Bono to Worship Leaders: ‘Write Honest Worship Songs’

U2 lead singer Bono minced few words when he criticized contemporary worship leaders who write their own worship songs.

If you’ve read my faith-related posts for a while, you know that I prefer “contemporary” worship services to the older, slower-paced “traditional” services. If I’m completely honest — and I try to be whenever possible — it may well be at least in part a function of a shortened attention span.

For a time years ago, I attended a church in Virginia whose pastor did an excellent job of putting her messages in contemporary terms and applying Biblical concepts to today’s busy world. But the music was sung by a choir with a median age of about 60 and the sole music instrument was a pipe organ. Honestly, I don’t think they even had a piano.

They seemed to slow even the already-slowest tempo hymns, and hung on the last note of each stanza until people would look up to see what was wrong.

Maybe no one else on the planet has a brain that works the way I do, but this kind of thing just pulls me out of the moment. It makes me less aware of what I’m singing and more aware of the annoying way it’s being sung.

That’s not what a church music is supposed to do, is it?

Another of my annoyances with the old hymns is the “compressed” words like “hev’n” for heaven. These compressions happen because the words don’t fit the melodies…and whoever decided to match lyrics to music didn’t seem to be bothered by this fact.

But contemporary worship songs these days are far from perfect.

If the traditional musical fare suffers from too many words, contemporary songs suffer from too few. Too many of today’s modern worship songs rely on too much repetition. My least favorite worship song so far, and I apologize to whoever wrote it and to anyone who might love the song, is a piece called “Oceans.”

If you love the song, I’m sorry: I don’t mean to offend you or your choice in worship songs. It is a nice melody. Even the lyrics aren’t bad.

The issue with this song is that the song lasts entirely too long, especially when you consider the amount of lyrics it has. In fact, there’s a chorus that is repeated, if memory serves, at least six times. It might be eight. When you’re sitting through it, it feels like it’s about twenty.

If the repetition isn’t bad enough, there’s the building rhythm clearly designed to manufacture this dramatic moment that, by the time you reach it, it’s dramatic not so much because of what’s being communicated but because you’re finally done with repeating that chorus.

But it’s not the only song that repeats too much too often. For whatever reason, that one just happens to stand out to me.

Just like the performance of some of those old-fashioned hymns that seem to hang on far too long at odd moments, the repetition itself pulls me out of what otherwise might be a better worship moment. (Maybe I get this from my mom: she has a major thing about songs that repeat the same lyrics over and over again!)

Bono’s worship song gripe

Bono, on the other hand, has an even bigger problem with today’s worship songs. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a much more important complaint.

During a conversation with Eugene Peterson, the Bible scholar who created The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible that puts things in modern language, the two talked about the honesty of translating the Bible.

That’s when Bono, according to Premiere Christianity, said this:

I would love [it] if this conversation would inspire people who are writing these beautiful gospel songs [to] write a song about their bad marriage. Write a song about how they’re p***** off at the government. That’s what God wants from you: the truth.

Bono told Peterson he is “suspicious” of Christians because of the lack of realism.

I certainly agree that the appearance of a Pollyanna-style existence as depicted in worship songs today is misleading — Christians are not, anywhere in the Bible, promised a worry-free, grief-free, trouble-free life just because they believe.

I suppose in my case I tire so easily of the mechanics of the songs themselves that I miss the lyrics that never seem to deal with today’s issues.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I have the slightest problem with praising God. But I do agree that it feels a bit dishonest to portray our relationship with God through music as one in which there is never any strife.

God certainly never promised His believers a strife-free life. Consider John 16:33:

I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

Some worship leaders, I have no doubt, would dismiss Bono’s complaint on the grounds he’s not Biblically qualified to speak to what worship songs should or shouldn’t be.

But that’s the whole point: if he’s not as “Biblically qualified” as the worship song writers, he’s listening to the songs the way the song writer’s audience is. If he thinks the music is dishonest, he can’t be the only one who does.

That alone, one might expect, would give a writer of worship songs pause.

If it doesn’t, that’s an even bigger problem worth considering.

Which type of church music do you prefer: the older hymns or the newer worship songs?

1 Comment

  1. I have been listening to U2 since 1980, when I was 12 and their first album, Boy, was released.
    If there are any musicians I love utterly, it’s these four men! They sing wonderful songs, with great messages, and are completely honest and up front about their beliefs, struggles, accomplishments sheets, etc.. I admire them so much for this.
    Bono is right. More meat, more meaning. None of this perfection that just isn’t the case. Life is all about the ups and downs, not just the high points. That, by divination, comes after life.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.