Stuck in No-Man's Land: The New Sound of Contemporary Worship

Stuck in No-Man's Land: The New Sound of Contemporary Worship

Join the Community!

The Wake-Up Call is a daily encouragement to shake off the slumber of our busy lives and turn our eyes toward Jesus.

Click here to get yours free in your inbox each morning!

Michael Hawn, a professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, uses two basic categories when speaking about music in the church: cyclical and sequential. Cyclical music is typically made up of short texts supported by a simple melody that is easy to pick up by ear, and lends itself to both repetition and innovation. A good example might be the song “Isn’t He?” Sequential music is inherently literary in its form, is teleological in its structure (the “payoff” is at the end), and is often more musically complex. An example is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” While the songs of the church don’t always fall neatly into these two categories, they are a helpful way to think about what we sing in worship. More specifically, I find it interesting to use these two categories to consider how contemporary worship music has changed over the last several decades.

I Love You, Lord” was number three on CCLI’s (Christian Copyright Licensing International) “Top 25” list of the most popular contemporary worship songs in 1997. It is another great example of a cyclical song. The lyrics and the melody are clearly very simple, making it very easy to pick up. The song is seldom sung only once through, but is repeated several times, often with subtle innovations. Unlike a hymn, such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” the few lines are complete in themselves. While some might be tempted to immediately label a song like “I Love You, Lord” as shallow, it’s important to appreciate that, in many congregations, the singing of cyclical songs is undergirded by a strong theology of the Spirit. For many, the repetition is a spiritual enactment of an encounter with God.

The song at the number twenty spot in the most recent “Top 25” list sounds quite a bit different from “I Love You, Lord.” Joel Houston’s (of Hillsong United) composition, “The Stand” is a much more complex song—musically and lyrically. The verses have a quality similar to sequential music. They build off of each other as they push the singer toward the end of the song. With the addition of the pre-chorus, “So what could I say, etc.,” the song becomes much more musically complex. At the same time, the ending is very similar to a cyclical song—in many ways functioning just like “I Love You, Lord.” The simple lines are sustained by a tune whose melody line hovers around the same note. This “tag” is repeated several times and is the climactic ending to the song.

This quick comparison should highlight what is intuitive to many of us—namely, that contemporary worship music sounds different (lyrically and musically) than it did just fifteen years ago. While the comparison between “I Love You, Lord” and “The Stand” might be an extreme example, it does highlight the fact that modern worship music has morphed into a form somewhere between cyclical and sequential. Without suggesting that there is any clear benefit or deficiency in this development, let me offer a few concluding thoughts about this trend.

1. Singability

“I Love You, Lord” is easier to pick up than “The Stand.” This is not to say that a song like “The Stand” isn’t catchy—its popularity is clearly indicated by its position in the “Top 25” list. If someone had never heard either of the two songs and was asked to sing them in congregational worship, though, it would be much easier to join in on “I Love You, Lord.” This should be an important consideration when introducing a song like “The Stand” to a congregation. You run a greater risk of inhibiting congregational participation, at least the first time you sing “The Stand.”

For those of us ministering in multi-generational contexts, we should also consider that a song like “The Stand” is more difficult for older generations to learn. My eighty-year-old grandmother, who initially loved contemporary worship, frequently laments how many of the new worship songs are difficult to learn.

2. Greater Sophistication

On the other hand, as new songs begin to adopt many of the characteristics of sequential music, they are benefiting from a greater musical and lyrical sophistication. For example, there is an advantage of having to wait for a “pay off” in a song. It not only provides the potential for greater depth in the lyrics, but it communicates something essential to our faith—that the story of God’s salvation in Christ is moving toward an ending itself.

3. Musical Challenge

It’s difficult to pull off a song like “The Stand” with two acoustic guitars and a djembe. On the other hand, you don’t have to have any instruments for “I Love You, Lord,” to go over well. While I appreciate many of the changes that groups like Hillsong United have ushered into the contemporary worship music scene, one of the unintended consequences has been that many worship teams seek to mimic the sound of these popular bands without careful consideration of their own context. Many fail to understand that it requires a good drummer, bassist, keyboard player, and a couple guitarists to reproduce the musical sound of “The Stand.” As songs move away from the cyclical format they often depend upon a greater musical complexity that is not always within the reach of your average church worship band.

While the changing sound of contemporary worship may be obvious to many, the conversation about the pros and cons of this shift is just getting started. What other observations might be made?

Visit our Worship Design Collective for more resources like this one.


15 Responses

  1. Love this! And that people are studying/talking about this. If this were an academic track, I’d go back to get my masters. haha

    However, I would like to add something about The Stand and songs like it. If you look at Hillsong Chapel and Bethel Loft Sessions, you can hear versions of these musically sophisticated songs that can we done in a very simple, intimate setting. You’re right, it’s difficult, but taking that context into consideration, it can turn out really well. I think, more than the number of instruments, what matters is talent and experience. It was easy 10 or 20 years ago for average Joe 16-year-olds to 60-year-olds to pick up a guitar and play “I Love You Lord” but it takes practice and musicianship to be able to play (some? Most?) of the more recent worship hits. Look at Jesus Culture’s more recent stuff. Do-able with a tiny band, but takes some serious work. As a musician often bored to tears with CCM, I think this is awesome, but it also makes the music less accessible for little, rural churches with worship bands like the one we threw together in my youth group 10 years ago with songs like “Better is One Day” and “As the Deer.”

