The Self-Indicting Nature of CWM

Industry, Culture, and Theology

(note: The following is an idea for a larger work. I believe my arguments can be empirically proven based on the existing materials and musical literature available.)

I'm (un) fortunate enough to have lived to see the "commercial worship movement" (CWM) evolve from the tiniest fringe efforts to an existential threat to music-making in modern Christendom. From the typographically arresting but musically tepid "Hymns for Now" books to the "Pop Music is Satanic" campaigns of the late 1970s, to the stumbling early efforts by Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, to today, I've been surprised and amazed at how quickly the Church has embraced popular culture--while rejecting its heritage.

Perhaps I am partially guilty--my interests were always in secular Music. Instead of staying in the fight (well, to be fair: there was no fight twenty years ago) and pursuing a career as a Church musician, I spent my time first on Classical repertoire, and then on popular/commercial styles. My Doctoral work centered around the transference of Music across cultural boundaries, and my research took me to various places--from the exciting stile moderno to 20th century R&B, I was always fascinated with what was gained, changed, or lost as Music was borrowed, adapted and adopted by various societies.

In doing so, however, I chose not to contribute to the discussion of how the Church should respond to the commercially fueled incursion of popular Music into the Church. My interest in the topic only surfaced when I realized that something serious was quietly happening.

As a relative outsider to the CCM scene, I can see several distinct broad trends in the 20th century that need to be considered--not individually, but simultaneously--when addressing the subject:

  1. The increased irrelevance of "Art Music."

The broad storyline of Music History (as it is commonly taught) from 1200-1900 A.D. is a quest to explore and expand. From the simple plainsong to organum at the fourth and fifth, to chromaticism to atonality, Music and tonality have always been understood to be developing in certain directions. After Wagner, serilaism (Schoenberg et al) and two World Wars, Western culture essentially abandoned this concept. The Music of professional composers and the conservatories became less and less palatable to the average listener. People talked about a "crisis in Music." Professional composers and concert artists, once revered like today's rock stars, gradually slipped into irrelvance. Who is at fault here? Certainly the "Art Music" crowd should share some--but not all--of the blame. Read on.

  1. Technology

It may be more than coincidental that recording technology appeared in the early 20th century as well. This changed Music in several ways. First, it was no longer necessary to have musicians (or musically trained people) around to enjoy the art. Gramophones (and later hi-fi equipment) gradually displaced the piano as the vehicle for musical enjoyment in the home. It's hard to imagine, but there was a time when family and friends would gather and play Music together, for entertainment. With recorded Music, nobody really needed to be able to play (learning to play enhances one's appreciation for the Musical language) but instead became "consumers." Fast-forward to today, and I've got crystal-clear remasters of albums recorded 50 years ago. New artists have to compete with an immense "back catalog" of works. Why listen to Marcus Strickland ( when I can listen to John Coltrane (

  1. The emergence of the record company and the homogenization of styles

The distribution of Music through record stores and drug stores was beneficial in the sense that more people were able to enjoy different musics, but it also placed an artifical limitation on what actually was heard. Even the most expansive record collection exists only because a record company somewhere thought it would be commercially viable to release the recordings. The end result is a gradual stratification of what's considered "marketable," and as a result, a "fast food musical culture" emerges.

This "fast food" musical style is easily identified. The "middle of the road" and "bubblegum pop" music marketed to teens in the 1960s and 1970s is heavily mined by the modern CCM industry, and eagerly slurped up by our parishoners. Hundreds of artists have been rejected over the years as being "fake" or "plastic" -- authenticity is one of the more desirable traits in a youth-oriented musician. It's fascinating and telling that so many of these slick, productized musics of yore form the basis of our modern CWM product lines.

As of this writing, Justin Bieber is commonly vilified and poked fun at, but if history serves as any indicator, he and his music will be the basis of CWM in fifteen years or so.

  1. Youth Culture

From the 1950s on, record companies worked to attach their wares to a fast-growing, post-war demographic in the U.S.A. -- the baby boomers. Teenagers, who are of course immature in their listening abilities (what I really mean is that someone in their teens is "less sophisticated than they should be in ten years") are also the group with the most disposable income. Sales took off--and as long as a continuous stream of fresh-sounding artists could appear, there was a guaranteed stream of income for the record companies. By virtue of the age of the consumer and the incredible speed at which artists came and went (in the popular mind), commercial Music by necessity became what it is to day--a formulaic genre that relies on the tried-and-true themes of sex, drugs, rejection of authority, and so on.

