Where are You in the Spectrum of History?

In the Worship Leadership Masterclass, I said that one of the things worship leaders must do is balance the prophetic and the pastoral. This means that we have to keep breaking new ground but not run too far ahead that our people can’t follow us.

One of the ways we break new ground is in the songs we deploy during worship. The sources of songs are widening, not only in terms of who is producing the songs, but also in styles and expressions. In the 80s and 90s, there was a clear “praise and worship” clean-rock-ballad style of worship music. It was defined by the church. But as the church began to recapture (and I believe, also to spearhead) the arts, secular sounds were being redeemed and used in worship. Not only that, the church also began to produce original sounds, sounds without any antecedents.

Some of us lament this and long for the good-ol’ days when worship music was, well, more worshipful. And simpler to sing. And more melodious. Actually, when it was more Biblical.

But the question is: do you know where you are in the spectrum of history?

Think about slavery. Not long ago, the church strongly defended slavery through Scripture, but it took some brave revolutionary soul, using those same Scriptures to challenge the accepted norm.  Today, the pendulum has shifted to the other extreme, and it is widely accepted now that slavery is wrong.

Those of us who love hymns might not like the fact that worship music these days is starting to sound like electro-pop world music. But check this out: in 1723, a pastor wrote a Statement Against the Use of Hymns as a response to the use of Isaac Watts’ hymns in church worship. Here are the objections:

  1. It is too new, like an unknown language.
  1. It is not as melodious as the more established style.
  1. There are so many songs that it is impossible to learn them all.
  1. It creates disturbances and causes people to act in an indecent and disorderly manner.
  1. It places too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics.
  1. The lyrics are often worldly, even blasphemous.
  1. It is not needed, since preceding generations have gone to heaven without it.
  1. It monopolises the Christian’s time and encourages them to stay out late.
  1. These new musicians are young upstarts, and some of them lewd and loose persons.

Sound familiar? They sound like objections we might make today.

So we need to keep an open mind and an open heart. You don’t know where you are on the spectrum of history. The very things you object against today may well be the norm tomorrow. Then you’ll look sad and ironic like the pastor who opposed hymns in 1723.

Speak to One Another

As I continue my series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, I want to explore a common key thought in our two key passages: to speak to or admonish one another.

Here are the passages again.

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.

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.

The Direction of Worship

The concept of speaking to, teaching and admonishing one another goes to the direction of our worship. It is surprising because you would have thought the primary direction of worship is God, not our fellow believers. And yet, when Paul talks about psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, he was concerned that the church should “make music in their hearts to the Lord”, but also, in the same breath, that the church should “speak to one another”.

In the many years I’ve been involved in worship ministry, worship leaders often get worried about loss of focus and they say something like this: “I feel the songs we are singing are getting too subjective. We should focus more on objectively praising God”. That is a very legitimate view, but somehow, I think it limits the work of the Spirit in worship. For example, as I mentioned in my previous post, even though the song “How He Loves” is very much me-focussed, it is ultimately God-glorifying. And I think it is true that sometimes, like Mary, Jesus is more God (if that’s the right phrase) when we are drawing from his sufficiency.

In the olden days, we used to sing a song called “Seek ye first the kingdom of God…” When I think about it, it was quite ludicrous that we would all stare forward towards the screen, look heavenward, and then sing these words to God and as if He needed to be reminded that He ought to seek first His kingdom! In fact, that was probably a prophetic song that we should have been directing to each other. Maybe it would have served its effect better if we had looked into each other’s eyes and sung it!

But it is clear to me from our two key passages that worship actually moves in two directions (and if we must rank them in order of priority, we would say it like this): worship is to God, but also for the people.

This correlation exists precisely because God is God. His goodness cannot be contained within Himself because God (by definition) must be the highest example of selfless generosity.

Tom Inglis put it this way:

“Worship is something that God cannot give Himself. When we give God what He cannot give Himself, He gives us what we cannot give ourselves.”

Jack Hayford in his book Worship His Majesty says this:

A worship service is convened (1) to serve God with our praise and (2) to serve people’s need with His sufficiency…. We gather to worship God. But now, without supplanting the worship of God, we add a second focus: man’s need and God’s ability to supply it.

Our blessing God, and His blessing us, is actually part of the same continuum.

So let’s not be too religious about this. It’s okay to expect God to bless us too! And you can expect this to happen this coming Sunday (or any other time for that matter) when you come to worship.

