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!

Worship Leaders Who Talk Too Much

I had just finished a couple of hours of tennis with some friends of mine, some of whom actively serve in church worship.

One of the guys (a young, upcoming worship leader) made the observation that sometimes, worship leaders spend too much time talking at the start of the service. In fact, he said, at his old church, the senior pastor had to restrict the worship leaders from talking at the start of the service.

And it made me wonder: do I talk too much when I lead worship?

At Faith Community Church, the chairperson usually introduces the service and “gets the crowd ready”. (No, they don’t do a stand-up routine in case that’s what you were thinking). As soon as the chairperson is done, the drums click in and away we go with the first song.

When I led worship in my previous church, I would often start with an exhortation to try to engage the congregation.

I realise now that I did have a bad habit of talking too much!

There are many reasons why worship leaders talk too much. Here I want to set out some reasons (and perhaps some possible remedies):

Building Rapport

The worship model that has the worship leader say very little during the worship set has a disadvantage of having the worship leader as a mere “figurehead”, i.e. the worship leader becomes almost like a lead vocalist who just has the loudest voice and the coolest solo parts. On its face, the unsophisticated congregant won’t realise that the worship leader is also shaping the worship set as they go.

Rapport is extremely important in weekly church worship leading.

Unlike a conference setting (say like Hillsong Conference) where everybody comes pumped and ready to worship, the church worship leader (who is “on” every week, or every two or three weeks) faces a different challenge: familiarity. As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. That’s not to say that the congregation resents their worship leader; it’s just that they are more unforgiving of mistakes and more critical.

The opportunity to talk to the congregation is a way to build rapport.

But I want to suggest that rapport is best built up in participating in the life of the church apart from the stage.

In my last church, I had (I hope) the respect of the congregation not because of what I said on stage, but because I had helped to stack chairs; attended a small group; manned stalls at the church food fair; mentored some people; did Bible study with others; ate dinner with the youth; ate dinner with the older folks; got “in the face” of lots of people!

So the cure for the talkative worship leader? Build rapport at the grassroots level.

Focus the Congregation for Worship

Let’s face it. Because of the familiarity phenomenon, the congregation often will not come to church ready to worship. So worship leaders feel the need to try to rev the congregation up before the first song begins.

The need to talk at the start is quite legitimate if there’s no chairperson to open the service. Then I think the worship leader should fulfill this role.

But in most churches I’ve visited, they do have a chairperson.

I think chairpeople should be trained to engage people. They are an integral element of continuity throughout the service, all the way through to introducing the preacher and sometimes ending with the benediction. If the chairperson hasn’t yet focussed the congregation, they should keep at it.

Then, there’s really no need for the worship leader to say anything.

There’s a principle of economy that also needs to be observed: most church services have time constraints and there’s no need for two people to double up on the same job. If the worship leader has to spend another 3 minutes starting the service with an exhortation, then that’s 3 minutes less for the congregation to participate in worship.

The Need to Teach About Worship

Sometimes, I’ve felt the need to talk during the worship time to explain the significance of a certain action the congregation is participating in.

This is important. If a member of the congregation is just doing something out of rote, we have to ask whether they really are engaging their hearts, minds and emotions in worship.

When I grew up in the church, I remember that as a young kid, I never really understood why the church did the things they did. I didn’t understand what those archaic words like “exalt” and “extol” really meant. When the worship leader started singing in tongues, I thought that God had gifted him with the Hebrew language.

I find it strange and incongruent that whilst churches expect their congregation to actively participate in, and take personal responsibility for, worship, little time is actually spent in teaching the congregation how to worship and the significance of its various expressions.

So imagine yourself as a new Christian suddenly dropped into a worship service. You look around and you see people clapping. Well, you say, I guess that adds to the atmosphere. So you clap along. But did you know that clapping is a sign of unity? Or that it is a means of engaging in spiritual warfare?

What about the lifting of hands? It looks cool. Anyway, they do that at the Bon Jovi concert, so why not? But what if you knew that the lifting of your hands symbolised surrender, as if it were the evening sacrifice?

