Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rethinking the Role of Praise Songs in Corporate Prayer

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Music and worship: it's about time to get real
'A lot of song-driven worship is shapeless and wanders around until you run out of energy, and then you sit down and do the next thing on the programme.'

By John McNeil of Challenge Weekly, New Zealand / Special to ASSIST News Service

Graham Kendrick
CHRISTCHURCH ,NZ (ANS) -- British Singer-songwriter Graham Kendrick - composer of such classics as "Shine Jesus Shine" and "The Servant King" - has just toured New Zealand with American preacher Tony Campolo on behalf of TEAR Fund. In this interview he says we need to bring the reality of human struggle into our worship, an move away from song-driven services.

Kendrick: Broadly speaking, the new wave of praise and worship, which I have been a part of, has tended to emphasise the positive. Those who criticise it would say that in many ways it's triumphalist, and there is an element of truth in that. We are singing songs as if everything's wonderful; because we have Jesus life is perfect. Of course, that's not reality.

The danger is that we deny suffering and struggle, which of course the scriptures never do. I am not in any way denying the victory that there is in the Christian life, but often the victory comes through suffering. If you look at the life of the apostle Paul, he experienced tremendous suffering and privation in the cause of the Gospel, and he didn't expect to be delivered from it.

We have to find a balance in the Christian faith, and often our worship songs define our thinking. Some would claim that worship songwriters are effectively today's theologians, for better or for worse, because people learn their theology from songs.

When you look at the psalms, it's not unreasonable to look at those as a touchstone of the balance of Christian worship, and they roughly divide into 50 per cent thanksgiving and 50 per cent laments, which sounds like life to me.

Challenge: Are you suggesting to songwriters it's about time they got real?

Kendrick: I think so. I think we need to write more about struggle. I admit that when you gather people for Sunday worship you don't want to immediately plunge into the difficulties and struggles. The answer is that we focus on God, who he is and what he has done. But we need the language of lament because there are times in a local community of believers when maybe someone is sick or has died or you're praying for someone to be healed and they were not healed. We need songs which give us the language of lament. There are far too few of them.

Challenge: Many songs major on intimacy, and are akin to spiritual ear-nibbling. We have been swamped with Hillsong.

Kendrick: We have certainly had an over-abundance of intimate songs, which have given the impression to many people that worship is about achieving some sense of personal fulfilment and well-being. Now I believe that God intends that when we worship him; we do find who we are and where we belong.

But the musical genre we have borrowed from the surrounding culture for worship songs is essentially the romantic pop song, the love song. They were never really designed to carry a great deal of content.

The genre tends to work better when you talk about how you feel. That's fine, and no doubt it's a part of our worship, but we desperately need songs which simply declare who God is, and what he has done, and also cover lots of the aspects of the life of the Christian community.

We need songs we can sing in the context of a baptism, or in being part of the body of Christ, for membership, or sending people out in mission, or serving the poor.

We need songs that tell us what God is like, that cover the same sort of territory as psalms like Psalm 113, which first of all describes God who is high and above the nations and looks down on the galaxies, and then all of a sudden this same God is down in the rubbish among the poor, giving the barren woman a home. There is a picture of God we really need to sing about.

Challenge: You have said previously that even when good songs are written on a neglected subject, if they don't fit the expected ethos or style of experiential worship, they get bumped off the song list.

Kendrick: We get locked into a narrow range of style. But I think a change is coming. In Britain I am part of a group that has been gathering influential songwriters once a year. It's beginning to unpack some of these issues.

In this sort of way, we are hoping to sow some seeds among the younger writers in particular, some fresh approaches.

Most Christian songwriters just reflect the Christian culture we are in. We don't always really examine it, or what we do. We need also to be poets in the sense that a poet is a kind of prophet critiquing the norms and assumptions that the Christian community makes.

Challenge: What new trends do you see?

Kendrick: If anything, the trend is diversity, especially from the British point of view. There are an increasing number of people who are very dissatisfied with what you might call song-driven worship, where songs predominate and worship consists of 30 to 40 minutes of songs and then a sermon.

A lot of people are asking some very good questions, for instance about theology. Some are saying: 'Whatever happened to a Trinitarian understanding of worship?' It's never mentioned in our songs. There's a rich doctrine of worship in the book of Hebrews that is pretty much absent from our worship songs.

A lot of people are taking a fresh look at liturgy. I wasn't brought up with it, but I've learned to appreciate liturgy, the way it can be not only theologically precise but can take you on a journey of understanding and reorientation into relationship with God. If we just have a bunch of songs that are linked together more around the dynamics of the music rather than the content, we might get a good concert, but the journey of understanding that we have been taken on is pretty random, and often it's unresolved.

There's a shape to liturgy, whereas a lot of song-driven worship is shapeless and wanders around until you run out of energy, and then you sit down and do the next thing on the programme.

Challenge: To achieve that sense of journey, you need song and worship leaders who are trained. I fear a lot of worship leaders are either theologically illiterate or just not getting training.

Kendrick: That's true, because music has become so dominant it tends to be those with musical gifting who end up with the job of leading worship. That's good, but we need to train people in an understanding of what worship is and isn't. Otherwise the role model comes out of the performer giving a concert. That's great on some occasions, but it's not adequate for the life of the Christian community in the long term.

Courses are beginning to spring up around the world. In England, the London School of Theology for a number of years has had an excellent degree course which is a music and theology course, so people with musical gifting can combine theological studies with an emphasis on worship with studies in developing their instruments and voices. We need more of that.

I always encourage church leaders not to delegate the music

to someone, but to work together as a team. In my view, even the songs we use in the church ideally need to be chosen and agreed on by the leadership team. We should regard them as little packages of teaching, with their own emphasis.

We are all going to choose the songs we like, but whether those are the songs that will serve that congregation is another question entirely. One of the distinctives of the Christian community is that it ought to be varied, a place of coming together of age groups and people from different backgrounds and cultures. In that, there's a challenge for worship. If we want to help the whole congregation to worship, the worship leader isn't going to be able to default to their own preferred style.

John McNeil, a veteran of 40 years of newspaper and radio journalism, is South Island editor for Challenge Weekly, New Zealand's non-denominational, independent national Christian newspaper.

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