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Weighing the Value of Mass Produced Worship Music

  • July 5, 2024
  • By Donielle
  • 0 Comments
Weighing the Value of Mass Produced Worship Music

By Summer Kazim

I stood in church, blankly staring towards the stage as the band played the bridge of “All Hail King Jesus”. Normally I would have been lifting my hands and shouting the lyrics, but today I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Why bother if this is all just meant to make me feel something? Were the lyrics even biblical? The instrumental swelled as I walked dejectedly towards the bathroom. My favorite part of the service, the worship music, had become something I dreaded. Questions filled my mind. What should I do? Find a new church? One that only plays Gregorian chant? Plug my ears during worship? Give up? Ignore my nagging conscience? One thing was clear. I needed to find answers.  

What is Worship

What is worship? The dictionary defines “worship” as the expression of praise towards a deity. The root of the word worship is worthy. The purpose of worship should be to praise God’s worthiness, as opposed to how you feel in relation to the lyrics or musicality of a song.  Worship should point to God, not back to yourself. Foot Soldiers 4 Christ says this: “Corporate worship must facilitate worship that centers itself around Jesus Christ as His Body. The focus of corporate worship is not a focus on personal experience.  We must begin to learn what it means to live and worship as the Body of Christ. Personal preference is willingly subjugated for the good of the whole body.”

T. F. Torrance describes worship perfectly: “[W]orship is the exercise of the mind in the contemplation of God in which wonder and awe play an important part in stretching or enlarging our vision, or opening up our conceptual forms to take in that which by its nature far outruns them,” Worship can of course be expressed many ways, but I am referring here to worship as praising through song or worship music. 

The Shift to Megachurches

But worship music has taken a curious turn. “A new study found that Bethel and a handful of other megachurches have cornered the market on worship music in recent years, churning out hit after hit and dominating the worship music charts. The study looked at 38 songs that made the Top 25 lists for CCLI and PraiseCharts—which track what songs are played in churches—and found that almost all had originated from one of four megachurches.” Christianity Today.

Megachurches are not bad things. I am using this term to primarily refer to Bethel, Elevation, Maverick City, and Hillsong. There are many issues with these churches as a whole, but this I will focus on the respective worship music groups of each of these churches (not address solo artists who are associated with these bands, such as Stephany Gretzinger or Brandon Lake). As an aside, while Maverick City is not associated with an established mega church, it is influenced by these mega churches both in theology and in style enough to be included in the mega-church worship music category.  I have come to believe that Christian music made by these churches should not be worshiped to, personally or corporately.  It should not be worshiped to because, in general, it cannot be properly utilized for worship, it is frequently heretical, and music produced by these churches often belittles the Trinity. 

What’s a Little Heresy?

These songs are not singing to the God of Christianity, they are designed to emotionally manipulate, and churches using this music for worship are operating under a false assumption that you can worship however you please. If someone sang Mormon hymns in your church, chances are there would be some confusion, probably some justifiably angry people and those songs would be shut down pretty quickly. Yet, at the surface level, there is not anything necessarily concerning about the lyrics of these Mormon songs.  Here’s an excerpt from a Mormon hymn: “We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven/Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!/Let glory to them in the highest be given/ Henceforth and forever, Amen and amen!”

Those lyrics may not seem outright wrong, and they even quote scripture, but you still wouldn’t sing them in your church, or put them on your favorite Christian music playlist, because they are not Christian songs. The Mormon church does not worship the true God. It’s the same with the music of Bethel, Elevation, and similar groups. The lyrics may not seem heretical or very problematic on the surface, but these churches stray too far away from the core beliefs of Christianity, and therefore cannot be considered Christian. They have redefined core elements of Christianity to the point that they are unrecognizable as Christian values at all.

Are Happy Feelings Holy Spirit Feelings?

