When Worship Wasn’t Cool

I think of the days when hymn books lined the pews in our churches and were used in worship services every week. As a traditional ’80s minister of music, I would stand at the pulpit and say, “Please take your hymn books and turn to page number (fill in the blank) and sing verses one, two and five.” Remember?

I have always been a fan of guitar music, especially classic rock. I’d played my acoustic guitar in worship once in a while back in the day, but in church I was mostly accompanied by organ and piano. I dreamed of the day when my kind of music—rock and roll— would be accepted in the churches I served.

Since the days of Promise Keepers, and through the great worship experiences offered during those events, pastors began to desire “more of that” in their own churches, and slowly opened the flood gates for full bands to take their church stages. I saw this development before my own eyes.

In the days preceding all of this, worship wasn’t cool. I mean, for most churches, worship looked for the longest time like it had for two hundred years. This wasn’t a bad thing, since classical music had dominated church and sacred music literature, and people were reading music and passing on the wonderful, Bible-rich songs that were pervasive up to that point. Music literacy is a good thing and I hope over time we don’t lose it.

The Transition

I was raised in southern California in the ’60s and ’70s, and the influences of Maranatha! Music and Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa were present when I received Christ at the age of 14. The pop music of my early Christian formation became the soundtrack to my spiritual walk. But as I moved away from California to the southern part of the United States, I noticed that this pop-styled worship music was scarce in churches there, and the worship music wave that started on the west coast had not yet arrived on the shores of the east coast.

I remember back in the early ‘90s, during the days when I was an exclusive writer with Integrity Music, founder and then-owner and President Mike Coleman invited all of the writers and creatives to a company retreat. At dinner one night that weekend, Coleman lamented that the Christian music industry didn’t “get” worship and many companies resisted partnering with Integrity in producing this kind of music for the church.

By the time worship music took to the radio in the 2000s, it was an indication that the genre had “arrived.” Once Michael W. Smith’s Worship hit stores on (ironically) September 11, 2001, worship music’s importance began to rise in the eyes of the music industry.

Dream Come True

What has resulted over the years is a greater presence of guitar-driven rock in worship services, smaller vocal groups, and an unprecedented use of staging and technology in churches. I am excited, to say the least—my dream is coming true!

However, as leaders we must make sure that the music doesn’t become an idol, that it doesn’t take the place of the One we worship. We must be careful to raise up worship musicians and leaders with the proper perspective of music in the church: a vehicle to help the congregation sing together and connect with God. We must keep our music approachable, with singable keys and with words that are biblically sound, lyrics that don’t rely on sensual imagery to describe intimacy with God.

I am hopeful for worship music and its acceptance as a sacred form of church music, and I never want to see our music ministries become a surrogate means for our own musical ambitions. Thank God our kids don’t have to play in clubs and bars like many of us had to do to hone our musical skills; they can learn and mature right in the church!

Oh yes, I remember when worship wasn’t cool, so let’s be thankful and wise stewards of this great privilege we now have.