Where next for contemporary worship music?

07 December 2018

Madeleine Davies explores the history of worship music and the challenges that it faces

ALAMY

Hillsong United perform at Big Day Out, in Wiston, Sussex

Hillsong United perform at Big Day Out, in Wiston, Sussex

WHEN Dr Mark Porter began interviewing members of his congregation — at a large, Charismatic Evangelical church in Oxford — about their experiences of sung worship, he discovered that a whole set of internal negotiations were taking place “under the radar”.

The people he interviewed did not hold back. Hannah enjoyed “singing from the heart”; Justin found that Sunday worship “prepares me for being in the presence of God”; for Tim, “intimacy . . . is key.”

Becs, however, feared that the music was “stuck in a rut of this kind of epic soft-rock stuff”; and Stephen found the words “dreadful and generally empty”. Meanwhile, Ben was able to continue his involvement in the worship band only by relinquishing a desire for “soulful immersion in the process of music-making”.

The discovery that singing in unison can conceal disparate and conflicting emotions was nothing new to Dr Porter, now undertaking post-graduate studies at the University of Erfurt, in Germany. With a background in classical music, he grew up playing the organ; but, as an undergraduate at Oxford, he discovered the “exciting and compelling” world of contemporary worship music. Yet he was conscious of “some kind of split in my musical life and identity”.

MATTHEW ASHCROFTWorship at Soul Survivor, 2018

In 2009, he was appointed director of music at a large Anglican Evangelical church in central London, where he relished the opportunity to diversify its musical life, “away from the relatively uniform soft-rock worship style”. While such innovation was welcomed by many of the musicians and members of the congregation, others were uncomfortable with change, including the Rector, who eventually asked him to move on.

He tells this story with no bitterness. But the experience, documented in his book Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives (Routledge; Books, 10 March 2017), left him with a desire to open up the conversation about the musical life of the Church, “for churches to stop being so afraid about talking about music and musical experiences for fear of the conflict it produces”.

 

IT IS not an ill-founded fear. One of the inhibiting factors, Dr Porter suggests, is memory of the “worship wars”: a history of rancour and division also familiar to Dr Monique Ingalls, Assistant Professor of Music at Baylor University, in the United States. As a child, in a “deeply religious family”, she attended an inde­pendent Baptist church in central Arkansas, where she witnessed “conflicts in which organ, choir, and gospel-hymn repertory were sidelined by contemporary worship songs led by bands and small ensembles of singers on microphones, resulting in more than a few people leaving the church”.

The experience was formative, inspiring a career in academia that has entailed “trying to come to terms with my own upbringing and background”. Her new book, Singing the Congregation: How contemporary worship music forms Evangelical community (OUP), begins with the observation that, “since the late 1960s, there has been a revolution in the music of Evangelical Protestantism: a new musical pop-rock style repertory for congregational singing — known variously as ‘contemporary worship music,’ ‘praise and worship music,’ or simply ‘worship music’ — has made its way into Evangelical churches across denominations and regions.”

This music, she says, is “thoroughly pervading Evangelical public ritual and the devotional practices of everyday life. . . The affective, collective practice of singing contemporary worship songs, then, has become for many contemporary Evangelicals the sum total of worship.”

The picture painted by Dr Ingalls will be familiar to many in the C of E. Walk into an Evangelical church in the UK today, and there is a good chances that the service will begin with at least three consecutive worship songs, played by an amplified band. A glance at the latest chart from Christian Copyright Licensing International suggests that it is likely that you will be singing something by Matt Redman, Keith Getty, Tim Hughes, or Chris Tomlin.

JULIE JONESWorship at Soul Survivor, 2018

While secular commentators continue to express surprise that churches should deploy electric guitars and projection screens instead of organs and hymnbooks (a recent article in The Economist com­pared such a set-up to a “night­club”), it is 13 years since Pete Ward, now a Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University, wrote Selling Worship: How what we sing has changed the Church, in which he observed: “Charismatic worship has become the default setting in most Evangelical churches in Britain.”

In the intervening years, the expansion of this music has accelerated. Within the C of E, church-planting, much of it emanating from Holy Trinity, Brompton, in London, has often been accompanied by the introduction of contemporary worship music. At Saint Mary’s, Southampton, for example, a “band-led and informal service” has replaced a Eucharist with a robed choir as the main offering (News, 4 May 2018).

