There are more worship songs being written today than at any other period in history. Well-known worship leader Tim Hughes believes the Church has ‘never had better quality songs to choose from’.
Church music is not just produced by individual worship leaders, bands and collectives, but by whole churches. And as congregations release music, they become known by Christians all over the globe. The prime example of this is Hillsong, which began with 45 people in Sydney, Australia, three decades ago.
The church now gathers 100,000 people in congregations across the world.
‘My Redeemer Lives’ (1999), ‘Mighty to Save’ (2006), and ‘Cornerstone’ (2012) are just three of hundreds of Hillsong songs that have taken the global Church by storm. Darlene Zschech’s ‘Shout To The Lord’ is sung by an estimated 30 million churchgoers every Sunday.
But Hillsong is not the only church that has helped pioneer the modern worship movement. Many of the songs that Christians sing on Sundays have been written, and sometimes first recorded, in UK churches.
In the 1980s, the Vineyard Movement founder John Wimber brought a new musical style of worship to the UK. Tom Bell from Vineyard Records UK says there was nothing like it in the UK at the time. ‘There wasn’t Hillsong or Bethel…You’ve got John Wimber coming over [from America] and bringing a contemporary style of worship music that was intimate and accessible.’
Jimmy Cooke, who manages Vineyard Records UK says congregations were hungry for songs they could sing to God directly. People wanted ‘…that sense of intimate worship, of drawing near to God. They started singing these really simple acoustic songs – three-chord wonders – that were often born out of spontaneous moments.’
The Vineyard has since produced ‘Come Now Is The Time To Worship’ (1998), ‘Lord Reign In Me’ (1998) and ‘Hungry (Falling On My Knees)’ (1999). Well-known worship leaders including Brenton Brown and Brian Doerksen have been a part of the movement, which now includes over 1,500 churches worldwide (115 in the UK).
Often, church denominations and streams produce their own distinct style or brand of worship music. What typifies Vineyard’s style?
THAT WAS ALWAYS ON THE EDGE OF OUR PENS: LISTENING TO GOD AND FINDING OUT WHAT HE’S DOING
‘We’ve always held very dearly the intimacy of meeting with Jesus and singing to him,’ Tom explains. ‘A large swathe of our songs speak about the heart of being in a place of surrender to Jesus. “Surrender” does just that. It’s about engaging with God’s presence.’
But Tom says he’s careful in claiming Vineyard has one single message. ‘You need songs that cover a whole variety of calls and responses to God. You want those anthems to get everyone to say, “I stand for this, God.” Then you need songs that say, “I’m a broken person, I need your healing.” You need songs about being willing to serve. If you don’t have that broad sense of lyrics in your arsenal when you lead worship, you’re going to stumble along the way because the congregation want to sing those things. They want to go through those phases of worship.’
Tom says the Vineyard team have been going through a process of working out the type of songs missing from their repertoire. The team are also spending time raising up young people to lead worship; he says that the next generation of worship songs may be birthed by teenagers switching on their laptops and experimenting with loops, rather than strumming their acoustic guitars.
Jimmy says songwriting is often about using ‘the vernacular of the day to express biblical truth’. Communicating old truths in fresh ways can be tricky. So, like many other church movements, Vineyard invites a theologian to check the lyrics of the songs before recording them.
The team’s latest project is titled Waterfalls. The album was recorded live in St Albans and brings together worship leaders from a number of UK Vineyard churches. ‘Worship has always been our highest priority,’ Jimmy says.
Just as Vineyard was birthed out of house churches, so was Newfrontiers. Terry Virgo’s ministry grew from starting a handful of house churches in Sussex, to overseeing hundreds of congregations across the world.
For most of Newfrontiers’ history, the Church of Christ the King (CCK) in Brighton has been viewed as the movement’s hub. Lou Fellingham’s band Phatfish were based at the church for the duration of their career (1994-2014). They wrote and recorded popular songs including ‘Holy, Holy (Lift Up His Name)’ (1995), ‘O God Of Love’ (2000) and ‘There Is A Day’ (2001).