Next, this “mega-church produced” worship music is specifically designed to emotionally manipulate its listeners, and therefore cannot and should not be worshiped to. Music is meant to move people and can be a powerful and helpful tool. There are innovations like music therapy that can help people cope with grief and trauma. But as much as the power of music has the potential to be healing and helpful, it can also be used for harm. Much of the modern worship music played in churches and on the radio is produced by these same mega churches, who purposefully engineer their music in such a way that when you listen, your brain releases certain chemicals that cause you to feel happy or sad: 

“There’s overwhelming evidence outside of Christianity that explains why these particular songs, played and sung in particular ways, using particular lyrics, have such a particular effect. Even atheists can show that playing certain styles of music will trigger a dopamine effect, giving a near-indistinguishable feeling that people say they experience when they feel God’s presence during worship…. The problem we see with these musical groups is that emotion isn’t a byproduct of truth-filled worship, but the goal. They manufacture biological responses in the audience and condition people to believe they are having a divine encounter with God.” (Ray)

Don’t Think, Just Feel

 We are told as Christians to be on our guard, always looking for ways the devil is trying to deceive us “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) This becomes a lot harder when we are being deceived in our own churches, even if it is unintentional. An article from Onward in the Faith puts it this way:

 “The audience is being told to abandon their reason, logic, and critical thinking, and replace them with the emotional experience generated through artistically-crafted music. By doing so, the audience’s mindlessness allows them to simply feel, and in feeling positive emotions they will be influenced by their conditioning to believe that God is present.”(Ray, 2024)   

Spiritual Engineers?

Most Christians want to ‘feel’ close to God. We associate the lyrics and chord progressions with the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit. This is dangerous, because the second we as humans start believing we can manufacture what only God can create, we are committing the very sin Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden. 

In the 1960s, A.W Tozer wrote that “[T]he manner in which many moderns think about worship makes me uncomfortable. Can true worship be engineered and manipulated? Do you foresee with me the time to come when churches may call the pastor a ‘spiritual engineer’?” ( What Ever Happened to Worship? 85)  While we don’t have “spiritual engineers,” we do have sound engineers, lighting crew, and people in the worship team’s ears who are ‘feeling out the crowd’ and telling them when to change to a different chord. This sounds dangerously close to Tozer’s condemning prediction.

Twaddle Lyrics

Another issue with the actual construction of the worship music these churches produce is the lyrics. Even ignoring the fact that they are theologically unsound, the lyrics are simplistic, shallow, and repetitive. A few problems arise from these lyrics. The first issue is that we don’t grow spiritually when the lyrics we sing have no deeper meaning. It’s like watching Peppa Pig and expecting the same amount of depth as Schindler’s List. If 19th-century classical British educator Charlotte Mason was alive, she would refer to this music as “insufferable twaddle” (Mason 229).

The next issue is that the repetitive nature of the music mixed with mindless lyrics creates a sort of chant, much like the pagan religions practice seeming to “offer some sort of religious experience that can almost feel out-of-body” (Ray). These bands use this same technique in their lyrics to produce that ‘Holy Spirit feeling’.

Finally, these things are an issue, because our culture, even including Bible-believing churches, is under the false impression we can worship however we please, and God will still be pleased with our worship. This is a lie. We can see from the beginning of the Bible, that God actually has very specific rules about how he is to be worshiped. Cain and Abel are prime examples of this. Cain’s worship and offering to God was not pleasing in the Lord’s sight. “You cannot worship just as you please. This is one of the tricks of the devil and a very favorite pet of unconverted poets and unconverted people with a bump of sublimity on their head but without the new birth. They teach that we just worship God any way we want to worship God, and all will be well.” (Tozer The Chief end of Man Sermon #3 Toronto 1962). 

Can I Worship as I Please?

