Worship music remix 1- introduction…

This is the first of a series of post on worship music. My current working titles for he others include ‘Authenticity/Creativity’, ‘Transcendence’ , ‘Songs of community’ and ‘What is so special about singing anyway?’- hopefully these will emerge over the next few weeks. But in the meantime, here is a bit about my own journey, in which I have to acknowledge some rather negative aspects to my experience…

I have written before about my own previous encounters with worship music- the practice of which has been extremely important to me.

I started out singing in a church choir. I had a high pure voice as a boy, and sang solos in church. I learned to play piano, and church organ- earning some pocket money playing at weddings and funerals.

Later we discovered simple choruses- and during the late 70’s and early 80’s I started playing guitar. We played simple songs such as ‘We have come into this house’ and ‘Freely’, and were indebted to the songs of the ‘Fisherfolk’, whose music became the soundtrack to the Charismatic revival that swept through the Church of England. I still feel a strange nostalgia for the simplicity and ‘wholesomeness’ I remember from this time- and the music was a huge part of this.

I then spent 15 years as part of a large independent church in the north of England- in which my major contribution was musical. I eventually became the leader of the music team. We made a journey through all the waves of new church music that emerged- at first it was all sourced via new songbooks- which would come out every now and then- but later the machine that poured out songs  (mostly from America) used many different portals- books, CD’s and increasingly, the internet. Vineyard soft rock worship was something we constantly imitated- although the shiny happy Hillsongs worship always left me a bit cold.

Following a move to Scotland, I continued to lead worship- now in a small Baptist church. Through connections there, I also became slightly itinerant- leading worship in the USA, Europe and for some different events in Scotland.

Then I stopped.

I found it increasingly difficult to sustain any kind of passion for this kind of worship. It had become so formulaic and anchored within a narrow world view- based on  set of core assumptions that were all-dominant even if rarely spoken. I was increasingly finding myself at odds with these assumptions, which were grounded in a particular American Evangelicalism.

Then there was the place of this kind of worship at the centre of all of our services. At first, worship music was all about FREEDOM- it was the means by which we escaped ritualistic liturgy and ‘made room for the Spirit.’ Except the longer we did this, the more liturgical and rigid we became. The formula went something like this-

Open service with a time of ‘praise’- 

Upbeat high energy praise songs. However, there were (and presumably still are) far fewer exuberant praise songs than quieter ones, so we tended to do the same 10-15 or so over and over, after which typically the kids will leave for Sunday School, and we hear notices.

Time of ‘worship’

We then have more singing- quieter songs now which worship leaders try to theme slightly, with a nod towards the coming sermon. In my experience, we often talked about worship being about a much broader thing than just music, but in practice other artistic forms of collective worship had little part in our services. The odd bit of drama, or music/power points. Possibly a bit of dance. The job of the worship leader here is to generate some intensity and expectancy as we prepared to hear the preaching of Gods word- mainly by singing songs.

The sermon

Teaching within this tradition is of paramount importance. We talk of being ‘fed’ by this teaching, and skillful preachers were the top of the tree in terms of status. The very best preaching has this goal of creating a climax- you could call it a spiritual/emotional crisis- during which the congregation is expected to ‘make a response’. This might mean coming forward for prayer for healing and deliverance. The public nature of these crises is valued as some kind of statement before man and God, but I have long wondered whether it might also serve the purpose of measurable ‘success’ of the peaching.

And while all this happens, the music has a vital role again- ecstatic, emotional love songs to Jesus. Matching/creating/heightening the emotion of the event. A benign manipulation of our emotions in the name of Jesus.

The sending out

The last part of the service was about commissioning the congregation to go out into the world, changed by their encounter with God in the service. Songs tend to be more martial, triumphalist and perhaps more hymn-like.

All of this can be energising and vibrant- it can also be very ego-centric for those of us on the stage.

That is not to say that all this has no value- but I think we greatly exaggerated it. People were challenged and even changed in these services, but most were not- they were just caught up in the weekly merry go round. I once heard these services described as like a weekly wedding with the same couple getting married each time. And me, the wedding singer.

About 5 years ago I decided that I could do it this no more. The ‘crisis point’ of services seemed to me increasingly to be manufactured and divorced from the reality of the lives of the people present. At worst it became a religious show- a pep-me-up for the dwindling faithful. The particular context I was part of did not make this easier as there was also a surface dishonesty about levels of conflict and political in fighting.

There were other reasons why I walked away- firstly, theological ones. I found myself adventuring into new ideas, questioning and rediscovering aspects of my faith- and the Evangelical assumptions of many of the songs I had previously used became very difficult to sing. They tended to be strange quasi-erotic love songs to Jesus, or triumphalist war songs for the army of God. They use the Bible as source material- but only parts of the Bible that come pre-packaged by Evangelical assumptions.

