Style over substance

One group to do badly out of COVID-19 is the guild of celebrity charismatic prophets, who have uniformly both failed to predict it (except in the “Last September God gave me a secret message I can now reveal” manner), and who even got their false retrospective words from God wrong as they decreed instant death on the virus by Easter (or Passover, for some reason). Particularly instructive to watch on YouTube is Kenneth Copeland, whose spuriously authoritative curses on the thing, and demand for an instant vaccine NOW, almost tip him into apoplexy (though as he has also prophesied he will live to 120, I guess he’s safe). He dug himself an even bigger hole by predicting the Coronavirus would perish in an imminent heatwave that was actually a cold snap across the continent.

The only prophecy of his likely to come true this year is, sadly, that his organisation will make $300m in 2020. Such is the supernatural power of religious charlatanry.

All of which is just a preamble to my own revelation that I have been amusing myself in lockdown by experiments in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) genre, which seems to have strong links with these Prosperity Gospel charismatics via Hillsong and Bethel churches, in particular.

Now, I should immediately say that I have never been a hidebound traditionalist regarding worship music, but on the contrary was in at the beginning of such trendy things, at least in UK terms. In 1969 I organised a school evangelistic concert involving the band of local guitarist John Russell, who was among the first with a serious ambition to break into the secular rock scene for Christ. And he succeeded too, his later band After the Fire having a US Top 10 hit with Der Kommissar in 1983. A great bloke, and still playing for Jesus even in post-fame obscurity.

A couple of years later I got my first gospel gig through John, who was by then working for the UK Christian music organisation MGO organising the British release, for example, of Larry Norman’s first album. Through that exposure (and contacts at university) I began a “gospel folk-rock” ministry for the next few years, sharing stages with then leading gospel artists like Parchment (soon after their Top 30 single), Garth Hewitt, Judy Mackenzie, Water into Wine Band, Adrian Snell and a young student called Graham Kendrick.

It was Graham who surprised us all by following the US example of moving from “performance” into “worship” music, a role that he himself executed very well for decades, but which (in my view) contributed to the baleful result of the unbiblical cult of the “worship leader,” and the highly commercialised musical genre of CCM.

The links, and similarities, of this emerging phenomenon to the secular music business were brought home to me by a drummer I worked with, converted to Christ after a career on cruise ships, who at the Greenbelt Festival in ’86 was discussing possible work opportunities with one of the MGO guys, also from the music industry. He came away from the meeting with a sad face – “They’re just the same as the commercial lot,” he sighed. Any resemblance between Christian music and “the music business” should actually be a cause for shame, but the former has actually become just a portfolio within the latter.

Arguably proper finance was necessary – in my day UK Christian Music was financially capable of supporting fewer full-time acts than the booming secular folk scene – and even that could only keep around 20 musicians above the poverty line. Now churches buy expensive CCLI licences to maintain the livelihoods of the musicians who write the songs more for album sales than for congregational use, to judge by the awkward keys they’re in and the confusing arrangements. CCLI even produced a special, extra, licence (for a sizeable fee) to allow churches to use the songs (but not the commercial recordings) for Corona livestream services. At least one industry is still doing OK, then.

Whenever I watch the worship bands of these US or Australian megachurches, I am struck firstly by the array of top-line Taylor and Gibson acoustics, and Fender and Gretsch electrics they all play; then by the light shows and smoke generators (or are they glory clouds?); then by the momentous (if generally utterly predictable) power-ballads being bopped along to, rather than sung, by the punters, and lastly by the theological thinness (and in some cases sheer heterodoxy) of the lyrics.

Yet many of my friends regard this as the epitome of “Spirit-filled worship,” lending me videos in the hope that we’ll emulate in a Devon village the worshipfully closed eyes, beatific smiles and American accents (as many English worship bands actually do, downloading backing tracks on mp3 so as faithfully to reproduce the albums). Personally, I sense more of the Spirit in a church full of old people lustily singing Wesley hymns to an out of tune harmonium. And the old-fashioned Anglican psalm chants give more theology per verse than the average album of CCM. See what a curmudgeon the last 50 years have made me!

