1.Worship music: What should we sing?
Devised by Chris Bowater based on a blog by Vicky Beeching.
‘Could a blindfolded monkey write some of our worship songs?’
When Vicky Beeching raised that question on her blog, a flurry of activity followed. The sentiment registered with hundreds of Christians around the world.
Vicky’s feeling is that the language some modern day Christian songwriters have adopted lacks “freshness, creativity and effort”.
And it’s not just the lyrics that are under fire.
The writer of Be Lifted Up and Jesus Friend of Sinners, Paul Oakley, recently said he was “tired and frustrated” with the praise genre. The man who once led thousands in worship at events like Stoneleigh in the 90s and Newday in the ‘noughties’ has turned his hands to a very different project.
Brighton based band Alamein’s Torch have been causing a stir with their debut project. Producer Jon Astley (Eric Clapton, The Who) has described it as, “Epic, catchy, organic, shout out loud…a mix of punchy hooks, anthemic choruses and subtle more ambient tracks.”
Paul says the new project is “completely separate from Paul Oakley the ‘worship leader’…before, it felt like there were strict parameters on what I could write and the form and melody and structure and so on…when I started to try writing for this project it was literally like a blank canvas. No rules. No limits. No constraints.”
The following stereotype will be familiar to many within the church: A white male worship leader strums his acoustic guitar, a drummer and bassist keep the beat simple while the electric guitarist does his best to re-create U2’s delay and reverb filled tones.
Writing in The Guardian, John Harris put it well when he said church music, “suggests a grim hybrid of Snow Patrol and LeAnn Rimes”.
It’s a problem that is being talked about on both sides of the Atlantic. Christianity Today’s Russ Breimeier summed it up well when he said “more and more people note that a lot of today’s Christian music ‘sounds like Christian music.’”
‘I’ve always tried to be creative’
Trevor Michael has over a decade of experience in recording and mixing with artists including Duke Special, Tree 63 and Delirious. The producer has recently launched his own record label: 7Core music. The news comes not long after some of Christian music’s biggest bands (Delirious, Dweeb and Yfriday to name just three) have called it a day.
Trevor says what was once an exciting and innovative style of music can become “a bit stale” over time if people attempt to mimic other artist’s work.
“In everything I’ve done, I’ve always tried to be creative. I’ve always said to people when I start a project you can draw from influences, but as soon as you try to copy something it’s rubbish.”
Some have criticised major record labels such as Kingsway Music for helping to create an industry that churns out music and creates an ‘imperative’ to write songs.
Michael Gungor, a man who has been praised for writing creative worship music says, “the industry as a whole is broken”. Trevor disagrees.
“What Kingsway do is brilliant. There are songs that have gone all over the world that wouldn’t have gone all over the world had Kingsway not been behind it. I remember when Matt [Redman] started, and he would say this himself, that Kingsway have been a massive help.”
Adrian Thompson, A&R Manager at Kingsway denies that the company are pressuring artists to become “worship songs factories”.
“Our aim is to create a channel for the worship songs our writers have written and to make them as accessible to worshippers as possible,” he says.
But doesn’t all worship music sound the same? Not according to Adrian. He believes that artists such as Rend Collective Experiment, Nathan Jess and even Stuart Townend with his latest album are breaking the mould.
“I think if you want to state that all pop music sounds the same then it would be fair to say that modern worship music all sounds the same. Certainly there is a majority of worship leaders and church teams who favour that style of music and to be fair, it is a fairly general musical genre that can be accessible to a wide demographic of people which makes it easier for people to join in sung worship in churches.”
Vicky Beeching’s blog post may have caused a stir among ordinary individuals, but her comments also resonated with a number of worship leaders. It’s these songwriters and musicians who carry both a privilege and a responsibility. The privilege of having your songs sung by thousands of people is obvious, but the responsibility to make those songs both Biblical and musically engaging is heavy.
2. Worship music: How should we sing?
Does our worship embrace community and togetherness? Do our songs need to be more multicultural? Why are some pushing for greater diversity in worship?
