Contemporary Worship Music

Ralph Ward

I hope that most of us are familiar these days with the idea of the music in our worship being led by a group of musicians rather than just one. There is nothing new in this: neither is there anything particularly new about the idea that the music group be responsible for choosing the songs and hymns that are sung in the worship, rather than this being the job of the person preaching. However, I observe that in recent years we have seen a fundamental change in the way we introduce music into our worship.

Previously we relied on a collection of 'standards', songs and hymns that were so well known that we didn’t have to sing them regularly, and were unlikely to disappear from the collection. We introduced new songs into our worship very slowly. We might slip one in every now and again, almost guiltily, and then not do it again for ages on the presumption that it had now become one of the 'songs we know'. On occasion we might decide, as a church, that we need a new collection of songbooks to reflect the new material being sung elsewhere. We might invest in a set of Songs of Fellowship, and then settle down to use them occasionally in conjunction with the hymnbook. Many churches learn only a few of the songs contained in such a collection before they discover that a sequel has been released (the most recent in the Songs of Fellowship series is book three, a mighty tome indeed!).

Many people in churches I have been to express disquiet about this. 'Why should we get a new set of books?' they ask; 'We haven’t learned half of the ones in the old books'. This, my friends, is because we are missing a crucial point. We have been engaged in slowly building a vast and under-used repertoire of songs. But nowadays we live in a pop culture: a culture where the radio plays the 'tune of the moment' at every opportunity for a relatively short period of time, and then consigns it to the archive of stuff that pops up several years later on a compilation album of 'hits of the 80s'.

There are many churches up and down the country that are doing a very similar thing. New worship songs are being written all the time, and these days they appear on worship CDs as well as in songbooks. Many Christians buy and listen to worship CDs, and get to know songs as a result. Many church musicians also make a habit of buying the new CDs, because they are interested in the new music in the church and want to 'keep up with the worship music scene' - sorry if you are cringing at this point, but it’s a fact.

And here’s another fact: evangelical Christians can’t get enough new music. Anything that lifts and inspires them in worship, either heard on a CD or at a large convention such as New Wine or Spring Harvest, they want to sing in their own fellowships. If we ignore their enthusiasm and stick with a repertoire that does not change very much, we are going to run into trouble quite quickly.

Increasingly we are seeing churches using worship songs like pop music. We hear a new song; the musicians in the church learn it and teach it to the congregation. If it is a good song that helps in the worship, then we sing it regularly, sometimes on consecutive Sundays. We do this for a period of time, and then we feel that we have sung it enough and squeezed every drop of worship value from it. Then we put it to one side and don’t sing it again for months, maybe years. Then if our musicians are on the ball they dig it out again and slip it into the service once more. We all sing it and it gives us a huge and wonderful nostalgia trip. We say to each other – 'Do you remember that one? It reminds me of when we did that mission in '95', and we feel great. Do you see? It’s like hearing an old pop song from years ago – it feels really special. I speak as someone who has reached the age of 43, and still enjoys listening to contemporary chart music. But I do enjoy hearing an old song from the '80s now and again, because it reminds me of another time. Why shouldn’t we have all this in our worship music too?

Don’t believe me? I’ve got three words for you – 'Shine Jesus Shine'. It came out, we all sang it to death, then we put it away. Occasionally we get it out and it takes us right back, doesn’t it?

But we have to move on. The church of Jesus does not stand still: too many congregations have done so and died off. We must keep introducing new songs into our worship for the sake of our younger members and those who might yet join us. There is enough to get used to when you take those first tentative steps into church life as a new Christian: it helps enormously if the music reflects (stylistically, not necessarily lyrically) the zeitgeist, the cultural flavour of the society in which we live. If new worship songs do nothing else, they enable us to move with the times. Yes, I know the message remains the same – it’s the presentation that has to alter.

But it’s not just about what we sing. Neither is it purely about having a group of musicians being given the responsibility to lead our worship in a creative fashion. A new phenomenon has arisen in worship – the projector….

I became a Christian twenty years ago, and when I walked into my first church it had an overhead projector and screen as a permanent installation. Sadly some churches are only just getting round to providing such equipment, which means basically that the churches in question are twenty years out of date and need to catch up quickly! There is nothing new about what a friend of mine recently referred to as 'heads up worship', which I think is a very apt description of what we are trying to do. Our worship is enhanced if we take the songbooks out of the hands of the congregation, and replace them with a large screen at the front at a suitable height, upon which words of a suitable size can be projected so that all can see them. How else can we expect them to clap along? How are they ever to discover the release of raising holy hands before the Lord, if we have stuck a book into them when they walked through the door at the beginning of the service?

No, we need the screen! But if you are placing an order for your first OHP, forget it. There is a new boy on the scene – the data projector. Along with his friend the laptop, the projector has become a standard piece of kit for any church in the land that has a desire to go forward into the 21st century. A few years ago it was an expensive indulgence – not any more. Increasingly, people are going to church and expecting the innovation that a projector brings, both to song lyrics and also to visual aids for preaching. I realise that we’re talking about an initial outlay of around £2,000, but the price is coming down all the time. Don’t worry that you won’t be able to work it, either – any school child who has made it into his/her teens will have a working knowledge of PowerPoint, the software that makes it work. At my rural church in Dorset we now have a worship group and a 'visual ministries team', which prepares material for projection on a weekly basis. It is a great way of getting young people involved in the worship, because they usually understand it all better than we do!

'But what about all those songbooks we bought five years ago?' I hear you cry. Well it’s very interesting. I went to a major worship event in the summer called Soul Survivor. I learned lots of new songs which we are now singing to death in our church, plus our church musicians all bought the live CD so that they could learn the music. I thought I’d better invest in a music copy of the official songbook: and when I opened it I found to my surprise that it had no actual music in it. It consisted merely of words and guitar chords. When I queried this I was told that the full sheet music appeared on the accompanying CD ROM, along with full lyrics for data projection. It set my head spinning, but I realised that times have changed.

No more do we occasionally equip our church with a full set of songbooks, with half a dozen full music copies for the musicians. After all, we never use more than half of the songs in the book – we just pick our favourites and play them over and over. They become an expression of our time, of our passion for the Lord at this moment. What we do is to print out only the music we want, and cut and paste into our computer only the words we want. All the time we slip in new material as we hear it and enjoy it from around the country (and beyond), and we let music go when we feel we have sung it enough. The way we worship has changed – we are slimmer and fitter for the Kingdom. Are you keeping up

The Rev Ralph Ward is a minister in the Wimborne Circuit, Dorset.

Headline Winter 2003/4 pp 19-20.