The War on Worship

By Simon McCauley22 year old worshipper

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

If there’s one thing that really excites me, it’s a hot and controversial debate. Which is why my interest was immediately sparked when I was sent an article on Facebook entitled “It’s Time to Boycott the Worship Industry”.

Now, I must say that I may hold a biased opinion on this matter as I actually work as a musician in the worship industry, but I’ll be sure to approach my argument as logically as I can. Nonetheless, I will certainly be picking apart each element as we go (apologies in advance for when my irritation begins to show through my writing).

Okay, let’s get started.

Essentially, the opening paragraph of what will be referred to as ‘The Boycott Article‘ makes two distinct statements:

  • The first is that Christian culture’s boycotts often “make us look arrogant, aloof, and disconnected” and are often ineffective anyway.
  • The second is that a boycott of an aspect of the Christian culture itself may be more successful than boycotting corporations because – and this is a direct quote here – “it’s time for us to boycott an industry that cares very much what the whole church thinks. We’re their only hope of staying afloat.”

To me, the phrase “we’re their only hope of staying afloat” sounds a little arrogant (even aloof, maybe?) but we’ll ignore it for now – the point is that the author of The Boycott Article is clearly upset with the worship industry and is hoping that the rest of the Christian community will join in on his cause and make a change.

The author poses 5 points for why the worship industry needs to be boycotted and, truthfully, I agree with most of the points. But as each point gets explained, assumptions are made and arguments are formed that don’t hold much water, and I’ve taken it upon myself to poke holes wherever possible. Here goes:

