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Darrell Harris on the Christian Music Industry

Interview with Darrell Harris discussing how his experiences of being in the music industry and training worship leaders has shaped each other and a look at the future of the contemporary music industry.

Darrell Harris brings a unique perspective to the contemporary worship conversation. He founded Star Song records in 1976, and during the 1970s and 1980s signed, developed and worked closely with artists such as Petra, The Newsboys, Twila Paris, and the Gaither Vocal Band. Since leaving the music industry in 1996, he has been actively involved in the academic study of worship and in training ministers of worship. He was the original publisher of The Complete Library of Christian Worship by Robert E. Webber, and he now serves as Dean of the Chaplain for the Robert E. Webber Institute of Worship Studies. This rich and varied background allows Darrell to assess the history and trajectory of Contemporary Worship Music with particular insight.

Here are some questions to consider as you read.

  • Harris describes some of the ways leadership at Star Song attempted to guide and disciple the recording artists on their label. He also talks about some of the reasons why – despite such efforts – Contemporary Christian Music has often been theologically shallow. In light of Harris’ experiences, how do you think churches, teachers and the Christian music industry itself might nurture and encourage theological wisdom and depth in Christian worship music? 
  • Harris believes that one way forward for Contemporary Worship Music is by reaching back – much more intentionally and deliberately – into the Christian tradition. He mentions for instance the importance of recognizing and drawing upon the Christian liturgical calendar and ancient forms of prayer. Are you aware of contemporary worship musicians who draw effectively on Christian tradition in this way? Can you think of other ways that contemporary worship might be more deeply informed by the rich history of the church’s worship?
  • Naturally, we gravitate toward music that we like. But Harris suggests that learning the “language of another” – learning and striving to understand music that we find strange or unattractive – is one of the valuable things that can happen in worship. What do you think? How do we distinguish a superficially unsettling opportunity for growth and self-surrender (on the one hand), from a genuinely problematic and wrong-headed practice (on the other)?
  • Harris mentions the importance of both global and local voices in Christian worship. Can you think of churches or worship services that have done a good job of allowing both the global and the local voice of the church to sound out?

One of the reasons I’ve been interested in talking with you, is because of the intersection of professional paths that you have – having been in the music industry and now being involved with an institution that trains people to lead worship. How have those two experiences shaped each other?  Are there ways that you think differently about training people for worship based on what you learned in the music industry? And conversely, are there ways that you look at the music industry differently as a result of working with people who are involved in leading corporate worship?          

Darrell Harris:  I would say because I was a licensed Baptist preacher when I was 15 – I don’t know what those people were thinking who gave me that piece of paper! – I brought a lot of zeal to the table, but that’s about it. [So] my pastoral orientation was happening in my church life while my professional life was taking place in the music business, in the Christian music business.  And because of that, part of what we tried to do at Star Song was somewhat reactionary to some of the spiritual shallowness that we felt like was prevalent in the industry.

And so we developed what I would call a kind of three-tiered list of values for song writing and record making.  We would look at a song or collection of songs on a recording and ask ourselves about these three guidelines:  1) Is it scripturally sound and theologically sound?  2) Is it as aesthetically excellent as it can be? And then 3) what is its cultural relevance or commercial appeal?  And we tried to view that as a hierarchy, to let the Biblical soundness rule and wherever it would not compromise Biblical soundness, theological soundness to really hone in on aesthetic excellence and cultural relevance.  We did it so often – not always successfully – that [it] became a way of thinking. 

Another thing that we did in those days is, it dawned on us that people who buy a record or watch a Christian music video of some sort or buy a ticket to a Christian concert, [they] assume that the person making that music, they just sort of assume a measure of leadership qualities that are in that person. They’re assuming a kind of de facto ordination process; that somewhere, someone looked at this person’s life and theology and gave them some kind of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. And the fact is that for decades, the Christian music world did not work that way.  It was simply people…people wanted to have valid ministry but, by and large, it was people who wanted to make music, and because they were Christians, they wanted to make Christian music.  It was just another way of…and the models were taken, were copied, the contracts and the ways of doing business were copied off what were, in my opinion, somewhat poor models for Christians to appropriate.  It was all of the secular world’s contracts and all that sort of thing, so we tried to wrestle with that in our own journey in several ways.  We put together an artist review process where we asked an artist to fill out a questionnaire while we were in the courtship process, getting to know each other.  We wanted to know where their local worshipping community was and who their pastor was and did they believe in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed and accept the Bible as the Word of God.  And we would ask them to fill out a questionnaire like this and then we would use it as a discussion.  And we would welcome them to ask us any questions they wanted – where we went to church, who our pastor was, ask if there were any serious moral struggles in their lives that if exposed, would really be embarrassing to them, to their church or to the record company.  Not that we want to police them, but if we helped them find pastoral help or counseling or whatever it was, and we would tell them to feel free to ask us the same questions.  So we ended up finding that we had very little of that kind of stuff. The artists we worked with weren’t morally perfect, going to be canonized someday necessarily.  But that they were basically living clean lives and basically had pretty sound, maybe not sophisticated theology, but they believed the Bible and knew how to discuss it and proclaim it, share their faith.

