Antiphons. We’ve Been Singing Antiphons.

The proper place for “modern worship” songs is in the midst of more complex expressions of worship.

This article originally appeared in, 21 September 2022.

I was listening to a “modern worship” song this week when a bunch of things clicked at once.

If you spend any amount of time in churches that have a notable proportion of people under the age of 40, you have heard this genre of music. The chords are simple, the melodies are exceedingly singable (except when the lead singer takes them up an octave into a range only reachable by professional voices), the sentiments are sincere, and the lyrics are brief.

I actually love some of these songs. Like all genres, modern worship has individual examples of real quality, and the one I was listening to (Elevation’s 2018 song “Worthy”) has a lot of merit on its own terms. I would gladly lead a congregation in it myself.

But as I sang along with the recording, I couldn’t help feeling, not for the first time, that on its own it was incomplete and just a bit thin.

Antiphons are not complete prayers — they are brief invitations to reflect more deeply on the content of complete prayers.

This is not something I feel about another, related genre I have spent a lot of time learning (and, as a worship musician, leading): the choruses of Black Gospel that emerge out of the tradition called the Negro Spiritual. These, too, tend to have very short texts. But because they are anchored in the incomparable spiritual depth of the Black church, and also because they very often pack a great deal of musical subtlety into a seemingly simple musical package (in their sophisticated use of rhythmic tension and harmonic variation, especially in the hands of the most skillful performers), they can sustain a great deal of repetition and only increase in their expressive and formative power. The greatest spirituals — like “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” — can and will be sung for a lifetime and beyond.

Not so much modern worship. There is something bite-sized about these pieces, which we sing so enthusiastically for a year or three but which then fade. And yet I do love singing them, alone and with other Christians in gathered worship — even if, after seven repetitions of the bridge (in the case of “Worthy,” this is not an exaggeration), it seems like we have been chewing for quite a long time on quite a small piece of Wonder Bread.

What to do with these emotionally pure, musically simple, short pieces?

Well, what I have been doing for years as a worship musician is not using them alone. I almost always pair a modern worship song with the full text of a psalm, alternating singing the song’s verse, chorus, and bridge with congregational reading of a psalm text (continuing an instrumental bed underneath). In this format, the emotional simplicity of the song resonates in glorious ways with the often-complex and challenging texts of the biblical psalms (which were, of course, originally songs themselves). Over and over I have found this combination — modern worship plus traditional texts read aloud — is far, far more powerful an expression of worship than either one by itself.

And this week, I realized that we’ve had a name for these worship songs all along, though the word is unfamiliar outside of high liturgical traditions.

They are antiphons — which Oxford defines as “a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle” (the canticles being largely other biblical instances of poetic and sung prayer, like the Song of Simeon in Luke 2). The purpose of an antiphon is to give the congregation a way to frame their own response to the biblical prayer. Often antiphons (like modern worship music) draw their vocabulary more or less directly from phrases of Scripture.

Antiphons are not complete prayers — they are brief invitations to reflect more deeply on the content of complete prayers. They are not hymns, which typically take the singers on an extended journey through some aspect of Christian experience or belief. They are quite literally choruses, the gathered response of the people to a longer and more involved text.

And this is what we are singing when we sing most modern worship music — beautifully, simply, antiphons.

The only problem is that in many churches and worship settings — especially, I think it’s important to emphasize, the ones that most effectively gather younger adults and offer them the opportunity to bring the wholehearted energy of youth to their worship — we are only singing antiphons.

We are not reading, chanting, or singing the psalms themselves. We are not attending to long passages of biblical text. Nor, in many settings, are we pairing the choruses with hymns, which would require but also reward reflection and attention. All we are singing are short texts and extremely simple tunes — too short and too simple to truly express or form a full life of Christian prayer.

This realization — modern worship is almost all antiphons, all the time — was incredibly helpful to me.

It explains why I love many songs in the modern worship genre — they are the antiphons of my Christian life and, thanks to the distribution mechanisms of popular culture, millions of others’ lives as well. I don’t want to stop singing them.

But it also explains why, after a contemporary worship service composed of four to five antiphons plus a long spoken sermon, I feel like something essential has been missed, and something important is not being cultivated or formed in us.

And it also points to a deficiency in many “liturgical” churches like my own Anglican and Methodist tradition, which have maintained congregational reading of the psalms — as spoken texts without music — but do not take advantage of music’s power to deepen a congregational response to that text.

In my own worship leadership I’ve gravitated, without really thinking about it this way before now, to a solution that was in the Christian tradition all along: putting these choruses in their proper place, surrounding and undergirding the congregation’s attention to the deep texts (and maybe also tunes) of the Christian story. When we sing these choruses before and after and in the midst of the reading of relatively complex texts, they are incredibly valuable pathways to genuine Christian worship.

So let’s keep singing these songs. But let’s sing them as the antiphons they really are.