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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Worship bands strike a discordant note

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LATE last month I found myself watching a worship band at the evangelical convention which takes place annually over three weeks in the Lake District town of Keswick.

The guitar solo during one of the songs struck me as particularly well executed. The whole band, which included a drummer and bass guitarist, was musically accomplished. The male lead singer and the two women on backing vocals came across loud and clear through the state-of-the-art speakers in front of the stage and hanging from the roof of the big tent. Screens projected the band members in action and the words of the songs.

Members of the men’s group from my local Baptist church, chauffeured from north Lancashire by the pastor, had gone to the convention for an evening meeting. We heard the CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, Gavin Calver, give a very engaging and encouraging talk on the story of Gideon’s call to the Lord’s service in Judges chapter 6.

I do not believe that the members of the worship band at the convention were wanting to draw attention to their own performances. I believe they wanted to enable the corporate worship of their Lord and God in song. But their voices and instruments were so dominant that I could hardly hear myself sing. The noise from the other people looking up at the screens was a low murmur. I could just about hear the pastor standing next to me belting out the words.

As I glanced around the tent I noticed that some people were not singing at all. All the worship songs were modern. There were no well-known evangelical hymns from the 18th or 19th centuries.

The experience resonated with an article I read by Mike Raiter on the Australian Gospel Coalition website in 2018 when I was still a Church of England vicar, ‘The slow killing of congregational singing’. I wrote about it here. 

Raiter, director of the Centre for Biblical Preaching in Melbourne, began by observing that 50 years ago choirs ruled the church, usually supported by a very loud organ. When the choir was large, they ‘drowned out the singing of the congregation’. He continued: ‘Here’s the irony: we then replaced the choirs with song leaders . . . Over time the number of song leaders grew and grew until they became as big as a choir. Then we gave the song leaders full-volume microphones and electrical instruments, and many became performers. When the music team was large and the microphones were turned up they drowned out the congregation. So, sadly, the very people appointed to help the congregation sing actually smothered congregational singing.’

Raiter lamented: ‘Paul tells us in Ephesians that we should be “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (5:19). Similarly, in Colossians we are exhorted to “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (3:16). Singing is a corporate activity with a dual focus. We sing “to one another” and we sing “to God”. But now in many (most?) churches we are sung to by the musicians.’

I would observe that as well as undermining mutual edification in the Church, rock-concert worship can have negative missional implications. Imagine that a young pizza delivery person from an unchurched background had passed the big tent on that late July evening. He or she might have been vaguely aware that something to do with religion or Christianity was taking place. What would they have made of the sound they were hearing? Would they not have thought that some kind of religious rock group was playing to a captive audience? Nothing particularly striking about festival goers listening to rock music, so they just walk on by. But if they had heard a tent full of Christian people proclaiming the great truths of the Gospel through clearly audible singing, would that not have made an altogether different impression on them? Might their curiosity have been aroused?

In theory, changing the power dynamics in contemporary Christian worship would be quite straightforward: turn down the volume; take the musicians off the stage; even get rid of the stage; have fewer musicians; and have a decent mix of the old stuff and the new.

However, I fear that in most evangelical churches, the kind represented at the Keswick Convention, passive worship has become such a habit that musical reformation would be difficult to achieve. Yet church leaders and conference organisers need to find the courage to take on the vested interests in rock-concert worship because the spiritual cost of the ‘slow killing of congregational singing’ is now far too high.

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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