Meanwhile, the “explosion in the number and range of worship-related materials that are marketed to Christian people” documented by Professor Ward continues to shape global Evangelicalism. The mega­church Hillsong, based in Australia, generates millions in sales of its music, and Bethel, a Californian church, has joined it as a “global worship brand”, Dr Ingalls notes. Today, Evangelicals have “a lot of other sources, beyond their local congregation, to look to for ideas about worship and musical and experiential authority”.

Her book explores five such “congregations”: concert, conference, church, public, and online. One of the catalysts for it, she recalls, was encountering “people who said ‘Oh, this experience I had at a conference — this is just more sacred than church,’ or ‘I feel like I am only able to worship in X place,’ which was almost inevitably not a local congregation.”

This development is helping to drive “desire for greater experiential encounters”, she says, and shifting expectations for those who lead sung worship in congregations.

 

IN A Grove booklet, A Deeper Note: The “informal” theology of contemporary sung worship, Dr Nick Drake, Associate Pastor at St Luke’s, Gas Street, in Birmingham, suggests that the speed at which contemporary worship has developed over the past 40 years has meant that an “informal theology” has led the way, found in blogs, interviews, and sung worship itself rather than books.

This is changing: the study of contemporary worship music is growing, and spanning several fields. Dr Ingalls, for example, is described as an “ethno-musicologist”, and Professor Lester Ruth, of Duke Divinity School, a pioneer in the field, is a liturgical historian.

Selling Worship combines history and theology, and, for those unfamiliar with the British course of the “revolution” outlined in Dr Ingalls’s book, it provides an excellent guide. Professor Ward locates the origins of contemporary worship in the fusion of two streams: the use of contemporary gospel music in the “coffee-bar evangelism” of 1960s Britain, and the Jesus Movement of 1970s America.

It is a music, Professor Ward writes, that is rooted in “the desire to reach out to young people in evangelism”, resulting in the construction of “parallel worlds of Christian record companies, festivals, and organisations”.

CELEBRATION RECORDSSound of Living Waters, released by Celebration Records in 1974

It is striking how many of the British cast in the story are or were Anglican. Among those influenced by the Charismatic renewal in California was the late Michael Harper, then an Assistant Curate of All Souls’, Langham Place, in London (who, in a 1964 edition of the Church Times, described how it was “helping to restore the spirit of worship to Christian people”).

The late John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, in California, visited the UK after striking up a friendship with the Vicar of St Michael le Belfrey, in York, David Watson. He went on to meet numerous Evangelical Anglican leaders, including the Revd Sandy Millar, of Holy Trinity, Brompton, and the Revd David Pytches, of St Andrew’s, Chorleywood. The latter launched New Wine, and included Canon Mike Pilavachi as youth leader, and Matt Red­man as worship leader.

Mr Pilavachi went on to establish Soul Survivor, which has gone on to help launch musicians such as Tim Hughes and Martyn Layzell.

 

AMONG the landmarks that Professor Ward describes are the Festival of Light, held in the early 1970s, which featured Cliff Richard and Graham Kendrick, and other musicians; Come Together (a musical whose first UK performance at Westminster Central Hall was soon replicated across the country); and Sound of Living Waters, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1974, which brought together traditional hymns and the folkish band Fisherfolk.

Professor Ward also notes the influence of Spring Harvest, first held in 1979, which “spread Charismatic styles of worship around a large number of churches in this country”.

Besides this history, Professor Ward offers an analysis of the theological underpinnings of this music, including the observation that, “as the mass is for Catholics and the sermon is for Protestants, so is the singing of songs for Charismatics”.

For Wimber, an accomplished jazz musician and one-time member of the Righteous Brothers, worship was “the main priority”, Professor Ward explains, “linked to a desire for intimate encounter with a powerful and transforming God”.

Matt Redman, quoted by Professor Ward, has recalled how Wimber’s preferred music was “unhindered and uninterrupted worship songs, each taking the congregation one more step along the journey into the depth’s of God’s presence”.

