Is Church Music Becoming Too Emo? (Yeah, there's blues history in here)

Ok, something has been bugging me lately about modern church music.  (And no, I'm not talking about the cliche'd Nashville instrumentation.)  It seems like everything is emo, music dictated solely by emotions... and mostly depression. 

Since when did worship turn into whining?  Hear me out on this and you'll see it's a cyclical pattern in which we fall prey.  I'm talking about contemporary worship services who routinely sing lyrics like the following.  (I made these up):

O Lord, I'm broken and I need you only.

I thirst for Living Water.  You are my sea.

I want you, God.  My vessel is empty.

Come be with me.


First, notice all the "I" and "me" lyrics?  "I need," "I want," "I'm broken" seem to be common fodder for worship. We go into church and then just cry cry cry.  

But wait... There is nothing inherently wrong with these lyrics.  We all thirst for God.  We know we need Him.  Even the psalmist said,

Ps. 51:10 - Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. 

The definition of steadfast is: firmly fixed in place, immovable, not subject to change, firm in belief, determination, or adherence.  LOYAL

These sound like some pretty confident traits, don't you think?  Standing strong like a warrior.  Being tough and determined.  Steadfastness sure sounds like the opposite of emo to me. 

Our worship turns into whining when we keep pleading and repenting without resolving our issues and being frickin' TRIUMPHANT for once!  Why aren't we singing songs of strength?  Where's the victory celebration music?  Sure, the Bible passage says "create in me a clean heart," but it also says, "renew a steadfast spirit within me.



Alan Lomax, the great blues and folk music researcher lamented about this very thing back in 1942 when he interviewed older black Baptist church women in the rural South.  They told him that during the darkest times of slavery and then the satanic Jim Crow laws, these women would lead church services with songs of victory.  Their song choices included, "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "O David."  They claimed the victory of Christ in their music, celebrating even when they were in bondage!

Puttin' on my warfare shoes, Livin on borried land, Gittin in a hurry now. 
Play like you played for Saul. O David,  
I ain't afeered to die. O David.  
Let me tell you what David done, Killed Goliath, that mighty one.

But then Lomax describes a shift that began to happen in their church during WWII when more folks had jobs and things, although still oppressive, had begin to lighten up a bit.  He said the church music changed from warfare and victory to the opposite:

"I looked at the [new hymn] book [being marketed to the public] as we wandered on through the fair. ...There were some appealing tunes that might have been written by Stephen Foster, sentimental, rather than noble and epic like the spirituals. The impersonal, heroic vein of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho had vanished. The new songs were all ego--pleading with the Lord for personal dispensations-"When I'm on my dangerous journey, stand by me--precious lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired," etc., etc. Clearly the ideal gospel worshiper was to feel defeated, helpless, alienated, and totally dependent. "

pp 46-47, Land Where the Blues Began, Alan Lomax (© 1993, The New Press)


Ephesians 5:19 calls us to "speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."  That's three different types of music, each that can be broken down into different subjects.  Just concentrating on psalms alone, German Old Testament scholar, Hermann Gunkel divided the Psalms according to different genres: 

  • Hymns 
  • Royal Psalms 
  • Complaint Psalms/Lamentations 
  • Thanksgiving Psalms 
  • Wisdom Psalms 
  • Mixed or smaller genres 
  • Songs of Zion 
  • Historical Litanies 
  • Pilgrim Liturgies 
  • Judgment Liturgies 
  • Entrance Liturgies 

Only one of those above addresses complaints and lamentations.  Other themes (which we may be forgetting) include historical accounts of God's victories, thanksgiving, 'Kingdom minded' Royal Psalms and others.

Yes, we must thirst for Jesus.  We must repent of our sins.  But after that, can we start walking in victory and celebrate the fact that we are adopted children of God?  Sing like you mean it!  Create art worthy of being in the Royal Family!

Right now, we should be experiencing a Renaissance of music and art within the Body of Christ.  We're not gonna get there if we're bitching and complaining all the time.

-Shane Speal

Feb 27, 2020  

Thoughts from Shane:

  1. I struggled with the cuss word, but in the end (and after prayer), I felt the need to leave it there.  Words are electric and should be chosen for the voltage each one contains.
  2. I just wanna love on Jesus so much during worship.  I want to concentrate on His awesomeness.  Sometimes, yes, I do need to fall to my knees and beat my breast in humility, but then I wanna stand up when I'm done and celebrate.
  3. Expect to see more blogs (sermons) in her on celebratory arts.  We need 'em.

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