Would members and attendees of your own church be offended or shocked if you told them that they weren’t allowed to just worship as they please?  This stems from the individualistic culture we live in that pushes the messages ‘be yourself’ and ‘follow your heart’. People are led into this lie of believing whatever our ‘heart feels is right’ is in fact correct. Alisa Childers says “If ‘my truth’ says pork is the new kale, the consequences of that idea will bear out in reality- despite how strongly I may feel about it. My feelings about bacon won’t change what it’s doing to my heart, my blood pressure, and my thighs. This is why ‘my truth’ is a myth. There is no such thing. Bacon is either good for me or it’s not.”

This idea of personal truth stemmed, in part, from the rugged American ideals expressed in celebrated American essays like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance and is actually against everything Christianity is for. It is ridiculous to try to take those Emersonian ideas and mold them into Christian worship. It can be hard to believe that any church would truly support these ideas, but many progressive and NAR churches openly support these ideals.

What is the NAR?

The NAR, or the New Apostolic Reformation, is a relatively new branch of the charismatic church. The NAR believes that prophets and apostles are still the head of the church and God is still revealing the truth to the prophets: “According to this doctrine, Christ, at his ascension into heaven, gave five offices for governing, or authoritatively governing the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Churches that desire to operate as Christ intended must have a government that includes all five officers.” They use phrases like “God is bigger than his book” to justify their ‘new’ revelation.

To train new prophets, they have schools like Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry often referred to endearingly as ‘Christian Hogwarts.’ At these schools, you can learn to ‘unlock’ your spiritual potential of prophecy and other gifts. They start sessions off with five to ten minutes of getting drunk on the Holy Spirit by taking sips out of bottles and then laughing until they can’t speak.

Fish and Bones

Another favorite phrase of the NAR is “Eat the Fish and spit out the bones” which essentially means if there is something in their teaching that violates your conscience or makes you in any way uncomfortable, just ignore that part of the teaching but listen to the rest of it. This saying is dangerous for a few reasons.

The first issue is that all their teaching is laced with heresy, so in reality, the proper saying would be “drink the poisoned beverage, but spit out the poison.” That seems a lot harder to do, and even if one could “spit out the poison”, that does not eliminate the issue. The Bible says: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). It doesn’t say, “If something is questionable but still has some good to it, think about such things.” The NAR is quite fond of half-truths like these and applies the same thinking to their prophecies. They say that if one of their ‘prophets’ gets something wrong, it’s okay because they might get it right next time.

No Negativity!

Their prophets are also trained to never prophesy anything negative. But this training goes directly against the duty of the prophets of the Bible. The Bible is very clear that if someone is a true prophet, what they say will come to pass, and more often than not biblical prophecy was warning people of their impending doom, not giving them happy little predictions. The Bible actually condemns false prophets and teachers: 

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them, the way of truth will be blasphemed.  And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-4).

Should we be Singing Bethel Worship Music?

The Bible does not speak in half-truths. In fact, it condemns half-truths as lies. So by listening to the worship music produced by these NAR churches you are listening to and promoting these half-truths. The NAR considers itself the fifth branch of Christianity, along with the Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Western Orthodox branches. Bethel is the main worship group attached to the NAR. Churches like Elevation, Hillsong, and others lean more toward another popular heresy, Progressive Christianity. 

 Progressive Christianity is more of a movement than a false branch of Christianity, but it is growing rapidly in America. Progressive Christianity is a mix of prosperity gospel and the woke agenda. They believe you can ‘reconstruct’ your faith to include only what you feel like including. Many mega-churches fall into the category of Progressive Christianity simply because it sells better. People do not want to have to deal with the nitty-gritty truths of Christianity. Just this past Easter, Elevation Church put out a statement saying that they were not going to use words like “the blood of Jesus”, “Calvary” or “resurrection” in their church invitations so as not to make newcomers feel like outsiders.  The integrity of a church that is not willing to make people feel uncomfortable must be questioned. Should we be singing the worship music such a church produces?

