I have a clever friend (just the one) who did a PhD at college on 'The Individual in the Psalms'. In other words, when a Psalm says 'I ' did something or other, or had something or other happen to me, who exactly is the 'I '? His conclusion came in the form of a diagram which I have adapted to look something like this:
What this means is that a psalm, song or hymn, or indeed any creative enterprise intended to enhance a community's worship,is never just the product of an individual alone. It comes out of the interface between the individual spirituality of the psalmist or songwriter and that of the community in which he or she belongs. But once the song is used, it will inevitably have its effects on the spirituality of the community as a whole, and ultimately upon existing or new songwriters who emerge from it.
Nowhere can we see this dynamic cycle in operation more clearly than in the Charismatic worship song culture. Individual songwriters have, over the last 40 years, shaped the church community, and even those bits of it which would not in any sense want to call themselves 'Charismatic ', in a most dramatic way.
But what of the communities from which they have emerged, and what has God been up to in those communities? I want to suggest that far from being the ephemeral, mindless, theologically bereft ditties some would want to suggest, the body of charismatic worship songs written over recent years have been vehicles through which God has radically altered the shape of his church, in ways which I am convinced will fit us better to reach the post-modern world with the good news of his Kingdom.
Various attempts have been made to analyse the scene at what one might call 'micro' level. 1996 was the 'year of revival', but I want to take a much broader sweep. At the end of the day I'm not certain we can learn much from micro-analysis, since any songwriter and any community will go through fads and emphases which might affect the hymnody (or 'songnody') of the community in a limited and short-term way, without that emphasis necessarily having much to say to the wider church.
But on a macro-scale, there have, I believe, been some major trends within spirituality which have been affected by, and in turn have affected, huge chunks of the church universal. Let's explore four key themes, one from each of the final decades of the 20th century, and attempt to trace their influence on the church, then conclude with a prophetic look into one possible future.
The Sixties – Change is here to stay
Sociologists have written volumes about the effects of the 60s decade on western culture. During the years which saw Mods and Rockers, the transistor radio, the contraceptive pill, flower power and Woodstock, many of those nice people who remained safely in the arms of mother church were undergoing no less radical a revolution. My personal recollection of those years is of 'Gospel Guitar Groups' which initially sought to work evangelistically among the emerging youth culture, but increasingly wanted to find a niche in the worshipping life of the church, that is to say within Sunday services. In my own Anglican tradition the sixties was the decade in which liturgical renewal began to appear on the agenda, although not until 1973 were we to be allowed to worship without 'thees and thous'.
Although the charismatic movement was yet to emerge as a national phenomenon, and no songs of great and lasting worth seem to stand out, the church was grappling for the first time in decades with the notion that it might have to change and engage with the world around it, and in particular that hymns, choirs and pipe organs might have to give way to something newer.
The Seventies – The body of Christ
It was not, in my opinion, the discovery of charismatic renewal in the early seventies which was the single most influential factor on the British church, but the rediscovery a few years later of the other half of 1 Corinthians 12, about the body of Christ. Again, my recollection is somewhat hazy, but the one thing which stands out in my memory was that every song, hymn, sermon and book I encountered was selling or expressing a church where we were all in it together, where my spirituality was to be lived out in the public domain, where I was accountable to and interdependent with other Christians. This was in stark contrast with the inherited ethos of the church where my faith was my own private and personal business, and woe betide anyone who tried to intrude on it or make me talk about it.
As this biblical emphasis was rediscovered, different (but largely charismatic) groups began to experiment with taking it to its logical conclusion, and started moving in together and living in community. One such community gave rise to the Fisherfolk, whose music dominated the charismatic scene of the 70s, and is still pretty widely used today. A New Commandment and We really want to thank you, Lord reflect this emphasis clearly, but there are many more examples from this era, and of course the style of singing which expected people from the floor to begin different personalised verses modelled something of this community spirit: that would never have happened with hymns at the Anglican 8 o 'clock Communion service!
