(As I do a preaching series on the creative imagination and art of the Church liturgy, Sunday sees me preaching on hymns and worship songs... I am going to spend some of this week looking at such issues on the blog... here's the first!)
At a recent Church service a minister stood up after some sensitive and deeply spiritual worship and said, “Now that we are warmed up, let us move on to the important content of the evening.” I was aghast. Not only did it belittle the gifting of the worship band and the care taken over the choice of songs, it was near blasphemous in what God’s place is in our worship and certainly it suggested a very errant view of liturgy in general and worship songs as part of that liturgy in particular.
When it comes to the singing sections of the worship service James K A Smith, in his influential book(for this blog anyway!) Desiring The Kingdom, quotes John Wesley’s belief that hymnody was “a body of practical divinity, a sung theology”; Richard Mouw describing Church songs as “compacted theology”; and Don Saliers saying that a “knitting of an embodied theology happens whenever Christian congregations sing.” Smith himself adds that “song soaks into the very core of our being which is why music is an important constitutive element of our identity.” John D Witvliet, like Smith on the staff at Calvin College, suggests that songs are the soul food for the people of God and “to be a Church musician – and by extension, a music editor, hymnal committee member, or Church music professor – is to be a spiritual dietician.”
I have strong belief that what we sing and listen to musically shapes who we are. I also have a conviction that this applies particularly to worship which I believe catechises. No one is going to hum any of my sermons as they head out of Church into their week but they just might sing the hymns. U2 and The Killers are just two rock bands who in recent years have been particular about the lines they get the crowd singing; those lines linger long after the buzz of the gig is gone. This belief in the transformational power of worship both for individuals and society is tempered by my critique of the very popular modern worship. spiritually and socially. There are some very good new songs being sung in Churches across the world but there is also a huge body of songs that are theologically weak, thematically narrow and at times a little self indulgent.
However, there is a real need in the post modern generation for “kardia” impact; a sense of experiencing God in an emotional heart place. Indeed, that is modern worship’s most prophetic contribution. They have turned the eye of an exclusively cerebral Church back to some emotional connection. The other side of that, for me, is that the cerebral was jettisoned from many new worship songs. A look across the new worship catalogue for songs on a range of the subjects that the readings, prayers and sermon might be about will many times leave you frustrated. Also, the need for lament and catharsis has, on the whole, been absent from the subject matter. Add to that lack of songs on Jesus incarnation, life, teaching or the influences of the Old Testament particularly the social justice agenda of the prophets and you come to conclude that there are gaps in the new hymn book.
The hymn writer and worship leader’s roles are vital ones. As a congregation gathers on a Sunday morning there are a wide range of joys and blessings, fears and hurting mingling in the midst. The Psalms, a fine model of the holistic possibilities of worship songs never shirks away from being a poetic conduit for all the spiritual moods of the people of God. I am constantly aware of the loves and concerns my people bring with them on Sunday and I am always keen for catharsis and confession to be evident in all that we sing. Creed too. We become what we sing in so many ways and the responsibility for the honing of our identities should be with the songs as much as the sermon.
Aware too of the world that we are called out of, in the gathering, and sent back into at the benediction, and how that world is trying to conform us, the hymn writer and worship leader should write and choose subversive poetry like the prophets so that believers can be strengthened in order to stand as a transforming force to the culture around them. Personally I find a dearth of songs in the new worship movement that declares a radical alternative message of following the self sacrificing Christ. Instead of being self-indulgent worship songs should be energizing self sacrifice and service. Instead of a lack of theology modern hymns should be carriers of a theology so deep and wide that the world will be turned upside down by the impact.
My desire as minister of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church in Belfast is, to bring the “kardia” impact of the modern worship, so important to this generation and attempt to fuse into it a real depth to the theological words and a more honest and authentic expression of the struggles of living in a fallen world while at the same time holding a hope of glory. My dream is that we can take the best of old and new and blend them into an artistic expression of our relationship with God; not a cul-de-sac on Sunday but in a transformative power that sets us on a highway into Monday morning.