United States based magazine Worship Leader recently compiled a list of the top twenty most influential worship albums of all time.
The number one spot didn’t go to Hillsong, Chris Tomlin or Michael W Smith. It went to a British group that helped pioneer the modern worship movement.
Writing in the 20th anniversary edition of the magazine, Andrea Hunter said: “If Love Song ignited the rock band as worship model, and the Vineyard continued to light the fire then…Delirious? added a booster rocket and shot it into the stratosphere”.
The band’s debut album Cutting Edge was originally released on audio cassettes, but was compiled as Cutting Edge 1&2 on CD in 1994.
Worship Leader magazine also referenced Matt Redman’s Facedown, Soul Survivor’s Heart of Worship: Live ’97 and Vineyard UK’s Hungry albums as being influential.
It’s easy to forget how many of the world’s biggest worship leaders have emerged out of the UK. But far from being restricted to UK markets, artists like Matt Redman and Tim Hughes have their songs sung around the globe every week.
It’s interesting to note that of the five most sung songs in churches across the US, three were written by British songwriters.
But are the UK and the US really leading the way in writing songs for the church? What about the rest of the world?
Evan Rogers is a South African worship leader and songwriter who often emphasises diversity. Believing it should be part of the “core vision” of the church, Evan is passionate about encouraging multi-cultural worship.
The worship leader, who used to lead worship at New Frontiers international leaders conference is disappointed that one style of music often dominates evangelical churches. He argues that local communities are diverse, and churches need to express this diversity in their music.
Explaining that mono culturalism in the UK is increasingly rare, Evan believes “acceptance and diversity expresses God’s glory…By singing in other languages you’re expressing that God isn’t mono cultural or Eurocentric. His glory is far greater than just us.”
Evan believes the church has moved away from true biblical worship and is critical of what he see as the “worship industry”.
“A lot of what we sing is because of marketing rather than that’s how God wants it to be. The way we do church has become quite performance based and we’re trying to deliver songs rather than encounter God together.”
Evan believes we need to re-discover the relationship between worship and community.
“Our praise needs to be more community centred than this self centeredness in our approach of God. My experience of other cultures is there’s far more community which has challenged my thinking.”
Citing experiences where Evan has worshipped with people who didn’t have any instruments, he explains how multicultural worship doesn’t need to be complicated. Believing an open mind and willingness to learn is all that’s required, I asked Evan what the starting point is.
Exploring musical alternatives
“I’d encourage people to not just be listening to Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman but exploring some musical alternatives,” he says.
As well as not just listening to popular artists, Evan suggests finding people in church who have experience of other cultures and singing parts of songs in a different language.
Evan wants to avoid gimmicks. He sees broadening expressions of worship as representing God’s character and encouraging greater community.
Adrian Thompson from Kingsway Music says: “There are some churches who want to be multi-cultural in its worship style when it has a 90% white middle class congregation, that seems strange to me.”
“However, if you have a congregation which is genuinely multi-cultural then your worship needs to reflect that whether it is gospel, Asian, choral or soft rock. I am not sure if there is the same discussions about black Pentecostal churches not playing ‘soft rock’ - it makes sense because that is not their core demographic.”
John Bell from Iona believes a community is an integral part of the Christian faith. “God never gave worship to people who did not know each other. He never gave worship to people who weren’t concerned for one another. He never gave worship to people who did not have a common mission. The early church thrived because people had a common experience of Christ,” he says.
As well as encouraging people to demonstrate community in their singing, John believes the process of songwriting should be explored with others.
“I don’t work solo, I work in conjunction with other people so all of this stuff that has come out in my name has gone through other minds apart from my own. I don’t believe it’s right for an author to presume that because he or she has an inspirational moment, that the church has to sing what has been discovered. I think the song of the church has to represent the aspiration of people and the needs of people to God and if people can’t say amen to what has been written, it’s not worth singing.”
3.Worship music: Why should we sing?
Singing has been a part of Christianity ever since the beginning. Today, singing remains a part of almost every church in the world. It has become such a major part of Church life that Christians often take it for granted.
