Not another new song!

Sylvia Griffiths

Some years ago my husband and I were invited to a Silver Wedding party. We thought hard about an appropriate present and eventually, since the couple concerned did lots of entertaining, chose a large item of ovenware. We received a letter thanking us for the gift but saying it was too large for their oven, so I replied, telling them where it had been bought and enclosing the receipt so that they could exchange it. Some months later we had a visit from the husband who said his wife had sent us something - and out came our gift, returned to us. We felt angry and hurt that the gift I had spent so long choosing had been thrown back in our faces. Sometimes God must feel like saying to us “All the music I have given you throughout the ages is a gift from me. Why do you throw it back in my face?”

During the last century there was an explosion of Christian music in which there were three important factors: the attempt to express worship in the culture of the day; the renewal of God’s people; and the social impact of the gospel. Let’s look at their development and see how they occurred.

In the early twentieth century jazz became very popular amongst the black community of America, owing a lot to the rhythms brought over by African slaves. Young white musicians flocked to the bars where these bands played.

About the same time there was a self-educated travelling Afro-American preacher called William Joseph Seymour. He gathered together a small group of black domestic servants in Los Angeles and assured them that if they prayed hard enough God would send a new Pentecost. It happened in 1906. As Seymour said, “the fire fell!” The crowds grew too big for homes, Seymour and his friends rented a disused church on Azusa Street, and the Pentecostal revival had begun.

The effect was explosive. Many white people came and the barriers of a segregated society began to be broken down. Worship followed the pattern of joyful jazz. Young white musicians found that the instruments they weren't allowed to play in their own churches were used in Pentecostal churches, and many joined. Harvey Cox, an American Baptist theologian, attributes a lot of its success to the fact that wherever it spread it expressed worship in the culture of the people.

In the 1950s the style of popular music in Britain began to change. The big names were singers like Bill Haley and Elvis Presley. Rock and Roll had arrived - and was at first regarded as very dangerous. When Rock around the Clock came to my town, policemen with dogs patrolled the cinema in case the music inspired teenagers to riot. If that was the attitude in the secular world, what chance had the church?

An Anglican clergyman called Geoffrey Beaumont was one of the first to catch the vision. With a group of friends he composed slightly more syncopated tunes to some traditional hymns, like Gracias to ‘Now thank we all our God’. We had Christmas Jazz and other similar works. Slowly we began to rediscover the stringed instruments beloved by the Psalmist, in our case usually guitars. Christian music groups like the Salvation Army Joystrings emerged, and It’s an Open Secret even made the charts.

The 1960s saw the emergence of the Fisherfolk community from the Church of the Redeemer in Texas, one of whose members began to write new songs for worship. We all began to sing about what we would do if we were butterflies! There was a marked increase in more contemplative songs such as Wind, wind blow on me. The songbook Sound of Living Waters began to appear in some of our churches.

By the 1970s a similar Pentecostal-style experience had hit the mainstream churches, more commonly known as ‘charismatic renewal’. Every denomination was affected, though by no means every congregation. Over the next twenty years new music poured onto the church scene: Mission Praise, Power Praise, Songs of Fellowship and many others - not forgetting the OHP and PowerPoint. The church gave us Estelle White and Dan Schutte from the Catholic tradition and Graham Kendrick, Chris Bowater and Matt Redman (to name but a few) from the Protestant tradition. The metred hymn was replaced by beautiful melodies, lilting rhythms and more pianistic accompaniments. Music groups sprang up all over the place, often as choirs diminished and organists grew fewer. I remember being in a service where Meekness and Majesty was sung, and a gentleman expressed surprise and admiration saying ‘It’s like something from South Pacific’. For the first time in his life, the music he was hearing inside the church bore some resemblance to the music that was part of his life outside.

There were others, too numerous to mention them all. Sydney Carter’s songs with their strong social awareness, the beautiful Gelineaux psalms, Taizé Community chants, Wildgoose publications from Iona, the compositions of John Rutter, which tried to bridge the gap between the classical and the popular.

Why do we need all this new music? We don’t - but God does not give us according to our need but according to his riches. It is not surprising that a creative God should be constantly recreating the music of worship through the gifts he has given. Some words about new wine and old wineskins come to mind.

As a young local preacher I knew that at the beginning of the week before a service a card would come to through the letter box: an order of service requesting me to insert my hymn numbers and return them before choir practice. No one ever assumed that the preacher might want to change the order! It was not uncommon for the parts of the service other than the sermon to be regarded as ‘the preliminaries’. The word ‘praise’ simply meant having a good sing.

Small wonder that people had left the church in droves and turned to the occult. The growth of the New Age Movement is a search for the spirituality that was so often missing in church. It wasn’t all bad, but that intrinsic ingredient was lacking. As God renewed his church, we discovered new ways to worship – the clapping and dancing of the Old Testament, banner waving and the use of more visual symbols.

Some of us have struggled with this. Certainly those of us who have been playing and singing four-part harmony hymns for years have struggled to master some of the more rhythmically challenging music we are faced with now. Yet many of these new songs are based on scripture. In the seventies and eighties the dominant theme was praise. More recently the range has widened to include such treasures as Who can sound the depth of sorrow? and Beauty for brokenness.

We are constantly being bombarded with the fall in church membership in Britain, but we are not always given the full picture. Statistics provided by Professor Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, illustrate the point. Between 1985 and 1990 Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Roman Catholics all lost members, the biggest loss being 10%. In the same five years independent churches, mainly Pentecostal or charismatic house churches, grew by 30%. These are churches that express their worship in the language and culture of today's world.

Perhaps the most radical change has been in children's worship. The songs many of us remember from our childhood are Jesus wants me for a sunbeam; There's a friend for little children; Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; Climb, climb up sunshine mountain. I for one am glad to see them replaced by the much meatier content of songs like God's not dead; My God is so big; I'm special because God has loved me.

Contemporary music on its own cannot transform lives. Only the power of God through his Holy Spirit can do that. However, 21st century people are not going to be helped by a regular unvaried diet of 18th century hymns, however valuable they may be. This is not to decry the hymns of the past, but that is not the place to start.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing elements in the history of Christian worship has been the way in which the church has often treated God’s gifts as our Silver Wedding gift was treated. People have always resisted new music. When J.S. Bach’s passion music was performed in public for the first time, one old lady said “God save us my children! It’s just as if one were at an opera comedy!” Everyone was displeased and complained about it. Today we thank God for Bach’s music.

John Wesley would often tell his brother the subject of his sermon and commission him to write an appropriate hymn. There was frequently no time to compose a tune, so John would have them sung to popular tunes of the day. A hundred years later, a young Methodist minister called William Booth, taking the gospel onto the city streets, had people singing hymns on a Sunday to music hall tunes they had sung the previous evening.

Trawling through some very old minute books recently while researching my family history I came across the following minute: 'We have purchased a set of the new hymnbooks on the condition that for the first year we only use those hymns which are in the old book’!

Songs and hymns are not the be-all and end-all of worship, but they are God-given gifts to enable us to worship. Like all gifts, they are given for different purposes. Some will only last a short time. Only a small proportion of Wesley's hymns survive today. There was a time when we seemed to be singing Majesty every other week, but we don't use it much now. Some contemporary music is transitory, but some will stand the test of time.

God has given us a rich heritage of music and song. Whatever our personal preferences, therefore, let us be careful that we receive God's gifts and use them, and don’t insult and hurt him by throwing them back in his face.

Sylvia Griffiths is a Local Preacher in the Chesterfield Circuit.

Headline, Winter 2004/5 pp 23-24.