In my opinion, churches don’t spend enough time teaching on worship, even though it is a very large part (even if only by reference to the amount of time spent doing it on a Sunday) of the life of the congregation.

Because of this, I’ve devoted a good deal of my ministry to teaching on worship. I admire worship practitioners who are also teachers of the Word, like Jack Hayford, Lamar Boschman, Kent Henry and Matt Redman.

Churches should spend more time teaching worship, and maybe that will save worship leaders from the need to spend too much time talking during the worship session!

Remove the Distractions

At the end of the day, even though there might be good reasons for the worship leader to talk a lot, what tilts the balance for me against talking too much is that the goal of a worship leader should be to minimise distractions and to simply let the people worship. And if that means the worship leader gets out of the way, so be it!

In summary:

// build rapport at the grassroots level

// have a strong chairperson overseeing the service and exhorting the congregation

// encourage a culture of teaching worship at your church, or better still, facilitate the training yourself in other forums outside of your worship session.

I hope this encourages worship leaders to make the best use of the 25 or so minutes they have on a Sunday so that as much as possible, the congregation can participate in expressing their worship to God, rather than watching one person keep talking before another guy (the preacher) gets up to talk some more!

How to Choose Songs

Whenever I teach on worship leading, one of the most common questions I am invariably asked is: “how do you choose the songs?”

I think a lot of people presume that the songs are found in a special room in my apartment called “the secret place” where I go “beyond the veil” to “download” the “songs from heaven”. Some people think that worship leaders only come up with songs after an extended time of prayer and fasting.

I hate to burst bubbles, but the process of song selection is not as mystical as some people think. In fact, it is quite a natural process.

For me anyway, the process can be quite varied.

// Sometimes, I might come across a song that really speaks to me and I feel that it is the right song to be sung on Sunday and then I just start constructing a song list around it.

// Other times, I am worshipping at home on my guitar and a flow of songs just comes to me and that becomes my song list.

// On occasion, Wednesday night rehearsal is rolling around and I’ve got nothing. So I just cobble a few songs together in faith and hope for the best! If I’m really desperate, I might pick up a songbook and skim through it to see what appeals to me.

At the end of the day, there is no “hard and fast” prescription.

In this post, I want to share with you some of the parameters that I use to help me choose songs for a Sunday worship set. The important thing to note is that half of the work of a worship leader is already done well before Sunday, and in fact, well before rehearsal.

A well-constructed songlist can often “work itself out” so that the worship leader can almost step into the set and go on “autopilot”. That way, when the worship leader is actually on stage, far less concentration is required to make sure the songlist is executed properly to focussing on what the Holy Spirit might want to do during a meeting.

So here are some guiding principles to choosing good songlists:

1. Pray!

It might sound like a given, but so often, we take the process for granted. I remember when I first started worship leading, I used to put a lot of effort into praying and seeking God and worshipping before I could come up with a songlist. Looking back, I realised that I was just being overly religious: going through particular motions in the hope of getting a particular result. My notions of God have changed since those days: now I believe that God wants to speak to me in every moment and in any place, so I don’t really need to go through a convoluted ritual to somehow “birth” a songlist. The risk in this approach, however, is to becomes so blase that you don’t even involve God in the process.

A friend of mine utters a very simple prayer as he prepares: “Lord, what is it that you want your church to express to you this Sunday that will really bless your heart?” I love that childlikeness and I believe that God honours our approaching him with boldness and simplicity.

Such a prayer also makes us think about the congregation and how to pastor them into God’s presence: something we need to remind ourselves of more and more as worship continues to risk crossing the line into consumerism, entertainment and a musical showcase.

2. It’s Not About Me!

Quite often, we can construct a songlist around our preferences. We can become so conceited that we start thinking: “does this song suit my vocal range?”, “I don’t really like that song” or “this song will really show off my guitarist’s awesome skills”.