In the book of Acts we are told Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God. It’s such a central aspect to the Judeo/Christian tradition that God apparently ordained that the largest book of the Bible would be a songbook (Psalms has more chapters than any other book in the Bible). One evangelical pastor once explained how strange this can seem to those not used to Church by recalling a church visitor’s words: “I liked the service, but the karaoke bit at the beginning was a bit weird”.
When families get together or people have meetings at work, it isn’t usually preluded with a time of people singing words off a page or screen, backed by a piano, organ, guitar or full band. So why do Christians do it?
Tim Hughes recently appeared on BBC Radio Wales and was asked by a puzzled interviewer why singing songs in church was so important.
“Worship is much more than singing songs and music,” the worship leader replied.
“It’s about our response to a God who first loved us. He wants to bring out the best in people and when we as Christians choose to follow him, that begins to make a difference in society.”
Believing singing to be just the beginning of worship, Tim explained that by singing, Christians catch God’s vision for others. “We’re loved by God so we can go and do likewise.”
“Those who are in prison, we visit them, those who have no money, we share our money with, those who are orphans, we bring them into our homes.”
While many denominations and Christian groups have been serving the poor for centuries, some of the Church has been playing catch-up. It could be argued that much of the modern worship movement has taken its time in asking the question: “Is singing enough?”
“We should be fighting injustice more passionately than anyone else because we worship a God of justice and I believe as we look to God, God changes us to give us a greater passion for justice. In our songs we need to reflect something of that. I’d like to see more songs communicating that,” Tim says.
While the connection between worship and justice has been explored by many authors and worship leaders in recent years, the fact remains that every Sunday millions of people will spend considerable time singing songs.
‘Sing to the Lord’
“The Bible is full of music and song from the beginning right to the very end,” Chris explains.
“There are around 500 references, depending on translation, about singing and 50 of them are direct commands to ‘sing to the Lord’.”
Chris also believes songs can help remind us of Biblical truth. “Just think about annoying jingles and songs that do your head in but you know all the words and can’t help but sing along.”
“Well God was on to this well before any music producer…We read in Deuteronomy 31 that before the Israelites entered the promised land God gave Moses a song to write down and teach it to them (v19) so that they and their descendants would remember God’s commands when they turned away and worshipped foreign idols and gods.”
He also lists music’s emotive effect, the power of worship and its eternal significance as reasons to sing to God.
Worship in the charts?
But could worship music also be used as a tool for spreading the Christian message across the airwaves? There has been a recent push to get Christian music into the UK charts. It began in February 2010 with a Facebook group that encouraged everyone to download Delirious’ song History Maker to make it ‘Easter number one’. The song peaked at number four and the campaign sparked a number of spin offs.
Despite helping to produce many of the songs we sing in church every week, Trevor Michael from 7 Core Music isn’t interested in getting Christian music into the charts.
“I don’t know if it makes a big difference because it gets in the charts one week then goes out again. So what? Did anyone really pay any attention to it. Is our job to get worship music into the charts? I don’t think it is. I think worship music is for us, the church.”
Adrian Thompson, A&R Manager at Kingsway Music has a different view. “I am not against these campaigns but there has to be a more realistic and sustainable approach if we are to see Christian musicians taken as credible in media circles and not a one week wonder.”
“I look forward to the day when a Christian artist can chart for longer than a week on a credible basis and then gain some form of airplay.”
‘When the music fades…’
Why do we sing? It seems there are many good answers. It’s Biblical, it inspires, and it allows communication with God. In the words of St Augustine, “When one sings one prays twice”.
Mike Pilivachi’s experience makes for interesting reading. Soul Survivor, Mike’s growing youth movement that today attracts 28,000 a year was flourishing. Speaking about the worship times, Mike recalls: “On the surface everything was just fine… Yet, we seemed to have lost the spark…One day it clicked; we had become connoisseurs of worship instead of participants of it.”
The danger Mike describes exists whatever style of music is used to accompany worship. Mike said the team at Soul Survivor learned their lesson and stopped focussing on the songs and turned their attention to God. Not long afterwards, Soul Survivor worship leader Matt Redman penned the following famous words in his well known and much loved song Heart of Worship: “I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required”.
