Worship-is-us, yeah?

Someone at church suggested a new song for Sunday services, and being in the band I went to YouTube to look up how it goes. The clip was of the writer singing his own song. He was a young man with a strange haircut, tattoos and an expensive Gibson J45 guitar. He stood on stage amid well orchestrated lights, accompanied by a band of equally young chaps and young blonde ladies, all looking worshipful if they weren’t actually playing instruments, in which case they just looked like musicians. Somewhere, I suppose, there was a congregation. “It’s all about you, Jesus…”

OK. I didn’t find the song that inspiring, but it must be inspired because of the worshipful poses, and certainly the musicianship was good. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with being young, since I too was moderately young when I started playing in worship bands, though that was about fifteen years after I started playing Christian music – in those days there was a clear divide between “performance music” and “songs for worship,” which has slowly become dissolved.

But in typical YouTube fashion the algorithm then decided my main interest in life is now Contemporary Christian Music, and since then I have been bombarded by endless clips of worship songs, all the titles mentioning that they are the official live version by some worship star. And once again said star is always a young person with esoteric hair and a high-end acoustic guitar, and/or a lissome young lady with a flowing dress, though no tattoos, and no Mohican haircut. The bands are always slick, the music is in a uniform rock-anthem style, the lighting is stadium-standard, and the audience (if seen at all) looks more enraptured with heaven than joined together by spiritual singing.

One reason for the last point is that nearly all the songs nowadays are set in keys virtually impossible for the average congregation to sing. That is because if you’re a pro singer, an album track sounds good if it starts low, and then jumps an octave for more passion as the anthemic percussion and electric guitar join in. Unfortunately, most non-professionals’ vocal range is a lot less. Time was when hymns were composed by experienced pastors and teachers, rather than by young recording artists.

Hence at our own band rehearsals, working up a new song usually requires the labour of transposing it to a key we think a congregation will manage without straining something. That, to me, would seem the most basic thing for a professional “worship leader” to sort out at the composition stage, but I have the impression that megachurch band rehearsals don’t spend time on such details, thinking more about how it will sound on the new album. Thus it is that our drummer, experienced in playing at some big events, said that quite often the congregation don’t bother to sing, but chat as they would at a secular concert. Needless to say, this is not what congregational praise is about. As the late R. C. Sproul pointed out from Hebrews 12, when we gather for worship we are joined by all the saints who have gone to glory, and the hosts of heaven – though, he lamented, they probably don’t know any of our songs.

This, of course, is at the heart of my beef. I would rather be in a church with an elderly lady plonking out a tune on an ancient piano whilst the people sing their hearts out, than standing silentlyin front of a stage with a 1000 watt PA where the band is there to be watched storming the throne room of heaven (apparently) with new material.

Now I might have something of the same issue with traditional choristers at evensong in Kings College chapel, or a Catholic choir singing the music of the angels whilst the congregation are silent. But at least in those cases, for all the robes and regalia, the singers, or even the composer, are not the visual focus, but the sound and the words are designed to point us to God. Both Eastern and Western liturgical traditions once sought to bring heaven down to earth in musical forms objectively timeless and beautiful – hence Gregorian chant was based on theology, not on musical fashion.

CCM, however, is really a popular genre within the music business, for all its claims about the leading of the Holy Spirit, joined to performance styles aimed at demonstrating that inspiration for all to see. On another occasion YouTube offered me a video whose caption asked why nearly all modern worship music sounds like Coldplay. As someone left cold by Coldplay, I ask the same question, and watched it to find out the answer. Instead, the author of the video said how much he, too, likes Coldplay, and went on to describe how one can perform any worship song to sound like that.

There are naturally those who find that this genre meshes with their spirituality. But why is it allowed to pretend to be more spiritual than Mission Praise, Golden Bells, Ancient and Modern or even Moody and Sankey? A recent song “updates” the classic All creatures of our God and King not by modernising the language (it retains the “thees” and “thous” unchanged), but by using only two verses, and adding two more on a quite different theme. Meantime the seventeenth century tune Laast usn Erfuen has its meter changed from 6/4 to a turgid 4/4, its fascinating tonality changed to conventional boring chords, and of course an anthemic backbeat turns it into a heart-stirrer – if you like Coldplay.

But the hymn’s origin is St Francis’s Canticle of the Sun from around 1224, and it was his interpretation of Psalm 148, set to music by pastor William Henry Draper, and arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the greatest English composers. A Franciscan friar once told me that the once popular Make me a Channel of your Peace couldn’t possibly be by St Francis because it is too complicated. St Francis was about the simplest Christian ever to have lived, and the focus of much of his life, as in the Canticle, was on brotherhood with the natural world. You just know he would hate cosmic rock anthems with a key change in the middle.

