The voice of melody

I remember the debates and the emotional intensity of the ‘90s regarding the pros and cons of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). Families, friendships and churches felt the strain and I queried, “How could music cause so much acrimony and dissension?” Twenty years later, the feelings have not subsided, but in fact have escalated. One author put it this way: “There’s a war brewing inside of U.S. churches. While some congregants prefer the beat-bopping sounds of electric guitars, drums and fast-paced tunes, others seek a more traditional worship experience. The divide only seems to be intensifying — especially as churches seek to . . . attract younger audiences.”

Historian of American religion Michael Hamilton asserted that “churches . . . are either trying to mix musical styles (‘Blended Worship‘), or they are fighting and dividing over which music to use" (Christianity Today, 30). While I was growing up, the polemic over of worship music was limited, but now it has become a litmus test. “Forty years ago, heightened sensitivity to details of worship and music would have been unheard of, but now it is the norm. All over America, worship has become contested ground--different music styles may well be the test of our commitment to Christian unity" (Hamilton).

Not all contemporary religious music falls under the heading of CCM, since contemporary simply means “current” or "present." What CCM is not: modern liturgical, modern hymnody, contemporary choral (SATB, usually accompanied but some acapella) or contemporary classical religious (instrumental, symphonic, vocal, etc.).

CCM is ubiquitous and evolving. It’s boundaries continue to expand and change, making its identity more complex. Essentially, CCM is a movement which “embraces a wide variety of musical styles and lyrics.” One author stated: “If you browse a Christian bookstore, you will find anything from heavy metal, rock, pop, and alternative, to urban, contemporary, rap, country, southern gospel, etc.” under the category of CCM. According to sociologists, this movement “originated in the 60’s and 70’s, and deliberately took the new style of music called rock and roll (and its various sub-genres) and adopted it as Christian by adding new lyrics.” During the 1970s, Christian composer and conductor Ralph Charmichael already recognized 11 different kinds of religious music. “The name CCM was finally adopted in the late 70’s, and included everything from middle of the road music to the hardest of rock (Reformed Resource). Wikipedia  describes it as a “genre of modern popular music which is . . . typically used to refer to pop, rock, or praise & worship styles." In a future article we will look at the common structural elements that comprise rock and its heterodox offspring.

Space does not allow for a detailed history of CCM, but it can easily be traced to a “long trail of cultural dislocations left behind by that abnormally large generation of Americans we call the baby boomers (1946-1964). Unwilling to follow their parents’ lead, they grew up distrusting established institutions like government, schools, and churches" (Hamilton). This megalithic generation “decided that music would be the primary carrier of its symbols and values.” The music of this generation was Rock and Roll;  it was simple, engaged deep emotions and gave a restless generation something to identify with. Rock music “portrayed itself as free of hypocrisy. . . and focused the baby boomer’s longings and anxieties, their values and ideals. Music was so important to baby boomers, it was inevitable that if they came to church at all, they would be bringing their music with them. . . It was a mediator of their emotions, the carrier of dreams and the marker of social location” (Hamilton). As the Baby boomers grew older, they bequeathed CCM to their children’s generations. For those who are tempted to assert the “Genetic Fallacy Argument," the evidence overwhelmingly refutes this philosophical tool. There is no question that CCM (and contemporary worship music) arose and has flowered under the growth and leadership of the Baby boom generation.

A sub-category of CCM is contemporary worship music (CWM). This is most likely what you will hear in church from week to week. It is a “genre of Christian music used in contemporary worship . . . . and is stylistically similar to pop music. The songs are frequently referred to as ‘praise songs’ or ‘worship songs’ and are typically led by a ‘worship band’ or ‘praise team‘. It is becoming a common genre of music sung in Western churches . . . both denominational and nondenominational.” Characteristics common to CWM are: “a strong sense of home key, climactic chorus[es] and repeated motifs, improvisation, flowing from one song to the next,” and a musical structure that allows harmony or rhythm to play the dominant role. In CWM, “there will often be three or four singers with microphones, a drum set, a bass guitar, one or two guitars, keyboard, [etc]. There has been a shift within the genre towards using amplified instruments and voices, paralleling popular music, though some churches play the same songs with simpler or acoustic instrumentation.” The use of these instruments, amplification systems, singing groups, etc. - are not necessarily indicative of concerns. Nevertheless, these facts (in conjunction with the big picture) give us a fairly clear definition of what kinds of music styles CCM and CWM comprise. These areas will be elaborated on in future articles. Another feature of CWM is the use of projectors, so that song “repertoire is not restricted to those in a song book.” As a result “CWM has a much greater rate of turnover than other Christian genres. Songs and styles go in trends” (Wikipedia) By itself, this is not an indictment, but simply a fact that musicologists have recognized. CCM has further delineated into three branches: Separational (SCM), Integrational (ICM), and Transformational (TCM). Unfortunately, space does not allow for a description and discussion of these areas.

Through the years, proponents of CCM (and CWM) have assured the Church that the Bible is silent on music styles. They have declared that the selection of music should be governed by biblical guidelines (these tend to be broad and generic), common sense and cultural milieu’s. Their over-riding arguments are: 

  1. Music (without words/lyrics) is morally neutral (neither “good“ or “bad“),
  2. Scripture doesn‘t advocate or deny any particular music style,
  3. Music styles fall under the category of “doubtful disputations” (Rom. 14:1), so this whole discussion is a non-essential matter.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church resonates with these thoughts when he said "there is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics." Interestingly, proponents will admit there are some “fringe” musical styles that should not be used in worship (most of these are the extremes of wild rhythms, noisy sounds, etc.), which nearly everyone agrees are unacceptable. But when they move away from these inordinate examples, they have no external controls to determine at what point it becomes acceptable, except to make subjective decisions regarding volume, lyrical content, etc.

The push back came from those who quoted the Spirit of Prophecy, “tradition” and scientific studies. They had elevated these supportive arguments to primary ones- and many have not responded with adequate biblical answers. Many opponents of  CCM would say “we’ve always done it this way” or “we are uncomfortable with change,” etc. Many of the responses were as subjective as those given by the CCM proponents. Furthermore, this “camp” seemed stuck in the hymnody of long ago, rejecting most all recent compositions, because they are contemporary.

This Friday, my next article will discuss 10 general and specific principles that relate to music in Scripture. They are not intended to be exhaustive, and many of these principles are well known to most Christians. I do not believe God left us in a “music cafeteria to pick and choose styles as we would food. There are clear, biblical principles that are cross-cultural and cross-generational that enable us to make rational decisions regarding this subject.


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