‘There’s a lot of music and creativity that has come out of CCK over the years,’ Lou says. This included Stuart Townend’s much-loved songs ‘How Deep The Father’s Love For Us’ (1995), ‘The King Of Love’ (1997) and ‘In Christ Alone’ (2001). In 2009 the church released its own album, Have You Heard?.
Lou believes the ‘incredible teaching’ at CCK inspired ‘great songs’.
‘If you’ve got a lot of great things going into you, if you’re an artist and creative you want to find a way to express what you’ve heard. That came out in the songwriting over the years from the various worship leaders [at
‘You want to have songs that are about what the spirit is doing at this time…that was always on the edge of our pens: listening to God and finding out what he’s doing.’
Lou says that Sunday services at CCK are ‘geared primarily to unbelievers coming in and having an environment where there’s nothing standing in their way’. This vision has affected the way she compiles a Sunday morning set list.
‘There was a word that came to me many years ago about songwriting – that you should always be open to the possibility there are non-believers in a church context. So I always want to find ways to communicate truth to a non-believer, but also have sufficient richness to encourage a believer who wants to worship God.’
Located just half a mile from CCK is St Peter’s Church, Brighton. The Grade II* listed building is in the heart of the city and often unofficially referred to as ‘Brighton’s cathedral’.
In September 2009 a team from Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) in London moved to St Peter’s in an attempt to breathe fresh life into the church, which had lain dormant for two years.
Today the church attracts 1,000 people to multiple Sunday services. The church admits they’ve struggled to make sure their infrastructure keeps up with the rapid growth.
Earlier this year the church’s worship team, led by Paul Nelson, released Bright City – a 13-track record that has received widespread endorsement for its fresh sound.
Paul’s perspective is as refreshing as the record itself. While undoubtedly pleased that the record has been heard and praised by those outside of Brighton, Paul never set out to write the next worship hit. In fact, he wasn’t even planning on releasing an album.
The process for the album began in June 2014 when Paul gathered his worship team together for a three-day songwriting retreat.
‘We didn’t have a grand scheme for even doing a record…We just said, “Write the songs you love and the music you love.” We were never thinking we’d write a whole batch of Sunday morning songs.
‘We emerged with 16 demos from the three days. We then started to think, maybe this [is] an EP? As conversations went on we thought: this is a full-length record.’
Some unusual lyrics on the record (one track describes God’s love as a ‘force field’) and challenging melodies mean some worship pastors may doubt whether the songs would work on a Sunday morning.
‘It’s been interesting for us in terms of the “what’s singable in church” conversation,’ Paul says.
‘Some of the songs do have complicated melodies. We started to think maybe we shouldn’t sing that in church. But we’ve tried to think maybe it could work, maybe it will? We feel that’s a way of thinking that could push everything forward creatively.’
Paul also says Bright City could be a good bridge to those outside the church. ‘We know that people have been giving the CD away to their friends. We hope the songs will carry God’s presence to people.’
St Peter’s shares a common heritage with Worship Central as, like the Brighton-based church, this global worship movement grew out of HTB.
Worship Central has historically been based in London, but Luke Hellebronth, who co-wrote 2011’s ‘Spirit Break Out’, says ‘a massive shift’ has taken place.
‘This thing really has gone global. We’re seeing hubs pop up all over the world. It’s really exciting to see… We’re a global family of worshippers and worship leaders.’
The team’s debut record, Spirit Break Out unexpectedly made it into the top ten iTunes chart on its release in 2011. Two other successful live albums (Let It Be Known and Set Apart) have followed, and the Worship Central Course, which aims to resource and equip worship leaders, is now being run in more than 100 nations.
‘Over 40,000 people have done the course. It’s really growing,’ Luke says, adding that extra sessions could soon be released. He also hints that the next Worship Central album may be a studio record.