And they tend to be American, arising from the cult of the super worship leader- a strange cool guy (mostly male) who has an expensive guitar. His music only finds wider release if he is marketable, and hopefully photogenic. Then the music goes into a highly profitable (but not necessarily prophetable) machine, which spews out visuals, CD’s and sheet music for the whole band. All worship leaders have their favourite super worship leader. We aspire to be like them, and to make music that is a second rate version of their music.

Secondly, I was discovering other forms of worship that I could connect to in a different way- both older forms of worship (from a contemplative tradition) and also new forms of ‘alternative worship’, which had more in common with performance art that with praise and worship as I had used to understand it.

I am a few years down the line now though- and have been involved in many a prayer room, curated worship space or wilderness meditation event. These experiences are very precious to me, in my on going attempts to reach towards God, and to offer my worship.

But I still love to sing. Gatherings with friends still often involve getting out some of the range of instruments our family have accumulated. And within my community (Aoradh) we still sing when we gather from time to time. What I have however, are a set of open questions that I am still working through-

  • Where are the songs of lament, of thanksgiving, of hope, of brokenness, of joy, of doubt, that fit this new context?
  • What songs are counter cultural- challenging the idolatry of the consumer driven unsustainable way of life our churches are embedded within?
  • This new context- what songs might collectively release us towards a different kind of mission? Encourage us to seek after justice, truth, beauty- and when we find it, to sustain it?
  • If these songs are the cultural carriers of our theology- then what of our faith do we want to celebrate? How do we move towards songs that are more open, less reductionistic, more comfortable with mystery and less concerned with the promulgation of fake certainty?
  • Where are the songs of community- not of individuality- all of that personalised spirituality from the God of success?
  • Are there different kinds of songs needed for small community contexts?
  • Why do we need to sing the songs of the machine- how can we encourage local expressions emerging out of community?
  • What of the old is still usable? From the 1560s or the 1960s?
  • I long for poetry- deep and honest lyrics. I am sick of the same old sacred rhymes- grace/face, love/above, sing/bring. We can do so much better.
  • I long for music that carries emotion, not just a steady tune. Where are the solo instruments, and the complex rhythms and harmonies? I am so tired of soft rock.
  • Is all this just because I am looking for something new, something trendy? Am I overreacting?
So, the journey continues- think I will go and get my guitar…

Aoradh worship gathering…

 

 

(An old photo of one of our gatherings.)

We are just back from our monthly worship gathering with Aoradh. We had planned to use a larger space this week, as people had expressed a desire to sing. That old fashioned, uncool kind of worship from the 80’s and 90’s- you may remember… (More on this later.)

In the end we used Andy and Angela’s big lounge, and we had power points reflections, music, communion, sharing and lots of other simple but lovely things- oh and we sang too. All the elements of our worship were collected in the moment- prepared by different people, but it all fitted together remarkably well.

Then, as is our way, we ate. Lots.

To meet with such lovely people and worship is such a blessing. There are times to look up, to look in and to look out. Today we mostly looked up, but because we did this together it was all the more special.

To finish, we pinched a blessing that Jonny mentioned that Grace had used recently- a lovely one by John O’Donahue. We cut it up, and circulated it, asking people to read the one they had chosen, and to take it away as their own words. I ended up picking up two- the ones highlighted below.

May the blessings released through your hands
cause windows to open in darkened minds

May the suffering your calling brings
be but winter before the spring

May the companionship of your doubt
Restore what your beliefs leave out

May the secret hungers of your heart
harvest from emptiness its secret fruit

May your solitude be a voyage
into the wilderness and wonder of God

May your words have the prophetic edge
to enable the heart to hear itself

May the silence where your calling dwells
foster your freedom in all you do and feel

May you find words full of divine warmth
to clothe others in the language of dawn

May your potentiality be released
to explore new horizons of what’s possible

May your becoming bring gentle surprises
as you remember you’ve not arrived

Back from Greenbelt…

So, we are back.

After a thousand miles of driving, and hours of motorway, our Aoradh roadtrip down to Greenbelt 2010 is all over.

And it was good!

A few personal highlights-

Our worship collaboration between Safespace and Sanctus 1. We spent all day on Saturday co-hosting a worship space in which we invited people to consider their community. This involved ‘stations’, and also liturgical ‘led’ worship events through the day. We did a think with spilt wine, and blood serum pots that was very powerful, and it fitted in really well with the lovely work done by the other groups.

Meeting people, and having conversations.

London Community Gospel Choir!

The large scale worship service on Sunday. They can be hit and miss affairs, but this year was lovely.