The experience of life in community as part of the body of Christ combined with the Spirit-inspired talents of writers and musicians, and the whole church moved on, to the point where even some of the most reluctant and uptight congregations regard sharing the 'Peace' during services as normal, if somewhat distasteful.
The Eighties – Intimacy with God
There is no doubt that the British charismatic scene was dominated during the 80s by John Wimber and the Vineyard. John's first major public conference took place in Westminster in 1984, and for British charismatics for whom the first flush of 'Baptism in the Spirit' had begun to fade, here was a whole new reason for living. The big, upfront 'Signs and Wonders' stuff was backed up by a worship style which majored almost to the exclusion of anything else, on quiet, reverent intimacy with God.
The music was deliberately left simple, so that nothing would distract the worshippers from the task in hand, which was to reach the point of intimacy so that God might speak to or touch his people. The music style was easily recognisable, decidedly 'Radio 2', and wonderfully caricaturable by those who found it all just a little bit boring. When Graham Kendrick recorded I worship you O Lamb of God in 1988, the Vineyard influence was clear, and I for one wondered whether he was being just slightly tongue-in-cheek.
Again, many examples could be quoted from the Vineyard body of songs, but Danny Daniels' 1982 Hold me Lord , and the more recent Heart of Worship, which is perhaps Matt Redman's most famous offering, provide good examples of the genre. Theological content was not often high, but perhaps God was wanting to draw a church full to the point of nausea with theology into a place where it actually got to know him, rather than just knowing about him.
He seemed to be calling the church first of all out of a highly structured and liturgical (in the broadest sense of the word) style into more heartfelt worship together as a community, and then past the new-found enthusiasm into deeper and more reverent intimacy. Again, the artistes who were part of this corporate journey brought their own gifts to bear, and the church as a whole was renewed just a little bit further.
The Nineties – Renewed confidence
As pre-millennial tension began to set in, and the statistics told us quite clearly that we were a church in decline, the Charismatic scene reacted with renewed enthusiasm to the challenge ahead. This reached its climax, I believe, in 1996, when we were all pretty confident that revival was just around the corner, and God was going to sweep in and sort it all out for us.
I myself preached a series on revival during this period, where I defined it, in what I have now come to see as a somewhat naïve and apocalyptic way, as 'God doing our evangelism for us'. 'There's gonna be a great awakening' we all sang, with great hope and expectancy, fuelled to a large degree by the arrival of the 'Toronto Blessing' in the middle of the decade. Other songs of certainty, like Matt Redman's It 's rising up and several Toronto anthems like Down the Mountain and There's wind a-blowing all added to the impetus and expectation of imminent revival.
Even songs which stopped short of promising full-scale revival nevertheless provided a sense that we were indeed living in special times, although I have to say that every time I'm expected to sing These are the Days of Elijah I want to shout out the burning question, 'Who says?'. I have even considered a composition of my own which plucks out equally random biblical figures; you know the sort of thing: 'These are the days of your servant, Pildash'.
Whatever we think of this phase now, and however we coped with the fact that the expected revival didn't come in May 1996, I believe that once again God was using his gifted servants to remind the church of the biblical truth that we will triumph eventually, and that we're called to live in that hope rather than get dragged down to despair by the doom-filled predictions of the statisticians or the death-wish of the liberals, and the sheer failure of much of the church around us to make inroads for the kingdom. And I do believe that many Christians, and again especially Charismatic ones, began the new millennium with a hope for better things which was more than just hype and wishful thinking.
The Charismatic song culture of the past 40 years really did face the church with an alternative to its hymns and CSSM choruses. I've written elsewhere about the significant differences between the two styles.
