I still remember a particular summer morning. Rob and I had discovered the Orthodox Church a few months earlier, toward the end of Great Lent, and had begun attending OCA services and talking to people from the parish during coffee hour. The Orthodox Christian Church was ancient but very new to me, and I was intrigued, edified by her consistent teachings, and drawn by the palpable sense of holiness in the services.
As I sat at the edge of my backyard, slathered in sunscreen and yanking weeds from under the shrubs, I was thinking about the beauty of the Divine Liturgy. I wanted to sing an Orthodox hymn to myself while pulling out a jungle of bindweed by the roots, but I couldn’t remember anything. None of the hymns were particularly hummable. The melodies contained no “hook” to penetrate my brain, and there was very little repetition to drill words into my head, except for the “Lord have mercys” sprinkled throughout the service.
I had grown up with the United Methodist hymnal, and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” were still tucked in the recesses of my mind, along with various contemporary Christian songs.
I grasped for a hymn, and all I could remember was “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Savior, save us.” Well, that wasn’t much. I wasn’t really motivated to repeat that dozens of times while I battled the bindweed.
Surrounded by Popular Music—Except at Church
All of us, whether cradle Orthodox, inquirers, or converts, are surrounded by pop music as soon as we step outside the parish walls. We listen to Muzak involuntarily, and for our voluntary listening habits, we have endless choices at our fingertips. We can surround ourselves with jazz—cool, Kansas City, swing, or bebop—metal, reggae, K-pop, dance pop, disco, or funk. And if we have really good taste, ’70s rock.
In our noisy, music-saturated modern contexts, the music of the historic Church sounds foreign. The melodies are unfamiliar and, at least for me, difficult to remember. I recognize most of the eight tones, but they haven’t really made a home in my heart. I wrestled with this foreignness for many years. I had a hard time relating to liturgical music. I knew it was good for me, like spinach, and definitely substantive, like spinach. And, like spinach, I enjoyed it, but only in small quantities—not as part of my daily diet.
Of course, if the real issue with worship is musical style, there are plenty of churches that feature pop music with religious lyrics. But I knew from my own experience that the pop approach to worship music is problematic on many levels, and the problems have only gotten worse since I left the Protestant world.
The Changing Nature of Worship Music in the West
Journalist Terry Mattingly, who has written the syndicated “On Religion” column for decades—and who is now, by the way, an Orthodox Christian—published a column on April 3, 2023, called “So your praise band is rockin’—but why has the congregation stopped singing?” In it, he writes about the current state of worship music in many nondenominational churches:
In the latest wrinkle in what researchers have long called the “worship wars,” some church leaders are asking a blunt question about the decision to trade traditional hymnals for contemporary Christian music. That question: Has the typical Sunday service become a semi-professional concert instead of a communal worship experience for all believers?
I’m a little surprised that this is a new question. By the time Rob and I left the Protestant world almost fifteen years ago, a performing praise band with lyrics projected on the screen was the norm at our church and at others around us.
But the situation has continued changing and devolving as the years go by. Mattingly writes that recently one Southern Baptist “worship ministry strategist” (yes, that’s a thing) received a letter from a disenchanted believer. “After four weeks of visiting a church, the writer noted that he was constantly distracted during worship by ‘haze machines,’ ‘programmable lights that blind the audience,’ [and] concert-level darkness in the auditorium.” The writer stated,
Very few in the audience seem to know the songs either; indeed as we looked around during one of the songs, we did not see one person singing—not one. . . . Driving home, my wife indicated that the excessive loudness was starting to cause some serious anxiety. Having ear plugs available in the lobby is a sure sign there might be a problem.
I am not making this stuff up. I have friends who attend churches like this. When I first heard of the use of smoke machines during services, I was shocked. If churches want smoke, I have a suggestion: incense. It’s actually a biblical practice, and it smells way better. But it does look Catholic, which is probably why it’s a no-go.
Reports of the loud volumes in churches also shocked me initially, but by now I’m pretty shock-proof. The latest innovation, that of darkening the actual worship space, puts the focus on the performers onstage and eliminates any sense of community by literally leaving people in the dark.
All I can do at this point is roll my eyes. For years many people have described nondenominational worship as “a concert and a lecture,” but evidently the “concert” part has become very literal. I almost expect to hear about some congregants bringing coolers of beer while others light up a joint. Hey, it’s possible. I live in Colorado, where we have an International Church of Cannabis in Denver.
Emotion or Liturgy?
A really good concert, whether a symphony or a rock band, takes the audience on an emotional journey, often engaging multiple senses with the use of mood lighting or projected images along with the music. And in church services, the use of contemporary Christian music, often abbreviated as CCM, also takes participants on an emotional journey.
