A Historical-Prophetic Approach to Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Today, I want to continue the series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

As a recap, I introduced two key texts.  The first is in Ephesians 5:18-20:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second passage is Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In one sense, we can see these passages as defining different styles of songs which are sung in the church.  I have suggested in previous posts that perhaps the distinction between the three categories may be quite artificial.  That is certainly the perspective I take in the current renewal of worship.

But I’ve found it interesting also to look at psalms, hymns and spiritual songs from a historical-prophetic perspective, where the different types of song can be seen as representative of the different eras in the history of worship music.

Firstly, hymns.  The classic hymn can be described as doctrinal statements set to music.  Certainly, Luther saw this as an important burden: that music carry a teaching function.  As hymns evolved however, they started taking on a very personal, experiential flavour, describing a person’s encounter with God, such as “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine”.

We could say that in hymns, we are declaring God’s wonder and works through song.  From a historical perspective, hymns represent the first great era of the recovery of worship after the Dark Ages.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the Jesus People movement. The movement brought a new immediacy and impetus to relevant expression.  

Andy Park observes in his book To Know You More:

This new generation of Christians had to find a way to express their newfound love for Christ.  In this milieu of radical cultural change and genuine spiritual renewal, it was only natural that a new style of worship would be born.  Baby boomers rejected the rigid forms and styles of their parents’ generation.  For the boomers, rock music was their language of choice.

But not long after the birth of what we now call the “Praise and Worship Era”, there was a distinct move towards the objective and back to Scripture.  In the 1970s, Dave and Dale Garrett from New Zealand rose to prominence with “Scripture in Song”.  This was, in effect, the era of the modern-day psalm.

If I were to define “psalms”, I would say that the psalm is Scripture set to music.  In psalms, we declare God’s word through song.

The Praise and Worship Movement hit its zenith in the late 90’s with the catch-cry “an audience of One”, rejecting the subjectivity of the hymns and the earlier “psalms” and instead emphasising the need for objective praise.

Around the early 1990s (possibly earlier), a new sound began to emerge, which I would call “spiritual songs”.  The early pioneers were Kevin Prosch and Kent Henry.  In this movement, the songs of the church began to take on a more spontaneous character and a more prophetic edge.  Scripture reading, prophetic release and intercession began to intermingle with singing and music.

In the New Testament, the Greek term for “spiritual song” is ode pneumatikos, songs that are breathed or inspired by the Spirit of God.  In the spiritual song, we welcome God’s will in song.

This stream was given wide exposure through Delirious and continues in the music of the International House of Prayer and the likes of Jason Upton and Rick Pino.

In a way, whilst I have generalised a fair bit, we can see distinct prophetic moves of God through worship music represented by psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Where does that leave us today?

Well, I believe that the three streams are merging.  The distinctions between each stream are going to get more and more nebulous.  We will reach into the hymnody of our forebears, respecting our historical/denominational influences and we will push prophetically forward in contemporary (post-modern) expressions.  Our songs may seek to embed doctrine, and yet be entirely experiential.  We will be completely content with the healthy tension in saying that worship is objectively to God, but subjectively for the people.  We will be less and less fussed with form (even though we will seek to push artistic boundaries) and more and more concerned with substance.

Let me give you two examples in which to process this new paradigm.

I remember in the mid-1990s when our church started to sing Delirious’s “History Maker”.  It was a song like no other before it. It was edgy and raw, but it also didn’t lyrically fit the mould of “audience of One” worship.  Leaders in our church worship ministry started asking:  is this even a “worship song”?  Should we sing it as a “worship song” or present it to the congregation aan “inspiration song”?

I can tell you now that as our concept of worship has evolved and broadened, there’s no argument about it:  “History Maker” is a worship song because it depicts a generation of sold-out, sacrificial worshippers desiring to change their world for God.

A more recent example is John Mark MacMillan’s “How He Loves”.  Essentially, it is a song entirely about God’s love for me.  It  does nothing to express praise directly to God.

But, I submit, it is still worship.

Recently, I heard again a message by Joseph Prince about boasting in God’s love for us.  The starting point for Prince’s thesis was that the reference to John’s being the “disciple whom Jesus loved” could only be found in John’s gospel!  In other words, John refers to himself as the “beloved”.  And the point is this:  when you receive God’s love for you, you will be inspired to love God back.  We no longer need to be told to love God.  We do not need to strive to love God.

Further, when we learn to receive from God, it makes God feel more like God.  Take the example of Martha and Mary.  Martha kept serving to the point of exhaustion and frustration, but Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and “took” from Him.  Who made Jesus feel more like God?  Martha who sought to minister to Jesus’ apparent tiredness out of her own strength, or Mary, who recognised Jesus’ inexhaustible sufficiency?