Religous trends (as embodied in various Eastern religions) popular in the baby boomer world have influenced popular music as well. Meditative, mantra-like repetition (as opposed to the developmental, motivic styles of Classic Western Music) resonated with the anti-Christian drug culture of the 1960s and 1970s. In the neverending quest to appear "hip," (and remain commercial), static, droning melodies and rhythms became the norm.

It's telling that aging groups like the Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac are still being pushed in the industry--their connection to the baby boomer generation is the primary factor in keeping their products viable. It is interesting to imagine what our musical landscape will look like in two generations, after the 'boomers' are long gone.

  1. The Demise of Music Education and the Rise of Anti-intellectualism

I'm not convinced Music Education was ever very good in the U.S.A., but I do believe there's been a huge de-emphasis on Music (and the Arts in general) in the past half-century. Our emphasis on Mathematics and Language Arts (and mandatory testing) have contributed to the marginalization of the Fine Arts. The result can only be a less sophisticated listening culture, and a society of people completely unable to appreciate or parse Musical Language. Worse, a broad cultural rejection of intellectual pursuits has resulted in a society that's hostile to complex rhetorical/logical exposition, the study of history, and so on.

  1. Church Growth Movement and the Marketing god

The underpinning philosophy of marketing (straight out of the B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning playbook) is that "human animals" can be manipulated into acting a certain way (i.e., purchasing goods and services) by sidestepping their intellectual "filters" and appealing directly to their emotions. One's "wants and needs" are the focus here, and being able to surreptitiously control people's behavior is the goal. It's telling that one of the most successful companies in the U.S. right now (Google) is essentially an advertising agency. In a very real sense, marketing is a dehumanizing approach that degrades the worth of the individual.

Marketers masquerading as Church Leaders have embraced this philosophy, and based on the points above, have also employed popular music as a vehicle for aligning their worship with external commercial and societal trends. For this type of music to be commercially viable it must employ the minimalist, repetitive aspects of popular music, and be generic enough (in terms of textual content) to be marketable to members of various denominations. In this operation, lengthy Theological exposition (such as what we find in traditional hymnody) should be rejected, replaced by repetitive, mantra-like appeals to a generic god.

So what makes Contemporary Worship "self-indicting?"

The systematic study of the Bible reveals a God who is at work in history, with a consistent plan of salvation as embodied in the work of Jesus Christ. The Christian views history as one filled with surface-level turbulence, but ultimately controlled by a benevolent God responsble for its beginning, middle, and end. Historically, Music and Art dedicated to the service of God and his Church have attempted to represent that teleological ideal.

CWM rejects the transcendent or teleological, instead emphasising the present (see above, re. Eastern Religions). As such, it is an uncomfortable and contradictory amalgam of styles and messages:

  • Though the story of Christianity extends back for millenia, CWM forgets the teleologically-based aesthetics that underpin the development of Church Music for the past 800+ years.
  • While seeking to address the transcendent, it remains firmly embedded in the here and now.
  • Though it desires to appear relevant to the here and now, it actually uses the harmonic language of the most banal 1960s "bubblegum rock" and the production values of 1970s "soft rock." In general, it's not necessarily even very good "popular music," and most Rock critics (as one would find in that icon of babyboomer musical journalism, Rolling Stone) pan the genre incessantly.
  • While attempting to appear and authentic, its clear commercial formulations expose it as contrived and manipulative.
  • Though claiming to be "Christian" (as in Contemporary Christian) it avoids Christ's possibly controversial (and therefore unmarketable) teachings concerning the Lord's Supper, his Death and Resurrection, etc.

These inconsistencies lurk behind every "Contemporary Music vs. Traditional Music" argument. What's fascinating is how CWM slips through the cracks:

  • Classically trained musicians (the bulk of our Directors of Music) have little understanding of the popular Music genres;
  • Amateur musicians (i.e. the parishoners who wish they were rock stars) have palpable disdain/ignorance of traditional styles,
  • "Conservative" Pastors avoid the argument, dismissing it as adiaphora, or else lack the Musical training to engage the opposition,
  • "Liberal" Pastors view CWM as an opportunity to increase membership and relevance in society.

I believe the points I illustrate above do a fair job of identifying the many "moving parts," in the discussion and we should be forgiving of our brothers and sisters who, understandably, fail to grasp the overall scope of the problem.

I believe the answer is not in asking less of our church music, but rather asking for more. This is an opportunity for Church Musicians to reclaim and express the power of Christian, Western Civilization as embodied in the styles and skills of our forebears; unfortunately I believe the moment is in danger of passing.