The Teaching Function of Worship: Being Filled with the Word

I have already touched on the fact that Luther was very astute about the role of music in teaching the masses.

This is why Colossians 3:16 says that we need to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us.

Well after you’ve forgotten the sermon, you might still be singing or humming Brenton Brown’s song “Our strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord / We will wait upon the Lord”. It’s completely scriptural and you don’t even realise you’ve memorised parts of Isaiah 40. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are actually part of the process that causes the word of Christ to dwell in us. Not just for our brains to process, but to actually “dwell in” us and become part of our lives and character.

There is a further implication however, and that is for ministers of worship to be Scripturally faithful. These days, songs are getting more and more fluffy and less grounded in Scripture. Which is fine to an extent, because as I have said, the Holy Spirit can use anything to speak to us. But if we are not careful, we could be wasting a wonderful opportunity to instruct and teach our congregations, rather than just to leave them with a good feeling.

In a sense, this is a call to songwriters to write songs which don’t only sound good and are catchy, but to responsibly teach the truths of God and to unveil Christ, through those same songs.

Being Filled with the Spirit

So we’ve looked at Colossians 3 and “letting the Word of Christ dwell richly”. It is interesting that whilst Ephesians 5 uses the same sentence template, Paul introduces a complementary foil to the Word of Christ, namely “to be filled with the Spirit”.

Recently, Pastor Benny has been preaching about activating the gifts of the Spirit in Faith Community Church and I think that there is a real avenue to exercising some of the gifts right in the middle of our worship. In fact, I have found that if we’d take the step of faith, there is no more conducive environment for healing, prophecy, tongues/interpretation and words of knowledge than in a corporate worship setting. This is because, as I have said, when we bless God, He stands ready to bless in return.

Have you ever had conversations with people who don’t stop talking? You think sooner or later, they are going to have to breathe, but it seems they have a ventilator or something strapped to them and they never stop.

Worship can be like that: we can get so caught up in a 30 minute routine of our non-stop ramming things down God’s throat and He is just waiting for us to stop saying stuff so He can respond. And I believe that if we will just give Him some room, His response might actually take our breath away!

So in our worship, I want to encourage leaders to make room for the Holy Spirit. Let Him speak through us and to each other through and in our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. In our worship services, let us gather to worship God, but let us gather also that we might be taught and encouraged and blessed.

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!

Should We Keep Harping on Hymns?

Today, I am continuing my series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. In particular, I want to explore the use of “hymns” in our worship services and ask the question: are they still a valid musical expression for the church today?

The emergence of hymns was very much a product of the Reformation. Luther understood the importance of music as a means of instilling and preserving doctrine. He decided that songs should be written in the German language and commissioned poets and musicians to do so. He wanted the songs to faithfully communicate God’s Word. Luther also wrote a lot of hymns himself.

Lamar Boschman describes the characteristics of those hymns:

The songs were ‘doctrine heavy’ in content because the paradigm in this culture focused on principle and purpose. They wanted to remove mysticism and focus on the doctrines of the Christian faith. That caused many of the songs to have a horizontal focus; their purpose was to testify, reason and proclaim principle. It was in essence ‘singing the sermon’.

The Reformation was very much a thinking revolution.

The post-modern church however is experiential in orientation, but that doesn’t mean it is devoid of the Word. Perhaps one could say that the post-modern church is marrying the “word and the spirit”.

I found this once when I was doing some research but can’t remember where I got it from. It is a statement published in 1723 against the use of hymns. Here’s what the author said about hymns:

  1. It is too new, like an unknown language.
  2. It is not as melodious as the more established style.
  3. There are so many songs that it is impossible to learn them all.
  4. It creates disturbances and causes people to act in an indecent and disorderly manner.
  5. It places too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than on godly lyrics.
  6. The lyrics are often worldly, even blasphemous.
  7. It is not needed, since preceding generations have gone to heaven without it.
  8. It monopolises the Christian’s time and encourages them to stay out late.
  9. These new musicians are young upstarts, and some of them lewd and loose persons.

It is ironic how some of these arguments are still being employed in the church today. Such as the new songs “aren’t as melodious” as the hymns; “there’s too much emphasis on instrumental music”; “the lyrics are too worldly”, “the musicians don’t cut their hair and wear skinny jeans”. Sounds familiar?

And yet, the Bible commands us to “sing to the Lord a new song.” That means that what was sung yesterday (the old song) may not necessarily be what we should continue to sing today.

Psalm 102:25-27 says this:

In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them
and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.

