What I saw at the revolution: trading a heritage of worship music for a lukewarm bowl of CCM

What I Saw at the Revolution
Trading a heritage of Worship Music for a lukewarm bowl of CCM
by Michael Spencer

NOTE: It is now apparent than some people cannot read this article without applying it to their church and getting mad at me. Listen, forget about your church and forget about me and just read/react/think/write/live whatever truth is here. After 3 decades of using CCM in my ministry, I get to write a few paragraphs about my soured relationship with it. It’s not about you- unless it is about you. And that’s not about me.

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Not too many months ago, I had the opportunity to lead my “congregation” of high school students in a chapel service of worship music. Realizing that they had learned many new songs in the past few months, I purposely selected songs that were popular with these students two and three years ago. After leading the service, a student came up to me and said something I have never forgotten. “I sure like the old songs, Mr. Spencer.”

Such is the frantic pace of change in contemporary worship music, that “As the Deer” is now one of the “old” songs. Seniors in high school and their grandparents have this in common: they both love the old songs, songs that are rapidly being replaced..

The revolution in worship music that is now tearing up thousands of evangelical churches and rousing generational civil war in many evangelical families has been brewing for some time. The first identifiable “praise choruses” were appearing in the fifties, and the musical revolution of the sixties, largely confined to “youth services,” musicals and “coffeehouses,” never seemed to disturb churches to the extent we are seeing today. In the Jerry Falwell-style Southern Baptist church of my teenage years, drums and contemporary music were welcome in youth services and occasional choir performances, probably because no one ever thought of turning these occasional forays into pop culture into the regular Sunday morning service. Long haired kids in sandals, filling up the front pews on Sunday night, made the church look evangelistic, but we kept our music to ourselves. It was the age of “Jesus People,” and any church would bend over to have a few more young people in the services, but no one was inviting us to bring the band into the choir loft.

In the late sixties and seventies, CCM was growing and taking root in the heart of an entire generation of young Christians. Among those of us listening to Larry Norman, Petra and Resurrection Band, there was plenty of talk of how this music helped us in our walk with God and made our faith more relevant and appealing to our generation, but no one ever thought about such music becoming the standard fare for Sunday morning worship. One of my good friends, a guitarist who loved Kiss and Elton John, always resisted CCM just because of its oddity: neither rock and roll nor worship music, he couldn’t appreciate it. Today he is the lead guitarist, playing in his church’s Sunday morning worship band.

CCM itself seemed to be avoiding such a confrontation. In my vast collection of CCM LPs from these days, one does not find many “worship albums” with music specifically designed for church worship settings. Even Maranatha recordings originally seemed comfortable occupying the CCM niche of personal entertainment, edification and evangelism, not public worship. But that was all about to change.

I’m sure CCM artists began to include “worship” segments in their sets fairly early, but I would suggest it was the Christian music festival that probably first saw the plausibility of a movement of CCM into the realm of congregational worship music. I attended 18 years of “Ichthus” festivals at Wilmore, Kentucky during the seventies and eighties, and I recall the “worship” segments led by Michael Card and Rich Mullins, usually during the communion service. These were powerful corporate worship experiences, and the implications of those experiences were clear to all present: we needed to take this back home to our churches.

Today, musical groups that would have been seen as evangelistic missionaries in the seventies and eighties are put forward primarily as “worship bands,” writing music for the consumption of the local church. Third Day and delirious? are two examples of this phenomenon. Artists like Matt Redmond are top of the CCM charts with an overt mission of writing for corporate worship. Even established CCM artists like Michael W. Smith have gravitated towards worship music, and Christian radio has followed. A couple of hours listening to “K-Love” will reveal a hefty diet of music that one is likely to hear again on Sunday morning.

CCM’s move towards becoming the leaders of musical worship in the local church is unprecedented and significant. This is because of the nature and assumptions that lie behind CCM. Few have the courage to point out these realities, and those who do, like the courageous and truthful Steve Camp, are vilified as party poopers. I would beg my readers to consider these realities, and not to simply follow the “knee-jerk” reaction of so many Christians who are unable to critique anything they personally like.