The object of attention in various musical experiences may differ—God, or the performing artist, or the story in the song—but the feelings that are stirred up are virtually the same: Love, defined as sentimental feelings, a sense of spiritual or emotional uplift (and can I really tell the difference between the two?), a sense of community with the people around us who are also enjoying the experience.
In short, both the secular and religious concerts deal in catharsis. Catharsis is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the purification or purgation of the emotions . . . primarily through art.” It is also described as “any purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal or a satisfying release from tension.”
The actor Brad Pitt noticed the similarity of these experiences early in his life. In an interview with Parade magazine when he was 43 years old, he said he had what he called “crises of faith” in high school. “I’d go to Christian revivals and be moved by the Holy Spirit, and I’d go to rock concerts and feel the same fervor,” he said. “Then I’d be told, ‘That’s the Devil’s music! Don’t partake in that!’ I wanted to experience things religion said not to experience.” And since his understanding of Christian faith was mainly a list of don’ts, he dropped it.
In their wonderful book, Orthodox Worship: A Living Continuity with the Synagogue, the Temple, and the Early Church, authors Benjamin D. Williams and Harold B. Anstall write,
Historically, liturgical services have by definition been sung services. The clergy and people perform the work of worship and the text is either chanted or sung by the celebrant or antiphonally between him and the congregation. [Pay special attention to this next sentence:] Without a liturgical theology and liturgical structure, music becomes an aesthetic or emotional experience with a religious text. (p. 87, emphasis mine)
I can attest to this. The emotional approach to worship had increasingly bothered me on my journey to Orthodox Christianity. I was disturbed that praise song lyrics were often more about my feelings for God rather than God Himself.
About five years ago a friend of mine who attended a concert-style nondenominational church complained about the loudness of the music and especially the lyrics of one particular song from the previous Sunday, from the group Jesus Culture. The song, called “Heaven Meets Earth Like a Sloppy Wet Kiss”—and unfortunately, no, I’m not making this up either—includes the following lyrics:
We are His portion and He is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking (ha ha)
So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
when I think about the way
He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves us
Oh how He loves
Yeah He loves us
Ummm . . . I have a few questions. What is being said here, really? What’s with the “ha ha”? If “my heart turns violently inside of my chest,” am I having a heart attack?
Okay, I admit I am picking some really low-hanging fruit by choosing this song. But the fact is, it is actually used in worship services. Or perhaps I should say “was used”—another problem with contemporary worship is the frequent rotation of new songs, much like the Top 40 radio charts back in the day.
A more sobering question is, What kind of spiritual formation is going on with a steady diet of this and other contemporary songs?
The preoccupation with feelings and emotional language is real. In my heterodox past I attended services and conferences where the leaders actively tried to whip up emotion among the congregation. These were good and sincere ministers, but fervor, with its intensity of emotion and worshipful feelings, was considered to be evidence of commitment to Christ. I find this view to be highly debatable, because feelings of fervor cannot last or sustain us, and they do not necessarily translate to real-world obedience to Christ.
Who Is Checking the Theology of Contemporary Christian Songs?
I sometimes listen to gospel music while I drive. It’s joyful and upbeat. So please understand that I’m not saying that all CCM or gospel is bad. But it’s significant that I like it because of the way it makes me feel, which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with actual worship or teaching.
Beyond the emotionalism, another issue with pop-style music in churches is its theology. The Southern Baptist leader in Mattingly’s article noted that “for generations, most Protestant worship music came from hymnals that developed over time, shaped by denominational leaders that weighed whether these songs and anthems were ‘theologically sound’ and familiar to most worshippers.”
I grew up with these types of vetted hymns. In fact, before Christian radio invaded church services, I remember hymnal debates—a precursor to the worship wars—with some camps wanting to remove gendered language and others wanting to entirely remove hymns with warfare imagery, such as that classic “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Way back then, I rolled my eyes at the lack of understanding of metaphor and of spiritual warfare. But, at least, someone was in charge and taking words seriously.
Most of the songs used in contemporary worship are not written by trained ministers or theologians. They are written by artists from a variety of heterodox backgrounds who are often more poetic than doctrinal in their lyrics.
This is an area where Orthodox Christians need to be careful and discerning in our listening habits outside of the parish. Some of my Orthodox friends enjoy listening to Christian radio because the songs are uplifting and point their thoughts to Christ. But we need to be aware that many of the deeper CCM lyrics assume Reformed theology, substitutionary atonement, and other teachings that deviate from the Ancient Church.
For example, about five years ago, Pascha was a week after Western Easter, so I decided to listen to Christian radio while driving on Good Friday. A song came on, serious and appropriate for the day, that meditated on the Crucifixion. The lyrics described the Son of God being “murdered on a Cross.” Murdered? The lyrics showed no understanding of Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice, much less Roman execution. I turned off the radio, and that was pretty much my last foray into CCM.
