I Could Sing This Bridge Forever, If It’s an Antiphon

Modern worship music can seem awfully simple. But it has a vital role to play, especially when paired with Scripture.

If you spend any amount of time in churches that have a notable proportion of people under the age of 40, you’ll hear the genre of music called “modern worship.” The chords are simple, the melodies are exceedingly singable, the sentiments are sincere, and the lyrics are brief.

Like all genres, modern worship has individual examples of real quality, and this week I was in the car singing along with one—Elevation’s 2018 song “Worthy”—that has many merits. I would gladly lead a congregation in it myself, if only to sing this theologically exemplary couplet:

“It was my cross you bore / So I could live in the freedom you died for.”

But as I sang along with the recording, I couldn’t help feeling, not for the first time, that it was incomplete and just a bit thin on its own.

This is not something I feel about a related genre I’ve spent a lot of time studying and, as a worship musician, leading: the choruses of Black Gospel that emerge out of the tradition called the Negro spiritual.

These songs, too, tend to have very short texts. But because they are anchored in the incomparable spiritual depth of the Black church and because they very often pack a great deal of musical subtlety into a seemingly simple musical package, they can sustain a great deal of repetition and only increase in their expressive and formative power. The greatest spirituals—like “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”—can and will be sung for a lifetime and beyond.

Not so much with modern worship. There is something bite-sized about these pieces, which we sing so enthusiastically for a year or three but then lose interest in. And yet I do love singing them, …

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