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.
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?