We also set up what we called a pastoral advisory council.  It was made up of three people, one who was a charismatic pastor, one who was a Presbyterian pastor and one who was a Baptist pastor.  These three pastors came in and spent at least a half-day, sometimes a full day, at least once a quarter, with all the top tier management people in our company.  We asked them to bring us the same kind of accountability, financial accountability, our Board of Directors brought us.  We asked them to bring us accountability regarding our mission, our ethics and our values.  So they got to know our mission statement, our ethical standards, our values. That really helped.  We weren’t a perfect company made up of perfect people, but it felt like kingdom life looking around the halls of the office.  Those were some of the things that I think we did right.

That’s impressive.  I think probably some people would be surprised that there was that kind of intentional, deliberate concern with theological substance and pastoral care.  One of the common criticisms of contemporary Christian music and contemporary worship music is that it is theologically shallow, that it is lyrically shallow.  Is that a fair criticism – if companies like StarSong in fact had this kind of intentional process in place?

DH:  I think it is [a fair criticism].  You have to put this in the context of where contemporary worship music and contemporary Christian music even before it, where it came from, how it emerged.  This contemporary music had its roots in the Jesus Movement.  And in the Jesus Movement, people who were musicians, rock musicians, folk musicians, were receiving Christ and there was no place really for them to get discipled and educated. The churches didn’t want them.  They had long hair and they weren’t buttoned down and buttoned up and they just didn’t look people they wanted to have in church.  Because of their passion for Christ, they would end up beginning to write their songs trying to proclaim the Gospel as they had heard it and as they were experiencing it.  And so for years, I think, for decades, a lot of the lyrical content of contemporary Christian music and subsequently contemporary worship music was quite shallow. 

I think other things went on to contribute to that, record companies trying to meet their recording deadlines, release deadlines and keep the lights on and pay the bills.  I think we hurried up more releases than we should have.  So not only did our relationships with the artists not get the kind of reflection and nurture that they needed, but a lot of the music did not get the kind of nurture and care and oversight that it needed.  We were looking to see if the song kind of halfway rhymed and had a hook and could get on the radio, rather than if it had really been carefully crafted theologically as well as lyrically and melodically. 

My wife and I were displaced in a church split in 2004, and so we spent most of 2005 visiting churches in Nashville.  And except for the very traditional churches that used classical hymnody, the ancient hymns and hymns of previous generations, we found that many of the songs that were sung in churches of every stripe, the contemporary churches, we literally, Janet and I could have sung those songs to each other without changing one word.  And they were being sung to Jesus, but it was all this very emotionally-driven, romantically-oriented relationship, and in some cases, erotic, erotically-oriented adoration.  And those songs have a place in Christian spirituality and Christian worship but they shouldn’t be the trump suit.  There is a much larger panoply of doctrines and concepts to be brought to the table at worship rather than just an emotional relationship with one’s Lord.

I think that is one of the challenges for churches that use contemporary worship music.  If you have a hymnal or if you have a liturgy, then you have a hymnal committee or a committee on the liturgy that sets those songs and sets that liturgy as a kind of theological curriculum. There is some oversight of which doctrines are covered and which themes emerge over the course of a year in worship. But that is not necessarily the case with contemporary worship music.  Are there ways that that can be addressed in a contemporary music church?

DH:  I think there are.  Something that a lot of contemporary worship leaders do not have is an exposure to the church year.  I have seen two or three books related to the church year that are coming out that have been published at a much more popular level.  The more that a young, contemporary worship leader can engage with the church year. . . . A worship leader looking at the four lections or readings of scripture for any particular Sunday is exposed to a much broader base of scriptural resource to draw from and to guide their song choice, their songwriting, and just to see some more attention being paid to the church year, I think is another really hopeful sign.

I think, as you say that, of Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer.  It is a book that a number of my undergraduate students use in their private devotions – in part because Shane Claiborne has this huge hipness factor – but it is commending to them these ancient patterns of worship.  I think it is very encouraging.

DH:  I have heard it put this way:  That if we take a subjective approach to the scriptures we preach on and hear on Sundays and guide our Sunday-by-Sunday worship, that that is asking God to be on our journey.  However, if we generally take our Sunday-by-Sunday worship, rooted in the three-year lectionary, it is rooting us in God’s story and on Jesus’ journey because it is taking you through the Gospel narrative sequence over and over and over again in three years. And if that happens in our devotional life and our worship planning, then it radically changes our songwriting.  It changes what we’re writing about.  Whenever I get together with writers to write a song, when we talk about potential ideas, I’m almost always suggesting songs that have to do with whatever season of the church year we’re in.

