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…

Clubbable…

I like this word- it was coined (I think) by one of our friends- to sum up that formal-collective thing that you will find in churches and all other places managed by committee. It is used as an adjective- as in “I am not clubbable.”

And in many ways, I am not. I am fine with ritual, but hate stuffy formality. I love a good conversation, but find making small talk very wearing. I love to meet with my friends and dream big dreams but once these things become filtered through bureaucracy I have no interest. I think we are at our very best in community, but often find communing hard- it can strip you bear.

I have found the churchy kind of clubs to be particularly challenging- as all of the above mixes in with a certain kind of external ‘righteousness’ and ‘correct doctrine’ and ‘spiritual maturity’. This kind of rather intense clubbability can suck you dry- it can become all consuming in its demands of time and energy. It becomes a vortex into which life hoovered up to the exclusion of anything outside its gravitational pull.

I had had enough of clubs. I wanted to freestyle for a while- to adventure in company, not just to retire to the bothy and sing songs of the adventure of others.

Strange then that I now find myself a member (or about the become a member) of two local clubs- cricket, and (as of tonight) bee keeping.

I am sure that both will have their challenges- relationships and internal tensions- but the interesting thing about both, is the richness that they bring into my life. Both seem to give me more than I give out- they facilitate, encourage and enable. Members of the clubs seem to delight in sharing knowledge and offering advice- not so we might be just like them, but rather so that something that they are passionate about might have a life beyond.

Both are about sharing an activity- having a praxis in common. They are much less concerned with theory and doctrine. But that is not to say that theory and doctrine are not there or thereabouts- rather that these things are downplayed, and absorbed through contact with wider example.

So it is soon obvious that playing cricket is all about a certain kind of sportsmanship- some things are simply just not done. If you are out, you are gracious in defeat. You look after the inexperienced players and when competition becomes too heated, someone has a quiet word.

And through beekeeping, it seems that we learn patience. This is no overnight process.

Hmmmm. Perhaps I am clubbable after all.

Cars that go nowhere.

I like museums.

When we go to them as a family, I find myself falling into a trance like state. I stand and read all those pieces of writing and little bitty labels. I do not bother with most of the gimmicky interactive stuff- I just like to encounter things that carry with them meaning from the past.

The weekend was a case in point. We went to the stunning new Transport Museum on the banks of the Clyde in Partick, Glasgow. It was full of cars and motorbikes and trains. Everyone else soon gravitated towards the cafe but I wandered- intrigued by a model of a battleship or a 1932 Argyll motor car. I enjoyed it all.

And it occurred to me how we humans love to organise things- to place them in some kind of category and shelve them all away so we can make sense of it all. It is the very life blood of those who curate museums.

And perhaps too those who curate our experience of religion.

So here is a picture for you- you can make your own analogous links…

Humanity reshapes itself, so another little think about church…

I do not usually repost anything from Jonny Bakers blog- despite being a very frequent visitor- simply because I always assume that most of you have also already read it! However, I will make an exception today as he pointed (via Steve Collins) to an article about ‘Curated Membership Communities.’

Jonny’s interest in curation as applied to worship was the subject of his recent book, that takes a journey through communities whose experiments with worship have interesting parallels with how art might be shaped, curated and displayed.

But I am more interested in what implications these apparent changes in dominant social entrepreneurial groupings might have for church. That is, church in the broadest sense.

I liked this from the article-

even in a world of immensely powerful social technology, shared experience is what drives us to care about and contribute to others. As the social graph has come online, we’ve been able to keep better track not only of our friends, but all the amazing people we haven’t met yet. The explosion of curated membership communities is an attempt to create the shared experiences which bring us into contact with those people, giving us access to the amazing world which we can see, if not fully yet grasp.

We have become used to discussions about post modern society, shaken loose from the ordered structure of modernity by the coming of a new communication revolution, and perhaps characterised above all be individualism. It has been a regular theme on this blog too- as have my own grapplings with the feeling that I have that we post moderns still crave connection. And this has to be collectivised in some way beyond what might be possible on a computer screen because this is simply not enough- it is not human enough.

It has not been clear up till now what might replace our empty social clubs, community centres and (of course) churches. What might come to facilitate our shared journeys of faith? What channels might the Spirit of God find in which to travel through and in our society?

We have tried so hard to force some kind of solution- both to try to preserve the old, and also to convince ourselves that there is a methodological answer to evangelism in this new context. It is almost as if we forgot that we are followers of Jesus into culture, not his advance guard.