Watery Gospel

The Bible should make one uncomfortable with one’s sin: “[B]ut we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). If these churches are telling people that the gospel is easy and fun to follow, they are lying. Apologist Alisa Childers, who once had her faith severely shaken after attending a Progressive Church, explains that “Progressive Christians tend to avoid absolutes and are typically not united around creeds or belief statements. In fact, Progressive blogger John Pavlovitz wrote that in Progressive Christianity there are ‘no sacred cows’”.  In other words, there are no religious expectations that are unchangeable. This is the same ideal that Elevation put into practice with their statement on Easter. They tried to make Christianity easier to swallow, and in doing so diluted the truth of the Gospel. 

Funding Heresy

Listening to and playing these songs in the church and the home, not only affects your faith but financially supports heresy. These churches are not referred to as mega-churches for no reason. Hundreds of thousands of people attend them weekly, and their profits are through the roof.  When your church plays a song by any of these bands, they are paying the record label money. The performance rights of each song have to be individually purchased by every church that plays them and can cost anywhere between two hundred and a thousand dollars per song. According to published non-profit tax information, in 2022, Bethel Music made $4,978,169.00 in royalties alone. That is only counting profits from your churches paying them to play their music.

Additionally, each time you play music by any of these bands on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, or any other streaming platform, you are giving even more money to these organizations. The frightening part is, no one knows where most of this money is going. Because these bands function through churches or non-profits, they are required to track their earnings but not their spending. Christians are giving money to heretical churches without having any clue what it is being used for. 

Why Do I Call it Heresy?

At this point, it is necessary to understand why these churches are being referred to as heretical. Heresy is not a light accusation, but these churches do cross the line from denominational differences of opinion to blasphemy. A. W. Tozer defines a heretic not as “a man who denies all of the truth… [but] just a very persnickety man who picks out what he likes and rejects the rest. Heresy means I take what I like and I reject what I don’t like” (The Chief End of Man Sermon #3 Toronto 1962). That is by definition what both NAR and Progressive Christianity are doing. They are taking bits and pieces of the Bible that they like and rejecting the rest.  

Disrespecting the Trinity

The worship music of these heretical mega-churches and movements belittles the Holy Trinity. It does this by referring to Jesus as they would a human lover, acting like the Holy Spirit is a frightened kitten, and treating God like He exists for them, not the other way around. 

Obviously, like most perverted things, the idea that Jesus is like a human lover is based somewhat on biblical truth. The Bible uses the husband and wife analogy to describe Christ and the Church: “For a man must leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Jesus stoops to humble himself to us and we are honored by this.

The issue with treating Jesus like a human lover is that it takes away from the complexity of His love and sacrifice for us, and assumes we can understand the depth of Jesus’ love for us. These lyrics court Christ “with a Familiarity that reveals a total ignorance of who He is. It is not the revenant intimacy of the adoring saint, but the impudent familiarity of the carnal lover” (Tozer, Born After Midnight 38).

Is it Taylor Swift or Bethel Music?

This can be illustrated through a little game called “Taylor Swift or Bethel?”. The premise is simple: look at two different song lyrics, and decide which one you think is Taylor Swift singing about her boyfriend – or ex-boyfriend – and which one is Bethel singing about God. 

First up is: 

  1. “I don’t wanna look at anything else now that I saw you, I don’t wanna think of anything else now that I thought of you” 
  2. “Your love is wild, Your love is wild for me It isn’t shy, it’s unashamed. Your love is proud to be seen with me.”

If you guessed Taylor Swift for the second one, you would be wrong. Those are lyrics from Pieces by Bethel Music.

Round Two

You might still be thinking, maybe that example was just particularly bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s a common theme. Let’s test it out and try a couple more:

  1. “And, oh, I will lock our eyes with the One who’s chosen me The One who set my feet to dancing Oh, we dance”
  2. “And all at once, you are the one I have been waiting for King of my heart, body, and soul.”

If you guessed that the first was Bethel, you would be correct. Next is:

  1. “And I don’t try to hide my tears My secrets or my deepest fears Through it all, nobody gets me like you do.”
  2. “Let go of your heart Let go of your head and feel it, feel it now.”

