Thursday, 13 March 2008

'Atrocious harmlessness' of worship music?

Although I'm a member of a local Baptist Church, because of my role I don't get to worship there very often. Most Sundays I'm likely to be preaching at one of the churches in the Central Baptist Association. Add to this ordinations and inductions as well as association and national gatherings, I think it's fair to say that I have a reasonable exposure to the worship of our churches, and in turn the wider contemporary music/worship culture.

What strikes me is how very narrow it is. It isn't an exaggeration to say that it feels as though the number of hymns/songs that we sing can be counted on two hands. And I confess that I contribute to this to some degree because if I'm invited to lead worship, not knowing what is familiar I opt for the obvious - it requires a settled ministry to effectively introduce and embed new material. Confession over, I remain concerned.

It seems to me that on one hand there is so much new material - Songs of Fellowship Book Four is now available - and yet we use so little, and what we use tends towards the formulaic both in words and music. In relation to the words, for me what is lacking is imagination and poetry. Feeling slightly mischievous I'm tempted now and again to 'write' a song using all of the words and phrases which recur again and again in many of the songs we sing.

In relation to music, to my way of listening some of the songs have no musical merit at all and are barely singable. Others have a hook which initially attracts but then becomes quickly worn with overuse. I'm not making a case here for high-art in worship, nor for a more formal, 'inherited' expression of worship. What I would like to hear is something with more imagination, reflecting the creativity of the Holy Spirit.

Jeremy Begbie, in Resounding Truth, makes this point better than I can, 'It is disappointing to find an intense musical conservatism in much of the contemporary music scene. Granted that simple songs have their place, that accessibility is one of the key merits of this music, and that this is always going to be ncessary to some extent, one would have hoped that a movement that can put such weight on the Holy Spirit's renewal could generate somewhat more adventurous material. Many songs are in standard four- and eight-bar phrases, using only a few chords of a basic and very well-worn folk or folk-rock tradition. The questions need to be pressed: Is the church prepared to give its musicians room to experiment (and fail), to juxtapose different styles, to educate themselves in music history, to resist the tendency to rely on formulas that "work" with minimum effort and can quickly guarantee seats filled in church - and all this in order that congregational worship can become more theologically responsible, more true to the God who has given us such abundant potential for developing fresh musical sounds?'

He extends this in speaking of worship music that reflects an attitude of escape from the reality of this broken world that God in Christ gave himself for, rather than an engagement with it, 'We probably need to reckon with the fact that much music that goes under the label "Christian" has been "atrociously harmless" - and I am thinking of a wide variety of styles here - with a relatively small repertoire of easy-to-listen-to chords, with so little sense of the world's dissonance, of the clanking distortions and contradictions of human rebellion, of the clashing and grinding of evil, in short, of the realities that pervade the lives of so many people and that God came to engage directly at Golgotha.'

I'm wondering if this counts as my first rant on blog-world! Maybe, but I think this is an important issue and it would be good to hear other thoughts.


Sean Winter said...

And you didn't even get to the question of the words. I think we probably sang all 10 of your implied 'core repetoire' in the last few days. My favourite lyric (Not) - 'you took the fall...and thought of me...above all'.

Richard Pool said...

Perhaps the reason our repetoire is so narrow is that we learn mostly by hearing. I admit I fall into this category. It's very difficult to learn something new from scratch, especially when most of the worship team do not read music.

Catriona said...

In moments like this I love my little old-fangled church! We sing on average 6-7 items a week and will only have half a dozen of those more than once in a year. We probably learn half a dozen completely new (to us) things a year.

Always a couple of good old faithful hymns, always a couple of worship songs, regularly (if infrequently) something from the world church.

But then maybe because we have a piano and are sufficiently old-fashioned that the preacher chooses the music that makes enough difference?

Should you ever stray into my neck of the woods we almost certainly won't pick your core 10!

Sarah said...

The music is beingwatered down to fit the simpicity of modern idioms.
Rant on!