But how does its HTB roots affect the music that Luke and the team produce?
‘The culture of word and spirit at HTB feeds directly into the music and songs we write. That’s what Worship Central is known for. Deep content with space for the spirit to move, as well as being relational, releasing and loads of fun.’
Many of Worship Central’s songs have grabbed the attention of Christians worldwide. Why and how does this happen?
Luke says that God is often doing ‘something similar in lots of different places’.
‘There are also those songs that are instant classics. You can apply any situation or feeling to it. Songs like ‘10,000 Reasons’ and ‘Cornerstone’...They’ve just got great concept, melody and theology. They’re brilliant vehicles for worship, thanksgiving and praise.’
LIFE Church in Bradford knows first-hand what it feels like to watch its music go global.
Last year Dance Again became the first record by a UK church to enter the top 40 mainstream charts. One of the album’s most popular songs, ‘We Believe’ has been covered by The Newsboys, and the songwriters were recently honoured at the 2015 ASCAP Christian Music Awards, Nashville.
OUR CITY IS IN A REAL MESS AND WE AREN’T GOING TO REACH THAT CITY BY BEING POLITE
‘What’s happened with Dance Again is just a God thing,’ the church’s worship pastor Jock James says. ‘We set out to write songs for our church to bless our congregation, at the same time knowing – not in a big-headed way – but we understand God has put a mandate on our lives and the team to build the Church. And not just our church, but to bless other people and help other people encounter God.’
Jock describes the church’s sound as ‘quite raw’. ‘Our songs are often very direct and strong, and that’s partly our context and who we are as a team. Our city of Bradford is a city with a lot of issues. There’s poverty, prostitution, drug addiction, and huge unemployment. The postcode of our church is one of the top five most burgled postcodes in the UK.
‘Our city is in a real mess and we aren’t going to reach that city by being polite, apologetic and nice Christians. The kingdom will be advanced by force, so we’ve got to put in some truth and be direct and say, “God loves you, he’s got a plan for you, he’s with you. He’s for you.”’
MAKING A JOYFUL NOISE
Church music is, of course, far broader than the ‘three chords and the truth’ style, which is popular among so many evangelicals. But the modern worship movement is having a huge impact on the UK Church.
From Bradford to Brighton, songs are being written that are touching house churches and megachurches alike. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this news. In the words of AW Tozer, ‘the people of God have always been a bit noisy’.
Songs from the movements
Newfrontiers – In Christ Alone
Stuart Townend’s ‘In Christ Alone’ is laced with the reformed theology that is commonplace in Newfrontiers churches. ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied’ emphasises a penal substitutionary view of the atonement and ‘From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny’ ties in with a Calvinist view of predestination.
LIFE Church – Dance Again
The high energy sound from LIFE Church is captured in their most recent title track ‘Dance Again’. The church’s pastor Charlotte Gambill explains, ‘There is a lady that has come to our church for quite some time who was very ill with ME. She would sit at the back of the auditorium in a wheelchair…One day in the worship there was just a real presence of God and there was prayer for the sick. Matt Hooper was leading worship and out the corner of his eye he saw that she began to stand up and actually dance. She and her husband used to dance many years ago. It was this incredible miracle...Matt wrote, “Dance Again”, because of her story.’
Vineyard – Jesus Be The Centre
This slow, reflective and prayerful song by Michael Frye and Kathryn Scott is indicative of many Vineyard songs which often emphasise intimacy with Jesus. Similar tunes include ‘Hungry (Falling On My Knees)’ and Marc James’ ‘Surrender’.
Worship Central – Set Apart
As Worship Central is a collective of worship leaders, a variety of different themes are often represented on each release. The team’s latest album Set Apart explores what it means to be pure, holy and different to the world. Tim Hughes says the title track follows scripture’s theme of God’s people being set apart. ‘What does it means for us to live radical, pure and holy lives? How do we live differently in a way that’s honouring of Christ and shows people a different way?’