That’s right! The first one is Taylor! The second is from I Love Your Presence by Bethel. Let’s do one more to be sure. 

  1. “And Everything has changed all I know is a newfound grace, all my days to know your face.” 
  2. “Here is all my love It’s Yours, no conditions, When You pull me close No, I won’t resist.”

Lewis Capaldi or Maverick City?

If you guessed that the first was Taylor, you are correct. But this phenomenon does not only occur in the music of Bethel and Taylor Swift. Which one of the following is a lyric from a Lewis Capaldi song, and which is a Maverick City song? 

  1. “I know I’ve come so far But got so far to go And with these brand-new scars And this broken heart It’s hard to really know If there’s a reason.”
  1. “This is you, this is me, this is all we need. Is it true? My faith is shaken, but I still believe” 

The first song was by Maverick City, and the second by Capaldi.

The Jesus of Revelation

The real issue here is that we assume that we can treat God the way he acts towards us. In heaven, the angels and saints aren’t cuddled up to God singing him love songs. They are bowed down praising him, singing  “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). Yes, our God is a personal God who loves us, but He still must be treated with all reverence, not however we please. Tozer puts it this way:

“Many of our popular songs are choruses in praise of Christ are hollow and unconvincing. Some are even shocking in their endearments and strike a reverent soul as being a kind of flattery offered to One with whom neither composer nor singer is acquainted. The whole thing is the mood of the love ditty, the only difference being the substitution of the name of Christ for that of the earthly lover.” (That Incredible Christian 129) 

Holy Spirit or Fuzzy Animal?

Next, they treat the Holy Spirit like a frightened little kitten. If you listen to the lyrics of most mega-church-produced songs, they repeat over and over again phrases like, ‘Come holy Spirit come’ or ‘our hearts are open, come into this place.’ While we are not forbidden to call on the Holy Spirit – though every prayer in the Bible is addressed to God the Father or Jesus the Son – It is not like a little scared animal in the corner that we can persuade to come sit on our laps if we call for it in just the right way. The Bible clearly states that “[t]o each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

The Holy Spirit cannot be coaxed into a room, nor can He be manifested. Often at the concerts of these mega-church bands, they will try to ‘fake’ the Holy Spirit by using fog machines or putting glitter in air vents so it sprinkles over the audience when the air conditioning turns on. This is a dangerous and even blasphemous practice. The Holy Spirit does not need our help to do anything, and He certainly doesn’t need us to fake Him into existence.

Like a Wind Turbine?

In these problematic churches, there is also an elevation of the Holy Spirit above the other members of the Godhead. Since the Holy Spirit is seen as the most powerful member to them, they praise Him as more important than the other two figures of the Trinity. What they actually mean is that they believe the Holy Spirit does the most for them whether healing, providing, or bringing victory. Miracles are credited to the Spirit, and thus He is singled out as the One sought after. The human lust for power has contaminated what should be a pursuit of holiness and taken on a pseudo-spiritual veneer. The real concern is now being healthy and happy. They believe they can harness the power of the Holy Spirit like it is some sort of wind turbine that generates power for a city.

The Difference Between Heaven and Hell

The last member of the God-head they belittle is the Father. If you look at almost every worship song by the bands this thesis is focused on, you will notice that the lyrics are all extremely ‘me-focused’. They are all concerned with how you feel about God and not concerned with actually praising the God who created the universe. Tozer speaks of a past “day when men sang Holy Holy Holy…and… talked objectively about the greatness of God. Then we backslid into that gutter where we still are where everything is about ‘I’. ‘I’m so happy’… ‘I’m so nice’, always I. The difference between Heaven and Hell is the difference between God and I.”

Another result of these bands’ belittlement of God is a lack of wonder and awe. We live in a day and age where we know so much and can explain so many wondrous things through science and the internet, that we lose our childlike sense of awe and wonder. We no longer gaze at the stars and wonder how they got there. Instead, we ask how close to them we can get. We no longer wonder how far the East is from the West. We carefully plot out longitude and latitude lines.