Those are all ways, right, that the tradition can enrich contemporary worship music and that traditional resources can deepen and mature contemporary worship music.  Does the movement go the other way as well?  Are there gifts that contemporary worship music has brought to the church? Or has the whole contemporary worship thing been a misadventure?  You know, we would have been better off just kind of staying with “how things were”?

DH:  No.  When I look at some of the contemporary worship expressions that are emerging – when I look at Gungor and the cultural relevance and aesthetic excellence that is there, as well as a Christ-centered proclamation; when I look at this group that has emerged out of India, called Aradhna. . . .  They combine both English language and Hindi and they’re using sitars and indigenous instruments and they do many of their concerts, stateside, in Hindu temples as well as house concerts and concerts on stages.  What they’re doing is they’re stretching out culturally.  They’re showing us how to, like Paul, to become all things to all people in order that we might win some; [that we might] begin to learn to speak another person’s language, both literally and figuratively. 

Another contemporary artist – what Cindy Morgan is doing these days, with Appalachian treatments of classic hymns, is absolutely amazing.  And I think that these kinds of expressions help unite younger worshipers and older worshipers, more contemporary worshipers and more traditional worshipers.  The business genius, Max DePree, wrote in his book, Leadership is an Art, he said that we should always be abandoning ourselves to one another’s strengths.  And I think those among us who are younger and are more contemporary in our thinking, need to abandon ourselves in some ways to the wisdom of the old and the more traditional thinkers and those who are older in years and in experience.   And those who are older who are more traditional among us need to abandon ourselves, sometimes, to the youthful zeal and orientation towards discovery and experimentation of the young and those who differ from us.  I really do think that there’s a lot that’s being brought to the table by the contemporary worship movement.

That reminds me of Philippians 2 where Paul says, "In humility consider others better than yourself. Each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." 

DH:  And it’s really difficult when that other person is culturally uninteresting to you or perhaps even culturally irksome to you, to esteem them as better than yourself, to hold them in high regard although you don’t hold their style in such high regard.  But when we honor and value one another, it does bring something rich to the tapestry. 

Any other hopeful developments you see in the world of Contemporary Worship Music?

DH:  One other encouraging thing that I would say that’s happening [is] the localization of the development of worship music, and approaches to worship;  where [worship is being shaped by] the local worshipping community. The church, Ecclesia, in Houston, where Robbie Seay is worship pastor – one of the things that they began to do is encourage people in the church, the ones who were more poetically gifted and theologically trustworthy, to compose a spoken word benediction for the end of the service.  And so at the end of the service, someone could come up from the congregation, other than the pastor, and you get a whole fresh perspective on benediction as the worshippers were going out into the community for the rest of the week.  And the development of the local voice.  I think it’s important that we have national and global voices, like Bono and Chris Tomlin and so on.  But [so is] the development and value of the local voice, the local teaching voice, the local song, the local poem, the locally-developed dramatic sketch to make a theological point, the locally-developed benediction, the locally-composed prayer cycle. I think of The Village Chapel, here in Nashville. I think that church was developing its own worship voice better than any other I’d seen locally.

I think they really have.

DH:  Part of it has to do with Jim Thomas’s theological background and theological perspective and underpinnings, going back to some of the Puritan prayer tradition and some of those spoken word things that he uses, that are not out of the…he might use something out of the Valley of Vision, but I think that’s Puritan sources.  And using some of those rich Protestant resources that he knows and the hymns…Then those contemporary songs are chosen. [They’ve] also and made lemonade out of a lemon with the very live [resonant, echoing] acoustic space [they have in their sanctuary].  Most contemporary churches would deaden that [acoustic] space in a heartbeat.  They would find it abhorrent.  But Jim embraced it, and so the worship team is based around acoustic instruments; they sit off to the side in the round rather than in a performance setup.

And so it ends up feeling more like a family or living room gathering, rather than a stage performance.  And then hymns, artistic expressions and adornments begin the worship space.  That’s a congregation, a worshiping community, that’s finding its own voice, finding its own visual expression, and I think they’re a model for every church.  Not to be like them, but to look at their worship space, their theological tradition, their artistic gifts and to find their own voice.  And what riches they would be if we weren’t all trying to sound like what we heard on the last, most popular, worship music record.

I think there is even, in a weird, backward sort of way, a way that the trajectory of the music industry has encouraged that kind of localization, as music technology has become more and more affordable, and more and more people are writing and recording their own music, making their own videos and so on. There’s a way in which, in a sense, the machinery of the music industry has moved out into the mainstream. Now everybody has a part of the machine.

DH:  Yeah, and you want to do both.  You want to embrace the best of the past and like what Cindy Morgan is doing, serving that up in freshly thought-out perspectives.  But also, you want to step out and just boldly create.  I think those are all very encouraging….I’m encouraged as a worshiper.  I think it’s an exciting time in which to live.