I was having a conversation the other day with some friends of mine that had come into town for a Vineyard Regional Church conference that our church was hosting. As we turned our conversation to modern worship songs I mentioned how there are very few worship albums that have been released in recent years that connect with me. I can count on one hand the worship CDs that I have come across in the last 5 years that I have listened to more than a few times - the kinds of albums that really help me connect with God.
It seems to me that a few years ago worship went from being a grass-roots movement to a type of genre to be propagated by Christian Music labels in Nashville. What started from humble beginnings with artists like Delirious, David Ruis, Kevin Prosch, Waterdeep, Matt Redman, Jeff Searls and 100 Portraits (to name a few) suddenly became a commodity to be capitalized on by record labels. When the major record labels noticed all of the folks buying up worship music then they suddenly realized they must cash in on the phenomenon. Then all of the sudden worship CDs became the trendy thing for every CCM artist to record not too unlike the obligatory Christmas album. This recent trend in worship music disturbs me a great deal. Whereas 10 years ago worship music encompassed a variety of styles from earthy and organic to driving rock, now aa good deal of worship albums are starting to sound pretty much the same. They are being mass-produced and engineered as a genre for CCM radio stations. Meanwhile there has been a mass exodus of Christian artists from Christian labels that wish to bring their music to a wider audience (bravo!). So for the Christian labels worship music is one of the few things they have left that can bring in the bacon.
The problem now is that worship music is sounding just as mediocre and trite as CCM music has sounded for years. Even the term "Contemporary Christian Music" is a bit of a misnomer being that it is hardly contemporary, lightly Christian, and many times a poor excuse for music. CCM has yet to be cutting edge or culturally innovative because it is always trying to catch up with the latest trends. CCM is regarded by most as a place for bland mediocrity. Instead of songs that deal with all of life from the good times to the struggles, CCM stations broadcast songs that seem to deny anything but sunny days and happy people as if following Christ means that everything is just peachy until you get raptured. The resulting effect of CCM's involvement in worship music is that the CCM Worship genre sounds like a certain type of homogenized-white-middle-class-pop-rock. The diversity of sounds and themes that should be present in worship music have been gobbled up into one mammoth, non-threatening, heap of "Christianese" bliss. This saddens me to no end. But there is hope; it's just a different kind of hope.
I have been pondering the albums that have really made a difference in my life in the past few years. One thing they all have in common is that they were produced either independently or for indie labels. They have a depth and authenticity, which connect creatively and spiritually with my soul. And after all isn't that what music should do?
I find that I am by no means alone in these feelings.
I will borrow an analogy from a friend of mine. The worship projects that connect with me connect in the same sort of way that beer from a microbrewery connects with me. When I drink a beer I don't want some mass-produced mediocre Budweiser. I want the handcrafted beer that's made in small batches with lots of care. The microbreweries aren't trying to be Budweiser. They are not trying to take over the beer-consuming world. They are simply trying to turn out something good, something unique, and something that the consumer will appreciate. These beers are not the beers one drinks to get drunk, but to savor. They are created for a local market and carry a unique local flavor, whether it's an Abita Turbo Dog down here in Louisiana or a Fat Tire Ale in Colorado, or a Shiner Bock in Texas, these beers are connected to the place where they are created. It's no surprise that microbreweries have exploded in popularity in recent years. Every time I travel some new place I like to try the local microbrews. The flavors connect me with the place and the people and the culture. And this is what I see is happening with worship music. Sure small worship projects have not exploded on the scene the way microbreweries have but it's coming. With the advent of online communities like Myspace and the myriad of sites where artists can post MP3s micro-worship projects are connecting with people organically. Like microbrews, they aren't marketed heavily but rely on word of mouth recommendations. I can only hope that micro-worship will experience the same surge as microbreweries.
What micro-worship projects lack in budgets and expensive studio gear they make up for in creativity, heart and soul. That's why they work.
I was reading the book Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell the other day. He made the observation that when God created everything he said it was good, not it was perfect. God's good creation required man to steward it, to cultivate it, to organize and interact with it - and that to is a good thing.
Too often we musicians, and worship leaders try and create perfect instead of good, but our perfection typically comes at the expense of soul. I've heard many a perfect worship CDs that weren't good. On the other hand I've heard many really good worship projects that were far from perfect. I'm not saying that we need to get sloppy with things and turn out any old thing that pops into our heads. However perfectionism can never be satisfied and takes a heavy toll on the soul, and even worse fails to connect with the listener.
Being fully human is good - it is in fact what we were meant to be. Our music, our worship, and our worship music need the human touch, the human connection, and the human soul. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with that. What is wrong is when we take our human worship music and try to make it something else. When perfectionism takes over the music becomes less than human, and connects on a less than human level. This too is one of the major flaws of Contemporary Christian Music; it has traded goodness for perfection.
The words of David, the great psalmist, were not perfect (at least in the sense that we think of perfection though they do make up the biggest book of the Bible.) They were earthy and organic, full of passion and emotion, raw and honest. These are the types of songs we need. These are the types of songs that our communities need. These are the songs that are full of salt to bring out the God-flavors of the listeners hearts. Like microbreweries our songs and recordings should have a connection with the locale in which they were created and should carry the uniqueness of flavor and expression that arises out of community, love, care, and humble worship.
So go out and find some good micro-worship and when you do let me know what you find. I would love to get a hold of some new stuff. I know its out there.