June 6, 2020

iMonk Musical Musings (1)

Note from CM: On Saturdays in October, we’ll put together some of Michael Spencer’s thoughts about church music that he expressed over the years here at IM and present them to you for your consideration and discussion.

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No one will be surprised to hear me say this, but we need to find a way to simply have less music in evangelical worship. I don’t say that out of any distaste for art or from a lack of appreciation for the need to reach musicians and people with musical gifts. I mean exactly what I mean: in the typical evangelical church, there is simply too much music, too much attention to music, too much judged by music, and too much attributed to music.

Evangelicalism was always better in the days when any evangelical church had 12-15 minutes of music in a typical service, most of that congregational singing. In the new churches we start, elders need to have an intentional approach to the use of music in worship that is balanced and sane.

Outside of the worship service, we need to encourage music and every other kind of art far more than we do, but a ministry of a church and an necessary (and demanding) element of public worship are two very, very different things. I’d be happy to explore this in a later post, but just think of it this way: what a church strategizes to do as a ministry will seldom dominate that church’s public worship. We need music ministry, not musical dominance of worship.

– Five Post-evangelical Answers for Today’s Evangelical Crisis (June 2007)

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I’m fairly convinced that Americans over-relate to music anyway. We tend to “wall-paper” our worlds with it. Notice, for instance, how we like it playing in the background of everything, and how commericals use it to create a reaction. And while we might complain about that in the elevator or the store, we will practice it in our own environments.

– The Music Debate at Our House (Feb 2004)

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CCM’s success has been phenomenal. Yet, among those who love, buy, and discuss CCM, there is a significant amount of discontent, a considerable agreement that the vast majority of Christian music and Christian artists are mediocre, and a growing sense that the industry has serious and escalating problems. For those interested in art that reflects a mature understanding of the Christian worldview and of artistic excellence, listening to CCM radio is a depressing experience, as it is clear that a kind of commercial wet blanket has come to dominate the genre. K-Love, a syndicated satellite station, increasingly renders Christian radio a land of identical Muzak. Truly talented, risk-taking, culturally relevant communicators must find their way into the world of the internet, small indy labels, and constant touring. It is generally agreed that a contemporary Larry Norman would go largely unheard in today’s CCM environment.

– So Long Ago, When CCM Wasn’t Awful (Undated)

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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.

 – What I Saw at the Revolution (2002)



  1. Obligatory reference to “Worship Star” youtube video here:

  2. Congregational singing is an important part of worship for me personally. Breathing practice opens the spirit. Raising voices in unison and communion are the only active thing the whole congregation does together. Mostly I wish the amplification would be turned down so the congregational voice could be heard more clearly. I sorta wish we would do some of the old hymnal-type hymns, maybe with a somewhat updated groove, but that’s just me, and a base I don’t think the particular choice of music matters that much.

    Watching a worship band perform doesn’t do it, nor listening to the pros do it on the radio. I agree with what MS said about “wallpapering” out-of-church life … I don’t think most of it counts as “relating to music” at all.

  3. Amen…..and so very sad that it’s true.

  4. 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.

    OK, I’ll bite on this one. I know Michael isn’t here to defend himself, but this seems a bit odd to me. If we’re willing to dismiss this as “superstitious” why isn’t it just as much superstition to believe the the Holy Spirit descends when the priest utters the correct phrase or the elements are prayed over by the pastor?

    Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d want to participate in a church if I didn’t believe the Holy Spirit was present during worship. And yes, I do believe we tend to make the service too much about the music and the specific songs, but I’m not ready to say that it doesn’t matter at all or that it can’t impact people in a unique way. I’m a musician, and personally, some of the times when I sense the Holy Spirit the most are when playing. I liken it to the line in Chariots of Fire – “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” Music is a way in I experience God’s pleasure.

    • I can’t speak for Michael either, but I’ll speak for myself. Any time we think that what we do “brings God down” or enables us to have a connection with him, we are fooling ourselves. We are trying to manipulate God.

      God is present in worship, whether or not the music moves me. He is here already, in the Word and Sacraments and when we love one another. We don’t have to work up a fervor that moves him to respond to us.

      • Well, God is always present in some way, but it seems that a sacramental view of the Eucharist would say that He’s present in some way that goes beyond his normal omnipresence in the elements. I hear about people claiming to manipulate God, but I guess my experience has been that Michael’s description is somewhat of a caricature. Even most Pentecostals would reject the idea that were in some way summoning God through worship.