We need to set aside those preferences. Often, I will do a song because I feel that it captures the heart of the church towards God in a particular season even if I personally don’t like the song or I don’t sound good singing it. My job is to capture the church’s expression of praise to God, not to show off or pander to my own likes and dislikes. In fact, worship shouldn’t be about me at all! That’s the furthest point we can be from the throne of God.

3. Focus on Flow

This is a lost art! When I started learning about leading worship, Hosanna! Music put out lots of worship cassettes which captured the flow of a worship meeting. Kent Henry used to record albums where the starting song flowed seamlessly through free worship, prayer, Scripture reading all the way through to high praise without interruption.

These days, worship albums are more about showcasing artists than capturing the atmosphere of worship.

We should approach a worship set like a seamless journey that tells a story of our approach to God. So for example, there should be thematic unity. God is so infinite and varied that we could never sing about every aspect of His nature in 30 minutes. So choose one or two thoughts to centre around, e.g. the love of God, intimacy, his power and might, his presence, comfort, healing etc. Just make sure that the themes aren’t diametric opposites because a sure way to kill the atmosphere is to go from “Jesus Loves Me This I know” to “Mighty Warrior”.

Key selection is also important. Choosing songs in the same key allows you to move seamlessly into the next song without having to rely heavily on clever musical interludes. It allows the worship leader to have various entry points into the next song and to even move back and forth between two songs if necessary.

Once you have chosen the songs, you should be able to pretty much visualise the flow of the worship service from start to end. This also helps you to communicate better to your team during rehearsals so that you can plan your transitions well.

4. Give Room for the Holy Spirit

We can be clinical and plan everything to a tee and then hope for the Holy Spirit to move. Or we can “plan to be spontaneous” by not overloading the set so that there is some inbuilt time buffer within which we can allow and expect the Holy Spirit to move.

When I first started leading worship, I thought that on average a song might last 3 to 4 minutes so for a half-an-hour set, I could probably fit about 7 songs in there easily. Boy, was that a mistake! I just ended up rushing through everything without giving anyone (let alone the Holy Spirit) any chance to breathe.

For a 25 minute set, I recommend about 3 to 4 songs (or at most 4 songs plus one short chorus to finish). Within that, allow for free worship; allow for times for the music to play; allow for the Holy Spirit to inspire you to give a word, exhortation or prayer.

5. Include Various Expressions of Worship

When I first led worship on a Sunday, I had a disdain for fast songs. I thought they were shallow and emotional. No, the real spiritual songs are the slow songs. That is when you really pour your heart out to God.

I have since realised that, in fact, all songs directed to God in worship are spiritual! The Psalms indicate that it is just as valid to worship God with dance, shouts and celebration as with intimate cries of the heart.

So now, I don’t shun fast songs. In fact, I think they are necessary and to not do them is to deprive the church of a very real expression of praise.

Further, fast songs are an important tool to engage and bring people with you, especially because when people first enter the sanctuary, they are not emotionally prepared to engage with God. A fast song will often help get them onto the same page before releasing them to express worship to God in their own way!

Of course, there may be times when you might feel God doesn’t want you to do a fast song, but I have the fast song on as a default setting unless directed otherwise.

So those are some of the parameters that guide me when I choose songs for a worship set. I hope they have been helpful! Remember, if you can put together a good songlist, half of the work is already done!

Epochal Song 1: All Hail King Jesus (Dave Moody, 1977)

The story goes that Dave Moody, as he was preparing to lead a worship service, sat at his piano and began to worship.

A prophetic song came to him and the words and melody began to flow.  “All Hail King Jesus” was birthed in that moment.  Moody was then prompted to sing it in the service.  As he did, people began responding by bowing in worship all throughout the church.  The song was then popularised through conferences and began to spread throughout the worldwide church.

“All Hail King Jesus” was significant in that it began to focus the church on objective praise, moving away from the subjectivity of presentation songs.

It is amazing how a cultural change would begin in the intimacy of a believer’s private worship.

The song also became the title recording of the first Integrity Hosanna! album led by Kent Henry.  Hosanna Music would later become a leader in the worship cassette revolution (before CD’s and iTunes were invented!).

