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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Friday, July 14, 2006

Psalm 136 and CWM

Contemporary worship music (CWM) is often accused of being excessively repetitive. This is often carried out further in the actual worship setting by the Worship Leader who, being led by the “Spirit” (or, whatever mood he is in), repeats sections of the songs several times over. When criticized for this, I’ve heard CWM advocates point to Psalm 136 as a justification for their practices and songs. Psalm 136, you might remember, has the phrase “for his steadfast love endures forever” (ESV) repeating as every second line in the Psalm. But when one examines the psalm, a couple of things emerge.

For one, this isn’t a case of a worship leader repeating over and over again until he gets that “worshipful feeling”. This is a pre-composed and pre-written psalm, with no room for improvisation.

For another, if the CWM advocates would pay attention to the alternating lines, they will notice something else missing from their music. The alternating lines are a recitation of Covenant history. The Psalmist (and those singing the psalm) is recounting the works of God in Creation and in Redemption, specifically Israel’s redemption from Egypt and reception of the land God promised them. The psalm is covenantal and therefore corporate-focused. The concern is our salvation, not just my salvation. In the majority of CWM, the focus is on my individual experience of God, not my place in God’s act of saving a people. It is individualistic, and conspicuously Gnostic, focused on inward piety rather than a holistic salvation of a family of people both body and soul.

I have found that even when CWM attempts to address the work of Christ, it tends to be rather shallow in its assessment, not to mention not particularly poetic. I think it would be good for CWM songwriters to spend a little more time in looking at classical Christian poetry and hymnody (particularly pre-nineteenth century hymnody), and contrasting it with the modern aesthetic that shapes their songwriting. If they do that, and honestly begin to question their own practices, they might begin to produce works that will be beneficial to the church.

It might also be wise for CWM advocates to actually let the text of Scripture shape their thinking on these things, rather than running to the Scriptures to find a proof text to justify their practices.

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