This approach to worship is “not simply an attempt to attract young people through the use of contem­porary forms of music,” Professor Ward emphasises. “Neither is it driven by a feeling that church should be trendy in some way. . . This was a theology of encounter with God through the work of the Holy Spirit in the times of worship.”

 

SELLING WORSHIP is not an uncritical account. In fact, almost from the start, much of the critique of contemporary worship music has emerged from within the movement. Wimber was wary of “a progression towards theatre.” Canon Pilavachi instigated changes at Soul Survivor in the 1990s, because he was concerned that the congregation and leaders had become “connoisseurs of worship rather than participants in it”.

Dr Ingalls, too, records a long history of anxiety about experience and authenticity. She points, as a recent example, to the popularity of a recent article in Relevant magazine — “Do you worship your worship experience?” — in which Andrea Lucado confessed that “I have allowed worship to become for me an experience that makes me feel good.”

“Contemporary worship is not the only kind of music that can produce an experience,” Dr Ingalls adds. “Similar things can be and have been said about the aesthetic rapture of a choral evensong service but I think the popularity of this music and rapid spread has driven the concern about the danger.”

GAS STREET, BIRMINGHAMWorship at Gas Street, Birmingham

Some people, Professor Ward says, have cited the tone and language of contemporary worship songs as “a cause of spiritual harm in their lives. . . Some drop out of Charismatic churches because they feel that their spiritual journey is more complex and ambiguous than what seems to be allowed in the regular worship of the church.”

His own analysis pointed to “a shift from an emphasis on teaching doctrine to songs which are meant to be used as a vehicle for a more experiential Charismatic worship”, a growth in songs that “turn the gaze from what has happened to believers to what is now happening as the church gathers as a body to worship”, and songs that “seem to exag­gerate the benefits of Christian experience somewhat”, evincing “an optimistic jollity”.

What we sing, matters.


THIS view is shared enthusiastically by Dr Jeremy Perigo, the director of worship and music programmes at the London School of Theology (LST), where students study music within a theological framework.

He is conscious that, in some churches, people who lead sung worship now enjoy “a lot of influence. . . They are involved in the faith formation of an entire community, by songs, by prayers. . . They need to be contextually, culturally aware, both critically and constructively, and theologically astute, in addition to being able to sing and play the guitar well.”

“Most theologies have been written in the High Church liturgical tradition, or from a denominational tradition,” he says. The Evangelical Charismatic movement has “various theologies of worship at present, some­times competing within the same church”.

The cultural diversity of LST, where Pentecostals train alongside Anglicans, is an enriching experience, he suggests. Many students will have experienced a “defining spiritual moment” at Soul Survivor, but the aim is to expose them to a variety of traditions: “It’s important for pastors, worship leaders, to explain how corporate liturgy forms for the long haul, why praying the Lord’s Prayer is important, why confession [is important].”

Millennial students are “incredibly creative” and also keen to “know that what they believe matches what they do. I think that is a huge point for the Evangelical movement: to ensure that belief and practice are linked together, that what we are singing is what we believe, and what we believe we sing about.”

He has sympathy for the view that current modern worship songs are “exploring really one small section of the emotional bandwidth of humanity. . . We are not so great on either of the extremes: lament and loss, but also exuberant eschatological joy.” He is conscious that Hillsong is subject to “lots of critique”, but argues that songs such as “Desert Song” are helping to address this. He points, too, to Sandra McCracken’s “We will feast”, which, he says, acknowledges that “things are hard, but we will feast with all the nations”.

INTEGRITYNoel Robinson, a worship leader, signed to IntegrityMusic

There will be times, he argues, when, as a corporate community, “we pray things we may not like, or may challenge us, and we also sing some songs that we don’t like. That actually helps form us, our desire, and also our theology. We are not just white, suburban, middle-class young people, but singing songs that represent a historical and global faith.”

He predicts that, in the future, worship music will be “both more global and more local”. The growing Church in Brazil, Korea, and Africa is producing and exporting songs, and migration means that churches that were once monocultural will become multicultural.

Churches will also become more local, however, by “thinking about their own theology, their own contribution, own gift and talents within the church, instead of just grasping the dominant styles that works well in California or Aus­tralia.”