        I also don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with saying that the singing of worship songs is a way to soften people’s heart or focus their attention on God. Even in an orthodox liturgy, the congregation is told repeatedly to be attentive, or reminded to let go of the cares of the world.

        • Without turning this into a long debate, I would simply say that the conception of worship in the evangelical world today is so far to the subjective extreme that people simply don’t think they’ve worshiped unless they’ve had a profound emotional experience. There is nothing wrong with having profound emotional experiences in worship. The problem is that we have come to define worship by them.

          The church needs to be freed from this. It is bondage, and it has little or nothing to do with worship.

          • At first I had a thought that this issue is one of the “immature” Christian vs. “mature” Christian, that the new Christian needs more emotional experience in worship while the long-time mature Christian has moved beyond that.

            But then this thought came to me. If I took this statement “people simply don’t think they’ve worshiped unless they’ve had a profound emotional experience” and re-phrased it as “elderly people don’t think they’ve worshipped unless they’ve sung a hymn,” suddenly the long-time “mature” Christian doesn’t look much different than the immature one. To re-phrase the next thought, “there is nothing wrong with singing hymns in worship, the problem is if someone defines worship by them.”

            Don’t we all enter into worship with some sort of expectation of what is going to happen and what we will experience? This opinion that contemporary worship music isn’t truly worship is, in a sense, bondage too. You are letting your view of worship define worship for others. It seems to be approaching the attitude of the elderly son in the Prodigal Son parable, kind of like complaining to the father about the party that is going on for the younger son. I can just see the Father shaking his head, saying, “hey, they are worshipping me, even if you don’t think they are.”

            • That’s one reason I like the liturgy, Rick. It provides structure and content beyond individual preference and guarantees that the service centers around Christ and the Gospel each week.

        • ..a sacramental view of the Eucharist would say that He’s present in some way that goes beyond his normal omnipresence in the elements…

          Exactly. Unless you can find a way to explain how the elements are not superfluous…

          Michael’s description is NOT a caricature of either Pentecostals or Charismatics. Read their books. Talk to their leaders, Listen to what they’re saying. He puts it so bluntly that it seems hyperbolic, but it isn’t. They of course wouldn’t say they “summon” God, but they certainly channel his presence. I just listened to an interview with a top CCM artist who essentially portrayed his role as the mediatorial in worship. For pete’s sake, the slogan of Integrity was, at one point, “to help people experience the manifest presence of God.” This is why evangelicals can not distinguish between music and worship. (Forget that the CCM industry is owned by secular business interests.) The “worship leader” has become the 20th century equivalent of the Priest in the middle ages, and this is why I had to quit doing it.

          The thing about the presence of Christ in the sacrament is not that the words of the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to come down on the elements (though some churches do teach this, ergo “hocus pocus” etymology). Rather, it is the very words of Christ himself that make this happen. When the Pastor says “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” his lips are moving, the sound is projecting from his larynx, but those are not his words, and it is not him speaking. Christ speaks through His word wherever it is faithfully proclaimed, and His words are not true because they reflect reality, they are true because they cause it to be.

          Music can impact a persons emotions profoundly. There’s nothing wrong with the aesthetic experience we enjoy when making music inside or outside church. But the worship of God is not dependent upon our being profoundly moved. Jesus is still there to give me forgiveness, life, and salvation when I feel cold and dead inside, or the latest Mercy Me single is pushing me over the boiling point in my self righteous indignation. But people who fear, love and trust in God don’t need to be “put in the mood” in order to rightly hear his word. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled.

          • Well, I grew up Pentecostal, and I probably know more personally than most people here. So, yes, they are largely a caricature. Certainly there are plenty of nuts around, but there are also plenty of grounded and thoughtful Pentecostals and Charismatics. I refuse to throw the whole movement under the bus.

            What bothers me is the “all or nothing” sort of thing that comes across in this post. I don’t believe one has to experience some sort of emotional high while in a worship service, but I don’t see anything wrong if it does happen, either. What I’m concerned about is churches becoming an environment where we interact with only purely in our mind. Humans were not created to be such beings.

          • I also have a strong background with Pentecostalism and Charismaticism. I think the teaching of their leading experts holds more weight than the experience of a former adherent. I can quote you chapter and verse from lead musicians and pastors from the largest churches around the country.

            Yes, there are TONS of grounded Pentecostals and Charismatics. They never cease to surprise me with the zingers of insight they produce. The whole movement should not be thrown under the bus, there are way to many good people in that camp. But even these check their brain at the door when it comes to certain things. The critique here is not of fringe extremes, but of majority tendencies.

