NO LONGER ARE INSPIRATIONAL SONGS LIMITED TO SANCTUARIES ON SUNDAY MORNINGS. WORSHIP MUSIC IS BREAKING LONG-HELD CULTURAL BARRIERS AND CAPTIVATING NEW AUDIENCES. RECOGNIZED HIP-HOP ARTISTS ARE RAPPING ON THE COMPLICATIONS OF THEIR FAITH, AND SPIRITUAL THEMES ARE RAPIDLY GAINING RELEVANCY IN MAINSTREAM MUSIC. SO, THE LAKELANDER BROUGHT TOGETHER A GROUP OF MUSICIANS WHO LEAD WORSHIP IN LOCAL CONGREGATIONS TO DISCUSS THIS NEW WAVE OF FAITH IN MUSIC.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JORDAN RANDALL
Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther posted a 95 theses memo on the doors of the church. It was a document that challenged the traditions of an age-old religion, that questioned the Catholic Church, and ultimately that changed the future of a faith- filled experience in a corporate setting.
These 95 statements would also establish the new pivotal role that music would play in the church — and possibly the world — for years to come.
What was once created as a selective, performed liturgy simply to be dictated to a congregation grew from a reformed movement to an enduring influence that today translates to endless languages, people groups, and genres of music. Leading the way to original hymns, spirituals, and gospel tunes, faith- based music would eventually be viewed as the bread and butter of nearly every church-service experience.
In the 20th century, the likes of holy-rollers Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and their distinct church-music influences were all credited as the origins of rock and roll. By the ’80s and ’90s, gospel singers such as Andraé Crouch were collaborating with pop- music’s key players, contributing to songs such as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.”
More recently, Kanye West produced his sixth studio album, Yeezus (rhyming with Jesus). Justin Bieber broke out with an impromptu acoustic performance of “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” on tour in Paris. In his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar references the gospels through one running metaphoric account. And in preparation for last year’s release Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper woke up daily to the sounds of gospel music — Kirk Franklin, to be exact.
Church music, this lyrical marriage of faith and song and its wave of influence, continues to shape culture in fresh form and function.
A REFORMED SONG
In 1517, church music was comprised solely of well-trained vocals for performed choral numbers. The singing of hymns and choruses wasn’t open to the congregation to freely join in. It was rather exclusive.
Along with challenging the status quo of a legalistic and hierarchical service that was merely observed and not participated in, Luther sought to establish songs in the church that would be accessible to all — music that was congregational, collective, and experiential. “But poets are wanting among us, or not yet known, who could compose evangelical and spiritual songs,” Luther wrote at these turn of events.
Luther’s Reformation created a shift in the music of the church, if not the very pinnacle of its existence. A new wave of hymns began to emerge with the masses in mind, now created with an ease of melody and concept in lyrics as opposed to a showcase for the few accomplished vocalists onstage. It was a movement that composed the congregational song for the church.
In the 17th century, gospel music was birthed in the dark season of slavery. Soulful work songs sung among slaves in the States became known as “Negro spirituals.” They were songs based on repetition, easily sung and remembered for anyone to sing along, but whose depth of persistence and power planted a deeply rooted endurance amidst pain, almost as a means of communication: a call and response.
THE FACT THAT CHANCE THE RAPPER IS AS INFLUENTIAL AS HE IS RIGHT NOW… I THINK IT’S A DIRECT RESULT OF WHAT IS GOING ON IN CULTURE. – JORDAN RIPPY
Throughout the centuries, a merging of hymns and gospel choruses paved the way to what is often referred to today as worship music. But worship music today isn’t what it was 10 years ago. Not even five years ago.
From our local church services, to hip- hop concerts, to collaborative Grammy performances, there is no denying the integration and influence of faith in mainstream music.
“You’ve got this exciting undercurrent of worship music that’s happening,” says Dan Rivera, director of Southeastern University’s School of Worship. An alumnus of SEU, Rivera spent his recent years as a worship leader for National Community Church in Washington D.C. before returning to the area. “While so-called Christian music and worship songs continue to evolve, worship has distinguished itself in both the industry and the culture as something that is not merely Christian music, per se. But even faith-based music coming from the church has greatly evolved in recent years.”
