Do Modern Worship Songs Have Substance?

Raising hands at worship service

Are today’s praise and worship songs more about spiritual substance or entertainment? It’s a question worth asking, as performances in Church have grown more and more elaborate, and the songs themselves are less often hymns than personal reflections. But whether your Church has a pipe organ or a speaker stack, you’ll always find someone who can’t stand the music.

Dr Sam Hey is a lecturer in Biblical studies, and author of an insightful book exploring the past and future of megachurches. He’s also about to present a paper on “the benefits and limitations of contemporary Christian music”. Talking to Neil Johnson on Vision’s 20Twenty last week, he said Churches often feel caught between different generations, with vastly different demands.

His parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, working in the Anglican Church in the UK, had to deal with similar pressure from both younger and older people. and in the 1880s and 1930s, what we call the worship wars was a challenge back then. And one of the solutions they used then, that can still be used today, is to run different types of services at different times on the weekend.”

Dr Hey says its important to recognise the unique culture of younger generations, and accept that the music that pleases middle-aged Church-goers may not engage people in their 20s. And so I think megachurches are often driven by an evangelising recognition of the younger generation coming through. They’ll often employ and appoint younger people. They’ll often give them the freedom to write the songs. They’ll give them the resources to develop those songs.”

Dr Sam Hey
Dr Sam Hey

“They may not agree with the words that are being expressed, the romanticism that might be in the words. They may not agree with the beats and the style of music that is being used. But they realise they’re doing a very valuable job in reaching the next generation that the Church is going to need ahead.”

In answering the question of whether worship songs have substance, Dr Hey said it depends what substance you’re looking for. If you go into a fish and chip shop and ask for spaghetti, you’ll probably be disappointed. “I think there are things in songs, and that songs do, that we may not recognise. They have spiritual value, teaching value, therapeutic value, communal value, that bring us into relationship with God.”

“They’re a bit like a love song. If you write to someone you love, and say “there are hormones flowing in my blood stream that cause me to put ink on paper, we’re not using the right language. These songs are often relational songs about love, and so we’ve got to recognise that’s part of what worship is about.”

“And if we go to the songs and expect a lot of deep theological teaching, you might be better to enroll in the home group or study group, where you’ll have time for that. Sunday morning is not necessarily where it’s going to be offered during a song service.”

In his conversation with Neil Johnson, Dr Hey also tackled some other criticisms of worship songs – that they don’t always help people deal with the reality of sin, or talk about pain they’re going through. They also took some calls from listeners offering their experiences of how Christian music has changed through the years. Listen to the podcast below for that and much more.

Tune into 20Twenty and join the conversation with Neil Johnson, weekdays on Vision Christian Radio. Click here for your local times.

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