  1. Boycott the worship industry because money shouldn’t drive what the churches sing.”Correct. Money shouldn’t necessarily be the single driving force for anything in the church; biblical / spiritual content should be. However, the article states that worship has become an industry, therefore it is required to generate income and as result “it doesn’t give us what we need.” What I found throughout this article is a number of absolute thoughts, thoughts that are only comprised of one single concept. In this case, the thought is “INDUSTRY = MONEY = NO GOD.” It seems that the author is incapable of considering that it is possible for worship to be spiritual and generate income. In fact, if we follow this logic through, the reason any industry within the Christian community would have a chance of success was if it in fact did give us what we needed. What happened to “we’re their only hope of staying afloat”? Surely, if everyone was so starved for spiritual content, the industry would be dead already? The author, in an uninformed attempt to strengthen this point, makes reference to how original congregational song was crafted by pastors, theologians and poets. Excuse me? That’s literally exactly how most mainstream worship music is written. We have pastors like Ps Joel Houston writing for Hillsong and Ps Steven Furtick writing most of Elevation Worship’s material. Beyond that, almost all the songwriters for most mainstream worship artists have all studied theology to some degree – Taya Smith, Cory Asbury, Kim Walker-Smith, Chris Tomlin, etc. If you’ve ever stopped to listen their lyrical content or hear them discuss their own songs, you may find a lot more poetry and theology within their so-called “mainstream music” than you’d expect. You cannot assume that success immediately means a lack of content.
  2. Boycott the worship industry because the it creates its own idols.”Yes, I agree that idolising worship leaders is wrong, but once again the author uses illogical absolute thoughts to prove his point. The author seems to be upset that people like Chris Tomlin and Michael W. Smith (and basically every other well-known Christian artist) have become successful, that they sell books and t-shirts and concert tickets. I must reiterate that it is possible for success to be secondary to service, it is not an absolute. Luckily, the author admits that these artists’ intentions may not be wrong but that “they’re mere pawns in the industry’s game” (this too feels like an arrogant and aloof statement, but we’ll ignore it for now). May I remind you all that in Matthew 25 Jesus taught us to grow our God-given talents and in Ecclesiastes 9 we are instructed do everything as best we can in order to glorify God. So, in some way, would it be dishonourable to God if we didn’t allow musicians or singers or songwriters to be successful? Alternatively, if this ominous and evil industry that the author is so concerned about is actually benefitting from the artists who have pure intentions and are using their talents to create a worship environment for us, what is the actual harm to you and I? Should we rather send our artists into the cut-throat secular music industry where money is clearly and openly the single driving force? Also, why is it that you’re most upset by the music aspect of this issue? If you’re really concerned with idolatry, why aren’t you boycotting successful pastors or wealthy churches? I can guarantee you that the world’s most successful Christian music artist doesn’t have nearly as many private jets as the world’s most successful pastor. This conceptual battle against “the industry” – despite being riddled with misinformation and logical errors – is aimed in the wrong direction as a whole.
  3. Boycott the worship industry because the congregation’s voice should be primary.”The Boycott Article claims that the worship industry mimics mainstream commercial genres and is therefore purely for performance. Oh, I have many many issues with this point in particular. Firstly, another absolute thought (starting to see a pattern here or…?) Why is it so inconceivable that one genre or another can carry pure intention? Secondly, what’s wrong with change and evolution of sound? When Jesus came around, He was blowing everybody’s minds, He was extremely radical and He flew in the face of tradition and rules and boundaries. Thirdly, the author states “their material isn’t rising organically from the people.” But I would argue quite strongly that material rising from the congregation would itself mimic commercial mainstream music because the congregation is constantly evolving too (unless, of course, your congregation is restricted to persons over the age of 40 who are completely disconnected from all forms of mainstream media). Fourthly, the article states “it’s not crafted with good congregational singing in mind.” I have personally sat through multiple staff meetings trying to decide which material would be best suited to sing with our congregation. I’ve also spent hours in songwriting sessions reviewing and rewriting lyrics and music so that it would be specifically tailored to our congregation. Fifthly, the author claims that modern worship is made for a group to perform to a passive audience and that mainstream genres are “just not right for us”. Right now, I’m 22 years old. I run the youth band in my church. I would give 6 months worth of my salary to see the author of this article bring a pipe organ to our youth and sing what he thinks “real worship” music is and then we can have a conversation about a passive audience. Let me clarify, I’m not saying that modern worship should be thrown at everyone and all older music should be scrapped. The point I’m trying to make is that it is completely unfair and unjustified to assume that only one genre will work. Later in the article, the author writes “there are many of you: all ages, denominations, and cultural backgrounds” and yet he has absolutely no concept of the difference in taste or experience for any of those ages, denominations or culture. He inadvertently ends up forcing his own ideals and expectations onto everyone else – which is probably what he feels the modern worship industry is doing to him. Either way, I don’t think it’s right to put such harsh restrictions on what worship can or cannot be. Not one bit.
  4. Boycott the worship industry because emotionalism is not worship.”The author claims that modern worship is used solely to manipulate our emotions and entrance us. My first reaction to this was “but you JUST said that modern worship was made to be performed to a passive audience.” However, I then started to think about the point itself and I can honestly say that I don’t understand it. Granted, not all emotions are spiritual, but all of my spiritual experiences have been very emotional too – I find it almost impossible to separate the two. Does this point suggest that the old worship that the author so desperately yearns for lacks an emotive result? I genuinely don’t know what the author is suggesting. And let’s look at it another way: there are certain old worship songs and even hymns that make me very emotional. Is that emotional manipulation too and if so, does that mean it’s so-called “emotionalism” and therefore not worship? At this point I really had to stop and wonder if the author was just finding reasons to be mad at the industry without actually thinking through each point. It just doesn’t add up in my mind.
  5. Boycott the worship industry because simply being a silently dissatisfied customer won’t fix anything.”Honestly, this part of The Boycott Article was most upsetting and ultimately disrespectful to the reader. The author makes multiple ill-informed assumptions about his audience in order to prove his point. For example: “What we’ve done with worship makes you cringe. Your senses are dulled by the lack of artistry, the pervasive emotional manipulation. But you remain in churches controlled by the worship industry… It’s killing us, and we’re consenting to the slow, agonizing death.” To me, that is actually insulting. To assume so much about the reader, to tell them how they feel and what their experiences are, to force your opinions on others so blatantly and aggressively not only discredits the author but is also just in such poor taste. One might even describe that as arrogant, aloof and disconnected (see what I did there?).

In any case, the point that the author is so desperately grasping at is that in order to change the industry, the congregation needs to stand up and make themselves heard, which is correct. However, I can’t help but consider that perhaps the worship industry has become this way because the younger generations of congregant members and songwriters alike stood up against the monotony and cultural irrelevance that they felt about the older genre and style of worship. Maybe the reason the worship industry has changed so drastically is because the nature of church and its members have changed too and if that’s the case, the worship we have now is the truest reflection of what our congregation needs. However, I’m sure that many older congregation members may feel that The Boycott Article makes some very valid points. To them I would suggest finding a worship experience that best suits their needs, but strongly argue against tearing down what works for others.

In conclusion, I think the author was right about one thing: these boycotts do look arrogant, aloof and disconnected – or at least the delivery of this boycott did.

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