Meanwhile, it seems that the humanity shaped petri dish may indeed be producing some new organic shapes and formations.

Which brings us back to this idea of the ‘Curated Membership Community’. Here are a few thoughts that occur to me in relation to church-

  • Leadership- curation implies facilitation, encouragement, hospitality, nurturing and a celebration of creativity. It is far less interested in management, or hierarchical structure, or hard measurable outcomes. This sounds remarkably similar to the church-I-would-love-to-be-part-of.
  • Membership- this is an interesting concept.’ Belonging’ in this new context seems to come through friendship, aspiration, inspiration from those who have pioneered new ideas, and to be more driven by ethos than specific tasks. Membership is fluid, flexible, and might also be fairly shortlived, as streams of connection merge and cross-fertilise.
  • These new groupings are perhaps a re-invention of the idea that our collectives are more than just the sum of individual one to one relationships- rather that there is also an aspect of human character that emerges when we are part of something larger- when we share our hopes, passions and values, and when these things allow us to flow together- not as our primary purpose, but rather as a natural consequence of our togetherness.
  • The emphasis then is in the creation of ‘social capital’- “The benefits of participation tend to come in the form of the members sharing their extended network of skills, connections, and other resources with one another. In other words, it is other members more than the organizer or curator who provide value to each other.” So rather than becoming passive consumers of religious product, we might be learning to become co-conspirators with one another to discover and celebrate for ourselves, and in the process of doing this, carry each other forward.

None of this is really new thinking- it has been the very substance of the ’emerging conversation’ as we have called it- but what is more interested is how these ideas are playing out in the wider world- perhaps in particular in the commercial world, sick to death of megalithic faceless conglomerates, and looking for something on the human scale that they can once again believe in, and share with their friends.

What was on the edge, is becoming part of the mainstream.

Hmmmmm….

The spirituality of log stacking…

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So here is my little ten part sermon based on the stacking of logs.

You can make your own analagous links.

  1. Stacking logs can not be rushed
  2. There are no machines that can stack them for you- bend your back and get stuck in
  3. Beginning carefully is very important- you will be building on these foundations
  4. Neatness is not important, but a well stocked log pile will probably be orderly
  5. Fresh air needs to circulate in, over and through the pile or the logs won’t dry, and will go stale and mouldy
  6. The rigidity and strength of a log pile comes from the closeness- the proximity- of its individual logs
  7. The big ego-bulging logs are the hardest to stack- they tend to topple and teeter and can easily bring the whole thing crashing down
  8. The smaller logs tend to be the glue that hold together the whole structure
  9. The higher you build the pile, the more unstable it will become
  10. The pile is not an end in itself- no matter how decorous. It exists to store and dry fuel that can then burn bright in service of the other

There was this gay man and a fundamentalist Christian on a plane…

I had a lovely time on recently with a couple of friends. We were meeting up to have ‘that church conversation.’ You know the one- about how we are hungry to live a life that has passion and integrity- in the Jesus kind of way- but at the same time Church is ripping us apart.

There are all sorts of reasons for this- many of my friends have gone through it. It is about relationship, theology, styles of worship, boredom, leadership issues. And sometimes just a longing for more. For a better way of living out faith.

My heart goes out to these friends, as it is a painful time.

Don’t get me wrong- I am not advocating leaving church, neither do I think that the hurt and pain we go through in this process is good, like a partially healed wound that we pick at. But the transition to new things often means a process of separation from the old- even if later we are able to find ways to reconnect with the rich traditions that are part of our DNA.

Both of my friends described their own struggles and hurts. Many of them were familiar to me. One of them was not however- because one of these good people was gay.

And as a gay person, their connection to church was always going to be filtered through a different set of experiences. I hope that this person gets the opportunity to tell their own story in full- I have no right to do this on their behalf.

It set me thinking again about how we hurt one another in the name of ‘truth’. And of Joseph Nicolosi and his quasi scientific religious exploitation.

Then this evening, by chance I came across this. A story told rich in grace and humility. From outside the Church.  A voice from the margins that we need to hear.

The future of Church in the west?

Following on from my somewhat negative previous post, I have just been reading a couple of reports from this conference.

The discussion focused on the future of Christianity in the USA- and this is clearly potentially very misleading. The global growth of Christianity is a very different discussion. However, the influence of American Evangelical Christianity on the UK religious scene is huge- all the TV channels, the publishing juggernaut and the big name preachers. We watch changes there with interest, knowing that the impact of these changes will be felt this side of the Atlantic.