Awe is a constant theme throughout the Psalms. David exclaims to the Lord, “The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8). How many Hillsong songs talk about the awe of God? Not many. Where has our awe gone? Has God become less awesome, or have we become less aware of his awe? God has become a tool in the music of these churches.

The Other Side

Now, as with any issue, there is another side to the argument. With all the emphasis on ‘spiritual experience’ and the danger that goes along with it, it is easy to get scared and run too far to the other extreme of legalism and quenching of the Holy Spirit, which can be just as dangerous. Shutting down the Holy Spirit poses a significant risk of damaging a person’s relationship with God and hindering their spiritual growth. It’s important to understand that these new movements are not new threats and there is no reason to be afraid of them.

A Really Old Heresy

The issue of spiritual abuse is not a new one – in fact, one of the oldest creeds of the Christian church was written because of this issue. Around 325 BC, a false theologian named Arian started preaching some very heretical beliefs and gained quite a bit of popularity. Much like the NAR, he claimed that Jesus was created, as opposed to always existing. Arian also denied the deity of the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed was written to help believers understand the true pillars of Christianity and stand up to heresy. As frightening as these large heretical churches can seem, there is no reason to revert to legalism or avoid talking about the Holy Spirit and similar topics. That’s exactly what Satan wants Christians to do.

Instead, Christians ought to be mindful of the music they listen to and examine everything they hear to see if it holds up to Scripture. Music has the unique ability to penetrate hearts and minds, and as such it is of utmost importance that the music you are worshiping to is music that is truly glorifying God and fulfilling the purpose it was made for. Warren Wiersbe says:

 “When you consider all of the words used for worship in both the Old and New Testaments, and when you put the meanings together, you find that worship involves both attitudes (awe, reverence, respect) and actions (bowing, praising, serving). It is both a subjective experience and an objective activity. Worship is not an unexpressed feeling, nor is it an empty formality. True worship is balanced and involves the mind, the emotions, and the will. It must be intelligent; it must reach deep within and be motivated by love; and it must lead to obedient actions that glorify God.” 

The Big Question

Here is the question to ask ourselves: Is the worship music mass-produced by Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong, Maverick City, and others intelligent? Is it motivated by love? Does it lead to obedient actions that glorify God? 

Worship music produced by mega-churches such as Bethel, Elevation, Hillsong, Maverick City, and others should not be used for worship either personally or corporately because it cannot be properly utilized for worship, it is heretical, and it belittles the Trinity. As I sat in that bathroom at church and despaired over the music being played, I realized something: sitting in the bathroom at my church despairing over the music wasn’t going to change the music being played. We serve a God who turns darkness into light. We serve a God who redeems the unredeemable.

 I should have been far from despairing in that bathroom. I should have been rejoicing over the opportunity to pray for a true awakening and the conviction in my own church, and churches everywhere, to become a people of true worship. So at the risk of being despised for my youth, and humbly acknowledging my inexperience at life, I respectfully ask my brothers and sisters in Christ, of all ages and denominations, to give an ear to my thoughts and my research. To not share the truth would be wrong.

Pivec, Holly, and R. Douglas Geivett.  Counterfeit Kingdom: The Dangers of New Revelation, New Prophets, and New Age Practices in the Church. P. 79 B&H Publishing Group, 2022.

Tozer, Aiden Wilson. That Incredible Christian. P. 129 Bromley, Kent : OM Publishing, 1989, reprinted 1991., 1989.

Burns, Ray. “Why Churches Must Avoid Music From Bethel, Hillsong, and Elevation (Exploring the Worship Music Debate, Part 2).” Onward in the Faith, 25 Jan. 2024, onwardinthefaith.com/why-churches-must-avoid-music-from-bethel-hillsong-and-elevation-exploring-the-worship-music-debate-part-2.

By Donielle, July 5, 2024
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