Worship: Then and Now or Passion vs. Hillsong United

In Personal, Religion on March 11, 2009 at 4:53 am

In 2004, I helped lead worship at Liquid, the college ministry of Austin Chinese Church, which is now it’s own independent church with a better name: Vox Veniae. One of the aims of Liquid was to be culturally relevant not only in the messages but also in the arts. Musical worship was meant to reflect the tastes of Austin college students while innovating musically and challenging perceptions of what musical worship entailed. It’s debatable how much of that we actually accomplished. In hindsight, our musical worship style was heavy on the alt-rock (with a rhythm section driven by two electric guitars how could it not?) which was radio friendly, but probably not what was hip with Austin college kids. We’d take Passion and Delirious songs and spend significant amounts of time rearranging them into something more modern. Some songs, like “Shout to the North” we couldn’t do with a straight face. Others were rearranged pretty damn well, like Tomlin’s “Wonderful Maker,” which included some Explosions in the Sky guitar interplay, tense pacing, and a dramatic reading. We generally tried to shun the happy-go-lucky feel of the Passion recordings for a more brooding sound.

Now, five years later, after a lengthy hiatus from playing in church, I help lead worship at Highrock Arlington. Now it seems Passion and Delirious are no longer kings of worship. Over the years Hillsongs has branched out from their hokey adult contemporary offerings into more modern rock territory with Hillsongs United and is now the most popular go-to for worship songs in contemporary evangelical churches. Really, what do you expect when you combine the Queen of Worship, Darlene Zschech (of “Shout to the Lord” fame) with a guitarist who has dreadlocks and a male singer with an earring? I bet they have tattoos too. How can clean cut Redman and pretty boy Tomlin compete with that (crazy Skeletor Crowder does help though)?

What’s even more interesting than the physical differences is the contrast in musical styles. While both camps make gratuitous use of big anthemic choruses (where you just can’t help but lift your hands to the air like when singing along to “Livin’ on a Prayer”) the instrumentations and rhythms vary widely. If I had to sum up Passion’s sound in one word I’d say “80’s-U2-meets-90’s-pop-country.” That hasn’t changed in five years. For our Australian friends at Hillsong United, I’d describe them as “Creed-meets-Blink182.” Hillsong United has tons more attitude in their songs. The guitar tones are crunchier, the male vocals have more of a grind, as if he’s been smoking for years (although you know he isn’t because he’s Christian and Jesus hates cigarettes) and the drum beats are more syncopated. However, some of that edgy hip attitude is lost whenever the background choir joins in. I mean, has there ever been an edgy rock song that made use of a background choir? OK, Pink Floyd pulled it off with “Another Brick in the Wall” but that was a children’s choir singing about rebelling against their teachers. That was freaking epic.

I don’t have any closing points or any more sarcastic jabs at worship music. It’s just that lately, I’ve been reflecting more on how things have changed over the years in my life, and worship music has not been exempt. I’ll end with Youtube videos for you to compare.




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