The distinctive of Hosanna Music was its ability to capture the atmosphere and flow of a worship set from start to finish.  This is something which most worship labels have failed to replicate  even to this day – preferring instead to heavily edit and chop and change the positioning of songs.

My first Hosanna Music album was “The Lord Reigns” with Bob Fitts.  I was very much taken by the idea of being able to put on the tape and have a church service right there in my Walkman and to experience the presence of God through recorded worship.  I began memorising every song on the tape and even the things Bob Fitts said in between songs.  Listening to Hosanna  Music was one of the ways I learnt to lead worship.

I am sure Dave Moody could not have imagined how a simple song like the one he wrote in 1977 would change the entire worship landscape of the church and that its influence would reach down to the generations to come after him!

The Year of Unceasing Fruitfulness – Part 2

Today, I want to continue with the thought of 2012 being the year of Unceasing Fruitfulness. It is certainly a word which has resonated with me and it is one, which, it seems, has resonated with many Christians as well.

In his New Year’s message, Joseph Prince shared the key to unceasing fruitfulness by cross-referencing Jeremiah 17:5-8 with Psalm 1.

Psalm 1:1-3 says:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the LORD,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

The key is to meditate on the Word of God. Prince shared the thought that to “meditate” was to “mutter under one’s breath”; to keep the Word of God on our lips.

I want to bring this thought into the context of apostolic worship.

I believe that true worship transforms the worshipper. This happens in a number of ways. It is true that encountering God exposes our own sinfulness and convicts us to change. It is also true that we become like who (or what) we worship. But worship also transforms us, often not in a sudden, electrifying moment, but through a gradual process. This is where I think Biblical meditation and worship through singing intersect.

I remember many years ago, Integrity Music released Scripture Memory songs, Scripture set verbatim to music. It was a powerful and effective way to memorise Scripture. This is in fact how I memorised Romans 8:1 (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” – sing with me if you remember this song!) It’s actually a shame that not more worship songs these days record Scripture in this way.

So, the process of singing is one way by which we can take a Scriptural word or thought and internalise it by repetition. It is a psychological phenomenon which I am not equipped to explain, but I can only point to the evidence of my little niece who, at the age of 2, is just beginning to form sentences of longer than 3 or 4 words; and yet she can practically sing an entire song on her own (she needs to work on her pitching though, but not bad for a 2 year old!)

Do you ever get a song stuck in your head and it just keeps repeating over and over again? When I attended New Creation Church on the New Year’s service, the worship leader led the song “Unmerited Favour”. It’s actually got some awkward phrasing, but it now keeps playing in my head:

Now I’ve got every reason to rejoice
Your unmerited favour is on my life
It’s got nothing to do with what I did
But it’s all about what You’ve done for me
And because of the cross it’s plain to see
I’m irrevocably saved now I am free
And I’ll rejoice
In everything You’ve done
In everything You’ve done

Almost unconsciously, I am declaring the favour of God over my life! The power of music is not just to play over in our minds, but also to bypass our minds and affect our emotions. In fact, when coupled with the gestures of worship (such as bowing, dancing, lifted hands), it becomes a way we love God with our heart, mind, soul and strength.

So one way we can meditate day and night is to let the songs of the Lord ring in our hearts, increasing our faith to believe God for His will to be done in our lives.

It is therefore not surprising that the psalmist is also a prophet. The songs are forthtelling – bringing the future Will of God into our present.

I want to leave you today with a song (which is a bit dated now) but which captures the thought of “Unceasing Fruitfulness”. It’s called “Lord I Live by Your Word”, written by Mark Altrogge and recorded by Kent Henry. The lyrics paraphrase and capture Psalm 1 and Isaiah 55:10-11:

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Here’s the song:

As we begin 2012, my prayer for you is that in your life, God’s Word will not return to Him void. It will accomplish His will in your life. It will surely succeed. His Word transforms the desert, and His Word will transform You. May His Word water the soil of your heart and bring forth unceasing fruitfulness (and not only that, but also increasing fruitfulness) in 2012.