            Emotional highs are fine, but they are a poor substitute for Christocentricity, which is what they are usually used for. When the experience becomes the focal point of the service, those remaining unmoved by the production (and the cheese intolerant) become ostracized.

            Intellect only approach to worship can be found in both high-church and low church settings. We are to love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Liturgical worship is a great way to do this because the intellectual content will always be there, and rightly supplemented with music and arts, it can also be a very emotionally moving experience. You cannot say this about a revivalistic service of praise and preaching; you are at the mercy of the leading personality, who all too often is driven by the pocketbooks of suckers.

            The problem with doing worship in our culture is we have detached the experience of emotions from information. We’re happy just to experience good feelings, and the what, how, why of the experience is no longer of primary importance. It’s no wonder that trashy literature sells so well.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Any time we think that what we do “brings God down” or enables us to have a connection with him, we are fooling ourselves. We are trying to manipulate God.

        We are making Magick. Summoning and binding.

    • I think that Michael meant the confusion between the emotional effect all music has on people with the moving of the heart when pierced by the Word was taken to be the work of the Spirit.

      In other words, you feel stirred, raised up, ready to go out and do great things; or you feel moved to tears and your heart softened when you are not normally an expressive person; or half a dozen other moods that music induces – the same moods that can be induced at a rock concert, classical concert, a military marching band (particularly if it’s a pipe band, in my case), songs from when we were young, slow airs played at solemn events.

      And as Chaplain Mike says, to move from this conflation of emotional stirring with the descent of the Spirit, to thinking that you can guarantee everyone will have a genuine spiritual experience if you play the right sequence of chords is moving from faith to magic. Jesus promised the coming of the Paraclete; He didn’t promise it would happen everytime “Lord, You Make Me Go ‘Whoo-Hoooo!'” is played.

  5. As a Catholic, I am spared from CCM on Sunday mornings, but I used to listen to it whenever I was in the car for years. (And as a visiting nurse, I spent a LOT of time behind the wheel!) I find I can no longer tolerate the CCM stations, not the local broadcast statations…..and with Liberty in the middle of town we have several….or the stations available on satelite radio.

    Up until about 18 months ago, I felt like I was tuning in (no pun intended) to the Lord while I was about my daily business….singing along to praise or being re-focused to the words of scripture. Now, all I seem to hear if I try to listen is dirges and badly arranged songs. There is no celebration, no sense of humor (The Cartoon Song by Chris Rice, anyone?) and nothing to make me THINK. I find more Christian inspiration listening to “Bridge over Troubled Waters” or “Jesus is Just Alright” on the oldies channel….

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      (The Cartoon Song by Chris Rice, anyone?)

      Never heard of that one before, Pattie. Is it especially awful?

      (For some reason, I doubt it bears any resemblance to anything I would have heard from the animation buffs I used to hang with.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Never mind, Pattie. I looked up the lyrics.

        It is truly AWFUL. On a level with “Eye of Argon”. Or that “Worst Christian Video” where the guy face-painted like a dog (basset hound, I think), sings “HOWL-e-luyah”.

  6. First, Michael Spencer was Zwinglian, so any attempt to read contradiction into his words is a mistake.

    Second, sacraments is God using physical elements to reach us, not a feeble attempt of us to reach, please, appease, or otherwise summon the presence of God.

    Third, where sacraments are observed, God’s presence is already in the sanctuary, and it is we who enter His presence, not the other way around. Where God is not viewed as present at the consecrated altar and the Eucharist, then we enter an empty auditorium where God must be drawn by us. This is the tipping point where modern worship goes wrong.

    • Your last paragraph clarified something for me. When was the last time you entered a sanctuary or worship room where people seemed to understand that they were in God’s presence? I honestly can’t remember. Do we enter as awed as Moses upon approaching the burning bush & being told to remove his sandals? My observations & experience tell me otherwise. If we did, much of the conversation on this topic would be moot.

  7. I don’t think anyone wants to throw Pentecostalism under the bus. This really a much bigger issue in post-charismatic evangelicalism. It is perhaps an issue created by seventeen century peistism, which shifted the focus of worship from the sanctuary to the individual heart. Emotionalism was an effort to fill the void pietism ultimately created, dating back to Schleriermacher. There is a place for personal Peity, but it can’t be the foundation of common/congregational worship. There is an inter-dependency. Corporate worship without Peity becomes going through the motions. But Peity without common worship and creed becomes a free-for-all open for abuse by the powerful and manipulative.