Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Greg's notes from Stuart Townend Workshop

Stuart Townend (co-writer of In Christ Alone) was in Australia recently and came to speak at Moore College on 15 October. Greg was there and took these notes:

Role of songs

When selecting or writing songs, it is helpful to bear in mind the role of songs in church:

  • Serving the local church (not about self-expression). Think about what your local church needs. Church songs have a life outside of the writer. Have to be accessible to ordinary church-goers. Whether song works is determined by whether people can sing it easily, and not be confused by the lyrics.

  • Teaching. People often remember more theology from songs than from sermons. Songs put words in people’s mouths – a huge responsibility for songwriters and those selecting songs. What sort of a picture of God are we painting through our songs? (eg. Currently we’re not talking much about his justice or his compassion.)

  • Bringing together the objective and subjective. Objective songs make statements about God and his character. Subjective songs are our response to God. Some songs do both – eg. ‘Here I Am to Worship’ (verse makes objective statements, chorus is a subjective response). But in the last 20 years we may have erred too far towards the subjective. We need songs that explore who God is.

  • Reminding and remembering. Songs are a great way of us taking truth with us into daily life. Not just about our experience on Sundays. Songs need to help us to live during the week.

  • Understanding Scripture. Most worship songs are consistent with Scripture, but many of the lyrics can be vaguely biblical (sloppy and don’t really say anything). We need to work hard to explore all aspects of God’s character. Some Scriptural lines are so familiar to us they have lost meaning – we can use our poetic creativity to rephrase these truths (still remaining biblical). Our songs should be helping people to understand the Bible.

  • Perspective. Part of us gathering together in church is seeking God’s perspective on the lives we live. If we look at the Psalms (the hymn book of the Old Testament), they have a breadth of perspectives on life. We need greater breadth in our songs – perhaps more ‘angry’ songs (eg ‘God, why aren’t you intervening here? But I know God that you are faithful.’).

  • Artistic expression. God is so far beyond our descriptions of him. Sometimes poetry and the arts can speak to us at an extraordinary level, beyond what we can understand. We need to trust God that he is speaking to us on levels that we can’t understand.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The first rant

Our first EP, recorded in 2005 under the name 'Sydney Uni Evangelical Union Annual Conference Band 2004', included this rant about emotion and music. It's interesting (to me at least) to reflect back on how much things have or haven't changed. Here it is, from the liner notes of GH1:

Why are we so afraid of emotion in our worship music? Well produced but unbiblical music can give us a "spiritual experience" without spiritual reality: we feel close to God without the need for the accessories (like God's word and obedience). But given those dangers we good evangelicals seem to have decided, recently I think, to ration out our emotion in conservatively levelled teaspoons rather than risk losing our hold on the word. This makes sense, given that words are immune from abuse, whereas emotion is strange and usually bad.

Except we know the ‘given’ is rubbish. The pulpit can also easily lull us into error, be it idle complacency or even wholesale false belief. Compared to the minefield of oral theology with its tactful qualifications and reassuring retranslations of the NIV, the hazards of emotion seem easily navigable. It's hard to think of a case where a person who has passed from death to life can go wrong with Joy. If we are happy, then we should sing songs of praise (Jas 5:13). Done. We can be serious about the word, and excited beyond verbal expression about it’s consequences at the same time.

Songs are not memory aids. Nor are they declaratory statements of truth put to music. They certainly are meant to edify us, but unlike anthems and war cries they are sung to a true and living God. Likewise thankfulness is not the only reason we sing. In the first place we sing because God is God, and is worthy of our worship and praise even before we get to the specifics. Singing is a very important way we worship God. Hebrews 13:15 exhorts us to “through Jesus… continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise–the fruit of lips that confess his name”. Not that praise or sacrifices of any kind can make us right with God, but that being made right with God we can happily fulfil our purpose in creation: to bring glory to God, and to honour Him in everything.

Songs teach us, but they teach us best when they speak to our hearts. It is the language of feelings, yes, but feelings with the depth which only comes from the solid grounding of truth. Very often songs tell us what we have known since Sunday school, but with a freshness and immediacy that cuts straight to our hearts. “Rock of Ages cleft for me" is impossible to sing without someone crying. The melody is pretty. It is poetry, by which I mean it opens up meaning with an elegant few words. But it’s the truth which brings the tears. Good songs should be written as songs. Everyone knows the difference between prose and poetry, song lyrics and deductive reasoning. We often look to the epistles for verbatim musical texts. It's not wrong. But it often makes weird songs (‘therefore’ is not a musical word). Your love Oh Lord almost didn't make the Ancon bus because we worried about lines like "shadow of Your wings". God doesn't have wings, we reasoned, and the symbolism just pushed too many "pentie" buttons for a meaty evangelical conference. Then we realised that line appears in every second psalm, felt a bit silly, and decided our buttons might need repositioning.