4. Worship music: What does the future hold?
From concerns over creativity to questions about community, much debate has been sparked. While images of worship leaders leading rock bands are familiar to many, a very different style of music has been enjoying a re-surgence in recent years.
John Bell, a hymnwriter and speaker for the Iona Community.
John Bell has witnessed a growing interest in very early Celtic expressions of Christianity. Spending 8 months of the year travelling the globe, the Scotsman teaches congregations how to embrace early Christian expressions and learn from Celtic history.
But the hymn writer and author is concerned about a “very distinct phenomenon”, which he describes as a “performer mentality” in the church during the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Publishers in the past had produced songs for choirs to sing, now there are publishers that produce songs that gifted people who have instruments and good voices can sing up front, and there’s a market for Christian music.”
Martin Smith from Delirious said something similar in his autobiography: “There was a time for many of us back in the early 1990s when worship had nothing to do with money, status, or the sort of success that could be measured by a spreadsheet. It was a time when worship songs mattered only in as much as they enabled people to draw closer to God. I miss those days.”
John believes a commercial influence on worship can result in a “slimming down of biblical content”.
“Maximum attention is paid to words like ‘me’, ‘love’, ‘power’, ‘God’ or some other combination. The church has to be able to allow people to express their delight and also has to minister pastorally to people who may be going through a hard time. Worship which relies solely on high-octane music does not minister to people.”
“People may be dealing with divorce or redundancy or the death of somebody who they loved or sudden illness. Issues in society deserve to be brought to God in song and prayer. If you’re only out for what will make a commercial hit, you’re not liable to be producing that kind of music.”
John believes that in order to move forward in our times of worship, we must first learn from history.
“If you take a look at economics, that word does not fit into a worship song frame of reference, neither does it work in a conventional hymn tune, yet for the last five years people all over the Western world have been besieged by financial incompetence in the stock exchange and have lost a great deal of money.”
“100 years ago people had no difficulty with singing about child mortality which was high in the industrial period in Britain. There were hymns like ‘if I come to Jesus he will make me glad, he will make me happy if my heart is sad’ which was to deal with the political reality of high infant mortality and the laissez-faire approach of the government.
“Whether it’s sex slavery, asylum seekers or living in a culture alongside other major faiths, either the Victorian hymn tune or the praise and worship song just doesn’t fit with those kinds of subjects so you have to find something else.”
From talking to people involved in worship music, one of the major themes being explored is authenticity. People aren’t interested in singing the same songs over and over again. And neither are they content with one or two genres dominating church services. Churchgoers also want to rediscover community and embrace diversity.
Another reoccurring subject has been the use of scripture. Do our songs lack biblical input? Perhaps, but not everyone sees it as a problem. Brian Johnson of Bethel church recently said people “freak out too much” about lyrics.
“I honestly think that people freak out too much about whether it’s biblical or not…People get hung up with this whole religious ‘is it ok to sing that?’ In my opinion it’s where the heart is at. It’s not devaluing the Bible or theology, it’s saying when you’re married to someone, you’d better be passionate about that person. It’s the same with the Lord. If we’re just quoting Bible verses to the Lord but our hearts aren’t in love with him, he’s going to see that.”
Others are more concerned. Speaking to Christian.co.uk, well known Messianic praise and worship leader Karen Davis said she was “pleased” the songs she sings, which often contain Old Testament imagery have a reputation for being biblical.
“Praise and Worship is one of the weapons in the spirit that we have. The word of God is a double aged sword and proclamation and declaration is important.”
Seeking justice through music and action
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christians in the UK and beyond are not merely saying that worship “isn’t just about singing songs”, but they are acting on their beliefs. The songs have always been about God and for God, yet there’s often a positive, if unexpected side effect. We may be singing louder and more passionately than ever before, but what concerns us is whether that passion translates into seeking justice and serving the poor.
As Amos said: “I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.” (Amos 5:21-24 MSG)