Okay! This post is mostly about contemporary worship (by which I mean the stuff you hear that sounds kind of jazzy or bluesy or rock-influenced in church) but I believe lots of the cautions and concerns are also present and relevant in the context of, say, picking the correct hymn for an old-school Baptist church or the correct Alleluia for a Catholic Parish during Lent...
Just kidding, there are no Alleluias in a Catholic Parish during Lent. But that still applies any other time of year.
I'm going to be picky and talk about audible, musical worship. That is, songs, especially songs intended to be sung in a Christian religious tradition by large numbers of people in reverence and reference to the Divine. This has of course been done by me in the past, but not here! I should note here: Anything you listen to on your free time? That's not my business or the business of many, if any, theologians. The content of the music as far as I'm concerned is subject to as rigorous a theological review as you see fit, but if you find yourself concerned about what a song is teaching you, it's highly recommended that you do do some review with respect to the author's intent and the spiritual effect it has on you to contemplate and sing those words. But here is a different story. I am discussing the content of songs put up for use by some kind of parish or congregation. That is, lyrics (and music) that a congregation will be singing and/or contemplating in the course of any kind of officially sanctioned worship-event, ranging from the Catholic mass to the Protestant youth-group worship night. I am assuming without proof that the acts of all worship leaders, music arrangers, liturgists, etc., are being carried out with the honest intent and good faith effort of drawing people closer to God. As such, their intent is not on trial here and neither are they. I am discussing the standards I am coming to hold in part of personal preference but also of the effect I think it might have, spiritually, on the persons doing the singing or hearing what is being sung and played!
My Perhaps Unreasonable or Badly-Reasoned Beliefs
1. Contemporary worship should avoid musical things which do little but distract from contemplation or audible worship of God. This is partly a subjective thing and the individual worshiper's experience will vary! But essentially I believe that any group of worship leaders, whether instrumentalists or singers, ought to be able to say that they are, in intent and effect, pointing people to God with their worship. This applies to Latin-mass choirs and teenagers with guitars alike.* If something, through no fault of the congregants, is causing them consistently to become overly distracted from worship and contemplation, then something is wrong. In my subjective experience this tends to include any guitar solo longer than four bars, or vocalists who drag out or syncopate vocal lines in completely unnecessary and hard-to-sing fashions.
2. Contemporary worship should avoid theological things which plant bad messages in the minds of congregants. First and foremost this means avoid heresy. This isn't that hard to do. Just keep a copy of the Nicene Creed with you when you examine the songs you're singing, and if something seems fishy when you put it against that, don't use it! It is also my belief that as a matter of taste, if not responsibility, the worship a given congregation is asked to sing or even to listen to ought to reflect the theological teachings of the church it is sung in. That is, a Wesleyan church ought not to sing hymns which teach on sovereignty to the detriment of the concept of man's free will, and a Calvinist church should not be singing hymns which really speak of human choice. This paragraph ties with #3, which is that...
3. Contemporary worship should avoid things which confuse the congregation on a spiritual level. This includes to my mind putting an excess emphasis on feeling with respect to God. This is dangerous because in one's relationship with God as in all others, feelings tend to come and go, and love needs to be based on something greater than how we 'feel' about or with God; there ought to be a basis in Truth and love, and a conscious choice to serve our God. All we have to do to see what happens when we think about God in terms of just our feelings is look at this graph:
Okay, so that was probably just a little bit darkly humored for my purposes. But frankly, having seen it happen to others and having had it happen (in part) to me, I cannot stress this enough: I have very little tolerance for music and worship practices that place significant importance on how one "feels" about one's relationship with God. I have learned the hard way that feelings aren't always trustworthy. That doesn't mean they aren't ever to be used as a guide, but they are not the guide and music presenting them as a key component of worship is not tolerable to me.
This does not mean I would ever push for an elimination of emotion or feeling from worship. I have enjoyed passionate worship sessions like many of the other people in the Church that I know; I have known how it feels to be kind of "high on the Spirit." It's a good feeling. But sometimes we get those experiences without the qualification that one's feelings are not the ultimate measure of one's relationship with God, via the music, the way the music is used, or the pulpit. And that does in my mind constitute a theological and pastoral problem.
4. The emotional-worship tack links to the notion of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" song: the songs which seem to provide little indication that they are really addressed to God rather than to one's significant other. Truth be told I am sure there is much to be had in the God-as-lover analogy, but sometimes there isn't enough clarification given of who, exactly, the congregation is singing to.
5. This is more of an "ought" than a "what's wrong." Songs ought to express some truth about God. Some kind of capital-T Truth. It need not be the majority of the song, even, but something. This is partly a personal-taste thing, as a "what You've done for me" sort of song is in my book perfectly acceptable technically, at least in certain settings, even if it only conveys the minimum of theology implied in that statement. But it still ought to convey some Truth, and I generally prefer that it provide at least opportunity for a meditation on that Truth for persons like myself who, for partially subjective reasons, do not necessarily appreciate emotionally charged worship as much anymore.
What Contemporary Worship Songs Do Do
Well, there is one thing that they definitely do do correctly. They get people involved in singing. And in large amounts they get people involved in singing the Truth, and to the Truth. They're catchy, and they're easy enough to sing that even the most horrid of voices can join with the angelic choirs. This in my mind does constitute a good place for grace to work. I should note that many of the worship songs I have heard, sung, and contemplated, from various settings of worship, didn't have any of the problems I've described in writing or in execution; while I am not sure where the majority lies, it does speak well of the liturgists and worship leaders I have experienced that the definite majority of these songs that I have experienced have been in writing and in execution theologically and pastorally sound. That is my subjective experience and it may not be the same as yours, but in this post I have highlighted some things I think could be done better in contemporary worship music; it was only fair, if not a demand of Christian charity, that I note my overwhelmingly positive personal experience.
In conclusion, I do not think that doing better would necessarily involve changing it to be totally not-what-it-is in any and all circumstances. I think rather that this would involve smoothing off theological and pastoral rough-edges, making sure that the message sent in lyric and music and presentation is sound. This obviously looks different depending on the exact Christian tradition, but I believe it to be a worthwhile project, and one that would lend a greater coherence and consistency to the church.
* If a Protestant youth-group teenager finds himself at a Latin mass, or a Catholic youth-group leader usually adjusted to said Mass finds himself listening to youth guitar-and-drums worship on a Wednesday night, and they are distracted, it is not necessarily the choice of music or language that is here at fault. Obviously part of the responsibility is assigned to the worshiper to make necessary adjustments to an environment in which they choose to worship; that is, it is their responsibility to adjust to those elements which they find distracting. It is also their responsibility to make sure that if they are in more participation-based (youth group) or more contemplation-based settings (sung Latin mass, but that may be so to me mostly due to my not knowing Latin), that these settings will help them worship, rather than distract.