Finally, good worship music should be as singable as the best hymns. Who wants to sing at church like a self conscious teeny-bopper might sing to the radio? Musically it is a completely different kettle of worms. Behold the Lamb of God is still alive and rocking EU camps 15 years on because it's not written as a pop song, it's written as a church song. And that means rock solid melody. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it…

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Andy finishing up with Garage Hymnal

Rich and I started Garage Hymnal in January 2005 when we hired a $50 microphone and recorded the arrangements we had worked out for the Sydney Uni Evangelical Union's Annual Conference. On the inside cover was an almost illegible rant, beginning with the question "why are we so afraid of emotion in our worship music?" Seven years later, with our sixth release due to be launched on 9 November, our production values (and arguable our musical taste) has improved substantially, but we are still just as passionate about not having to choose between great music and great words.

It's been an amazing ride. We've played some fantastic venues and worked with some incredible people. Most of all, we've sung with believers in all sorts of places, from Withcott to the Mornington Peninsula and been so encouraged by what we share in Christ. Bands have their ups and downs. We've cried with each other at bad news, and rejoiced with each other in new exciting changes (and yelled at each other occasionally too!) I've learned so much from being in this band. It's been one of the biggest challenges, privileges and joys of my life.

But circumstances and roles change. From next year I'm going to be taking on a new challenge as an assistant minister at St Barnabas Broadway, working primarily with the evening congregation and campus ministries. My wife and I have decided we can't give Garage Hymnal the time and focus it deserves while diving headlong into parish ministry.

My last gig with Garage Hymnal will be the EP launch on 9 November. This will be the last GH gig with this current lineup, so make sure you come along.

I am hugely grateful to so many people for so much. For Rich, Greg, Sass, Trent, Alanna and Steph in the band. For everyone who has ever played or written with us (Cedric, Biscuit, Beth, Murray, Mike, Mark, Lissa, Joe, Lynda, Steve, Pete, Luke, Clare, Chris, Belly, Evan, Dave, Jonny, Dorny, Nic, Jerry, Ludo, Andy, Rach, Dave, Pete, Jeremy, Ty, Damien, Tim, Hans, Dave, Tom, Kenny, Alex, Kester, Mike, Tom, Rosie, and countless others). For the behind the scenes people like Duncan our soundie, David Nicholas our amazing producer, Paul, Willow, Jimmy and Josh our tech partners, Zenon our incredible bookings agent, Dave Parker, Nicky, Rob, Cathlin, Jane, Kristi, Steph and Philip Percival at Emu, Jodie, Katie, Goldy,  Felix, James, Corienne, John, Lisa, Steve, Nath, Dave Mac, James, Tom, and many more who make each and every gig and record possible. For all my bosses for giving me stupid amounts of time off to pursue this ministry. For my family and friends and my incredible wife Steph for making enormous sacrifices to support an unpaid ministry as time and energy consuming as GH.

But the biggest thanks of all has to be to Jesus, who did something worth singing about 2000 years later, and which I'll still be singing about 10,000 years from now. 

Col 3:16

Friday, 7 September 2012

The Artist and Humility

A friend and I used to joke that when asked in job interviews what our strengths were, we would say ‘My main strength is that I am very humble.’

You can see the irony in this! To say you are very good at being humble seems to prove you are not humble.

But by not wanting to draw attention to humility (fearing that doing so would demonstrate a lack of humility), I wonder if we tend to reflect too little on how we are going at being humble. I wonder if we also miss wonderful opportunities to encourage others who are demonstrating humility.

Crucially, we may also downplay the need to work on being humble. I wonder if instead, we often hope that as we work on other aspects of Christian character – love, kindness, generosity, and so on – humility will just develop in the background.

For the Christian musician, there is considerable work to be done on the spiritual backdrop that sits behind our playing. In fact, this requires more work than the music. We must seek to ensure our hearts and minds are continuing to worship God, and that we are growing in our faith and godliness. Growth in the Christian life requires utter reliance on God but also discipline, focus, and careful attention from us. It’s hard work!