In summary, in the current revolution of worship, we recognise that becoming is through beholding.  There are no longer rules, but worship revolves around relationship.

So a song like “How He Loves” is a perfect representation of worship today:  to be able, like John and like Mary, to humble ourselves before Jesus and to receive His love for us.  If nothing else, this elevates His deity all the more and is, quintessentially, worship.

In the current move of God in worship, the streams of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs will merge into a mighty river of God’s presence.  Expression, style and content will be subsumed within the relational graced-based focus on the person of Jesus, that in worship, He may be unveiled in all his loveliness, so that the world may see and put their trust in Him. And yes, this is revival!

When the Music Fades…

Despite the title, this post actually has nothing to do with Matt Redman’s famous song.

Today, I want to write about what worship teams often do at the end of the service: the debrief session. I’m naturally a critical, um, I mean analytical sort of person so I like to evaluate things. But a debrief session can be beneficial as well as completely unhelpful depending on how you run it.

What is useful is for team members to evaluate how each person carried out their function and for there to be some input on how things can be done better. For example, as a worship leader, it’s good for me to know whether the songs I chose were appropriate; whether the transitions were handled well; whether the song endings were strong enough. It’s good for musicians to get feedback on how they played and what they can do to play better; whether singers could do certain things to blend better etc.

The feedback session should never be used to address personal issues. For example, if you believe that one of your team members didn’t practise enough, or has an issue with being punctual, tell them gently one-on-one, not in front of the rest of the group. Public correction only brings public embarrassment and in some cases, breeds resentment in the person being corrected.

So, properly focussed on the technical aspects, I think debriefing is an entirely constructive tool that will help your team minister better.

But I have also been in debriefings where people have tried to gauge the spiritual outcome of the service. I find this enquiry extremely unhelpful, and that’s coming from a worship leader who is in a sense entrusted with the spiritual reins of the worship part of the service. Questions such as “where did we peak spiritually?” are not only near on impossible to answer, but they also look amusing when put to paper.

The truth is, the spiritual side of the worship can only be accessed and experienced by faith. One time, someone told me that they felt that as I led worship and changed a particular song, I had changed the spiritual direction of the meeting. Now, that certainly wasn’t my intention at that point in time, and I certainly didn’t feel that I had done so. On the other hand, I think what I did was to try to sense what God was doing and then to take a step of faith in obedience to the Spirit’s prompting to change songs or repeat songs or to exhort or to pray. That’s really all that can be required of a worship leader: to act in faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will have his way in the midst of the worship.

Martin Smith observes in his book Delirious:

You can’t always trust your own emotions – I might come offstage and think it had been amazing, whereas Stu might feel blank. Next time, I might come off feeling like I’d not connected, like everything I’d said was rubbish, but Jon might say ‘No way! I was watching this kid all night, and he was crying and God was obviously moving in his life – what a great night!’

You learn quickly that you can’t trust your own emotions; you can’t adjudicate it, because you’re not the one to judge how it went.

How true! We can never really judge how it went. Who is to know what the Holy Spirit is doing in the unseen? At the end, we can only trust that as we have responded faithfully to God, the rest of it is in His hands.

When we approach leading like this, it is extremely liberating. One of my old worship pastors used to say “if you can’t claim the credit for the worship, you shouldn’t take the blame”.

So I encourage you to have constructive debriefing sessions: analyse the technical aspects so your team can improve, but also celebrate good things and the wonderful work God did during the service!

Worship and Performance

When I was learning to lead worship, one of the things that I was taught early on was that worship is very different to performance. The two things don’t mix and in fact, I was told that performance made worship impure, for “no flesh should glory in God’s presence”.

I think a lot of that teaching derived from the early days of the Vineyard movement. Worship leaders like Andy Park were very laid back and it was a culture most probably set by John Wimber. Wimber had always been a proponent of being “naturally supernatural” and those who have documented his healing ministry always mentioned the fact that he was completely (and consciously) unpretentious.

This shunning of showmanship to an extent was (in that context) a way of answering the critics of the Charismatic movement who tried to discredit the movement by pointing to its emotionalism and frenzy, particularly coming out of the era of the healing evangelists. Wimber gave them something that shielded the movement from discredit. But in the context of worship, I believe that it has given way to a form of extremism which labels performance as carnal.

Even recently I have had detractors say that I am too performance-orientated, as if that were a bad thing.

The church these days is beginning to accept that performance is very much part of worship leading.

It was only around last year that I first heard this during a message by former Parachute Band frontman, Wayne Huirua. Huirua said that it wouldn’t make sense if worship leaders put off the performance aspect and instead tried to appear as level and emotionless as possible. This simply does not inspire anyone to worship.

