John Stackhouse on worship music

[ht Andy and Ben]

John Stackhouse (who was once kind enough to buy me breakfast) has posted a farily blunt condemnation of certain trends in contemporary worship music, focusing on Chris Tomlin. He makes, as far as I can see, two separable complaints: on the one hand, contemporary worship music (as exemplified by Tomlin) is lyrically poor – an aesthetic judgement; on the other, that it is doctrinally light or erroneous – a theological judgement.

I have posted before on the error of assuming that the great songs that have come down to us from earlier ages were in any way normal in those ages. Wesley, Watts and Newton were the pinnacles of what was happening in their day, not average examples. And each of them wrote his fair share of weaker lyrics – consider this, from a verse-diatribe against Muslims, by Charles Wesley:

The smoke of the infernal cave,
Which half the Christian world o’erspread,
Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save
The souls by that Impostor led,
That Arab-chief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroy’d Thy Asian fold.

O might the blood of sprinkling cry
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!
Assert Thy glorious Deity,
Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God
The Unitarian fiend expel,
And chase his doctrine back to hell.

Yes, well…

Charles Wesley was allowed to publish 6000-odd hymns by his brother (who censored an unknown number as not being good enough). We know perhaps twenty – perhaps not that. Were the other 5980 all of the same quality as ‘And Can it Be’ or ‘Hark the Herald’? Oddly enough, no… (and even his best are sometimes the result of editorial work: famously, Wesley wrote ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings…’ Whitefield edited the first two lines a few years later, much to Wesley’s disgust, by all accounts; the first verse also ended ‘universal nature say / Christ the Lord is born today’; someone else put that one right…).

But consider a hymn-writer we’ve all-but forgotten: Benjamin Keach was a significant leader amongst the Baptists, and taught our churches to sing hymns, which is pretty amazing, when you consider the general quality of his output:

The Pure in heart are thy delight
O Thou most holy One!
All that do what things are right
May sing thy Praise alone.

All mixtures, Lord, in Doctrine
And Practice thou dost hate;
Ourselves therefore with wicked men
Let’s not associate!

(Hymn 32 from A Feast of Fat Things (1696); this is pretty average quality for Keach; by no means his worst.)

Of course, that’s not an excuse for bad writing, but it does make Ben’s point: good hymn-writing is hard, really hard. We cannot expect every song written to be of high quality, and there is a place for singing about welkins, because an editor may appear who puts the problem right and gives us a great hymn from the wreckage of something that just isn’t. (Whittier’s ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is actually the last six stanzas of an odd 17-stanza poem entitled ‘The Brewing of Soma’ in begins like this:

The fagots blazed, the cauldron’s smoke
Up through the green wood curled;
‘Bring honey from the hollow oak,
Bring milky sap,’ the brewers spoke,
In the childhood of the world.

And brewed they well or brewed they ill,
The priests thrust in their rods,
First tasted, and then drank their fill,
and shouted, with one voice and will,
‘Behold the drink of gods!’

Who saw a hymn in that?!)

John’s complaints about the quality of Tomlin’s writing are actually slightly eccentric: he complains about mixed metaphors (which is a classic of bad hymnody, admittedly), but also about the use of half-rhymes. But this is endemic in Christian hymnody (and in English poetry), and is in some of the greatest hymns we have. Wesley again:

Come, and partake the gospel feast;
Be saved from sin; in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of your God,
And eat his flesh, and drink his blood!

(From ‘Come sinners to the gospel feast’) Neither of those ‘rhymes’ is even close, but it’s a great piece of writing by any poetic standards I know. Rhyming ‘God’ with ‘blood’ is so common in Wesley as to be almost a leitmotiv.

What of the claim of weak theology? John says ‘We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears…’ Well, for starters I’m not sure about this – once again, one would need to look at what they actually sang, not the classics that have come down to us. Victorian hymnody was full of sentimental claptrap with no discernable doctrinal content at all (check out ‘Blessed Assurance’ for the best of the genre, that has been judged good enough to survive).

That said, I have a certain sympathy with John’s point – Christian George, who is currently working on a thesis on Spurgeon with me, described it well in his excellent book Sex, Sushi and Salvation as ‘miniskirt music – songs that barely cover the essentials’ (p. 107). I wonder, though, if John’s comment is its own answer? We are the most educated Christians in history – perhaps what we need from our music is to learn non-intellectual modes of faith? I don’t want a song to teach me theology – I know a  bit of theology already – I want songs that enable me, in the fellowship of my local church, to cut through all my questions and doubts and half-formed ideas and pet theories and theological hobbyhorses, and express devotion. And I think Chris Tomlin’s songs are sometimes pretty good at that (‘Forever God is faithful, Forever God is strong, Forever God is with us, Forever, Forever’). Not as good as Matt and Beth Redman’s. But pretty good.