As church musicians – and leaders of our congregations – we are on display. Both our positioning in church services (often on the platform) as well as our task (singing or playing instruments with appropriate expression) can easily lead us to worship ourselves and not God, and to cause others to do the same. The task of pointing others to God through our music is by no means easy. Humility is required – both as a starting point, and as a constant.

We know a humble person when we meet one – but how do we pinpoint exactly what humility is? In his book ‘Humilitas’, John Dickson defines humility as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.” (p 24).

We see the ultimate humility in our Lord Jesus, who despite his status, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross. By contrast, we are often self-focused and proud.

So how do we develop humility? Of course, for the Christian, we must dedicate ourselves to reading God’s Word and prayer for greater humility, and seek accountability and encouragement from trusted friends.

But in addition, Dickson suggests some profoundly simple and practical approaches to developing humility (pp 174-183):

  1. Recognise the inherent beauty of humility We are shaped by what we love. If we love humility, we will be shaped by it.
  2. Reflect on the lives of the humble – Find humble people in your life and study them.
  3. Conduct thought experiments – Imagine yourself in certain scenarios and consider humble courses of action you could take.
  4. Act humbly – “develop the humility muscle by exercising it.” (p 178)
  5. Invite criticism – Within a culture of thoughtful critique, humility will be fostered.
  6. Forget about being humble – “The very first step in the pursuit of humility is to recognize that I am not humble.” (p 183) Humility requires recognising our pride first, and working to reduce that. Humility will be a by-product of that process.
What a wonderful thing it would be for us to encourage a brother or sister in their humility this week, and to prayerfully consider steps we can take to grow in humility ourselves. 


Thursday, 30 August 2012

Is Christian music too predictable?

I'm preparing for a talk on music and theology (not particularly on Christian music, mind you, but on music in general and its place in creation). This very interesting quote from theologian Jeremy Begbie came up:
Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) is an enormous industry, and some would argue that it has succumbed in an alarming way to the co-opting of religion into the commercial interests of consumption, capitalism, and materialism.... It is disappointing, for example, to find an intense musical conservatism in much of the contemporary worship scene. (Resounding Truth, 256)
He admits that simplicity and accessibility is part of the point of church music, but goes on to issue a challenge:
Is the church prepared to give its musicians room to experiment (and fail), to juxtapose different styles, to educate themselves in music history, to resist the tendency to rely on formulas that "work" with minimum effort and can quickly guarantee seats filled in church -- and all this in order that congregational worship can become more theologically responsible, more true to teh God who has given us such abundant potential for developing fresh musical sounds? (Resounding Truth, 256)
Are we too conservative in pushing the boundaries of musical creativity? Or are we simply doing the right thing of serving the church where they're at (not getting stuck up our own guitarsenal developing music which is so complicated and foreign that your average pew-sitter cannot understand what's happening let alone join in)?

Thursday, 23 August 2012

From demo to mastered mix

On 9th November we are going to launch a new EP with four songs aimed at private devotion.

The tracks were produced and recorded by David Nicholas, and have just been mixed by Allen Salmon in Nashville and Mastered by Jim DeMain at Yesmaster.

We thought we'd give you a little sneak peak at the process these songs have gone through, by showing you the evolution of one of these tracks (code-named 'Time') from a rough iPhone demo through mixing and mastering. You can hear what each of these processes adds to the quality of the finished product.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Making church boring is emotional manipulation

Chris Green has been giving the Annual Moore College lectures this year. In his talk today on preaching he pointed out that there are two ways of being emotionally manipulative.

The first is to whip people up into a frenzy, which is not motivated by the gospel but by the sheer emotional experience of the event.

But another group of people are guilty of manipulation in a different way. Chris recalls church experiences where a hugely powerful song has concluded and the service leader has failed to even note the emotional response which it has produced, saying "well done...and now the notices". This is deliberately quenching the emotional impact of the gospel, trying to make sure people don't respond as they would otherwise. It is manipulation.

I haven't thought about it this way before, but I think he's right.

I would go so far as to say that to deliberately try to pour cold water on people's whole-person-ed response to the power of God's word is manipulative.

Some examples of this kind of manipulation are
1. Choosing songs which are so bad that they take our attention away (if it were possible) from God's grace to us in Jesus Christ.

2. Planning services with no space for our response, so that no sooner have we surveyed the wondrous cross than some joker gets up and turns our attention to the location for the church picnic.