The song was written, performed, engineered, and produced by people who interpret the Bible for themselves, and this lack of any theological rigor—much less Orthodox training—often shows. I don’t know these people, and I don’t know what they believe. I’m not trying to be a curmudgeon here; I’m trying to be watchful.
After surveying the landscape, I would submit to you that much of modern “worship” —and at this point, I’m putting “worship” in quotes— is basically theater, with its emphasis on presentation and catharsis. I am not questioning anyone’s sincerity; I am simply concerned about the purpose of the style, lyrics, and atmosphere. The experience is meant to touch our emotions and to set a mood. It looks, feels, and sounds very much like the world.
But we don’t need our worship to be like the world. We need it to be otherworldly, pointing us to a different Kingdom in every way.
Once again, I get the sneaking suspicion that the ancient Church knows what she is doing.
Anstall and Williams write that “much of Western Christianity is no longer liturgical. Western Christians no longer worship as the early Church did.” One doesn’t need to be a scholar to see this; the radical changes in worship practices that have occurred just in my lifetime are evidence.
Many of my faithful Christians friends have been spoonfed emotion-driven, vague, and lovey-dovey lyrics about God. I will never forget a teenage inquirer a few years ago asking me, “What’s a Trinity?” In contrast, Williams and Anstall write,
The average Orthodox Christian knows a great deal about his or her faith. Why? Because they worship liturgically. They say what they believe. They hear what they believe. Their worship is liturgical and substantive. They hear it, say it, see it, feel it, and smell it. And because of this it is a part of them, and they know it. . . . Liturgical worship makes itself a part of your being and thus serves as a point of departure to deeper communion with God. (p. 191)
The senses are a part of worship in the Orthodox Church, but the incorporation of sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch has history and purpose. The Church does not cherry-pick worship techniques and innovations from the world’s marketplace. The smoke of incense rises in our services because it is in the Bible: in the worship of the tabernacle and the temple, and in the Book of Revelation. The taste of the Eucharist is the highlight of the Divine Liturgy, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ into our own bodies. In our lighting system, old-school candles are prominent because they remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, and He has called us also to be “the light of the world” and “a city that is set on a hill” (Matt. 5:14). The words of our hymns are time-tested, theologically approved within a Church that is guided by bishops who are not allowed to “innovate” in terms of theology, and those words are packed with meaning.
Regarding the music of Orthodox worship, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica writes in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:
When the chanting is as beautiful as this, we are freed from all our cares and our interest for earthly things and we ascend into eternity with the Lord, His angels, and the saints, where our true Fatherland and our Kingdom is. (p.163)
Hmm. “Freed from all our cares and our interest for earthly things.” His words echo those of the Cherubic Hymn as we prepare our hearts to receive the Eucharist: “Let us lay aside every earthly care, that we may receive the King of all.”
There is something about this hymn that makes me stop and listen. The music has no beat, and it doesn’t sound like anything on pop radio. Thank God. I don’t know the name of the choir that graciously allows Ancient Faith Radio to use their music, but I can tell this is a parish choir, not a professional one. Their blend is not perfect. Yet, with their offering of their voices and hearts, they invite us, as Elder Thaddeus says, to “ascend into eternity with the Lord, His angels, and the saints.”
My guess is that this choir stands in the back of the nave, or off to the side. They are not on a stage, and they are not the center of attention. They lead us in worship as we all face the altar and the icons of Christ, His mother, and the saints.
We can glance around during this hymn and see our brothers and sisters, because we are standing together in the light, even if the light is the soft glow of vigil lamps. We are surrounded by our unseen brothers and sisters too, along with the angels. We participate together in the ongoing heavenly worship. The hymns, prayers, and responses point us to another Kingdom. It is not of this world, and it shouldn’t sound worldly.
The message of the Cherubic Hymn is an exhortation, meaning that it strongly urges, advises, or preaches. The words call us to set aside our worldly concerns so that we will be ready to receive the King Himself in the Eucharist.
The hymn is indifferent to my emotions. It doesn’t ask me to feel anything. It doesn’t urge me to feel excited about God or to measure my love for Him by emotional intensity. My response to the exhortation and the beauty of the chant may be to feel humbled or to feel renewed awe at the mystery of the Eucharist, but my response is not the focus.
My personal worship preferences and my love of ’70s rock are irrelevant here, because the Divine Liturgy is not about me. Matins and Vespers are not about me. The services are meant to orient me not to this world and its passing musical fads, but to the Kingdom of God.
I attend a GOA parish, and honestly, Byzantine chant will never be my jam. I actually prefer the beautiful Antiochian melodies and the Russian harmonies, which are more comfortable to my Western ears.
Liturgical chant from any jurisdiction does not, and never will, sound like the popular music. It’s not “seeker friendly.” And, now that I’m further along my Orthodox journey, I’m really happy about that.