  1. fernando
    Mar 13, 2009

    I remember being alarmed by reading some old hymnals in my college library. Really blew away my assumptions about the “great old hymns.”

    What you’ve helped me clarify is how important it is to ask – why do we sing worship songs – before we make evaluations of worship music. I agree that we don’t primarily sing to teach/learn. However, I am aware that songs do function, in a general sense, as an emotional support through the day. What do we sing to pass the time, or to cope with difficulty, that sort of thing. A good lyric may not cover a broad theological terrain, but it might cover one or two things with some depth and insight.

    I’m not a fan of contemporary worship music, but not because I don’t think it’s as good as some previous hesiodic moment. Rather, because I don’t think it is all that good in contemporary terms (yes, that’s mostly an aesthetic argument).

  2. Andy Goodliff
    Mar 13, 2009

    Christian George’s book sounds interesting – i love that quotation – is it worth getting? I always like to see at least a blurb or a contents page before i buy a book and frustrating when the publisher doesn’t make these available to amazon or such like.

  3. Steve H
    Mar 13, 2009

    Thanks, both, for the comments.

    @Fernando: yes, in worship, as in so many areas, if we aim at nothing we will hit it with unerring accuracy…

    @Andy: Christian’s book (and his more recent Godology) is beautifully and energetically written, very popular in level and tone, full of arresting anecdotes – I think it’s a great book, in much the same way that I think Rob Bell’s SexGod is a great book – it’s not systematic or learned or complete, but it offers passion and humour and old ideas looked at from fresh angles that are often illuminating.

  4. Steve H
    Mar 13, 2009

    @Fernando: your aesthetic judgment reminds me of another interesting point about the great hymns – most of them gained their ‘classic’ tunes very late in life. ‘Hark the Herald’ is once again a case in point: Wesley’s original tune is an utter dirge; someone linked it with the Mendelssohn after the composer’s death (he had specifically instructed that the tune should never be used in church…). There are some magnificent lyrics in the tradition, just waiting for someone to put a decent tune to them (Faber’s ‘My God, how wonderful thou art’ is top of my list – the words score 10/10; the standard tune about -4).

  5. Alastair Roberts
    Mar 13, 2009

    I appreciate many contemporary Christian songs and sing them frequently in worship, both private and public. I find blanket condemnations of contemporary Christian music quite unpersuasive. There are several contemporary songs that will probably become classics, songs that articulate deep truths with clarity and power, to tunes that are far more appropriate to their content than those of many traditional favourites.

    Nevertheless, there are a number of aspects of the creation, character, and use of contemporary Christian music in the church that do concern me, most particularly the relationship between contemporary Christian music and pop culture.

    Much contemporary music is closely related to a culture of disposability, ephemerality, hypomnesia, consumerism, and anti-traditionalism. Contemporary Christian music has many of its own connections to this culture, connections that, I believe, should lead us to show caution in our use of it within the church. The use of contemporary Christian music within churches is, it seems to me, connected with a pop/consumer culture approach to worship.

    I attend midweek meetings with a particular group every week where virtually all of the songs that are sung were penned within the past ten years. From what I have gathered this is characteristic of many of the churches that my fellow-worshippers attend on Sundays. Songs are consumed over a period of a few years, disposed of, and replaced with new ones. This consumer posture is also often adopted towards teachings, models of church, church membership, etc., leading to a forgetfulness and detaches the church from its history. One of the great benefits of singing the ‘good old hymns’ and even more so, the Psalms, is that as we sing them we are singing with the church of all ages.

    The question of the manner in which our worship expresses the catholicity of the church seems to me to be an important one here. Traditionally, songs have entered the church primarily by the means of folk culture. However, most contemporary Christian music enters the church by means of pop and consumer culture, by means of the media, marketing and advertising. Pop culture and the consumer culture that it is closely related to tend to be corrosive of genuine difference, either losing it in the bland hegemony of the ‘MacDonaldised’ culture, or in the equally destructive hegemony of pluralism or multiculturalism (whether consuming culture or rendering it inert by relativising it), which ultimately renders things indifferent in its identification of freedom with the purely formal reality of choice. I am convinced that the mass individualism and collective narcissism that this sort of culture can often represent and foster is deeply destructive of the loving catholicity that the church ought to be practicing.

    Folk culture has a very different relationship to the reality of community than pop and consumer culture do. Pop culture’s relationship with the voluntaristic community is one issue that might be of especial significance in the context of contemporary Christian music and the ‘worship wars’ that it has sparked in many circles. The transitivity of pop culture (and the itineracy of tastes within it) is destructive of the worshipping communities that have been formed by means of folk culture.