 

IN HER new book, Dr Ingalls defines contemporary worship music as “a global Christian congregational song repertory modelled on mainstream Western popular music styles”, spanning the 1960s to today. Like Ward, she locates roots in the Jesus Movement of southern California, where many leaders had been musicians before converting to Christianity and started to write songs, “often very simple choruses”, that reflected their experiences. She cites “Seek Ye First”, written by Karen Lafferty when she was just 23, as an example.

One of the discoveries that she made while writing the book was that she was writing “more about race and ethnicity than I thought I would”, observing that contemporary worship music was modelled on genres that were “coded to people in racial and ethnic minorities as being white”.

Dr Pauline Muir, a lecturer at the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths University, London, explored congregational singing at black majority churches in London for her Ph.D. thesis.

Expectations that an African mega-church would sing African songs were confounded: during a four-month period of observing her case-study church, in south London, she heard “nothing that could be described as either intrinsically African or Afro-Caribbean, or written by song writers from those domains”. Most music was “white worship music”.

Interviews revealed that, before its transfer to a Grade II listed building, the church had met in a small community centre and sung Nigerian songs. The move had been accompanied by “a mandate from the leadership, which dictated that they should no longer sing those songs: they had aspirations of becoming a mega-church, and the repertoire needed to reflect that. So they needed to sing songs that were popular and in the mainstream, that they felt would attract the white indigenous population.”

ALAMYKaren Lafferty, whose song “Seek ye first” was released in 1974

This was despite the fact that the music minister was a veteran of the UK gospel-music industry. Her findings were replicated in other churches.

“Certainly, what the black churches are doing is reflecting the locale of their geographical domain, which, on one hand, you could applaud them for,” she says. “This was not the experience of black people during the Windrush generation when they arrived in the UK and they were sent off to develop their own black churches.”

Yet this trend “problematises the notion of black”, she suggests. “There was very little from a UK, African, or Caribbean black base [sung at the case study churches] . . . Yet, black majority churches have been in the UK for decades, and there is a struggling black gospel-music industry. Those songs are not reflected in the output.”

She was struck by someone she interviewed who described how, when the congregation sang a Yoruba song, “it’s like the Rapture has come: everyone is up and dancing and waving their handkerchiefs.” It was during christenings, baptisms, and smaller services that she saw “more of the African songs leaking out”.

In future, Dr Muir hopes that the conversation about race, culture, and Christian identity will be further explored. It is “rather unfortunate”, she suggests, that black majority churches have trained and nurtured some of the best musicians in the country “but they have not been able to find an outlet in the Church”.

 

WHILE helpfully providing a working definition of contemporary worship music, Dr Ingalls readily agrees that con­tinuity with the “traditional” exists. She recalls being amused to learn at university that the songs that she had grown up thinking of as “old and dusty and traditional”, such as those of Frances Crosby, had been, in their time, “set to the absolutely popular music of the day, and would never have been considered . . . as appropriate for use in Sunday worship. They were meant to be sung outside services, in revival meetings.” Such songs have “lost their secular popular cultural resonances” today, she says.

Neither is the “commercial music industry and cult of personality” new. Crosby was paid a retainer by a publisher, and was required to write three hymns a week.

“What is new about contemporary worship”, Dr Ingalls says, “is the range of meanings of the styles that it borrows . . . the way that music is produced, particularly all the equipment you need to do it well. . . And then, of course, the speed at which it can be produced and reach its target audience: the ability for a church to crank out a song and people around the world to be able to sing it the next Sunday.”

Nor is conflict over music in churches solely a contemporary phenomenon. In his history of English church music, O Sing Unto the Lord, Dr Andrew Gant notes that the killing of three monks at Glastonbury — the fallout from an attempt to introduce new chants — was “not the only time in this story that church music provided the spark that ignited factional violence”.

Complaints about worship as entertainment also enjoy a long history. In the 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx was horrified by the “histrionic gesticulations” of one singer, and a congregation was left “awestruck, stupefied, marvelling at . . . the saucy gestures of the singers . . . until you would think they had come, not into an oratory, but to a theatre”. John Evelyn thought that Purcell’s music was “better suiting a tavern or a play-house than a church”.

Spring HarvestWorship at Spring Harvest

In the 18th century, the Methodism of the Wesleys was decried by the Bishop of Exeter as “wild and pernicious enthusiasm”. And, in the Victorian era, Ouseley’s “O Saviour of the world” was seen as “dangerously jolly and subversively modernistic”.