Well, if you can’t beat ’em… It so happens that our little church has a custom of singing a harmless ditty for everyone who has a birthday that particular week. Here it is, in its trivial, though sincerely-meant, glory:

Sometimes I vary it by playing it as reggae or Bo Diddley. But you can’t imagine them singing anything like that at Hillsong, can you? So I thought, one idle afternoon a couple of weeks ago, that maybe I should give it a CCM makeover – you know, to make it more Spirit-filled and relevant to people today. So I retired to the Camel’s Eyrie home studio for several hours, dragged out the cheapo guitars, home-made drum patches and U2 delay effects, and came up with this live version:

What do you think? Never mind the substance – feel the style!

Avatar photo

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Music, Politics and sociology, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Style over substance

  1. Ben says:

    Rather droll, but I misread
    unbiblical cult of the “worship leader,”
    umbilical cult of the “worship leader,”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      “Unless ye become as little children…”

      Which reminds me – at that first gig I did, somebody had invited the Children of God (then ignorantly thought to be a Christian group rather than an abusive cult) to perform. Their signature tune was “You’ve got to be a baby to go to heaven.”

      Maybe their ignoring of 1 Cor 14:20 explains how so many kids got fooled for so long – a verse which, in context, would be useful for many churches today!

  2. Peter Hickman says:

    I’m with you all the way on CCM. Little of it predisposes one towards worship. It’s a sad reflection on the state of the church when a (godly) young person I know tells me that she regularly arrives late at Sunday morning services, on purpose, in order to miss the [banal] first part of the meeting referred to as ‘worship’.

    My usual, and perfectly honest, answer to the question, “Where do you worship?” is “Just about anywhere, but mostly in my garden – and not so much ‘at church’”. I find it hard to engage with church ‘worship’. It feels like an abuse of the word to call it that.
    As you suggest, the doctrinal content of CCM is often negligible or plain wrong. And you can’t whistle the tunes on the way home either (well, I can’t) – they’re that insipid.
    Now, of course, I have the perfect excuse. No-one is ‘going to church’. However, I’m not hiding. We are using Zoom for our home group. Alas, Zoom is not really suitable for corporate singing. Serendipity.
    In saying all of this I realise that worship comprises so much more than singing praise – I’m thinking of the first mention (Abraham & Isaac; Genesis 22.5) and the NT definition (Romans 12.1) which naturally echos that OT story.

    I was blessed to be young before CCM arrived. I loved the albums ‘Upon this Rock’ (Larry Norman) and ‘Paid on the Nail’ (Graham Kendrick). Also Choralerna and Barry McGuire, amongst others. I still listen to them, and sing along. Thank God I kept the records. Some of the old songs, pre-CCM, have a timeless quality. Just like Wesley hymns do.
    Maybe there’s an element of nostalgia when I sing these songs now, but I truly loved the times of worship ‘in the old days’. ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing …’
    On with the headphones!

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


      Zoom indeed has its limitations – someone had the idea of using it for online rehearsals of our sax choir, but the differential lag times made it rather cacophanous, I gather!

      Currently, though, we’re trying to get some variety in our online services by recording various members of the band on i-phones etc, which I hope to pull together in my recording software. As I write, I’m hoping to get some guitar parts e-mailed to me, which is leaving it a bit late for our pastor to use tomorrow morning!

      The NT concept of worship is, of course, the lives we lead each day, and we come together to build each other up for the week’s worship – one reason I dislike the term “worship leader.” But of course, by that definition your house group is “doing church,” albeit it at a distance.

      I still have three albums by the late great Larry Norman, and a couple of early Kendricks. My favourites are by Water into Wind Band, whom I had the privilege of knowing and working with at Cambridge and afterwards. Stonkingly good.

      But the reach of the music business is great. I wanted to use some lyrics from Graham K’s first album in my first book, but he told me the copyright had gone through various owners and was now with Sony or Warner or somebody. A far cry from Key Records, operating independently from New Malden.

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