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, even if after seven repetitions of the bridge—not an exaggeration in the case of “Worthy”—it seems like we’ve been chewing for quite a long time on quite a small piece of Wonder Bread.
What to do with these emotionally pure, musically simple, short pieces?
Well, what I have been doing for years as a worship musician is not using them alone. I almost always pair a modern worship song with a longer text, alternating between congregational singing of a song with congregational reading (while continuing an instrumental bed underneath). Matt Maher’s “Lord, I Need You” with a reading of Psalm 121. Bethel Music’s “Our Father” with the entire text of Hebrews 11. United Pursuit’s “Not in a Hurry” with the opening responses and confession of sin in the Book of Common Prayer’s service of morning prayer.
In this format, the emotional simplicity of the song resonates in glorious ways with complex and challenging texts, especially the biblical psalms—which were, of course, originally songs themselves. Over and over I have found this combination is far, far more powerful an expression of worship than either text or song by itself.
Singing along in my car this week, I realized that we’ve had a name for these worship songs all along, though the word is unfamiliar outside high liturgical traditions.
They are antiphons—which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle” (the canticles being largely other biblical instances of poetic and sung prayer, like the Song of Simeon in Luke 2). The purpose of an antiphon is to give the congregation a way to frame their own response to the biblical prayer. Just like modern worship music, antiphons often draw their vocabulary more or less directly from phrases of Scripture.
Antiphons are not complete prayers—they are brief invitations to reflect more deeply on the content of complete prayers. They are not hymns, either, which typically take singers on an extended journey through some aspect of Christian experience or belief. They are quite literally choruses, the gathered response of the people to a longer and more involved text.
This is what we’re engaging when we sing most modern worship music—beautiful, simple antiphons.
The only problem is that in many churches and worship settings, we are only singing antiphons. We are not reading, chanting, or singing the psalms themselves. We are not attending to long passages of biblical text. Nor, in many settings, are we pairing the choruses with hymns, which would require but also reward reflection and attention.
All we are singing are short texts and extremely simple tunes—too short and too simple to truly express or form a full life of Christian prayer.
This realization that modern worship is almost all antiphons, all the time, has been incredibly helpful to me. It explains why I love many songs in the modern worship genre: They are the antiphons of my Christian life and—thanks to the music distribution mechanisms of popular culture—millions of others’ lives as well. I don’t want to stop singing them.
But it also explains why, after a contemporary worship service composed of four to five antiphons plus a long sermon, I feel like something essential has been missed and something important is not being cultivated or formed in us.
It also points to a deficiency in many liturgical churches, like my own Anglican and Methodist traditions, which have maintained congregational reading of the psalms but do not take advantage of music’s power to deepen the response to that text.
In my own worship leadership, I’ve gravitated (without realizing it) to a solution that was in the Christian tradition all along: putting these choruses in their proper place, surrounding and undergirding the congregation’s attention to the deep texts (and maybe also tunes) of the Christian story. When we sing these choruses before and after and in the midst of the reading of relatively complex texts, they are incredibly valuable pathways to genuine Christian worship.
So let’s keep singing these songs. But let’s sing them as the antiphons they really are.
Andy Crouch is partner for theology and culture at Praxis.