    This said, the extreme parochialism of many ‘traditional’ churches is far from ideal. I believe that the church should be ‘Pentecostal’ in the sense of being a place where many voices, from different ages, generational, cultural and national backgrounds join together in song (song being the most appropriate verbal expression of catholicity). This ‘Pentecostal’ church would, however, seem to demand that the particularity of the various participating cultures be maintained. I don’t believe that the culture of contemporary Christian music encourages the sort of relationship between the particular and the universal that we encounter in Christ. Seeing the church as the meeting place of folk cultures seems to me to be a far more promising route to take.

    It seems to me that questions of aesthetics really are important. Undoubtedly many older hymns fail dismally on this front, but drawing attention to this fact – whilst protecting us against any idolisation of some supposed golden age of Christian hymn-writing – is hardly a sufficient answer to a critique of many contemporary songs on aesthetic grounds.

    Under the issue of the aesthetics of contemporary Christian music, I would also add that, in contrast to traditional hymns, contemporary Christian music is far less likely to have been written expressly for the purpose of congregational worship, being intended primarily for the solo performer. This creates issues when such songs are used in worship. People connect commercial ‘pop’ songs (which many CCM songs originally were) with particular vocal performances, whereas folk music is not treated in the same way. This affects the way that different songs are sung. The fact that the songs were not written for congregational worship can also be reflected in the fact that they demand a greater vocal range than that possessed by the average member of a congregation, and that increasing attention is drawn towards the performance of a band at the front of the church.

    On the issue of the theology of modern Christian songs, I agree with most of what you say (not least about Victorian hymns!). I am not a fan of overly theological songs and don’t like hymns that try to preach. However, what I do look for in any song are biblical resonances. These aren’t quite the same thing as theology; they arise from a deep knowledge and internalisation of the voice of the Scriptures and can be produced by those with little acquaintance with and no formal training in theology. Singing most modern Christian songs I get the distinct impression that the writers of the songs are not steeped in the voice of the Scriptures (which can often appear alien), but are simply recycling tired evangelical worship clichés, or recasting Christian devotion in the idiom of the love song in the pop charts (reading many theologians gives me much the same feeling; they are just adopting a different idiom). They may parrot the words of particular Scriptures, but one feels that they can’t do much more.

    One final concern has to do with the limited scope and unbalanced character of the piety and content of the canon of modern worship songs that are sung in most churches. Whether we take the book of Psalms, or the wider scope of the Scriptures, as our measure, the modern worship canon seems to be deficient in several areas.

    Oops, that is a huge comment. Sorry.

  6. fernando
    Mar 14, 2009

    Yes, there are a number of songs where the great tune/lyric combination evolved over time. The church I was involved with in the late 80/90s did a fair bit of adapting hymns to newer arrangements and melodies, but it’s something that seems to have gone out of fashion. Sadly I can call to mind a number of examples of pastors who have railed against poor contemporary worship but also failed to encourage musicians who I think could have stepped into this kind of work.

  7. Steve H
    Mar 16, 2009

    @Alastair: welcome – with a bang…
    I sort-of half agree with a lot of what you say, but I wonder if you are being a little sweeping in every area, and a little naive about the past.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you claim that ‘[t]raditionally, songs have entered the church primarily by the means of folk culture.’ If we are talking about protestant hymnody, traditionally, as far as I can see, songs have entered the church largely through the production and marketing of, largely denominational, hymnbooks, from Hymns for the Use of People Called Methodists through Hymns Ancient and Modern and so on down. To speak only of what I know, the more recent Baptist hymnbooks (particularly the 1963 edition) contained some utter rubbish (‘Jesus and Joseph day after day…’), the inclusion of which seems explicable easily, and only, on the grounds of then-current denominational politics. Sure, the CCM model is different, but I’m not sure it is that much worse…

    On catholicity, particularly diachronic catholicity, I don’t think there are any good answers in hymnody. Simply put, it is essentially a modern phenomenon. The routine use of hymnody in worship becomes widespread in the eighteenth century (in part as a result of a culture far more ‘anti-traditional’ than our own: Newton and Cowper ran a mid-week meeting where they sang only hymns they had written that week, and gave us the Olney Hymns as a result). There are a fair number of seventeenth-century hymns; and a certain number from the sixteenth century – before that, almost nothing. (In the most comprehensive and traditional hymnbook: one by St Bernard of Clairvaux; a couple of settings of the Veni Creator Spiritus; several of the Te Deum; one or two of St Patrick’s Breastplate; and a few of the carols, such as ‘Let all mortal flesh…’ or Adeste fideles). Even metrical psalmody, which I personally would encourage more of for other reasons, is a recent invention.