It’s not just that I want to play and sing my old familiar favourites – though even as a rock and folk guitarist, my personal default worship resource would be The English Hymnal. Rather, as I grow older, the more I wonder if we lost something long before Hillsongs, Songs of Fellowship or even The Redemption Hymnal. I want to sing along with the music of heaven. Handel might just about cut it, but probably some Orthodox Polyphony gives more impression of coming down from heaven, rather than up from Tin Pan Alley.

At my advanced age, there’s not too long to wait before I join that “Fiery Band” (in Rev Gary Davis’s words in I am the Light of this World) for real. And it won’t, I’ll warrant, sound like Coldplay.

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, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Worship-is-us, yeah?

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Well people like what they like. However most Cgristian, that means evangelical really, music only became the famous hymns because of popular opinion. Top forty.
    its a writers medium and is very excellent with enduring great songs. in fact in the last forty years probably dozens, not sure about hyndreds, of songs have become famous and are sung everywhere in north america.It shows common conclusions reigns in christian music as everywhere. It is Gods blessing and evangelicals have newish/new great songs and the other religions have none or less. Including we easily use electric guitars/frums/organs while they barely are beyond bells and loud clangs. Its shows the true faith. God would bless the true faith with better music. he does.
    Remember Booth said WHY should the devil have all the good tunes and then he brought in trumpets etc for Sally Ann. He would of approved going electric.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      And is the evangelical church in North America growing and changing the culture?

      • Robert Byers says:

        Its always growing because its always losing kids or say two out of three kids from a family. Yes the music is a major attraction to the youth and adults. The culture knows about us and fears or hates us because they think we are effective. actually they think there are more of us then true. the music gives a false impression of popularity. its more successful then Jazz or blues. etc.However really only evangelical protestants have music. the others have none and no publishing. I don’t know in britain but surely the best songs must of got there by now. hey how about a british invasion of evangelical protestant music?! They did that with rock/pop back in the day. I wish so .

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          The “British Invasion” happened because British bands were confident enough to break away from the American mainstream, and adapt fringe American styles like R&B to their own original home-grown musical personalities. They sold a fresh take on “American” music back to the Americans, whose scene had become stale and commercial.

          The same was true of the early “gospel rock” scene, of which I was a small part. There was an Englishness about people like our Graham Kendrick that distinguished them from, say Larry Norman – though he, in his own US setting, was not afraid to break the mould of formulaic gospel stuff.

          But at that time, the setting was not worship, but performance and evengelism, and when Graham K. later copied the “worship leader” idea from America, his intention was to add to the English tradition of hymnody, not replace it. I believe that in time it got out of control.

          Now, commercial American “product” dominates worship here, possibly because our whole culture has become degenerate and has neither fresh ideas of its own, nor respect for old treasure.

          But that gives me pause to question what worship music should be about. In the car I’ll preferentially listen to rock-based secular music (mainly English!), but when the people of God gather in the presence of the holy angels and the saints from all centuries, I now find anthemic worship recordings over the PA an assault, not a transcendent experience.

          I must add that the way our church band does stuff is deliberately comparatively low key, even on modern material: usually we’re just one acoustic guitar, piano, drums, sax and a couple of singers. Some churches, though, just download the backing tracks of “hit” CCM albums, which is an abhorrence both to music and to communal worship, in my view.

  2. Levi says:

    If you would like a defence of the truth, beauty and goodness of the Catholic Church, this convert from Judaism – and musician – would be thrilled to try on you. The only caveat is that the Novus Ordo mass, licit as it is, must be completely avoided except in foreign countries, and a traditional latin mass parish must be sought. The gregorian chant and polyphony is sublime!

  3. Levi says:

    See, for example, my Parisian parish, St Eugene-St Cecile, on YouTube, as Ita Missa Est:


    It’s like this every Sunday, and each feast day. Brings tears to my eyes.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for the link, Levi.

      The essential ingredient lost from much Protestant worship is “gravitas,” I think: the Anglican choral tradition – and indeed even the Non-conformist hymnic tradition – still represents that, and in English too, to be “understanded of the people.” “Gravitas” translates closely the Hebrew word for God’s glory, which derives from the word “heavy” – but not, I think, in the sense of heavy metal.

      I note that your parish church is willing to tap the secular vein for congregational singing, with that stirring bit of Bizet at the beginning. So there’s nothing wrong with using music of all ages and origins. But to centre completely on a particular commercial sub-genre of stadium rock is, to my mind, to dishonour the angels and departed saints together with whom we worship.

      And trying to improve on the Bible, St Francis and Vaughan-Williams isn’t much better. I remember my hero Gordon Giltrap, who did a remake of “Oh Well” that was a flop, being told later by Peter Green, “You can’t improve on a classic.”

Leave a Reply