Of course, we missed as much as we saw- you always do. I was very sad to miss the Tautoko gathering at the Cathedral this year- we did not get down in time. And there were so many speakers that I wanted to hear, but missed. Need to download some talks…

Some more photos-

Making visual prayers…

We spent some time sticking pictures at housegroup last night.

We had gathered loads of clippings from newspapers and magazines, and used them to construct a great big prayer of thankfulness.

And there was much laughter, and much friendship.

Which was a kind of prayer too…

Michaela read this poem by Robert Siegel-

A Song of Praises

for the gray nudge of dawn at the window

for the chill that hangs around the bed and slips its cold tongue under the covers

for the cat who walks over my face purring murderously

for the warmth of the hip next to mine and sweet lethargy

for the cranking up the hill of the will until it turns me out of bed

for the robe’s warm caress along arm and shank

for the welcome of hot water, the dissolving of the nights stiff mask in the soft washcloth

for the light along the white porcelain sink

for the toothbrush’s savoury invasion of the tomb of the mouth and the resurrection of the breath

for the warm lather and the scrape of the razor and the skin smooth and pink that emerges

for the steam of the shower, the apprehensive shiver and then

its warm enfolding of the shoulders

its falling on the head like grace

its anointing of the whole body

and the soap’s smooth absolution

for the rough nap of the towel and its message to each skin cell

for the hairbrush’s pulling and pulling, waking the root of each hair

for the reassuring snap of elastic

for the hug of the belt that pulls all together

for the smell of coffee rising up the stairs announcing paradise

for the glass of golden juice in which light is condensed and the grapefruit’s sweet flesh

for the incense of butter on toast

for the eggs, like twin peaks over which the sun rises

and the jam for which the strawberries of summer have saved themselves

for the light whose long shaft lifts the kitchen into the realms of day

for Mozart elegantly measuring out the gazebos of heaven on the radio

and her face, for whom the kettle sings, and the coffee percs

and all the yellow birds in the wallpaper spread their wings

Ahhh.

I think I like this bloke’s poems.

(Although to be honest, I am not usually that grateful in the morning.)

‘Long now’ worship space, Dunoon pier, tomorrow…

We are just back from setting up the space on Dunoon pier for tomorrows Aoradh ‘Long now’ worship event…

It is always such a lovely place to be- an old wooden pavilion, spilling over with light (in fact often too much light, we have to mask off the windows.) Setting up and breaking down of the spaces we have set up there has always been a huge part of the pleasure of the thing. It is a time of companionship, laughter, shared meals and just the occasional moments of irritation as we all have our different understanding of how things should be done…

This is what the long now is about- if you are in the area, please come!

Welcome to ‘The long now’

You are invited to participate in a journey through time.

As you travel, you will make your own mark- your own timeline.

You will stop at stations symbolising-

  • GEOGRAPHICAL time
  • HISTORICAL time
  • LIFE time…

Wherever we stand- whatever our perspective- we are standing in the NOW.

It is always NOW.

You will be invited to linger in this holy space that God gave us- NOW.

Finally you will be asked to think about the future;

the NOWs still being given to us, like gifts to unwrap.

In all these things

May we be learning to be grateful for the past

To participate graciously in the present

And to live in hope for the future.

Aoradh at Greenbelt- Eternal Now installation…

DSCF5200

So I thought I would post a few photographs that Simon Mcgaughey took of our worship event @ Greenbelt festival.

We were one of the groups contributing to the worship in the New Forms Cafe, which is the venue for alternative worship events- the place where people can experience more experimental ways of communal worship- and perhaps pinch ideas and recycle them back into their own community. In truth, there is nothing new under the sun, and most of the events use ideas borrowed from other groups, or from more ancient practices, updated with the odd power point projection and a bit of ambient music.

Our event was something like this;

Our contribution was an installation called ‘The Eternal Now’, which was a kind of walk through time. We had stations representing the universal time, geological time, historical time, life time, NOW and the future.

People walked on white paper, and carried a pen on a stick that they dragged behind them in order to leave their own time line. The route was marked by ‘luminaires’- fire proof bags with sand in the bottom and a candle.

On projectors all around the room, we used a time lapse video that we were able to use by kind permission of John Martineau- check out his stuff here.

STATION ONE, STARS- Gazebo with muslin walls, fairy lights, stats hanging from ceiling, images from hubble telescope on laptop.

STATION TWO, ROCKS- Pile of stones, people asked to take one.

STATION THREE, TREE- Large slice of tree with tree rings showing. People asked to place pin around the tree ring corresponding to the year of their birth. Also asked to take a small slice of branch.

