Writing in a recent issue of Christianity magazine, Andy Walton asks if some of our modern worship songs so lack freshness, creativity and effort, that they could easily have been written by a blindfolded monkey.
I must admit to having some sympathy with this position, even though I certainly don’t want to seem ungrateful for all the skill, effort and commitment that musicians put into our worship ‘experience’.
I’m not going to comment on the musical quality of today’s worship songs, not because it’s unimportant, but because its importance is secondary. Music is the vehicle, whereas words are the freight.
It is not only modern worship songs that suffer overmuch from cliched, repetitive, unimaginative, or even banal lyrics. A generation that sang
In my heart there rings a melody
there rings a melody
with heavenly harmony
In my heart there rings a melody
there rings a melody of love
…and so on, has no right to complain when today’s congregations sing…
Praise is rising, eyes are turning to you
We turn to you
Hope is stirring, hearts are yearning for you
We long for you
When we see you we find strength to face the day
In your presence all our fears are washed away, washed away
…and so on.
The question few people seem to be asking is, How did we get here? Let us try to trace the family tree of modern worship songs. Andy Walton takes us back one step, to the charismatic movement which gave us publications such as Sound of Living Waters (1974). Go back one stage further and we find ourselves in the youth-oriented folk/pop developments of the 1960s, and to the simple choruses and songs of Youth Praise (1966). Go back one more stage and where are we? Why, we are back in the 1920s and CSSM Choruses. Now, CSSM (which was the pre-cursor of Scripture Union) stood for ‘Children’s Special Service Mission’. Of course, I have nothing in principle against children’s songs and choruses. But it may just be, if the historical sketch I have just given makes any sense at all, that we just need to grow up in our praise and worship.
As Andy Walton points out, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong in repeating familiar words. If there were, we would have to ban the Lord’s Prayer from our churches.
I’m not sure I agree that ‘a limited vocabulary of worship can lead to a limited spiritual experience.’ I suspect that it’s the other way round: a limited spiritual experience leads to a limited vocabulary of worship. But I do agree that Scripture, and the history of Christian worship down the ages, show that there are areas of Christian belief and experience that remain simply untouched by popular worship songs:-
One Bible commentary suggests the book of Psalms alone contains 16 different types of ‘song’, with topics including praise, perseverance, confession, judgement, crisis, wrath and integrity. That’s before we even get onto the likes of Lamentations and Song of Songs. For the writer who feels uninspired, there are vast resources in scripture to use as a basis for lyrics, as well as 2,000 years of Christian wisdom.
Let our knowledge of Scripture be deeper, and our spiritual experience richer, and our worship will follow. Any other way is mere pretence – full of words and music, but signfiying nothing.