Recently, as I was reading Martin Smith’s memoir Delirious, Smith makes the same point. Writing about his first foray into the American worship scene, Smith writes:

Getting your head down and ploughing on with worship was not the culture in America. I still think that the crowds in the United States are much more limber when it comes to being led: They expect the person onstage to take control and do a show even if it’s one full of God-songs. I’ve always said that the United States taught us how to play on those big stages and opened our eyes to a new way of engaging with an audience. We came offstage at that first Creation gig knowing that we had to up our game if we were going to play more “shows” like that. It was obvious that we had a long way to go before we could present what we did to a field full of people, and I can still remember feeling utterly petrified by not knowing how to do it.

Somewhere amid that fear was something else – the sense that this could all end by being something profoundly great. I’d always thought that the two parts of me – one liked to perform, and one liked to worship – existed in separate spaces, finding different outlets. But up on a stage with a crowd that stretched out in front of me like a lake, it was different. Perhaps those two parts of me weren’t strangers after all. What would it be like if I could learn how to draw the crowd in and then step aside to join them in worship?

….

At times, I felt that my showman side needed to be kept separate from the worshipper, but I knew deep down that the two were brothers, not strangers. And they enriched each other: My performance had meaning when linked to worship, which in turn was able to draw more people in when delivered with confidence in front of the crowd.

I’ve highlighted some of Smith’s insights here because I think performance is a very important part of worship leading. To try to look unemotional and uninvolved is false humility (unless that’s your natural disposition).

Think about the preacher. The most effective preachers are the ones who are animated, who translate their passion into words and gestures. And when the cloud of emotion settles, you know that the seed of transformation has been planted.

I think Smith is absolutely right: worship leaders need the performance element to bring people in before moving aside to join them in worship.

Of course, there is a line to be drawn. A worship leader can become so obsessed with performance so as to forget the reason why he or she is up on stage. A worship leader can be so performance orientated so as to bring attention on themselves rather than God. But a degree of performance is a good thing and I think it’s about time that the church recognises that performance is very much part of the art of worship leading.

Epochal Songs of the Praise and Worship Movement

I have been leading worship for the last 19 years within the Charismatic Renewal and I have seen the style (and to some extent) the content of our worship evolve. Rewind 20 years back and it would have been unimaginable for the church back then that we would sing the types of songs we sing today.

The instrumentation has changed. From keyboard-driven and big band orchestral music, the forerunner music of today’s worship is guitar-driven grunge and electronic techno.

We have also moved on from traditional hymnology to a much more prophetic, apostolic lyric but at the same time, injecting elements of heartfelt personal poetry and imagery. Worship music is beginning to bridge the cultural divide between sacred and secular.

The praise and worship movement had its origins in the 1960’s. Two streams were particularly influential: presentation blue-grass gospel songs (popularised by the Gaithers) and the Jesus People movement (which brought rock-and-roll music and musicians into the church). (It is interesting to see even then how the generations converged in Charismatic worship).

Since then, those on the cutting edge have continued to revolutionise worship music, bringing to it strong artistic merit without comprising biblical content.

An epoch means an era or season. And so when I refer to “epochal songs”, I am referring to songs that are significant to an era or season of the church in one of two ways: either it defines the season (i.e. it captures and articulates the heartcry of the church at a moment in time, usually an emotion or perspective which was felt but not yet expressed) or it is defining of the season (i.e. it catapults the church into a new prophetic direction).

Here, I want to list what I believe are the epochal songs of the praise and worship movement. I don’t pretend to be an expert on this but my opinion is based on extensive reading, listening and thinking about praise and worship and also experiencing it first hand for the last 22 years of my Christian walk.

So here they are – my list of the 15 epochal songs of the praise and worship movement in chronological order:

  1. All Hail King Jesus (Dave Moody, 1977)
  2. Give Thanks (Henry Smith, 1978)
  3. I Love You, Lord (Laurie Klein, 1978)
  4. As the Deer (Martin Nystrom, 1984)
  5. Ancient of Days (Jamie Harvill and Gary Sadler, 1992)
  6. Power of Your Love (Geoff Bullock, 1992)
  7. Shout to the Lord (Darlene Zschech, 1993)
  8. Everything That Has Breath (Michelle Hira/Parachute Band, 1994)
  9. I Could Sing of Your Love Forever (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1994)
  10. Did You Feel the Mountains Tremble (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1994)
  11. Breathe (Marie Barnett, 1995)
  12. History Maker (Martin Smith/Delirious, 1996)
  13. The Heart of Worship (Matt Redman, 1997)
  14. How Great is Our God (Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash and Jesse Reeves, 2004)
  15. How He Loves Us (John Mark McMillan, 2005)

In my next several posts, I will explain why I have picked these songs and their significance to the worship life of the church. You may not agree with my list or you may think other songs should be included. What would be interesting for me (as a bit of social research) is to hear your thoughts on my list. What songs do you think should be here? Why do you think they are significant? I look forward to reading your comments!