Brian McLaren believes that over the next period, the Conservative Evangelical denominations (protestant and Catholic) in the USA will “constrict, tighten up, batten the hatches, raise the boundary fences, demand greater doctrinal, political, and behavioral conformity, and monitor boundaries with increased vigilance.”

He believes that this will drive out many, whilst increasing the anxiety and ‘bunker mentality’ of those left inside the denominations. At the same time, he sees a new coalition forming-

That new coalition, I believe, will emerge from four main sources:

  1. Progressive Evangelicals who are squeezed out of constricting evangelical settings.
  2. Progressive Roman Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) who are squeezed out of their constricting settings.
  3. Missional mainliners who are rediscovering their Christian faith more as a missional spiritual movement, and less as a revered and favored religious institution.
  4. Social justice-oriented Pentecostals and Evangelicals — from the minority churches in the West and from the majority churches of the global South, especially the second- and third-generation leaders who have the benefits of higher education.

Scott McKnight points out that Conservative Evangelical Mega churches in the USA (and I believe,the UK equivalents) are in fact growing. He does not believe that ‘Evangelicalism’ is made up of one stream- believing that some incarnations will be around for a long long time to come.

However, what he sees as now having ended is the old ‘Evangelical coalition’-

The evangelicalism that formed in the 1940s and 1950s, more accurately called “neo-evangelicalism,” was a reaction to strident forms of fundamentalism, a call to serious intellectual engagement so that evangelicalism could gain both theological and academic credibility again, and a formation of a big tent coalition to work together for evangelism and theological development. By and large, this big tent coalition combined the Calvinist and Wesleyan segments of evangelicalism, found places for Christian colleges, parachurch ministries, missionary societies, and a plethora of magazines and radio stations, and gave a privileged place to evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Carl Henry.

But perhaps the most powerful piece was by Philip Clayton who had this to say-

A major national survey recently published in USA Today shows that 72 percent of “Millennials” — Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 — now consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Even among those who self-identify as practicing Christians, all of the traditional forms of Christian practice have sharply declined from previous years: church attendance, Bible study, prayer. Doubts are higher, and affiliation with the institutional church is sharply lower. All of us who are still connected with local congregations already know this pattern, up close and personal. Still, it’s sobering to see the trends writ large; after all, we’re talking about almost three-quarters of younger Americans!

The decline of traditional churches and denominations will presumably continue, so that by 2020 the effects will be as devastating in the U.S. as they already are in Europe. (On a typical Sunday, for example, 0.5 percent of Germans attend church.) Numerically, two-thirds or more of mainline churches will close their doors or struggle on without a full-time pastor. Denominations will merge in order to be able to maintain even minimal national staffs and programs. A larger and larger proportion of those who still go to church will attend large “mega” churches, those with 2,000 or more attendees on an average Sunday.

Clayton issued what he called a ‘call to church’-

We churchpeople were the center of American society since this nation was founded. We enjoyed power and prestige; we were the center of the action; we counted presidents, educators, and industry leaders among our numbers. But those days, it appears, are over. We still have a crucial role to play in the world. But it’s no longer a world that revolves around us.

This new role actually makes it easier for us to model ourselves and our communities on the Head of the church, who “has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon him” (Isaiah 53:2). As Dwight Friesen puts it in Thy Kingdom Connected, the church can no longer be a “bounded set,” defining itself by the people and ideas it’s opposed to. We now have to be a “centered set,” pointing toward — and living like — the One whose life and ministry we model ourselves on. If we can’t communicate our Center with power and conviction, no one’s going to listen. Oh, and by the way: we have to find ways to do this that don’t sound or look anything like the church has looked over the last 50 years or so.

Finally, Clayton talks about an age of experimentation in church-

What does “church” look like when you take it out of the box, replant it, and let it grow organically? It’s going to stretch and challenge you; it’s going to take openness to forms and practices you’ve never seen before:

  • churches that meet in pubs, office buildings, school classrooms, or homes . . . or virtual churches, like those at SecondLife.com;
  • churches that have no leader, or have leaders who don’t look like any pastor you’ve ever known (OMG, what if they have piercings?);
  • pastors who are hosts to discussions, who can listen long and deep to doubts and questions before presenting the answers on which they center their lives;
  • churches that don’t have buildings, denominations, pastors, or sermons; that don’t meet on Sundays; that consist mainly of people who don’t call themselves “Christians”;
  • churches whose participants are drawn from many different religious groups; churches full of “seekers”; churches that consist mostly of silence (like the Quakers) or of heated discussions between participants.

