Just attempted to (I think it worked) upload the EP to last.FM. Prize to the first person who can convincingly show they’ve scrobbled it!
I’ve dropped some sidelong hints in this website (and for that matter in the songs I write) about my beliefs and theological thinking differing from the evangelical with a dash of charismatic superchurch concensus the vast majority of ‘worship music’ (whatever that might mean … ) emerges from. And rather, at least at this time, than try and write a theological tract, I thought I’d give a slightly more general indication of where at least some of my thought goes by letting you go and listen to the first time anyone has ever persuaded me to give a full sermon. (This may prove to be a watch this space rather than a one-off, but much exploring still needs to be done there) It might make clear some of the reasons why I wrote so strongly about lyrics the congregation can sign up to, if it gives you an idea of what I do or don’t sign up to in contrast to some very good contemporary Christian songwriters. Here’s the link:
Anyone (if there is anyone) who has read most of my blog posts, or taken a look around the rest of this site, may have noticed a conspicuous absence for the general area I’m putting myself in. It’s the phrase ‘worship leader’, and it’s absent for the good reason that I don’t like it in general and particularly as potentially applied to me. Why not?
Well, it’s largely to do with the definition of ‘worship’. Now, I’m willing to accept the use of the word to indicate in general what a lot of Christians spend an hour or two doing in a church on Sundays. It’s not a very accurate description – because actually any well-constructed church service includes adoration, praise, the reading of Scripture, teaching, confession and intercession as well, and a large number include Communion as well. But it’s well established, and I can perhaps see that from the New Testament on, it has been used as a catch-all term because it’s arguably the most important element. But if that’s the definition of ‘worship’ you’re going to have, then musicians aren’t generally worship leaders aren’t they? That title would belong in general to the ordained ministers, the preachers, the pastors – whoever actually leads the whole event, not just the bits of it that consist in (largely congregationally sung) music.
The problem is the relatively recent and minority use of the word ‘worship’ to mean precisely that congregationally sung music element. ‘The worship team’ is used in some churches to mean ‘the band’, perhaps a word that couldn’t apply to any secular item seems more comfortable to a mentality of not just being not of the world but also not being in it more than you can help. People will talk about ‘a time of worship’ to mean basically some songs back-to-back, perhaps with little instrumental segments or the lead singer praying on a mike in between. So why am I so evidently riled by this? Well, I think as a term it’s both too large and too small. Too large because of the implication that no worship takes place in the rest of what we do in (or perhaps even out of?) of church, which is a terrifying concept – that we might become incapable of that emotional and conscious attitude to God without the prompting of a particular kind of music. Too small because I think church music should be capable of engaging in all the elements of devotion listed above. If we call our music ‘worship’, what odds are there that we will actually write, or choose to sing with our congregations, songs of sorrow, pleading, confession … ? But we should, so let’s not have a name that puts us off. In Stuart Townend‘s oft-repeated turn of phrase, we have too many songs about our experience of God and not enough about God Himself. Let’s not adopt terminology that reinforces that lamentable trend.
The other reason I suppose I don’t like the term is because it seems to puff up those of us who may be, at least part of the time, up the front of a church with a guitar and the vocs mike that’s turned up the loudest. I’ve already said that in my eyes the term belongs more validly to those who actually lead entire acts of worship, and that’s certainly a good reason for not seeking to promote ourselves to that status. But also, it adds a considerable sheen of grandeur to what I see as basically making music and hoping to help others worship God through that. It implies a placing of the person in question in a metaphorical spotlight if not a literal one, and I don’t like that. Church musicians lead congregations not perform to audiences, remember, and the role of singers in congregational singing is to provide a lead for the congregation to follow, not a performance for them to listen to. I have wide enough experience to be used to singing in congregations where there is no vocal lead, only instrumental accompaniment, and I see bands with miked singers as in a continuum with that. I’m always upset when I can see some of the congregation sitting in slightly surly silence during songs – I think that automatically means as an organiser (not necessarily a singer / instrumentalist) I’ve done something wrong.
So I stick to labels I think are objective: singer, musician, songwriter. Those are objective; I do indisputably do all the things those names imply. But at least unless Kingsway put me under contract (their website refers to their artists as worship leaders), I will stay away from being a worship leader where possible.
It’s not mostly me of course, but at Greenbelt 2012 sitting in on fiddle with Stephen Fischbacher, Flaming Nora, Pete Ward and a scratch, ahem, specially convoked choir is – yes, me, in the blue shirt giving the fiddle what for. And of course the use of this song in a communion service raises all sorts of juicy questions about what constitutes Christian music!
One of today’s really a cut above worship writers gives his thoughts on what the church needs from more songs when it has more than it’s ever had! I’m posting this as much as a challenge to myself as anything else, it’s well worth a read:
I honestly cannot think of the last worship track I heard that had an actual lead instrument on it. I would hazard a guess it was probably the last time I listened to Stuart Townend‘s Creation Sings (I really must buy his more recent album), which is largely a shining counterexample to what I’m about to write. But I think it’s the exception that proves the rule to be honest.
What I mean is that there’s never really any melodic use of instruments, or countermelody of any kind, in worship music. In most other allied rock-type genres, it would be normal for a lead guitar or keyboard to carry some kind of melody at some point, either in a solo or playing melodic lines of some kind that interact with the lead vocal. But that’s hardly ever done in Christian, certainly church, music. I’ve heard the odd sax obbligato line on a Hillsong track I think, and there’s Stuart Townend and occasional other Celtic-inspired people with fiddle or whistle taking a melody line that isn’t the vocal tune. But it’s very rare.
Now there is a clear argument against having instrument solos in congregational songs. There is the odd song and situation where they can fit and be natural, but I experimented (and it was an experiment) with having instrumental solos in my church on a more regular basis and the feedback was basically: for most of the congregation, sitting / standing and listening to a solo is not worshipful in the way that singing collectively is. It’s an interruption.
But, that’s not all there is to this story. All, pretty much, of the instrumentation in generic worship music tends to be backing and texture – maybe riffs at most if somebody got adventurous with an electric guitar or a horn arrangement. On the other hand, I’ve been playing violin in various church music contexts for over a decade now. Now that’s definitely a melody instrument, and coming out of a flirtation with jazz and ongoing interest with folk and the blues, I’ve generally used it to play backing lines or to up the energy levels and play solo-like lines alongside the vocals in the higher-energy parts of songs. And although my playing was pretty rough and unbridled in the earlier part of that time and there were inevitably some pleas for restraint, in general I’ve had good feedback.
I think basically there’s only so far you can go with sheer tune and accompaniment. I don’t think it’s an accident that the vast majority of all Western music has developed some kind of countermelody or answering phrase structure at some point – and that includes sacred music, whether it’s complex Renaissance and Baroque polyphony, the last-verse descants of nineteenth-century hymnody or the call-and-response phrasing of traditional gospel. There is inherently something more exciting about having a countermelody line going on. And contrary to what might be expected, and to the general congregational experience of solos, it makes singing the melody more engaging, not less, to have another line going on alongside or even to some extent fighting with it (have you noticed how a significant proportion of people will start harmonising instinctively if you set them to singing a simple repeated chant? Same kind of thing). So actually, melody instrument lines that sit across the tune – that are, perhaps, improvised or half-written in interaction with it – seem to make the congregational experience work better, as well as perhaps being a more satisfying offering for gifted Christian instrumentalists.
So bring on the wailing guitars, the honking saxes, the funky slapped and popped basses and the incredibly fiddly keyboard lines. It all has a place in our musical offerings!