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Ancient and modern, if you please

22 September 2010

Tim Hughes explores recent trends in church songs

AN ARTICLE in a newspaper in the United States took exception to new trends in church music: “Because there are so many new songs, you can’t learn them all. It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than godly lyrics. This new music creates dis­turb­ances, making people act in­decently and disorderly. The preced­ing generation got along without it. It’s a money-making scam and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.”

These words were written in the 18th century about Isaac Watts, au­thor of “When I survey the wondrous Cross”. We often forget that, in their day, hymn-writers such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and William Booth were considered radical and offensive in many parts of the Church. Their desire, however, was to find songs and words that connected with all people. They took melodies that were being used in public meeting-places, and rewrote them with sacred lyrics.

THE Church should always be in the avant-garde of creativity, writing and releasing new and fresh expressions of worship. This does not mean we throw away all that has gone before, but — alongside the beauty and depth of wonderful church music of the past — it is exciting to see new sounds rising up.

Over the past 20 years, there has been an explosion of songwriting within the Anglican Church. Song­writers such as Graham Kendrick have pioneered the way for others, such as Stuart Townend, Matt Red­man, and Martin Smith.

Numerous churches are now writing and using their own material in their services, allowing them to express their own story and worship.

Many of the songs currently being written have two important dynamics that I believe make connections be­tween the songs and people: rel­evance, and accessibility.

In the first instance, there has been a development in songwriting to capture theological truths with a sound that is current and in keeping with popular music. This pursuit of cultural awareness has enabled many young people to connect with wor­ship music.

I recently returned from the Soul Survivor festivals, where more than 30,000 young people gathered over 20 days. It was exceptional to see the pas­sion and desire for Christ, together with a freedom and openness ex­pressed in the worship and music. Many of these songs have become the soundtrack to a generation seeking to follow God in its everyday life.

The relevance of these songs has also enabled them to connect with people outside the Church. A recent Delirious? song, “History Maker”, reached number four in the charts (albeit with the help of a Facebook campaign by the band’s supporters).

Music is a powerful medium of communication, and many are at­tempt­ing to write songs that share God’s love and mercy with a genera­tion who will never walk into a church building. The reach of some of these songs is extraordinary. It is estimated of one contemporary wor­ship song, from the Anglican Church, that it is sung by more than 50 million people every Sunday in the United States alone. Many of these songs are being sung by countless millions all around the globe.

BUT perhaps it is the accessibility of recent songs which has most significantly affected the Church. The simplicity and sing­ability of a song means it can be used in a variety of contexts and styles. Many songs work brilliantly in a small group of 20, or in a church of 200. They can be sung to a piano and a guitar, with a band, alongside an organ and choir — the options are endless.

One development we have seen recently is the fusion of musical styles in worship. This could be rock bands mixed with rappers and hip-hop beats, or the inclusion of a chamber choir and orchestra. One of the most exciting aspects of my work as director of worship at Holy Trinity, Brompton, is to work alongside amazing classical musicians, as well wonderful contemporary players.

We have had some profound times of sung worship, where choirs and organs join with electric guitars and drums. When the organist literally pulls out all the stops, the sound is overwhelming.

THERE have been a number of recent trends in worship music. One of them has been a broadening of themes that explore, for instance, lamentation and suffering, God’s heart for justice, intercession, and the glory of God as seen in creation. One of the most popular songs of the past five years, “Blessed be your name”, is a song of lament which has become an anthem for people who are worshipping God in the midst of hardship and sorrow.

One reason for this development of deeper content has been the influence of theologians on church songwriters. I co-lead a school of wor­ship called Worship Central. We run a website, worshipcentral.org, and put on events to train worship leaders and musicians — gathering together each year thousands of worship leaders who are desperate for new resources.

Our desire has been to see signi­ficant teachers and theologians, such as N. T. Wright, Graham Cray, and Gra­ham Tomlin, speak to song­writers and worship leaders. This has de­finitely helped to add a depth to the songs being written. Rather than over-emphasising the emotion and accessibility of a song, both of which are important, it has challenged writers to develop content in their material.

In the Church today it should never be either/or — either tradi­tional or contemporary; either hymns or modern songs. There must be a place for all of them. We need ancient and modern worship, where we plunder history for amazing songs written in the past while at the same time pursuing a “new song”.

Tim Hughes is director of worship at Holy Trinity, Brompton, London. His new book, Worship Central, co-written with Al Gordon, is published by Alpha International in 2011. He has written numerous songs, including “Here I am to worship”, “Beautiful One” and “Happy day”.

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