Today, some of the strongest criticism has come from a composer with a secure place in the contemporary canon: Keith Getty. Mr Getty, who co-wrote, with Stuart Townend, “In Christ alone”, fears that the songs being written lack quality: “This generation sings such bad songs that that will not carry them through life; so I wonder what we are going to lean on when life begins to fall apart? Shallow songs last for three years, and breed shallow believers that last for three years.

“I’m deeply concerned that the beautiful heritage of singing beautiful hymns, and teaching our children and grandchildren, is being lost in an empty, commercially driven façade, that people who are ill-equipped to lead are driving at the front of churches.”

 

THE Revd Dr Maggi Dawn, Associate Dean for Marquand Chapel and Associate Professor (Adjunct) of Theology and Literature at Yale Divinity School, rejects the idea that contemporary and traditional music are discrete genres, “and you have to choose one or the other, and they are enemies”.

“The truth of the matter is that tradition has always changed,” she says. “It’s not as if we have a tradition that is fixed and all new stuff is a nuisance upsetting that.” She quotes Stravinsky: “Real tradition is not the relic of a past that is irretrievably gone; it is a living force that animates and informs the present.” What we refer to as “traditional choral evensong” is “not at all the same as it was 50 years ago”.

One of the main components of Dr Dawn’s course “Songwriting for Congregations” is “How you marry together the musical, the poetic, and the theological concerns of music. . . The words in a hymn need to make sense, and they need to have some theological quality to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have to have three verses and tease about a theological tract. But even if it’s two lines long, it has to have something worth saying.”

Song-writing requires hard work, she emphasises. “It dismays me when people attack hymn-writers for not being theologically adept. It’s really hard.”

LSTWorship at London School of theology

Every student in her class has to write a song a week for 12 weeks and the best are “road-tested” in chapel. Typically, one or two will be included in the repertoire: “an extraordinarily high success rate if you compare it Nashville songwriters.”

When judging contemporary writers, people do not take into account that “wastage in writing is enormous”, she says. “We are thinking: ‘How does that stack up against John Wesley?’ If you take the average hymn book in 2010, there are around 40 or 50 Wesley hymns in it; but Wesley himself wrote about 6000; so the survival rate is less than one per cent.”

Even the hymns that have lasted have been “rewritten and improved and edited” over time, she points out. “They did not come out perfect first time round.” “O for a thousand tongues” has had its “racist lan­guage” removed, and John Mason’s “How shall I sing that majesty” was “lost” until Ken Naylor wrote a new tune for it, and abridged it.

“We take tradition as the great measure of excellence, and everything contemporary as poor by comparison; but all creative work is constantly about rewriting,” she argues.

Those now held up as the great champions of hymnody were “thoroughly disapproved of when they started”, she says. “The father of Isaac Watts said: ‘You think you can do better? Go and try! Who do you think you are?’ And that is what we say now to our guitar-toting people. Isaac Watts would be absolutely on the side of the young musician trying to write a song, because that is what he did.”

She has little time, too, for the critique that contemporary songs are “mushy”.

“You can criticise all you like, but it’s exactly what the Psalmists did. It’s a biblical tradition to adore God in quite erotic terms, and to compare the love you have for God with the deep gooey passion you have when you are falling in love.”

 

HUGH MORRIS, who became director of the Royal School of Church Music this year (Back Page Interview, 16 November), also traces threads of continuity between past and present: he notes that Martin Luther adopted secular melodies, and Vaughan Williams drew on folk music.

Contemporary worship music is “not necessarily something that has to replace what has gone before, but something that adds to the breadth of it”; and tradition is “something to be valued — not because it is tradition, but because the things of that tradition are themselves inherently valuable and have something to offer”.

He sees cause for celebration in the “amazing variety” of worship music available, including the “very simple, beautiful, modern, tuneful” new pieces of choral music being written, and seeks to encourage people to widen their palette.

“It is about persuading people to not only be interested in their way,” he explains. “The most convincing iterations of these things are when they are done really well. The way in to any of these things is to say ‘Here is a really good example of how this can be.’”

