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.