Earlier I complained that liturgical music is unfamiliar and, at least for me, not very memorable or hummable. But . . . it does its job. The entire Liturgy is meant to shape us, form us, transform us. It invites us to enter into worship that is deep, heavenly, and authentic.
In her informative little book The Holy Angels, Mother Alexandra reminds us,
The Orthodox Christian, participating at the Liturgy, is not an individual standing alone and solitary. He takes part in the prayers of the Church, and the Church prays for him and for the whole world. The Communion of Saints is ever present, for all worship together. There is no division, sinner and saint, beggar and king, layman and priest, the living and the dead and the entire heavenly host—all worship together, side by side in otherworldliness, before the Throne of God. The Christian finds himself in his true native land. (p. 269)
How to Enter into This Strange Worship
In my earlier series, “Stumbling Stones on the Orthodox Road,” in an episode called “Four Sunday Morning Struggles” I discussed what I call “spiritual palate training.” I talked about toddlers in other countries who eat the same foods and spices that their parents do. As a result, children in, say, France and Vietnam do not have the narrow, picky tastes of American preschoolers who want only hot dogs and peanut butter.
Many of us experience the same kind of problem with Orthodox worship. It’s old but new, beautiful but strange. And just as we can train our palates to enjoy new flavors, we can train ourselves, mind, body, and spirit, to enter into this worship.
On his blog Glory to God for All Things earlier this year, Fr. Stephen Freeman posted an article, “A Modern Lent,” advising readers on how to approach the Lenten season. One particular paragraph intrigued me:
Go to Church a lot more (if your Church has additional Lenten services, go to them). This can be problematic for Protestants, in that most Protestant worship is quite modern, i.e. focused on the individual rather than directed to God, well-meant but antithetical to worship. If your Church isn’t boring, it’s probably modern. This is not to say that Classical Christianity is inherently boring—it’s just experienced as such by people trained to be consumers. Classical Christianity worships according to Tradition and focuses its attention on God. It is not there for you to “get something out of it.”
There’s that “consumer” issue again. I think Fr. Stephen nailed it here. The way we move away from the consumer mentality and train our spiritual palates is through faithful attendance at the Divine Liturgy. It’s really that simple. Repeated exposure forms us. It shapes us.
I have found that I especially enjoy the Paraklesis services, both Small and Great, that show up on the liturgical calendar every August during the two-week Dormition fast. I attend as many of the weekday evening services as possible during this time, and I’ve discovered that frequent attendance, year in and year out, leads to familiarity. It’s like Christmas carols—we hear them only during November and December, yet we all know many of them by heart because of this annual repetition.
I also love a certain Orthodox hymn that is sung often during communion. I also love it, frankly, because of the melody, which has more of a “hook” than most. (Is it irreverent to say that?) It is a hymn in honor of the Mother of God called “Agni Parthene,” or “Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.” You can find this hymn, featuring the otherworldly harmonies of Eikona, on YouTube here. (The English-language part of the song begins at 1:41.)
This music also makes me pause, listen, and think about the Virgin Mary’s beautiful example of obedience. It draws me heavenward, in a way that popular music never can. And so I find myself sometimes reaching for chant during my everyday life. Not regularly, but on occasion I feel the need for it.
A couple of years ago, after a negative and upsetting encounter with someone, I played Eikona’s recording of the Great Paraklesis service while I drove home. (You can find this at store.ancientfaith.com.) I knew that any other kind of music—especially music with a beat—would simply feed my agitation.
Ancient Faith Radio https://www.ancientfaith.com/radio offers two music channels: a global music channel and an English-language channel. Try listening while you’re doing chores, preparing dinner, working on the car, or putting a puzzle together. You probably won’t tap your foot to the music, and you might not be able to sing along. But you may find that your mood, and the atmosphere of your home, changes in response to this otherworldly, sacred music.
As we return to our parishes, let’s heed the advice of St. John of Kronstadt:
Let us enter into the church of God with the fear of God, with a pure heart, laying aside all passions and every worldly care, and let us stand in it with faith and reverence, with understanding attention, with love and peace in our hearts, so that we may come away renewed, as though made heavenly, so that we may live in the holiness natural to heaven, not binding ourselves by worldly desires and pleasures. [source unknown]
I think I will need continued spiritual palate training. For life. Like exercise, training of my heart and my ears requires consistency and a lot of reps. We sing “let us lay aside every earthly care” not once, but at each Divine Liturgy because we need to be reoriented, every day, toward Christ. We need practice. And if we’re open, the otherworldly music of the Church will help us.
[If you prefer listening instead of reading, Walking an Ancient Path is available in podcast format on the Ancient Faith app, Apple podcasts, Spotify, and a variety of other places.]