LSTWorship at London School of theology

One of his observations is that contemporary worship music is “very performer-driven, and so the relationship, at one level, becomes less about a body of people all performing it — although it does happen in some places, and it can be adapted to make it more or less like that.” Many worship songs are, he suggests, “actually quite difficult. You need a skilled vocalist to guide you through. While the style might be a distinct break with the past, I’m not sure how different it is sitting in a pew from the context of a choir offering worship on your behalf.”

He wonders whether one reason for the rise of the worship band is that “people increasingly in wider society aren’t very familiar with lifting up their voice.”

In his history, Dr Gant suggests that it is somewhat ironic that “the strand of ecclesiology which set out to remove the impression of a separate group of musicians giving a ‘performance’ has ended up with exactly that: a worship leader with a microphone, facing the ‘audience’.”

It is a question that animates Dr Ingalls, too.

“When I go to these events, I see people singing their hearts out,” she writes in Singing the Congregation. “This is not passive spectatorship. . . [But] do we think it is a good model of community when individual voices are subsumed into a whole and all anyone can hear is the perfect sound emanating from the stage?”

She wonders whether, “if you are used to not standing out, this wall of sound covering your offering, then maybe you are less willing to sing when there is a chance you are going to be heard.”

 

IN 2007, the present Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, worried about “the passing of the older generation of Evangeli­cals, who, though they might have been the architects of all-age worship, or the trailblazers of Charis­matic worship, knew their Prayer Book, and could draw on deep wells of liturgical formation”.

LSTWorship at London School of theology

Among the parish priests keen to grasp the baton is the Vicar of St John’s, Hoxton, the Revd Graham Hunter, whose MA thesis was on Charismatic approaches to the eucharist. He wants to avoid the sense that holy communion is “tagged on to an otherwise complete worship service”.

In a Grove booklet on the subject, Discipline and Desire, he sets out to persuade those in the Charismatic tradition “that there is real value in the liturgical tradition, and also to persuade those from a more formal and liturgical expression of worship that it is possible to make space to integrate Charismatic approaches to worship in our services”.

The missional question, he says, is: “Do we explain what we sing? Do we use songs that also teach the faith and communicate Christian truth to people? How do we ensure people who are new to the Christian faith have received some revelatory content of who God is, not just through scripture but also in song?”

Dr Perigo agrees, recommending that some songs can helpfully be framed with “a strong, robust, Trinitarian prayer or scripture”; and Dr Drake, while defending experience and emotion, emphasises that “without the presence of the narrative of God’s story, an experience of sung worship can be dangerously incomplete, individual, and shallow”.

 

IF CHARISMATIC Evangelicals are embracing liturgy, Anglo-Catholics are also embracing contemporary worship music.

The Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lancing, the Revd Felix Smith, grew up as a Charismatic Evangelical, but began attending an Anglo-Catholic church when he was at university (“my bit of rebellion”). Attending the youth pilgrimage at Walsingham connected the two strands.

It was here that he heard CJM, a Roman Catholic worship band whose repertoire includes modern mass settings, which he has started to introduce at St Michael’s. While there are always at least two traditional hymns, he has also introduced Taizé and African chants, and the guitar, keyboard, and djembe (drum) are all played, as well as the organ.

“There is still a sense that we have to be old-fashioned, because that fits in with lots of other things we do. But Roman Catholic churches are pushing the boundaries in terms of having more modern worship that is still very much liturgical and linking in to everything that has been done before,” he says. “For us, it has meant that our worship has been a bit more joyful and lively.”

He fears that “we have almost self-consciously tried to be old fashioned. That can work in places like Oxford and London, where you will get young people turning up to traditional services looking very traditional. . . But in a place like this, which really needs to grow and be missional, and serve a community which is of a particular background, there has to be something joyful and exciting and lively, but also some­thing grounded in that great tradition.”

The new settings have been practised at evening singalong sessions, and some of those who attend the 8 a.m. service have started to stay for the later service, to hear the new songs being played.

 

MEETING-points “up and down the candle” suggest that Lester Ruth’s diagnosis of a period of post-worship-wars “reconstruction” may have resonances in the UK.

In Hoxton, Mr Hunter is “certain that in the Church of England we must develop greater skill in leading blended styles of worship if we are to sustain our mission to the diverse communities of our nation”.

