I remember distinctly the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship music. It was during my first year of university. While always a Christian, my faith grew in passion and energy through the Vineyard explosion of the 90’s. This deepening of my faith coupled with my learning to play the guitar. Almost instantaneously I found myself playing in worship bands and youth retreats. I eagerly sought the newest recordings from Vineyard and Hillsong; Brian Doerksen and Darlene Zschech were my companions in faith and worship. During this time, contemporary worship was very much the background music of my life.
Then it happened. I had purchased the latest worship offering from Vineyard, Langley, titled “Winds of Worship Volume 8.” The album contained some worship songs I already knew and loved, songs like “Not Be Shaken” and “I Lift My Eyes Up (Psalm 121). Along with the album, I purchased the accompanying music book and was excited to learn the newest offerings in contemporary worship. Words can never really express how my heart sank as I listened to the first song on the album. The song was called “Hop on the Bus”, and began like this:
Hop on the Bus
God’s on the move
There’s a seat for me
There’s a seat for you.
I have nothing against singer/songwriter Scott Underwood, but I had to question the theological depth of these lyrics. I remember sitting in my room thinking “Is this what contemporary praise music has come to – a vain appeal to hype and emotionalism?” I classified the song as corny, not fun, and annoying, not memorable. More importantly, however, I found that the song offered nothing in the way of an intelligent articulation of faith. I guess no one really cares about theological truth when you can get people to jump around during a worship set. That was the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship.
I had hoped that things had gotten better in the years between then and now. Yet this same sense of spiritual heartbreak occurred just the other day as I drove my 14-year-old son to school. My son exclusively listens to Toby Mac and loves to listen to Shine FM when in the car. While my worship-sensibilities rest more with hymnody and Taizé, I rejoice in my son’s enjoyment of worship music.
As we drove, Chris Tomlin’s newest hit “God’s Great Dance Floor” came up in the rotation. My son listened as the song began, then looked at me quizzically. “Where is God’s dance floor?” he asked. As we listened to the song together, my son interjected with appropriate questions, questions pertaining to the song’s lack of theology. “Is God’s great dance-floor earth, or heaven? If it is on earth, where is it? If it is in heaven, is this song about death?” Then there was the doozy of the question, the one that (I think) goes to the central problem with Tomlin’s hit “What if I don’t feel like dancing?”
Rising within me were the same concern as those from the tail end of my Vineyard days. Is this where contemporary worship has led us? Ultimately, praise songs like “Hop on the Bus”, and “God’s Great Dance Floor” are not written to edify people or educate them in the faith. They exist only to entertain. What is sought is emotionalism and hype. Consider some of the lyrics of Tomlin’s song.
I’m coming back to the start
Where you found me
I’m coming back to your heart
Now I surrender
This is all I can bring
These lyrics sound nice, but ultimately have no meaning. What does it mean to “come back to the start” anyway? The song itself never discloses this, and so the worshiper is left abandoned. If we find the answer from the song itself, then “coming back to the heart of God” is seen only in the context of our surrender to upbeat music and call-and-response type lyrics. Theologically, however, this makes absolutely no sense. The place where God “found us” is in our own creation. We are created in the image of God. God is the first mover in this relationship of ours; we love because he first loved us.
The miss-guided theological point of this song is clear: being in God’s heart will move us to dancing. To come to God in faithful surrender is to be blessed forever by an upbeat and happy life. Life with God is one big party. As Tomlin proclaims (over and over and over) we feel alive, and come alive, on God’s dance floor.
All of this is a lie. The song presents a false understanding of Christian faith. While it may play well on the stage it is devastating to our Christian lives. What happens when we find out that life is not a constant party? What do we do when all the dancing stops and the upbeat tempo of life is met with tragedy, hardship, or struggle? As to my son’s question, what happens when we do not feel like dancing, or cannot dance, because of the weight of all we carry? Tomlin is not worried about this.
Back in the day, hymn writers sought to describe the finer points of theological truth with their hymns. Sure, the tunes may have been ripped from the contemporary music of the day, but the content of their lyrics were saturated with theology. This is not to say that they always got it right. Personally, speaking I cringe whenever we describe the newly born Christ-child through the phrase “no crying he makes.” This makes no sense theologically and undercuts the very incarnation the hymn is trying to disclose. But they hymn is trying to disclose a nuanced theology of the incarnation. Hymns of the past attempted to educate the church with the truth of the Gospel. They made people think and reflect on their faith. You may not like all the hymns the Wesley’s wrote, but you cannot deny the theological density infused in each one of them.
This theological richness has meant that these hymns have borne the test of time, evidenced by the fact that Tomlin, and others, often repackage these hymns as praise songs. The church today still sings out Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and How Great Thou Art. Even the more pastoral or sentimental classics like “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” continue to find a place in many churches of varying denominations.
I doubt if anyone today is still singing Hop on the Bus. And, for all its flash, I am willing to bet that next year no one will be signing about God’s great dance floor. Tomlin’s hit will be replaced by what ever high-emotional, catchy tune is the “it song” for the moment. Therein lies the inherent problem with so much of contemporary worship. We have created a praise-culture that simply moves from emotionalism to emotionalism, from frenzied experience to frenzied experience. For Tomlin, the dancefloor is the concert stage. The point of the song is to have concert goers sing along to the chorus as they jump around in a state of frenzy. When that no longer occurs through these lyrics, they will be replaced by others.
This is not written to shame Tomlin. I, actually, like a lot of the songs he pens. I think he is a good and faithful artist. But I think, with this song, he succumbed to the temptation that plagues so many – the temptation to be liked. I feel that with this song, he drifted away from the call of worship in favour of the desire to be marketable. This is a temptation that we all feel at times, me include.
So, all of this is to say, to myself, but also to my fellow worship leaders, organ directors, pastors, and priests – let us do better. Let us return to an understanding of worship as a point of education. Let us not treat our congregations as theological simpletons, feeding them with sound-bytes that offer little to no nourishment. Let us empower our congregation to grow spiritually and theologically. Perhaps what the church needs today is less catchy tunes and more theological depth to what we sing. So, whether we use organs or guitars, let us sing faithfully, passionately, and deeply.