CCM is a commercial enterprise, owned largely by secular corporate interests, and certainly driven by the values of the entertainment industry more than those of the church. It is part of the entertainment culture, and only partially related to the culture of classic, orthodox Christian tradition. CCM has virtually no accountability to the larger Christian tradition, or even the Christian musical tradition. (A list of the “One Hundred Greatest Songs in Christian Music” shows no awareness of traditional gospel, country, Black gospel, Southern gospel or classical music. Odd, ignorant and sad.) As an industry, it has no accountability to the larger church and only rarely any accountability to the local church (with some refreshing exceptions.) It has no standards of doctrinal orthodox, and resists any notion that its lyrics may at times promote error and even heresy. Its only accountabilities are to itself, and to its own commercial interests. In many instances, it has proven to be an arrogant business; with a small vision of success and a haughty attitude towards its custumers.

This must be understood to appreciate the game that is played in saying that the CCM product is anointed by God for renewing worship in the local church, a claim that is made weekly in thousands of churches where worship leaders are attempting to replace traditional worship music with CCM. On what basis is such a statement made? I would suggest it is made like virtually every other statement in Christian music: it is made on the basis of how much music is being sold. If the music were not succeeding commercially, such a statement would never be made. If “As the Deer” were as commercially popular as “Immortal, Invisible,” we would never hear anyone say God had sent such a song to rescue the worship of the church.

In fact, the claim that CCM is drawing in thousands of new worshipers is patently false. Like so many claims made by the corporate pushers of evangelical products, the statement applies to those churches and individuals who buy the product, while non-consumers are erased from the picture. A jump in sales of the product is announced as the endorsement of God. In actual fact, overall attendance in America’s churches has declined at about the same rate as the ascendancy of CCM as the standard worship fare. I am not pleading cause and effect, because the roots of this decline in local church worship are much deeper than music. Still, the claim of a worship renewal is false and misleading.

So what is being called a worship renewal is, in actual fact, a commercial revolution within CCM. On other levels, such as the unity of the church, the “worship renewal” is the most divisive thing to come along since the first outbreaks of “speaking in tongues” in mainline and traditional evangelical churches. Listening to senior adults talk about what is happening in many of their churches, one cannot help but be saddened by the bull-headed tactics and selfishness of some pastors and worship leaders who have decided to cast aside the worship preferences of whole age groups in order to get some hands in the air and some bodies swaying. As a local church minister for twenty-seven years, I have worked with every age group including senior adults and teenagers and their parents. What is happening in churches who are uncritically embracing the CCM takeover of local worship is one of the most thoughtless and hurtful set of decisions I have ever observed. I can only pray that persons of good will, common sense and a love of unity in the church will quickly prevail before the damage is irreparable.

For example, in one large church of my acquaintance, the staff has, over a period of seven years, eliminated the hymnal, the organ, the acoustic piano and exiled hymn-singing to the senior adult fellowship. Sunday evenings, once a service where pastors could teach scripture to the faithful, are now frequently given over entirely to concert formats where young people dance and do all the expected behaviors of a club set. To say this overlooks and estranges whole generations is an understatement. And the changes were made with breath-taking swiftness, alerting the older generation that it was “my way or the highway” as far as worship style goes. Inter-generational worship, once a solid strength of the church, is now a forgotten part of the past.

In addition to embracing the CCM revolution, the current crop of church leaders has taken up an entire novel and rather bizarre theology and practice regarding music in worship. One will hear worship leaders speak of the Holy Spirit descending into the room as the music is lifted up. Music now apparently “prepares” the congregation for the teaching of the Word, softening up those hard hearts. The new music is frequently equated with some sort of spiritual “river,” bringing an anointing or spiritual renewal to those who will join in the music. This is all, to be blunt, silly and superstitious. I now meet dozens of untalented and undiscipled young people, often living lives of serious immaturity and even immorality, whose stated goal is to follow a call from God into a successful career in CCM. Suddenly, God is apparently wanting to flood America with more CCM artists in need of our financial support. How blessed we are.