“Those who have stayed extremely true to [a] specific formula that still resonates with many church-goers today would be Chris Tomlin,” says Letra Davis, singer and worship director at Strong Tower Church in downtown Lakeland. “He is a mainstay, a phenomenal songwriter, very simplistic in his approach, and yet it still works. But then Tye Tribbett will take it and do something completely different with it. There is a group of people who are willing to push boundaries and not be afraid to introduce some new things that have never been done or heard before, which is really exciting.”
A NEW KIND OF GENRE
Worship is not just for Sundays anymore. In recent years, songwriters and bands have emerged, no longer with the mere influence of church music, but with the sole intent of writing, producing, and playing music that serves the church, offering a worship experience wherever it’s heard.
“I remember my mom giving me a Delirious cd probably when I was in third grade,” says Chase Wagner, worship leader at Grace City Church. “That was probably the first time I heard a band that was singing to God [rather] than necessarily about God. In the ’90s and ’80s, you had rock and pop, saying, ‘Oh, we can talk about God.’ Delirious was the first I heard and [thought] ‘Ah, this is like an encounter. This is like singing to God.’”
When albums like Hillsong United’s Empires and Zion began to hit the Top 10 of the Billboard 200, it’s fair to acknowledge a growing demand for music that engages faith. Now with each new release from Hillsong United quickly topping the charts, church music appears to be paving its own path.
“Ultimately, worship is interesting,” says Jordan Rippy, worship leader at Access Church and songwriter, “because it’s this ministry to God, not so much to people. On a practical level, [worship music is] something that’s simple to wrap your mind around. That doesn’t mean it’s not a hard concept, but the way it’s presented is something that people can quickly understand and get on board with corporately.”
“Putting together music that is corporate and congregational . . . it’s a fine line,” explains Free Life Chapel worship leader Jeremy Rosado. “It’s not a pop song or a regular Christian-themed song. It’s finding a way of building these songs that brings them in and makes them want to sing it. The corporate thing for me is huge.”
Worship music albums also differ from the mainstream, with their production focusing mainly on live recordings. The rise of highly produced worship albums has driven a shift in the recording process to meet new demands from an increasingly musically discerning audience.
IT’S CRAZY HOW, 2,000 YEARS [LATER], PEOPLE CAN’T STOP TALKING ABOUT HIM. – CHASE WAGNER
“I’ve recorded stuff in the studio and live,” says Wagner, “and the live [albums] are listened to more, streamed more. Way more than the studio stuff, always. I think there’s this unique yearning that can be captured from a congregation, a crying out for God. There is something people really grab onto.”
“It’s actually returning to what they did back in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s,” says Davis. “Live recordings, whether it was at a speakeasy or a church cathedral, there was something about it.”
Where the corporate element remains a key intrigue is for its live recordings and concerts. Many attend these experiences seeking a new kind of communion, a lyrical declaration of faith.
“It was moments in corporate worship,” says Rivera, “where I realized that’s where I made some important decisions that ended up guiding my life. So, I felt, why not give my life back to creating those moments for other people? Ultimately, encounter Jesus.”
SONGS FROM SUFFERING
“Now [in February] that it’s Black History Month,” says Davis, “I’m starting a series of Negro spirituals. Because people need to remember. The types of songs written on the fly in the cottonfield because someone was feeling the woes and the oppression, but their faith was deep in the roots of Christ. There are still songs that need to be written that encourage people to keep their roots and foundation.
“No matter how much things are shaking in our economical, our political, world, there are still songs that can be birthed out of that. That is necessary. I was actually just thinking about that last week. I was saying, ‘Lord, what songs are going to be birthed out of the last 12 months? ’Cause they were crazy.”
Whether considered reverent, or not, it’s hard to deny the running theme of trial and faith in mainstream music. “Especially within the hip-hop circles,” says Rippy, “you can’t ignore the cultural element: Here we are in 2017 still asking the race questions and a lot of black culture feeling oppressed and feeling like their voice doesn’t matter. People still feel enslaved. So I don’t think it’s an accident that God is popping up in these themes again in the hip-hop culture.
“Music can be like activism, subversive in some way,” Rippy continues. “The fact that Chance the Rapper is as influential as he is right now, I don’t think it’s an accident or a coincidence. I think it’s a direct result of what is going on in culture.”
