Review

The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship
Robert H. Woods and Brian D. Walrath, eds. (Abingdon, 2007)

This excellent study seeks to give a balanced assessment of both the text and music of contemporary worship music by studying the seventy-seven most commonly used songs in American churches as reported by CCLI (the copyright licensing company).

The various authors look at the material from different angles. Lester Ruth’s chapter evaluating song texts from the standpoint of trinitarian language is perhaps the most helpful study. He concludes that instead of a sustained reflection on the person and nature of God, the priority of the songs studied is “a shared affective experience in the worship of God.” Ruth insists that there is no need for the two to be mutually exclusive.

A few chapters examine the perceived “romantic lyrics” that seem to occur in many of the songs, perhaps even some “erotic nuances.” But songs with explicit biblical imagery (as in “As the Deer,” “Better Is One Day,” “Father, I Adore You,” or “More Precious Than Silver”) are lumped into the same category as those songs with banal and more obviously sensual references (“the warmth of your embrace” in both “Draw Me Close” and “We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise”—certainly the psalmists never use this kind of language in their expressions of worship). Including the former in a list of songs with supposed “potential sexual double-entendre or romantic overtones” seems to stretch the categories.

Other less frequently considered aspects of contemporary song are also studied—such as justice issues or pain and suffering. A few chapters take on the challenging task of evaluating the songs qualitatively from a musical standpoint, with fascinating (though perhaps not conclusive) results.

John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, contributes an excellent concluding chapter in which he draws upon the analyses and conclusions of the preceding chapters to challenge worship leaders to be more discerning in their song selections for worship, songwriters to address some of the textual and musical weaknesses highlighted in the book, and scholars to engage in further study of some the issues raised.

This book is a valuable contribution and inducement to rigorous and reflective consideration of the songs we sing in worship.

—Reviewed by Ron Man, pastor of worship/missionary in residence at First Evangelical Church in Memphis, Tennessee.