    Anyway, I think this is so cool and I’m jealous you get to write and study about stuff like this. 🙂

  2. I think there’s room for both ends of the spectrum, even in the same church as long as that’s where God is leading. Our church does a mix on any given Sunday, depending on where we’re feeling led. Sometimes it’s complexity, and sometimes it’s simplicity.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. I think that sons like “The Stand” help the congregation grow in faith and maturity, whether or not the person attends other programs of the church. “The Stand” appeals to many sides of a person. The earlier easy to sing versions develop emotional commitment, but that’s all they did. Everyone has multiple intelligences and needs to experience God in each one of them.

  4. Matt- I like your post here! You’ve given me a new frame to think about the nature of the songs we sing- cyclical and/or sequential. I’d like to add, that along with sing-ability that I love the idea of tweaking an older theme and familiar melody to create something fresh. Prime example Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You.” It of course has a distinct yet similar feel to “I Need Thee Every Hour” written in 1872. It is so singable by the nature that it’s melody hearkens back to something familiar, yet brings in something fresh. Someone asked me the other day if I had heard this song by Matt, and I answered that I had. I mentioned its connection to “I Need Thee Every Hour” and they said, “Hmmn…I’ve not heard that before, but I love that song.” So for some it has nostalgia to it – (like Bruno Mars at the superbowl having a Motown feel) yet to others they just like it and they don’t know why. For most, saying “I need you” is such a simple phrase. Yet it’s deep, and vulnerable, and speaks to humanity’s shared condition.

    In some ways, I believe that we sometimes fall into the thinking that because something is old, or firmly established in Hymnody that it potentially has more theological depth and therefore more value. I believe we must ask of every song whether old or new, as our friend JD often says, “What does this song say about God?”

    I like however, as you say, that songs seem to be drifting back to a place a little more literary in nature by morphing cyclical and sequential – that they may build toward a more potent thought, or a deeper reality but also may repeat a phrase or two along the way.

    As a worship leader, I often find myself looking for that phrase or two in a song which really says something well. It’s a thought which captures imagination or says something meaningful about our our God, or speaks deeply to my own frailty. I often don’t choose songs based on a simple theme. For example, we have a message on grace, so we should sing Amazing Grace or Your Grace is Enough, right?. Rather, I try to look into a song which has a phrase or two that captures that idea reality well. Take for example the song I mentioned earlier – Lord, I need You – I think it’s most potent phrase is, “Where you are lord, I am free, Holiness is Christ in me” Similarly, if I were going to hang on a phrase in “I need Thee Every Hour” it would be in the fourth verse…”I need Thee ev’ry hour, Most Holy One; O make me Thine indeed,Thou blessed Son!”

    Keep the posts coming Matt!

  5. Bravo! I have been echoing these thoughts (albeit not so
    eloquently) for many years. As a worshiper and leader I have often considered
    how less than 6% of an average “audience” is musically ‘trained’, therefor a
    song that takes the band several rehearsals to master is going to leave the
    congregation behind. If I am seeking music to challenge and engage myself as a
    musician, I am on stage for the wrong reasons. The question I must ask is “Who
    am I trying to impress?” God is not impressed with my abilities. Complex songs
    are often beautiful both musically and contextually, but if the congregation
    isn’t worshipping freely with me, I have failed. If I, or the parishioners, are
    judging songs on musical merit are we missing the purpose of the song – namely the
    worship of our God most high? Believe me, as a musician I understand how boring
    simple repetition can become, but the song is not the point. It is only a means
    we employ to honor our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. If we are focused on the
    songs – we are not focused on the Lord. I love complex, engaging music – and I
    love to present it as a special “gift offering” during service, but worship (music/scripture/preaching/fellowship/prayer)
    is a vehicle to accomplish arriving at the Lord’s presence…not to keep us
    entertained while we wait for ‘church’ to be over so we can get on with our

  6. While I appreciate the effort to understand and classify modern worship, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to create new terminology to try and define or classify musical styles and forms. As someone with a doctorate in music and also 25 year veteran worship leader, these terms already exist. For example, “Strophic” for songs in simple verse, and “Through-composed” for songs that you are classifying as Sequential. There are many more examples of already-in-use musical terms that help define and describe modern worship songs beautifully.
    If someone is going to the trouble to try and categorize contemporary worship songs and their use, I would be more interested in using the already standardized musical nomenclature, but then working to classify songs according to biblical references in regards to worship, such as the difference between “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” as mentioned in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19.

    However, thanks for opening the dialogue.

  7. I’m in my mid-twenties, which means that my junior high youth group years (when I came to Christ) were when the cyclical/contemporary songs were in vogue. Now as a professional church musician, I see the sequential/modern songs in more frequent use. I think it’s partially a product of the Millennial generation coming of age and seeking more depth in the worship materials, and on the other hand, it is also the history of church music cycling back again to, as you describe, complex, forward-moving texts. I’ll be honest: I personally prefer the dense texts of songs by, e.g., the Gettys, though I still see the value of songs that repeat single lines and phrases of potent truth.

  8. I get your point on #3, but maybe using The Stand was a bad example … I’ve certainly pulled off doing that song with a guitar and djembe. It’s actually a pretty simple song to play and sing acoustically. And I think I Love You Lord, while not necessarily complex, has a wider singing range than The Stand. But that’s an aside – point taken.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *