My friend Andrew Hill posted this on FB today, and it made me laugh out loud. Given the rather worthy tone of this blog of late, I thought it worth re-posting!
Also seemed relevant following a conversation yesterday with another friend who told me he had been at a wedding recently which featured an unhealthy smattering of 80’s worship songs, including the one about the trees of the field clapping their hands. He bet £5 that someone would shout ‘HOY’ at the end (if you do not know what I am talking about then be grateful.)
We are starting a new worship thing next Sunday night- a simple, quiet, mainly music led thing. We have not given it a name as this would imply greater pretension than we have been able to gather.
Regular readers of this blog will know of my ramblings around the use of music in worship- I am a reformed ‘worship leader’ in the auditorium stylee- and thought never to return. However, I still love to play and sing and the question that I have found myself asking continually concerns what role if any singing songs of worship may play in our on going journey away from CCM monoculture.
Following thoughts gathered during a recent silent retreat I decided to set aside angst and just sing.
Andrew, a friend and local Episcopal vicar/priest/canon/ pope (pick suitable title!) had already asked if we could do something like this- something primarily about private worship, made collective in the small sense, and so we decided to go for it.
If this is of interest to anyone local, you are more than welcome to join us- 7.30, Holy Trinity Church, Dunoon.
Half and hour to an hour of music, quietness and contemplation.
If it feels like it has the wind of the Spirit, we might even give it a name…
We had an Aoradh meeting tonight to plan some activities. We talked about a ‘benches’ event (using benches as meditations stations, possibly in conjunction with Cowalfest,) a Labyrinth, and we also had a long conversation about plans to collaborate with some friends in a local church in the creation of a new regular worship service.
This is a new departure for us for several reasons- firstly it would amount to a regular ‘service’ (however loosely we understand what this might mean.)
However, it also opened up a lot of discussion about what is meaningful to us in worship. Some of us still just love to sing. Others lived in the shadow of long experiences of overly manipulative music dominated worship services, in which we felt like we were being told what to do, what to experience, what to feel.
So, the journey continues; to find ways towards authentic, open hearted, hopeful, respectful and creative worship.
For me too there is still the challenge of finding how to use authentic, open hearted, respectful and creative worship music. For some time I have laid music aside. I still feel that I need to encounter wider ways to worship.
Tonight Michaela handed around some cards with images on made my Sieger Koder– they were a present from our friend Maggy, and part of a collection called ‘The Folly of God‘. They are intended as aides to contemplation and worship- in a purely visual sense. This is all a little alien to me really. I am much more driven by words.
But this is the point- to be open to the new. To be ready to be challenged, shaped changed by things that we encounter, take into ourselves, then give back.
Michaela has asked us to live with the image we picked and we will meet on Easter Sunday to speak about our experience.
Or perhaps worship music is the carrier of culture into faith.
If either of these statements are true then what we sing together in churches is formational, fundamental. Our songs shape our belief, our worldview and our action in subtle and profound ways. Perhaps it is another one of those times when the medium might become the message.
What comes first, the culture or the song? Instinctively we would have to say the culture, but the idea of culture is one that demands a little more examination. I am using the term not to describe the shared tenants/creeds of the Christian faith but rather to describe something of the shared context, deep assumptions and instinctive reactions that people tend to converge upon in our collectives.
Culture is so powerful a force on how we live and think about ourselves that it can come to be indistinguishable from creed. I think I need to demonstrate this with a couple of examples.
I have spent some time in America, doing some worship music with a Southern Baptist Convention. There was, shall we say, a degree of cultural friction, but it was on the whole a fantastic experience. What was obvious to me as an outsider to this culture was the degree to which expressions of faith became interwoven with a whole set of wider assumptions- political, economic, commercial. These assumptions became totally self perpetuating, as many people seemed to have virtually no contact with people outside this culture. They shopped at ‘Christian’ shops, employed ‘Christian’ tradesman, listened only to ‘Christian’ voices (and only ones from a particular part of the spectrum) and voted always for ‘Christian’ politicians. God, community and country were indistinguishable.
I particularly remember a store with a whole isle selling nothing but Aslans, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Next to another selling Bible cases decorated with the American flag.
Those who did not conform to a particular way of being were gently corrected, or would find themselves ‘outside’.
The best way of describing this culture I have heard is this one- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God exists as a kind of divine therapist, mediating the psychological and financial rewards of society upon those who can conform to a certain moral code. God is a personal saviour, who will guarantee self esteem and success. Those who lack these things need to repent, and get more God so that they get some kind of a chance in the next life if not in this one.
All this has real strengths but it is hard to fully reconcile it all with the story of Jesus. Jesus called us to go, not stay. He seemed intent on overturning tables erected by the religious folk. He gravitated towards the outsiders, the poor, the broken. He started no political parties, nor would be joined to any. And he certainly gave no guarantees for health and wealth.
If I sound critical of the American church, then this is only because these issues were so much more obvious to me as an outsider. We can make equally critical comments about our own religious institutions. Think back towards the days of Empire and the complicity of our own churches even with genocide.
But how is this perspective reflected in our songs of worship?
When you stand back and look at the canon of songs that we have inherited over the last thirty years written both sides of the Atlantic they have some common characteristics;
They focus primarily on individual encounters with a personal God. Often it is as if worship is the means by which God ministers to us in some kind of Holy Spirit therapy.
They assume that repentance is required to allow us to be acceptable to God, and therefore to receive his blessing. However, repentance is primarily concerned with individual morality- particularly sexuality or dishonesty. We hear next to nothing about injustice, consumerism, over consumption or the workings of international capitalism.
There is little call to collective action, apart from parallel individual actions in line with the point above. There is little idea that repentance can be collective, or that change requires sacrifice and joint action.
Then there is the theological assumptions of the unassailable centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. The only way to save the world is one soul at a time- and our interest is really only in saving them from hell in the next life.
Does this sound familiar? I am of course not saying that the views above are necessarily wrong, rather that they arise from culture. They are then reinforced and communicated within our songs. Where then are the songs of protest, of prophetic vision, of renewed or alternative perspectives? The songs of the marginalised now welcomed home, the songs that disturb and challenge? The songs that confront power in the name of the weak? Where are the songs that remember the God who liberates captives not just in the abstract, who breaks actual chains? Where are the songs for the wayside pilgrim campfire, not those that require a graphic equaliser and power amplifier?
Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself
Not just evangelism, but mission – participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement) is the key element needed as we move into the postmodern world.
Re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics.
Songs that are simply about God … songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s wonder and mystery, not just for the great job God is doing at making me feel good.
Songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. ( Amen Brian!)
By way of another example;
Who remembers the song ‘Heart of Worship’? I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you. If I remember rightly, this came about as a result of a song writer/worship leader coming to the realisation that the music had taken over, so they stopped singing for a while to reflect and rebalance.
Then wrote a song about it.
It is not just the irony of this that should raise an eyebrow, it is the fact that the only cultural response to such a challenge to worship culture is to do the same thing again with a bit more passion.
Perhaps it might be time to do something totally different.
One of the things about the most recent renewal movement to sweep through the church, which I will describe using the words ’emerging/missional consciousness’ has been the LACK of songs, and the lack of singing.
I think this is partly reaction formation against the things mentioned above, but also because other forms of worship have been in the ascendancy. I have taken a similar journey with my own community, Aoradh. We became much more interested in ‘Alternative worship’, borrowing more from the art gallery than the auditorium. Worship became more about encounter within a shared space, with the emphasis being about openness and creativity.
All movement however need a corrective because the pendulum will swing too far and will overbalance the clock.
And all movements also need to communicate their hopes, dreams, ideas and worship. Within the emerging church this has tended to happen over the internet- blogs, podcasts, you tube clips, twitter feeds, even the old archaic websites.
But we still need to sing. We are not just individuals with access to chatrooms, we are also flesh and vocal chord.
Sing me a song of freedom and a song of hope, and I will sing it with you.
The first two pieces in this series are here and here.
We are just back from our monthly Aoradh ‘family day’. This is the closest we come to a ‘church service’ that we do regularly within Aoradh. It usually involves filling up one of our houses with people, then one of us will co-ordinate a period during which a selection of folk – kids and adults – will take turns to lead others through a song, a prayer, some meditation, a poem, a clip from you tube. It is simple, messy and lovely.
Then we eat together.
Today I was thinking about the distance I have travelled within the scope of what ‘church’ might mean. I was playing my guitar along with William and Rachel, and really enjoying it, because this is something I do fairly rarely these days.
There was a time when it was my whole life.
I was a ‘worship leader’ – one of those blokes (and they usually are blokes) who stand in front of people and whip up some spiritual fervour by the application of soft rock love songs to Jesus. I lived for those moments when the music took flight, and something kind of opened up. At such times, music was more than just notes. Performance became less about technique, and more about an attitude of humility and receptiveness.
But in the course of my journey from ‘organised’ church, other principles started to dominate the way I thought about worship. Primarily, I was convinced that the culture of ‘church’, with all its big and small liturgies, assumptions and traditions, easily came to be a black hole that swallowed people whole. It left us with no room for the other. It became about us, not about them. They were only important if they were willing to become like us. I was convinced that church should exist to send and to serve, not endlessly feed itself.
Our corporate worship was the same. It was all about music and preaching. Other ways if worshipping were not necessarily wrong (although some were guilty by association) but they were just not our thing. We knew what we liked and this was enough.
As I think about this now it is like a rainbow of only one colour. Still impressive, but monochrome.
It can also be so selfish, so self centred. Worship like this exists to make us feel good. The end we aim for is a spiritual/emotional high for us, dressed up in the clothes of adoration of the God that we make in our own image.
But I overstate my case. A monochrome rainbow can still be beautiful.
The word that came to sum up the change I was finding in my own aspirations in worship was this one;
By which I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.
Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.
They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.
They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.
They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.
They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.
I had become so trapped in a view of God that was limited to one colour of the huge spectrum from ultaviolet to infra red and beyond, that I needed to go cold turkey. The guitar needed to go away for a while so I could hear the birds sing.
So I had some time to speak to people, with no agenda other than love.
So I could be creative, and make art in service of the Creator.
How about you? Where might your ordinary space become pregnant with the extraordinary, capricious, magnificent Living God?
OK, people have sung to worship God since the earliest times of church. The Hebrew Bible gives a whole book over to songs of praise, otherwise known as Psalms. Does that mean that we should follow their example?
There are lots of other traditional forms of worship that we no longer practice as a norm (certainly in the non-conformist tradition that I come from anyway.) We are not much into sacrificing animals, or washing feet, or burning incense, or flagellation, or dancing (particularly the naked Dancing that King David was known for.)
Then there is are lots of others that are fashionable, but still relatively rare- pilgrimage, silent meditation.
So- why sing?
Some people would point to the passages in the Bible that would seem to instruct it- ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’. Clearly early followers of Jesus sang together-
1 Corinthians 14:26
[ Good Order in Worship ] What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.
I have to say however that my times of direct literal application of words like this without any wider questioning are gone. There are lots of other passages that we do not apply in this way. The question of how much is social/cultural/historical, and how much is expected conduct for all subsequent followers is always a point of debate. In this instance- the practice seems to me to be less important than the purpose and the meaning of the practice.
There are some things about singing that are special. I will divide these into three areas- physiological, communal and spiritual.
There is plenty of evidence of the health benefits of singing.
Singing releases endorphins into your system and makes you feel energized and uplifted. People who sing are healthier than people who don’t.
Singing gives the lungs a workout,
Singing tones abdominal and intercostal muscles and the diaphragm, and stimulates circulation.
Singing makes us breathe more deeply than many forms of strenuous exercise, so we take in more oxygen, improve aerobic capacity and experience a release of muscle tension as well.” — Professor Graham Welch, Director of Educational Research, University of Surrey, Roehampton, UK- from here.
Other claims made are that singing can increase your life span, can reduce depression, improve your posture. If half of this is true then perhaps every hospital should have its own choir. GP’s should prescribe barber shop.
We do not worship for our own benefit of course- and I suppose you could argue that worship music has already become too centred on ‘us’- our needs for a ‘high’, not to mention the egos of we worship leaders. However, we might argue that things that carry a simple wholesomeness about them always seem to draw us towards God.
Everywhere, in all cultures, through all time, when people come together, we sing.
In these times when individualism tends to dominate our western culture, very few things still collectivise our activities. There are very few semi-ritual activities that bring us together. Communal singing is one of the few things that achieves this- whether on the football terraces, or our national anthems, or in churches.
When we come together like this, interesting things happen. We humans are above all things, social creatures. Our sense of wellbeing is very dependent on our connection with people around us. The stronger- more harmonious- that these are, then the better we tend to feel.
Perhaps the most developed example of this is the choir. Choirs come together to rehearse, with an overarching mission- the performance. Fairly ordinary voices are combined with other fairly ordinary voices, and the sound that is made collectively can be extraordianry- even sublime. And along the way, we learn together, laugh together, form relationships with people from other walks of life. There is much of the ways of the Kingdom of God in this I think.
And then there is the high of performing together. Like this, for example.
If our culture skews us towards individuality, then perhaps our means of worship have taken a similar course? Our spirituality is ‘personal’ and ‘private’, and newer forms of worship may have underlined this too- for example, ‘alternative worship’ spaces (which I love) which owe more to art installations may tend to make individuals of all of us even within a communal space.
Singing is one of the few spiritual practices that can be totally shared. When done together it requires us to align ourselves entirely with our fellow singers- to find the same rhythm and chordal structure, to feel the ebb and flow of the emotional content of what sing and to depend on others to fill out the polyphonic diversity.
There is more however- many of us who have sung in groups would describe transcendent experiences whilst singing. These things are extremely difficult to define- but perhaps the shared intensity, allied to deep breathing and exposure to rich lovely sounds will always open us wide to deeper experiences.
Of course, you might experience similar things from exposure to all sorts of art/beauty- from a rock concerts, to films, or beauty in nature. But singing is slightly different- in its democratic accessibility.
It is also a means of making worship deliberate and directional. It combines something abstract- music, with something concrete- words.
In many ways, these words are the carries of our faith- the ones that we remember more vividly and use to encapsulate beliefs. Some of these words rest on our souls- we never forget them. They come to us in moments of significance almost unbidden- either in times of adversity or ecstasy. Somehow their allegiance to music makes them spiritually more three dimensional.
So perhaps the arguments for singing remain strong?
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?
So, the journey continues- think I will go and get my guitar…