Not only conservatives will wonder and worry where one should draw the line. And that’s the point: we’ve now entered an age where we no longer know how to draw lines, because the old criteria just don’t work anymore — except to exclude the vast majority of the people whom we hope to interest.

All this sounds very familiar from this side of the Atlantic. We are much further down the line that it all.

We have our Evangelical enclaves- who tend to be exclusive, embattled, and increasingly fuelled by an agenda that looks either to African or American Mega churches. Despite their vigour and apparent success, they are largely irrelevant to the larger cultural situation- and their engagement with mission is simply to attempt to create more ‘converts’ to their own kind of belief system. These churches feel to me to be about marketing and mass consumerism.

And then we have the huge majority of spiritually interested consumers, who may have been inoculated against Christianity, but not against Jesus.

And then we have a growing number of experimental pioneers, whose methods are increasingly being adopted by the mainstream traditional churches- through things like Fresh Expressions-

…and all the mixed madness to be experienced at Greenbelt Festival.

We live, my friends, in interesting times, where change is normal, and the future uncertain. But I have no doubt that church will continue, and that the mission of Jesus will be carried forward into new generations. Some will resist any change fiercely, others will embrace it.

But change will happen- it has already happened…

Not clubbable…

We had a lovely evening tonight with friends, discussing life, childhood, faith and children.

Drinking wine and listening to good music.

One of our friends described her son as ‘not clubbable’- meaning that he was not comfortable joining in-groups. Such groups are scary, exclusive, and make too many demands that he does not necessarily want to be committed to on a week by week basis.

Does this remind you of anything?

The decline in membership of unions, bowling clubs, debating societies, womens institutes, working men’s clubs etc etc.

And churches.

Perhaps we are increasingly not churchable.

Or perhaps churches can no longer behave like clubs…

Another one of those discussions about church…

I shared lunch with some friends today- I meet with three other blokes to pray every couple of weeks. It is a really good mix of folks as each of us are very different, but share a desire for honesty, friendship and to create a safe space to share faith and life.

Today we spoke about church.

It is a familiar theme. I am the only one of the group who is no longer attending a regular Sunday morning service in a church building. All of my friends are still hanging on in there- just.

It is not that any of us do not appreciate the value of meeting and worshipping communally- it is just that the baggage that comes with this seems to have a high price- and also that the activities through which communal worship is celebrated can just be so suffocatingly irrelevant- for us, let alone for our kids or our friends and neighbours.

The question of what might be possible as an alternative has exercised much discussion, including on this blog.

In particular, today we asked a local version of this question…

A couple of days ago, in response to a comment on this piece by Aileen, I wrote this-

I wonder  if  we were ‘over sold’ some of the ideas about what it means to be a Christian. We have been told repeatedly that people are of two sorts-
Saved and unsaved
Good and ‘of the world’(or even ‘evil)
Transformed and untransformed
Enlightened and deceived by the devil
We have the Holy Spirit who will sort us out- they don’t.

This dualism allows us to then suggest that Christians are elevated above all other people- more holy, more loving, living better lives. And then when we discover (as we inevitably do) that Christians are often just as screwed up and damaged /damaging as the next person, we are exposed to a great disappointment- and what the Americans would call a ‘disconnect’ between our rhetoric and reality.

I have come to believe that the Kingdom of God at loose on the earth is NOT the same thing as ‘the church’. Rather “God plays in ten thousand places, from the father to the features of mens faces, lovely in limbs and hands not his”

The question is, if this is true, what the POINT of the church is? If Christians are untransformed by encountering Jesus- what is the point?

I think I would reply that we are not untransformed- the very fact that you and I are asking these questions is proof of that. Rather what we come to is an awareness that we can reach higher, and deeper- and expect an encounter with the divine as we do this that is so much more than a one directional intellectual exchange of religious ideas/doctrine. But also that we are called to walk humbly- and to hold ourselves in awareness of our sinful state- not other peoples sinful state, but our own.

Perhaps then the purpose of the church is to be a sprinkling of salt, bringing out flavours of the world, and a source of light that illuminates good and beautiful things. This kind of church I can belong to!

I have no desire to start a new church though- in the sense of a new institution, or a new exclusive gathering of people who try to sell their ‘product’ and their version of truth to everyone on the outside.

But what began to emerge today in our discussion was the possibility of a more regular celebration event, in partnership with others where possible.

In many ways this might compliment some of the more intimate small group church things that I love.

Who knows what might emerge, but I have a feeling that it might be time to make some noise again…