Repetition has become an issue even in churches that endorse the worship revolution, as songs are sung over and over and over, with the seeming intent of the emotional manipulation of the congregation. The picture of a swaying, eyes-closed, semi-conscious worshiper is now the picture of the goal of much current worship leadership. The new style encourages public, individual demonstrations of piety, a phenomenon that always divides a congregation into the “truly” spiritual and the dead wood. Of course, such a distinction based on who will raise hands and sway is absurd, but that has not stopped some worship leaders from coming to resemble a cheerleading Richard Simmons, urging demonstrations of enthusiasm that are often never scripturally required of any worshiper. Now, of course, God wants us to applaud everything.

Of most concern to this writer is the blatant emotional manipulation that has become common in much of this music. To call names, much music from the Vineyard particularly seems fascinated with romantic imagery and language, and images of physical affection. Fully aware of the dysfunctional family experiences of many worshipers, the music often plays directly upon this wound, seeking an emotional outpouring that will be labeled as “healing”. A similar awareness of the sexual proclivities of this generation seems to lie behind other songs, with a similar goal of emotional transference. One must commend those contemporary worship writers who stick close to the language of the Psalms and write solid, God centered lyrics.

The turn of some contemporary worship writers towards romanticism and the language of Oprah-esque psychology is not unexpected, since the sheer amount of music being published is immense, and the pressure to create new worship “hits” increases as well. With the constant demand for new songs growing as the movement grows, the subject matter of worship songs often ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the heavenly to the very earthly. It is interesting to hear a defense of romanticism in lyrics with a reference to Song of Solomon. The Song of Solomon is touted as an equally appropriate source of worship inspiration as the Psalms. One wonders why these advocates cannot see the wisdom of the church in avoiding songs about, “Lord, I want to grab your fruit” or “Lord, take me back to your bedchamber.” Yet, with the focus on romanticism, such lyrics often do not seem that far away from plausibility.

Before the contemporary worship revolution, the “canon” of worship music was relatively stable. I grew up with one hymnal, which was well used but certainly not exhausted. My church has a new hymnal and I can see it will take us years to explore it. In the past, the canon of “extra-hymnalic” material was rather small. Today, the congregation may be allowed to develop favorite songs, but they can count on being bombarded with new songs virtually every week, culled from vast databases of new music downloaded into the computers that have replaced the hymnals of the past. I am not hesitant at all to say that it makes one long for a revival of psalm-singing, so that the average worshiper would only have to master the Psalter, and not the “new anointed hit of the week.” Justifying such passive acceptance of commercially driven innovation as “singing a new song to the Lord” is, frankly, dumb.

Consider this: Robbing the children of such churches of the heritage of Christian hymnody is a serious deficiency. I am working with the young people produced by such churches, and they are a generation looking for a kickin’ band and a song with good hand motions. As a former youth minister, I recall the days when such interest was desired in our youth groups, but only on Saturday night in the youth center. That such evaluations would come to dominate regular public worship is a measure of what has happened. I note with predictable irony that virtually every baby boomer I know evaluates churches based on their band, music and projection system. Spurgeon would be in trouble.

Today, I consider teaching the heritage of great hymns to these young people to be among the most important aspects of my worship leadership and ministry, because I am reconnecting them with a great cloud of witnesses and a heritage that belongs to all the church of all times, not just to Americans in LA and Nashville.

In part II of this article, I will discuss the Biblical principles of worship that I believe should guide the overall public worship of God, including music. My point so far: the evangelical church has thrown away its musical heritage in order to buy into the commercial and cultural values of CCM. While CCM has some limited effectiveness as a vehicle for communication within our culture, its primary value is entertainment, and as such it has infected evangelicalism with a virus that may prove deadly to our survival as a worshiping community.

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