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Monday, January 19, 2015

Worship Leader: My Journey Away From Contemporary Worship Music

By Rick Pearcey • January 19, 2015, 11:52 AM

Writing at AnchorLine, Dan Cogan explains why, having been "what many would call a 'worship leader'  for close to two decades," he now "would make the case for the abandonment of most contemporary songs."

Cogan begins by detailing his early heartfelt commitment to contemporary worship music. "When I first became involved in 'worship ministry' in an Assemblies of God youth group we sang such songs as The Name of the Lord Is a Strong Tower, As the Deer, Lord I Lift Your Name on High, and others of the era of the 1980s and 90s. Ours was considered a stylistically progressive church since we used almost exclusively contemporary songs," Cogan writes.

During this period, whenever Cogan would "visit a 'traditional' church, not only would I be unfamiliar with the hymns, I would also likely cringe when they sang them and in my heart ridicule them (the people rather than the songs) as being old-fashioned."

Cogan explains how, "over the years when I would occasionally hear a hymn, the language was always strikingly foreign, with Ebenezers and bulwarks, diadems and fetters. Which only served to confirm my bias that hymns were simply out-of-date. They had served their purpose. They had run their course."

But as he matured, Cogan noticed something was missing. Around seven years ago, the "problem with my youthful logic" began to surface. "I had come to recognize that these ancient hymns accomplished something that the new songs weren’t."

Yes, the newer worship songs "seemed to take the listener on an exciting and emotional rollercoaster," but the "old hymns engaged the mind with deep and glorious truths that when sincerely pondered caused a regenerated heart to humbly bow before its King."

When Cogan accepted his "first post as a paid member of a church staff in 2007, he "began the practice of singing one hymn each week. There were times where my peers would teasingly ask what an 'Ebenezer' was."

He would offer a "basic definition of these seemingly obsolete words we were singing, and the "response was usually something akin to, 'Oh? Cool. I never knew that!," Cogan writes. "They were being challenged to learn, not merely a new word, but how to ponder the things of God deeply when we sing His praises."

Cogan says the criteria for selecting worship music has become "more and more thorough," and "hymns have begun to take precedent in my song selection for two reasons."

The first reason is that "hymns have been sung by the giants of the faith who have gone on before us over the last two millennia." Cogan writes:

When we sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, we join with Martin Luther who wrote it, and with Calvin and Spurgeon and Edwards who invariably sang and cherished it. When we sing It Is Well With My Soul we are encouraged by the faith of Horatio Spafford who wrote the hymn in the wake of the tragic death of his four daughters. . . . The fact that we can join with generations past and be reminded that the Church is vastly larger than our local congregation, farther reaching than our town or state or country, and much, much older than the oldest saint living today. . . . This should birth in us a desire to sing the songs that our Family has sung together for two-thousand years.

The second reason is that "content of hymns is almost always vastly more theologically rich." Cogan explains:

The theology in the hymns is typically more sound or healthy than much of contemporary worship music. As I said earlier, contemporary songs engage our emotions more often, where the hymns engage our hearts by way of the mind.

To illustrate his point, Cogan contrasts One Thing Remains ("one of the top ten contemporary songs being sung in American evangelical churches right now") with Rock of Ages (the classic hymn by Augustus Toplady).

"There is nothing in the song particularly bad" in One Thing Remains," says Cogan, but it seems to him that the "purpose of the song is to work the listeners into an emotional state." He quotes the chorus: 

Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love never fails / It never gives up / Never runs out on me / Your love / Your love / Your love.

"With the repetition of a simple lyric like that, it isn’t a stretch to say that the composers’ goal was not to engage the listeners mind," Cogan observes.

Turning to Rock of Ages, Cogan notes that the hymn is both "doctrinally sound" and "a very moving song of our dependance upon Christ our Rock." He quotes from the hymn:

Rock of Ages cleft for me / Let me hide myself in Thee / Let the water and the blood / From Thy wounded side which flowed / Be of sin the double cure / Save from wrath and make me pure.

Cogan concludes: "So I make this plea to my fellow ministers, do not neglect these milestones from ages past. In fact, I would make the case for the abandonment of most contemporary songs."

He recommends that, "if you choose a song for congregational worship based on its content (say you have chosen a contemporary song because of it's focus on the Cross), do the hard work of finding a hymn that more than likely addresses the same topic or doctrine in a much deeper way.

"If on the other hand you have chosen a song because of the way it feels or the emotion it evokes, ask yourself whether you are depending upon the Holy Spirit or your own skills to engage our brothers and sisters in singing to our King."

Cogan's article has garnered 254 responses.