God never changes. His Word remains forever. But He is always bringing renewal. Methods and expressions of unchanging truth need to evolve with the times.

What was relevant about the hymns in Luther’s days may no longer be relevant today. What was parochial and relatable in those days may no longer parochial and relatable today.

So what has the modern worship movement achieved? I think we can safely say that the songs are less horizontally-focussed and more vertically-focussed. Worship is definitely more about our engagement with God’s spirit in exalting Him rather than in exhorting man. And just like hymns were relevant to their contemporaries, we can say that the modern worship movement has kept up with the times and in some cases, ran ahead of the times too.

That is not to say that hymn singing should be shelved forever. There are some definite benefits of singing hymns. The songs of the church have become so diversified that what one congregation might be familiar with would be completely foreign to another congregation. Hymns on the other hand become a common ground when churches of different backgrounds gather together. Nostalgia is another benefit. Nostalgia is good if it is the trigger towards a person turning their attention to God in worship. And of course the emphasis on doctrine is good too.

But when someone says that we should do more hymns, we are ignoring that new songs can have the same benefits. For example, it is a massive overgeneralisation to say that current songs don’t have the same theological emphasis as the hymns. In fact, many do. Matt Redman’s songs are a good example. Many books in the Christian bookstores today have been written using modern worship songs as their inspiration.

Inasmuch as there are a lot of good elements in new worship songs, there are also a lot of good elements in hymns. Similarly, there are bad elements in worship songs, and there are bad element in hymns. But the modern worship song has an a priori claim to being culturally relevant today which a lot of hymns don’t.

Don’t get me wrong: I can happily worship and be touched by the words and melody of “Amazing Grace”. I love that rising swell of praise whenever the congregation lift their voices together to “How Great Thou Art”. But “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is beyond me. The words and concepts are hard to grasp. Instead of instilling theology, my mind starts to wander (as it is prone to do!). And I ask questions like “what’s an Ebenezer anyway? Is that like the Dickensian Mr Scrooge?”

So after all of this, I return to the question at the beginning of this post: should we be singing hymns in our worship services? The answer is “yes, if you want to”. That’s right: if you like them and want to do them, why not? Don’t be so religious. At the same time, don’t be so religious by thinking that hymns are better than modern worship songs. The key actually is not in the style of song, but by far the more important question should be: how do we help our congregations worship? As worship leaders we must diligently filter songs to ensure that as much as possible, they capture all the good and leave out all the bad, be they hymns or modern worship songs. We should also keep on the cutting edge so that the congregation doesn’t just linger on the old, but has a healthy diet of new songs which are constantly being written. And keeping in mind that one day, some of the songs of today will (hopefully) become as ancient and enduring as some of the hymns themselves.

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Have you ever had that scary moment when your pastor comes up to you and says “Can we have a quick chat?” You hesitate but then say, “uh, okay” and then you both translate five steps towards the side of the room where he clears his throat a little, narrows his eyes ever so slightly and then says to you in a hushed tone: “Do you think we can do more hymns?”

This happened to a friend of mine lately. And I could sympathise with the dread he (my friend) felt.

Not because I don’t like hymns, mind you. By hymns, I assume that this pastor was talking about some of the older songs like “Amazing Grace”, “I Surrender All” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”. I love those songs. I love their richness and their theological depth. But as an unskilled musician (should I even admit that?), I find these types of songs incredibly difficult to arrange successfully.

Even when skilled musicians do them, I don’t always like them. An example a few years back was the Passion album, Hymns Ancient and Modern. I felt that all the use of electric guitars and simplified power chords really took away some of the beauty and majesty of those “hymns”.

And actually, what are “hymns” anyway?

So this got me thinking and today, I want to begin a series on “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” using as my texts the following key verses.

Firstly, 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.

These passages seem to characterise the songs of the church into three distinct types: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

In this series, I want to explore this triptych and ask some of the following questions: are these three different types of songs or is Paul just using telescopic language to describe the same type of song expressed in three ways? Can we read these songs (as some often do) as representing historical eras in the church and if so, what of their significance? Should we go back to singing those old songs that my friend’s pastor was talking about?

Before I launch into some of these issues in my next few posts, I want to end this introductory post by sharing something which a friend of mine had posted on Facebook and I found quite amusing. It was about the difference between a “chorus” (which apparently those of us in charismatic circles like to sing) and “hymns” which are the staple of mainline churches. I found it pretty insightful. Enjoy!