What is needed in churches that are attempting to do this, Mr Morris, of the RSCM, suggests, “is somebody with a reasonable skill level and sympathy and vision, in order to be able to work out how you can bring them together without there being a kind of logjam of styles. . . If you have a thread of continuity that holds them together, then it can work.”

Mr Morris is keen to help forge strong relationships between clergy and musicians. He is conscious of a traditional “disconnect”. Last year, the RSCM, in partnership with Praxis, published Inspiring Music in Worship, “a short course of guided conversations for churches”, by Helen Bent, to help musicians and congregations reflect on worship together, over five sessions.

Meanwhile, some are asking whether contemporary worship music still appeals to young people. In the US, Dr Ingalls notes, stories that young people are drawn by contemporary worship music are not the only narrative. She is aware of “some pretty significant disillusionment”, and a movement “back to what Evangelicals in the United States call liturgical denominations”.

LSTWorship at London School of theology

Dr Porter is aware of an assumption that, “if we stuck to the ‘out­dated’ hymns, you are going to find that people cannot relate to it”; but he argues that, when people join Charismatic Evangelical churches, “it’s not necessarily always the music in itself that they are attracted to, but the entire experience: a very lively environment of lots of people with lots of resources, and music bound up with that.”

Dr Dawn is quick to point out that trying to appeal to young people through one form of music is destined to fail, because “some like Mozart, some hip hop, some blue­grass. It’s so odd to think young people like the same kind of music.”

One of the case studies in Dr Ingalls’s book is St Bartholomew’s, an Evangelical Episcopalian church in Nashville, described by one magazine as offering the “best church music” in the city.

Since the early 2000s, it has com­bined worship songs and hymns, seeking to “challenge the boundaries between entrenched and contemporary camps”. The organ, choir, and hymn-sheets were retained.

When a survey of the congregation found that “the difference in participation came from unfamiliarity rather than dislike”, the worship music leader produced a CD of 30 hymns, and gave a copy to every family in the church.

Also described is the “youth-group liturgy service” held in the parish hall, designed to subvert “performance-driven” worship. The band is not at the front, the style is “contemplative”, and the sacraments are incorporated.

 

IT IS an encouraging story that suggests that, in some places, the conversations that Dr Porter seeks are happening.

What he has come up against is “the idea that music is neutral and meaningless, and what is really important is your heart attitude before God. So . . . when people have issues, you can tell them ‘Stop focusing on music, get your attitude before God right, and then you will be able to engage with this worship music.’ This constant idea that music should not be distraction but a tool.”

It was an attitude that he detected in his interviews in Oxford: a fear that “if you bring something of your own musical preference, that is a selfish act.” Stephen, mentioned at the start of this article, considered his struggle to enjoy Sunday worship music as “a flaw” in himself.

ALAMYMaggi Dawn, with Nat Gumbs, her director of chapel music at Marquand

Dr Porter disagrees strongly. “When [people] are talking about music they are not talking about morally neutral experiences, because they are talking about their spiritual life, about the function of community, about their relationship with the world around them.

“All these things that are important theologically to churches get bound up with musical style. So within the community you have lots of people trying to negotiate those relationships, but you don’t often have church discourses in places that are good at acknowledging that.”

He remains realistic, and is aware that conversations are unlikely to result in a repertoire that realises the desires and ambitions of everyone in a congregation. And he is conscious of the pressures experienced by those who lead sung worship, including the pressure from “a multi­national worship-music industry that has established certain norms”.

He hopes, nevertheless, that churches can create spaces where experiences of, and opinions about music are “acknowledged and engaged, placing them on a level with the concerns that members of the church might have in areas of theology, community, or spirituality”.

As the dust of the “worship wars” appears to be settling in the US, perhaps it is time for brave conversations on this side of the Atlantic.

Forthcoming Events

7 March 2019
Theology Slam Live Final | London
Three young theologians present their thoughts on a key contemporary issue. Join in our Q&A before the judges choose the 2019 Theology Slam champion.  Book tickets.

8-10 September 2019
The Festival of Preaching | Oxford
A varied programme of worship, lectures and workshops. Speakers include Kate Bruce, Brian McLaren and Nadim Nassar. Book tickets.

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