and embody with you a picture of our preferred future in worship.

I would like to edit this article, and rewrite it for posterity. However, I have reached my time limit and little editing has occurred.

Yes, we need to enhance the creative work of the church. But I suggest the strangle-holds do not only exist in industries that have found a way to make good money from songs.

I suggest they exist in our hearts, and by extension, the local churches we worship within.

Conclusion

So, 25 years into my own vocation related to worship, I term myself to be an ancient-future worship leader and teacher serving in a contemporary tradition. It is through this lens that I read the article, and made the previous comments.

To the author I ask, what if many have found the Bordeaux of Grace offered to us in Christ delivered in a box formerly reserved for commercial music that delivered its ideologies freely to the masses?

What if God wants to make something beautiful of the Christian worship music industry, and you want to shut it down before renewal can kick in? (I’m also not saying He doesn’t want to send a flood and start afresh, but it’s possible He has a plan).

What if the “spark” you suggest is purely emotional actually leads to holy fires – ones that have been hidden for a variety of reasons from your current view?

What if playing with matches is how we learn to both light candles, and then to work with God in sparking raging firestorms of Hope for this generation?

My call for reform is here.

Thanks for reading.