    If we think continuity with the worshiping practices of earlier generations of Christians is important, then disciplined attention to the liturgy is more helpful than any programming of musical forms.

    I agree with you about ‘biblical resonances’, but I would like to think hard about what that looks like (as someone said to me recently, and truly, about preaching: the most expository sermon can be almost devoid of references to the passage). In particular, hymnody that merely echoes farming metaphors, now dead for almost all of us, seems to me to fail the test (I suppose you would agree with this). At his best, the great, gaunt, R.S. Thomas could find faithful translations of Biblical themes into industrial metaphors in his poetry; I know of no hymnwriter who has done it successfully, and I wish I did.

  8. Dick Wolff
    Mar 18, 2009

    The point about hymns entering the tradition via a ‘folk’ process is not negated by the fact that, historically, the process has been shaped by denominational hymnbooks. The panels that put hymnbooks together (I served for a while on the panel that ended up producing Rejoice & Sing after the Methodists withdrew, because they wanted a higher percentage of Wesley in the final product . .) may apply their own theological filters : in that case, all military metaphors were stripped out; likewise all references to the ‘principalities and powers’ (thereby castrating “At the name of Jesus”). They apply their own aesthetic judgement – although care is probably taken to assemble a broad range of taste on the panel. (I was there as a ‘young person’, supposedly in touch with what was working for young people).

    But the ‘folk process’ nonetheless shows its power as hymns that were omitted from previous collections demonstrate that they just won’t lay down and die, and are thus re-introduced. ‘Will your anchor hold in the storms of life’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ both fought their way back into Rejoice & Sing.

  9. Pastor Eric
    Mar 18, 2009

    I have enjoyed reading your interesting and thought provoking writings and also the comments left here. My website is

  10. Steve H
    Mar 18, 2009

    @Dick: welcome – so R&S was your fault?!

    I recognise the process you describe, of course, but I think Alastair’s point was previous to that. Amazing Grace is deeply entrenched in the churches, so deeply that trying to write it out of a hymnbook won’t make much difference; Alastair was reflecting on how a song is introduced to the church initially. Clearly, someone writes it, and their local congregation starts singing it. How does it get from there to common use? Now we have a process involving in part Christian conventions and their programming of songs, but much more significantly CD production. My impression is that, previously, hymnbook editors were largely instrumental in this process – even at the beginning of the explosion of charismatic praise music: inclusion in Mission Praise or Songs of Fellowship was an important route for new songwriters to find recognition (I had a friend served on one of those committees; he said every other letter began ‘The Lord just gave me this song…’ to which his almost inevitable response was ‘yes, well, I can see why He wanted to get rid of it…’

  11. Clark Dunlap
    Apr 24, 2009

    Thank you so much for this balance. Stackhouse on Tomlin blew me away. Yes there’s a lot of “miniskirt” music out there. (I like that allusion!) But Stackhouse sounded like he just got a ticket on the way to work and was mad about everything. I’m sure he’s a fine guy and devoted Christian and all. But his writing stinks! Oh yeah, that’s what he said about Tomlin.

  12. John Stackhouse
    Jul 23, 2010

    Steve, I’d like the citation on the Wesley quotation. If you have it near to hand, please send it along: It’s fascinating!

    As for the general thrust of your remarks regarding my post versus the Wesley quotation, I respectfully suggest that you utterly missed the point. 😉

    Wesley’s verses may strike you as ideologically/thematically offensive, but that wasn’t what I was criticizing. I was criticizing poor craft, and the verses of Wesley’s you quote seem much, much better to me ON THAT SCORE than the stuff I’ve been criticizing.

    Pay more attention, would you?



  13. Steve H
    Aug 21, 2010

    Hi John, thanks for stopping by…
    I;ll try to dig out the Wesley reference and email it to you. You might also like his (unpublished, until the recent collected works) verse diatribes against his brother John over the issue of ordaining priests for the American mission – astonishingly vitriolic).
    Quickly, I agree with you – Wesley was a far better lyricist, considered in purely poetic terms, than, well, any modern song writer of whom I am aware. The point of the Wesley quotations was to suggest that he also wrote some very poor hymns, which are now forgotten – they may have been poor in different ways, but the point is still, I think, a valid one.
    But for sheer poetic awfulness, seriously, I offer you Benjamin Keach as trumping just about any crime our generation has perpetrated. If you can bear it (a very large glass of a good single malt is a useful companion), you can find any of Keach’s several hymnbooks on EEBO. Reading a couple of dozen of his best in a row leaves you thinking Tomlin and friends are right up there with Wordsworth (who also wrote some rubbish, actually) or Whitman.


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