What's with all the singing?

by Andy Piercy

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that the verb “to sing,” with related words such as “song,” etc. is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible, adding “When mankind comes into contact with God mere speech is not enough.” Very inspiring you’ll agree, unless you are C S Lewis, who once commented, “What I, like many other laymen, chiefly desire in church are fewer, better, and shorter hymns; especially fewer.”

But what sort of songs? Do we consider music within worship an ongoing evolution towards one perfect sacred expression or a constant voyage of new, and occasionally uncultivated, discovery? And why do the Scriptures always exhort us to sing a new song to the Lord, never an old one?

OK, love it or loathe it, it’s hard to ignore modern worship music these days. It all used to be so much simpler. Traditional churches sang hymns with proper beginnings and endings, all squarely on the beat and with solid enough theology for ministers to preach from. Gospel churches sang energetic spirituals, usually on the backbeat and with seemingly no intention of ever ending. Charismatic churches rejoiced in rousing songs with exuberant choruses, and house churches found inspiration in short songs from a monastic community in France. If you didn’t like one option, you simply went somewhere else and chose another (I am deliberately being provocative by the way!).

Suddenly, everything changed. Worship music became a popular style of its own and some people’s worst fears were realized; the same songs began to appear in each of the different settings making it almost impossible to avoid them.

A significant part to understand was the role of the early Vineyard church. While they certainly weren’t the first people to incorporate lots of modern music, they had spent a very long time considering carefully what was actually happening when they worshipped. These people weren’t just singing to each other about God, they were actually singing to God! In their early days they had observed that they often sang about worship but didn’t always necessarily actually worship. So they set about deliberately crafting songs that allowed them to journey through what transpired to be regular “stages” of worship, and gradually the model and philosophy developed. The key factor within all this was “intimacy” with God.

Like some modern version of the Moravians and Wesley story, they had an unanticipated profound effect on the church in the UK, particularly in the fertile ecumenical ground where strong denominational traditions no longer held sway. Basically, combined with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it exploded, with the resulting new songs and style rapidly making their way back to the USA.

Fast forward to today. Modern sung worship has achieved a significant status and a whole industry has been built, or rebuilt, around it. Worship albums and songs regularly appear in record charts, worship artists perform in stadium settings with all the trimmings of a rock concert.

Does this all matter? Well, yes and no to be honest. I think it is enormously significant that young people can find a sense of identity through music along with thousands of others around the world who share their faith, and not be ashamed of it. This is a significant modern cultural necessity that previous generations didn’t necessarily experience and can’t always comprehend. Dr. Leander Harding states that the children of first-generation believers grow up in a world where the spell has been broken, and they often want to develop an indigenous form of Christianity that celebrates the glory of their culture. Whether this constant striving for excellence or record chart positions will make a significant difference to culture is yet to be seen. One risk is that the resulting hybrid becomes less and less replicable in a local setting.

So, an ongoing evolution towards one perfect sacred expression or a constant voyage of new, and occasionally uncultivated, discovery? Both I guess.

It would be a tragedy to pull back again from the gift of intimacy with God in worship. Don’t fear change, don’t over legislate, celebrate the differences and pray for those who feel brave enough to try to write the “new” song we need to sing to the Lord. It’s a big responsibility and a wonderful opportunity; Thomas Cranmer would probably applaud our efforts.

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This Story Can Be Found In

The Seed and Harvest - Fall 2013 Edition 

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