3. Being so casual that we are tempted to irreverence.

4. Being so focused on mutual edification that we conduct our entire service as if God were absent, and nobody thinks to actually do business with God.

5. Creating rules, or a culture, where common ways of responding to the emotional power of the gospel is discouraged (such as 'no raising hands in church').

Any others you can think of?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Simone on the psychology of song preferences

Our friend Simone Richardson (lyricist behind many great songs sung by churches around the world) has been doing some research on how our psychological profile affects the type of songs we like. Her first post is here. Worth a read. 

Monday, 30 July 2012

Only people who are skillful should serve

Here is a radical proposition for you: only people who are skilful should serve in music ministry.

I know it sounds a bit harsh. But I have a proof-text for it ... 1 Chronicles 15:22 has become my new memory verse:

Kenaniah the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it. (NIV)

Seems to make sense to me.

Now it's a little bit of a fudge, I know. For starters I don't believe in proof texting like this (we need to look at a theology of music and a theology of church and the gathering). And the NIV is rendering the Hebrew 'to understand' as 'Skilful at' which is fair enough in the context but other versions bring the point out slightly differently (The NRSV lowers the bar a little: "Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, was to direct the music, for he understood it." )

However I think we sometimes are too keen to include everybody in serving in the music team. Should someone who is tone deaf be 'allowed' to lead the singing? Well, no, not necessarily.

It might be a good idea to let them, for a range of political and pastoral reasons. Each church needs to work out what level of skill is required for the task at hand. My church may not need the same skilful musicians as a church of 20,000 people broadcast all over the world.

But I don't think we need to see a theological mandate for participation in the church music team by anyone and everyone who wants to 'use their gift'.

There IS a theological reason why everybody should SING together. But to think this means every singer should have a microphone is a confusion. It treats the band as the church, and puts a false wall between the band and the church (as if you are only participating if you are in the band). They are all participating as the one body of Christ (Gal 3:28) even if they don't have a microphone. We are all one, a body of believers without division, and yet we are also differentiated (1 Cor 12:29). 

So let those who are skilful at music (or at least 'understand' it!) lead the rest of us in singing joyfully to our God.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

What does worship 'in Spirit and Truth' mean?

This semester at Moore Theological College in Sydney I have the privilege of sitting in on David Peterson's class on Worship. Dr Peterson is one of our best thinkers on the theology of worship. (I'm not alone in this opinion - Bob Kauflin lists his book "Engaging with God" above the Bible on his list of books to read on worshipmatters blog.)

Today we looked at worship in the New Testament, particularly in the gospel of Matthew and John. There were many highlights, but one thing which struck me was his exposition of the story of the Samaritan Woman and Jesus at the well.

John 4:19       “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,  but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
John 4:21       “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming  when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know;  we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 Yet a time is coming and has now come  when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit  and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit,  and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
John 4:25       The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ)  “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
John 4:26       Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” 

People have all sorts of theories on what worship 'in Spirit and Truth' means. But in the context of John's gospel, the Spirit here probably refers to the Holy Spirit (hence the capital letter S in the 2011 NIV). And 'true' in John's gospel is normally used about things which are the ultimate fulfilment of something, as opposed to the provisional shadow of its Old Testament counterpart.

The Samaritan woman is asking Jesus to comment on the dispute between Judaism and the Samaritans over where the right location for worship is (Jerusalem as the Old Testament says, or on Mt Gerizim as the Samaritans decided in about 400BC). Jesus confirms the priority of the Scriptural teaching ('salvation is from the Jews'), but then blows apart the categories. Right worship in the Old Covenant involved a temple, priests, sacrifice... but all these things served only to point towards the True Worship of the New Covenant. Jesus is our priest, and his body is our temple. (This is why Christian Zionism is badly mistaken to look to an earthly Jerusalem for the fulfilment of Christian eschatological hopes ... we look instead to true worship by Jew and Gentile together: through Jesus, anticipating the heavenly Jerusalem).

True worship, and Spiritual worship, is the worship which Jesus alone makes possible. He is the truth (John 14:6). And the Spirit makes this worship possible by showing us who Jesus is, and enabling us to recognise and respond to him as he really is. That it what it means to worship in Spirit, and in truth.

As Dr Peterson observed during class, all the issues that consume our attention when thinking about worship (Having the right liturgy, the right music, the right location and all that stuff) looks so weird and irrelevant next to John's definition of proper worship - worship of Jesus, in Spirit and Truth.