A REVIVED REFORM
While the implications of faith in song have taken many shifts and turns, as an industry of worship music evolves, it also recalls the words and concepts that once solely welcomed a congregation into a place of worship.
CHURCH MUSIC, THIS LYRICAL MARRIAGE OF FAITH AND SONG AND ITS WAVE OF INFLUENCE, CONTINUES TO SHAPE CULTURE IN FRESH FORM AND FUNCTION.
“I heard someone talk about how in today’s world we’re seeing revival, renaissance, and reform all at once,” says Rivera. “The renaissance was this culmination of faith, art, and science all into one. It used to be, if you’re in this camp, you’re in the camp; that’s the kind of music you make. It’s taking all kinds of influences to make music. There is definitely back and forth going on.”
“It used to be a hymn book,” says Wagner, “which was art, of course, but it was very regimented. And now people are even going back to that, and it’s becoming more of an artistic expression.”
“The power of worship music is that we can sort of rally home around some of these topics with people that come from all sorts of different backgrounds,” says Rivera. “As a worship pastor, I think that’s the true power to what we do on the weekends. Writing songs that encourage faith in people is about finding those things that are the characteristics of God. The sort of things we know are true about the Lord, no matter where you come from, and celebrating them in our lyrics and function with how we’re writing them. I think it all kind of comes together with that. And I think it would be wise for us, as worship pastors, to do as much of that as we can.”
Worship music — a melodic prayer and statement of faith — is viewed as even meditative in its approach. It could be another reason that live recordings are continually in high demand.
“Recently, Watson Clinic called our church [Grace City] and asked if we could play for their chemo patients before they go into radiation treatment,” says Wagner. “They sent us studies that prove the brain actually goes into a healing state [listening to music]. We have guys going out there for the next few weeks, just playing piano or acoustic guitar for girls and guys before they go into treatment. There are experiences and healing that can happen from worship music. Which is really spooky and strange. And science is attesting to that.”
In clinical terms, worship music is being recognized for its level of holistic health, even elements of mindfulness. A recent Harvard study, “Music as Medicine: The impact of healing harmonies,”found through a nurse-led team at Massachusetts General Hospital that patients with heart disease confined to a bed had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, and less distress after listening to 30 minutes of uplifting music than those who didn’t listen to music.
“That’s the difference between worship and a secular situation,” says Davis. “I believe there is an exchange between what a musician has in their spirit and what is being received. And I don’t always necessarily want to receive what they got.”
Not only is the worship experience received, but it is experienced simultaneously, sung in unison. The same Harvard study also discovered the healing power in collective singing has significant effects on the body in addition to the experience when merely listening. “The effects of group singing, and the results, show benefits for mood, stress levels, and even the immune system. Singing may also offer benefits not unlike those of deep-breathing exercises, a way to promote the stress-relieving ‘relaxation response.’”
“I think in some ways the difference is expectation,” says Rippy. “When you go to a live concert, your expectation is to see a great show. But your expectation in entering into worship should be that some kind of change should take place.”
ON A BEIBER LEVEL
While generic love songs continue to flood the charts, tunes that will forever have “Love on the Brain”, just what will become of this growing genre of faith-infused songs is still unknown.
“I think it comes back to the reason I gave my life to worship,” Rivera recalls, “because I felt it was a vehicle to encounter the presence of God. And if it is just feel-good emotions and poetic imagery that we’re painting, then I feel like maybe we’re missing the mark. It ought to create an intimate, or at least authentic, experience with God. It’s got to have the ‘presence of God’ factor.”
Regardless of the church’s thoughts on Kendrick Lamar’s interpretation of the gospel, or how a worship band of Aussies may continue to push traditional barriers, faith is having a moment in music. Quite possibly there have never been more examples of God-exploration set to song.
“It’s crazy how, 2,000 years [later], people can’t stop talking about Him,” says Wagner. “On your biggest level of culture, on your Bieber level of culture, on your Kanye West level of culture, the ones dominating Instagram, the ones dominating whatever our culture is — you can’t keep Jesus out of it. And it might be a really weird interpretation, it might be Yeezus, it might be a bizarre interpretation-perversion, but you can’t keep His name out of it.