Over the past couple of weeks I have listened several times to the latest Newsboys work, God is Not Dead. I confess, I really like this album. It speaks of the supremacy of Christ and our receipt of His gift sourced in the love of the Father towards His creation. It makes me think of God’s overarching redemptive plan told through all 66 books of the bible. It reminds me of the promise of hope found in Christ and His eternal reign and rule.
However, I recently encountered some negative feedback about this work, and the Newsboys in general. It was familiar criticism because the same words have left my lips in relation to CCM offerings – lacks substance, too simple, boring, not theologically sophisticated. Basically, the gist of such criticism is that such music is not worthy of time or attention, with an indirect implication that God cannot be honored with such banal worship nor can the worshipper be enriched because of it. This sentiment comes with the notion that only music packed with doctrinal significance and consistent theological articulation is pleasing to the Lord.
Admittedly, I have been rethinking how we consider Christian music, and “worship” music in general. I have examining the fruit of such critiques. For I too have responded to many songs with highly critical lens of doctrinal integrity (according to me of course) and comprehensive theology. The motivation behind such criticism is the desire to see a song accurately reflect upon the character and work of the triune God and fill our souls with divine truth. But now I am rethinking this type of criticism and its counter-productive characteristics.
Yes, I am coming to the understanding that nit-picking at music and especially music that encourages us to offer praise and thanksgiving to God and reflect on his greatness can actually discourage the praise we are commended to offer. This motivates me to ask a few questions with regard to why we find it necessary to be over-critical of worship music, to the extent that it can appear to have no redeeming value.
The first question I have to ask is why we expect a song to deliver a concise theological treatise? When I look through the pages of scripture, we are commended to extol God with gratitude, sing hymns in our heart, to Him and to each other. We are not told that they should be rich in substance. Read through the Psalms. Sometimes it is just as simple as “praise Him”.
I am questioning how fruitful is to expect the song to organize our theology. Perhaps a song does not necessarily need to do this. Rather, we bring in theology to the song offering, even to the simplest of lyrics. If we sing, God is good or Jesus saves, we should not criticize the song because it doesn’t tell us how exactly God is good or Jesus saves. We should already have that articulated so when we sing simple lyrics the richness of what we already understand, motivates the worship of song to our great God. This is a function of good teaching not good song writing.
Now, I do recognize that some songs have troubled lyrics that are inconsistent with the nature and self-revelation of God. I think such inconsistencies deserve to be noted. But that is different than criticizing a song because the lyrics or musical 1-4-5 arrangements are too simple. To criticize a song that encourages the praise and worship of God, and especially one with no inconsistencies, is to say that our musical and lyrical preferences supersedes our praise of God.
The second question I have to ask is how we consider such criticism might impact the worshipper who simply wants to praise God without dissection of how the song could be better. Nate Claiborne offers some poignant sobering thoughts with How to Worship When You Think the Song Sucks. (I encourage you to read it – it’s good). Specific to the impact of criticism, we writes;
How do I worship when I think the songs suck?” you might ask. Well first off, you don’t express that you think the songs suck to anyone else. You may ruin a genuine worshipful experience for them by your complaining. While they were perfectly fine worshipping to that particular song, your comments could forever taint it for them. You are certainly free to mentally critique the artistic and theological merits of the songs you sing each Sunday. But when you decide one or more are duds, don’t rain on everyone else’s parade.
When we ruin someone else’s worship experience, I do believe scripture would liken that to a stumbling block and something we are not to do or be with our family in Christ. While I was not impacted by the negative reaction to the album I was enjoying, it made me realize that perhaps there are those with a higher level of sensitivity who might be impacted with such criticism. This leads me to publically apologize if through my criticism, I have tainted a brother or sisters worship experience. Please forgive me, don’t mind me and carry on!
The last question I’d have to ask is if worship music criticism does not point to a deeper issue and that of being critical in general. While I can’t speak for individual motives behind each rendering of criticism, I have found with my own self it stems from a prideful arrogance that somehow my standard should set the precedent for how we worship God. Yes, I stated correctly – pride and arrogance. Not only that, we can come off as people without hope who find no beauty in the simplest of creation. We should not be this way.
So my critique is this – stop being so critical. Worship God with music that honors Him with whatever lyrics are consistent with His character, from the simplest to the most compact. Allow others to worship Him as well. Don’t ruin someone else’s worship experience because you don’t think the song has value. If it directs us to the Lord, that is all the value we truly need.