(Disposable) worship music


Recently I finished reading a book called, ‘Why Johnny can’t sing hymns.’ It was a pretty darn good read. While I had to make my way past all the overt criticisms of a music form that I actually quite enjoy (that is, contemporary worship music) the author, T. David Gordon (no relation) had some compelling things to say.

By trade, Gordon is a media ecologist, which I confess is a profession I had not heard of until he explained it. He studies the way we create media and then how that media goes on to shape and create us. He has an acute understanding of that thing called, ‘pop culture’ which he describes as being, ‘trivial and disposable.’ Initially I was offended. Truth be told I was offended throughout the book. Gordon seems to have a massive chip on his shoulder about the decline of hymn singing that comes through (completely unlike like some other Gordon we know). Anyway, he still has some insightful things to say.

He writes that pop music was a largely commercial creation, invented to fill out the programming of the then newly created commercial radio stations of the 1920’s and 30’s. It was more overtly about entertainment than any form of music had been before. Its role was to keep people listening so they would hear the adverts in between the songs. These songs had a particularly high turn over, as they had to keep the listeners interested. Hence why this music, in Gordon’s terminology, can be described as disposable.

Pop music has gone on to shape our understanding of music so fully, that other styles of music (like hymns, classical music, jazz etc) don’t really sound like music to the pop-cultured ear. His criticism is whether this is a worthy form of music to convey the praises of God’s people. While hymns came to be revered because of their heritage, worship songs are now regularly cast aside based purely on judgements like, ‘its getting a bit dated now isn’t it.’ I have even led worship at a church once where the senior pastor informed me, ‘We don’t sing songs any older than 2 years.’ Contemporary-ness seems to have become the new gold standard. If its new its awesome, if its old, bin it. Gordon says we are the first generation to singularly prefer the new and glamorous over the tried and tested. His most telling point is when he names a fallacy that I myself have repeated. I have believed that ‘hymns were the pop music of my grandparents day.’ But they weren’t. Glen Miller and the Big Band style was the pop music of my grandparents days. And yet they didn’t make their sacred music sound identical to their pop music. Only we have done that. Gulp.

And we seem to intuitively know this. Musicians and bands pump out music, often being drawn into creating volume rather than quality. We accept 12 tracks albums that may only have a couple of great songs on them. And we don’t listen to the radio expecting to hear a song from an album 10 years old. Its always the newest, freshest, flashest songs that we hear. Music has become like a paper cup. Very useful in the first instance, then replaceable.

So should worship music, like the rest of pop music, be disposable? Does it do justice to a God who is both ageless, timeless, but whose mercies are ‘new every morning’?

Gordon reckons we need a style of music for worship that is distinctive from the musical language of ‘selling and entertaining’ (which is what pop music was invented for, and you’d be a mug to say it hasn’t impacted the way we engage with church – as consumers). He points to hymns as the answer. This Gordon isn’t so sure, but he’s deeply troubled by it all.

– Malcolm Gordon


  • Tom


    October 23, 2013
  • Jannah

    Some interesting points there Malcolm…. very interesting.

    October 23, 2013
  • Ah, finally someone has caught up on what I’ve been saying for years! LOL

    October 23, 2013
  • howard carter

    Haven’t read the book but thank you for the review. It’s saved me some time and money.

    It’s interesting that many of the movements in church music have been treated this way Isaac Watts was criticised for writing whims not hymns, and daring to use tunes from his time. We forget that some of theses hymn writers wrote thousands of songs, many if not most of which have simply been left to gather dust in old collections of hymns. You mentioned album being produced with twelve works on them, which we pick one or two good ones… It used to be hymn collections published which you take a few good ones from. Fanny Crosby used to write three hymns a week for a contract with a correspondence Sunday School does that make her songs anything less, lets face it they were written for a commercial purpose.

    It maybe your review but I see no mention of the way in which culture is transmitted changing which has totally changed how music is treated and understood. It used to be that you only had live performance, with the invent of recording and mass production and transmission things have changed. while you may hear a song in church once a year now you can have it playing in your car, house, white ear pods as you slog the pavement. So it does not mean that songs are necessarily disposable but rather their life cycle may be shorter. Still profound lyrics to a great tune still stand the test of time.

    I guess its a bit like the way that modern publishing techniques have changed the book. I used to be important if it was put in a book, because they were rare and expensive, but now to make money publishers are happy to produce peoples opinions to make a sale. Which devalues and makes many books written today disposable and simply produced for commercial purposes, without the depth and consideration of older books.

    Psalm 117 is the shortest of the Psalms and one of the most poignant when it invites all tribes and people groups to give praise to God. I wonder if what we don’t need is that expression in our worship music. Come you punks, you techno dance trance people of the night, come you high brow opera fellas, come you hymn singers and pop culture plastics, you orchestras with many strings and…other things, you rock bands with distortion and beat, you rappers and screamers, folk guitar strummers, camp fire sing-a-longers, country crooners and blues lamenters, come you African rhythm you haunting Maori waiata and Pacifica choirs with angelic harmony,… you get the idea.

    October 23, 2013

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