Its detractors have accused the songs of being theologically weak, and it has to be said that Alleluia x8 might perhaps be more full of good biblical content than it actually is. But as usual it is impossible to make sweeping accusations stick, and the towering words of something like Graham Kendrick's Meekness and Majesty are not alone in bucking that particular trend. And anyway, I would want to question the way the argument is set up: there is theology or there is emotion, there are lots of words which expound or repeat biblical material, or there is simple intimacy. But might it not be possible that a deep theological truth, and one neglected by much of the church for decades if not centuries, is that our Father simply longs us to come to him and let ourselves be loved. Jesus looked out over the city which housed the Temple and a considerable faculty of teachers and theologians and said, with tears running down his cheeks, O Jerusalem,Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:37).
The accusation of theological inanity is only valid if you accept that 'theology' means filling your head with Bible. But should we get emotional in church, and don't songs like these 'play on' our emotions and 'manipulate' people? Again, only if you come from a generation where you were taught that Christian faith is a private, personal thing which you never share with others, or which only concerns 'Truth' and should avoid the fleeting and ephemeral uncertainties of 'Emotion'. For a whole new generation of Christians who have never been infected with this kind of modernist, British, stiff-upper-lip mentality the best worship songs provide a vehicle for a holistic meeting with God which requires the leaving of neither our intellects nor our emotions (nor, incidentally, our bodies) in the umbrella stand in the porch.
But, say the critics, even your children are being exposed to this kind of music. People like Ishmael, Captain Alan Price and Doug Horley are churning out songs which are similarly lacking in the supposed virtues of the traditional hymn. Young and impressionable minds are being denied the opportunity to learn good Biblical truth, and instead are being filled with 'Wicked wicked skill skill'. Maybe, but again I would argue that anything which can make church even remotely more accessible for the youngsters who are leaving traditional churches at the rate of thousands per week is to be welcomed, and the fact that more and more children's leaders are introducing them to fully Charismatic Christianity, and the songnody which goes with it, from a very early age bodes well for the future of the church.
So what of that future? Where might we be going during this coming decade? Let's look around and ahead.
The Noughties – Grace and passion
If there is one thing which God is restoring to his church in our time, it has to be passion. There was plenty of that about in the nineties 'revival' phase, of course, but third millennium passion is somehow different. It has less to do with the quick-fix hope for revival, and more to do with the realisation that praying down a move of God onto a nation is just plain hard slog. And many of the youngsters who fervently expected God to step in and wind up history five years ago are now to be found on their knees begging God to move but determined to keep praying even if he doesn't. The song which says 'Send revival, start with me' has taken on new meaning as people realise that there is personal cost, as the many songs focussing on holiness bear witness.
But this is third millennium holiness, not the unattractive, killjoy kind of holiness with which many of us were brought up, but holiness based purely on the grace of God.
Graham Kendrick, who has remained near the cutting edge since I first met him doing 60s evangelistic folk-club tours, has just released an album entitled 'What grace' with songs full of wonder at the goodness of God, but, significantly, a beautiful track based on James' exhortation to consider it joy when troubles come, since many trials will make us strong. Had this album been released 40 years earlier it might appropriately have been entitled 'What grace?', but now we're beginning to discover at a profound level that basically God is for us, not against us, that his work goes deeper than a quick fix, and that he desires us to cry out to him not just to seek his hand of power, but to seek his face of love.
So if you want an anthem for our times, I can offer you nothing better than Stuart Townend's stupendous We have sung our songs of victory which acknowledges head-on our pain at the lack of revival and God's pain at the continuing evil of the rebellious world, but manages still to keep up the intercession in the chorus with its repeated cries of 'How long?', and to look with hope towards the future in the stunningly beautiful words of the final verse:
But I know a day is coming / when the deaf will hear his voice / when the blind will see their Saviour / and the lame will leap for joy / When the widow finds a husband / who will always love his bride / and the orphan finds a father / who will never leave her side.
- Croft, S J L The Identity of the Individual in the Psalms (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987).
- Cooke, V The Music of Renewal (Cambridge: Grove, 2001).
- Leach, C Children and the Holy Spirit (Grove, 1999).