STATION FOUR, COLLAGE- Table with lots of art and paper- asked to leave a mark that relates to their own lifetime- what they are grateful for, who has brought them to where they are now.

HOLY SPACE, NOW- Another gazebo, with musiln sides, cushions and eternal flame. Poetry projected on an internal wall.

FUTURE- (Corresponding responses to earlier stations- in reverse order.)

COLLAGE/LIFETIME- postcard to remind yourself- we used words that had been offered as cues in a ‘Wordle’ image made into a postcard. People were invited to write on it, and we will post it on to them as a later reminder…

TREE/HISTORICAL TIME- people were asked to write a promise on their small slice of tree and either leave it behind, or take it with them. They were also asked to take a pine cone- as a reminder of being a carrier of seeds of the Kingdom of God.

ROCKS/GEOLOGICAL TIME- people built a cairn with the rocks they carried.

STARS/UNIVERSAL TIME- people were offered a shortbread star to eat as they left.

It worked really well!

You have one hour to set up the room, it runs for an hour, then you get out as soon as you can to leave room for the next group. When the doors opened we had a massive queue of people waiting to use the installation, and we all felt overwhelmed. There was a bit of ‘bunching’ around some of the stations, before people decided to sit out a little and wait their time.

Feedback was good, and the whole thing looked lovely.

Our intention is to use the installation in Dunoon too…

In the next few weeks we will meet up to chew on whether the effort and expense of the road trip was worth it, and what we can learn and reapply to our own context. But on a basic level, it feels that we achieved what we set out to do.

If you were there, feedback very much appreciated!

Hymn singing, but not as we know it…

At Greenbelt Festival, there is a new tradition of hymn singing in the big beer tent.

I stayed away this year, as it becomes very crowded- and the volume of the singing has to be heard to be believed. On one occasion I was about a mile away over the other side of the festival fields, and you could hear the singing clearly above the sounds coming from the mega-amplified main stage.

Here is a clip that gives a flavour of the event. What you see is a hymn choosing process, then a few thousand folk singing ‘Lord the light of your love is shining’.

The beers and hymns event has been criticised by some. As you can see, for some, the beer is central to proceedings- and perhaps the idea of beer-fueled worship, cast alongside the instructions for ‘orderly worship’ by St Paul is a step too far.

But then, if you speak to people who were there, with tears in their eyes as they worshiped…

How this transfers to your town or congregation- who knows!

Rob Bell, ‘Breathe’

We have used quite a lot of Rob Bell’s ‘Nooma‘ DVDs in our group. There are about 20 of them at present- each one a little package of creative film making, Bell’s unique presentation style, and subtle reframings of things we thought we knew…

Bell’s high profile (his church is huge and his books and films are known the world over) has meant that he has also come in for a lot of criticism. For many, he is a heretic. For me, he is a man with something to say, who says it well.

I found a copy of one of the films on-line. They cost about £10 to buy, so this might be a way to enjoy one of them (in low quality, with the annoying subtitles) and find out what the fuss is about. Then you can save up and buy some for you and yours!

May it bring to you something new about the wonders of God.

Worship list 1

I have spent years participating with, and leading, groups of Christians as we worship God.

We always reminded ourselves that worship was a personal decision, made out of relationship and dynamic interaction with the Spirit of the living God, not something that just (or even always) happens in church meetings.

But it is clear that something special can happen when we gather together and make our worship collective…

But what is this?

After all the years of trying to understand this better, I have more questions than answers. Here are some of them

  • Why do we do it? Yes, I know we are supposed to, but what really motivates us?
  • How do we take our private offerings of worship, and collectively present them to God?
  • Or should we allow our worship to travel on the security and safety of tradition?
  • Is it good to be relevant and progressive in the style of our worship?
  • When do we do it, and what does it look like? Does it always have to be formal, ‘churchy’, and dominated by ‘worship professionals’- in my experience, these almost always have a posh guitar.
  • Is there more than music as a way of collectively worshiping?
  • What practices or attitudes of body and mind might HELP us to worship?
  • What might we expect Him to do as we worship? Is he distant, or active? Is he particularly active as we worship?
  • How much of our worship arises from individual choices or decisions?
  • What might we aspire to, how do we measure the worth of our worship?
  • How much arises as a response to that which is collective and shared – or even proscribed?
  • Does God inhabit the praises of his people, and if so, how can we meet him there?

Some of the answers to questions like this already have the shape of answers given to me by my church tradition. But these answers are rarely complete, but only partial.

How we work out our collective answers to these questions may be different for all of us. But if we do not ask them, my experience is that something in the middle of us starts to whither and die.

Perhaps we become bored and stale.

But could it be that God is bored too?

I have come to think that the enemy of faith is stasis. Even if not everything around us needs to change- we always do.