I like Starbucks. I like the way I can be on literally any street, in any major city on planet Earth and know that there is a ready supply of reliably average coffee and baked goods just around the corner.
But I don’t want every cup of coffee that I drink to be Starbucks.
How I feel about my coffee is a handy analogy for how I feel about the current state of modern worship music. A small clutch of influential, wealthy churches are currently producing almost all of the music we sing in congregations around the world. And much like Starbucks, the songs are OK. Largely reliable. Sometimes they are even excellent. (Much like Starbucks’ hazelnut hot chocolate.)
But I have to wonder what artisanal treats we are missing by choosing the convenient path of least resistance and continually importing our Sunday set lists from the big, corporate church record labels? (Yes, you read that right – many big churches are also major record labels, with a keen financial interest in what you sing, bleary-eyed and off-key, on a Sunday morning.)
As an independent worship artist who has not enjoyed the powerhouse backing of a megachurch, I know from experience that it has become increasingly difficult – sometimes almost entirely impossible – to make the global Church aware of new songs that don’t drop off the conveyor belt of these big church labels.
I have seen friends painstakingly craft deep, and vitally important, songs, exploring uncharted creative territory and addressing blindspots in our worship theology, only to watch, horrified, as fluffy, superficial songs sung by the right person with the right network steal the spotlight anyway.
I don’t think the worship industry is ‘bad’ per se. Most of what’s happening is well-meaning, earnest and good. It’s just that by flooding the worship space with heavily marketed ‘not bad’ songs, we can end up drowning out the truly excellent songs that quietly rise from the fringes.
Think about it like this. Where do prophetic voices tend to come from? The centre of the big religious industrial machine, or from the wilderness?
Personally, I want to hear from the megachurches. But I need to hear from the prophets on the edges too.
I want to hear from more writers of colour.
From more women.
From voices outside of Western Christian culture.
From those striving to make worship more accessible.
I can’t help but think that we’re missing out by worshipping using the borrowed perspectives of primarily white, affluent, well-connected Western men.
I wonder what revelations we might receive by singing songs of faith through a less overused lens?
If you’re a worship leader, maybe it’s time to start voting with your set list. To forage for fresh nourishment for your congregation (may I suggest Chris Renzema, Sean Curran, Jon Guerra, Jonathan Ogden, Elle Limebear and Porter’s Gate as a starting point?) Or better yet – create something bespoke for your congregation.
And if you’re a churchgoer, maybe it’s time to stop requesting the ‘greatest hits’ and present some alternatives. Or even simply (and kindly!) point out some themes and perspectives that are underrepresented in your worship times.
We can seek out new expressions of our faith.
We can push the boundaries of Christian art. We can do better than Starbucks worship.