All over Britain churches are beginning to experiment with funky dance music as the vehicle for praise and worship. Tony Cummings reports.
In a Croydon Salvation Army Citadel a dancing throng "praise the Lord with their feet" to sanctified dance tracks from Carman, Jon Gibson et a). In a Sheffield Anglican church house-style dance music and dazzling video projections are integrated into liturgy for the '90s. In Birmingham a group of Christians take over an upper room in a pub, to "make apparent the relevance of Christ's act of redemptive love" with secular dance music.
Something is happening in Britain's churches. A new breed of worshipper is beginning to emerge. For them, guitar strums and Graham Kendrick songs are as archaic and irrelevant a vehicle with which to worship God as dusty hymnbooks were to the '60s pioneers of the charismatic renewal. This new wave of worshippers is turning to the music of today's clubland - the robotic rhythms of acid house, the pumping funk of contemporary soul, or the radical streetbeat of hip hop - and consciously ignoring the 'sacred' and 'secular' pigeon holes. Britain's church has entered the era of Rave Praise. What had originally seemed like a quirky aberration when the press first discovered 'the acid house church', St. Thomas's in Crookes, Sheffield, has now become something akin to a minor revolution with church groups in Oxford, Glasgow, London and a dozen other places now using pumping dance music as a vehicle for corporate worship.
As in the early days of any movement, there are almost as many shades of opinion and differences in practice as groupings shaping it. But there is a common bond, as Karl Allison, organiser of Croydon's 'Last Daze', pointed out. "Churches and Christian groups using contemporary dance as its central focus in worship are doing so because they are discontented with many of the current cultural forms. I am a Salvationist and in my particular tradition there are many believers for whom brass band music is a help in finding spiritual reality in corporate worship. But there are also many others who are completely turned off by brass band music. Military style brass bands are today very much a minority taste - unlike the mass-audience music it was when the Fry Family first conceived using bands as a framework for evangelism and worship. There are many people, particularly the young, who can't relate to it aesthetically; far from being an effective vehicle for worship brass bands are actually a stumbling block in the way of genuine worship."
It's not, of course, simply Salvationists with their military-style bands who have in 1992 become saddled with a cultural anachronism. Anglicans, Baptists and yesterday's radicals, house churches, are often today stuck with music forms which have long since ceased to have any particular contemporary appeal. Karl sees contemporary dance as being entirely appropriate as a praise format. "For a large section of youth today it's house and hip hop music which is relevant. When these young people get saved it's these forms which should at least be offered by the church as a valid alternative to traditional worship forms.
In worship music the church is largely failing contemporary youth. It's transparently obvious that it's far easier to enter into joyful praise of God with music that we enjoy than with music that we don't understand or actively dislike. I didn't get involved in rave praise because I personally am crazy about dance music. My tastes veer more towards contemporary rock. But I acknowledge that house, funk and hip hop are valid cultural forms and for youth who are really enthusiastic about these styles they are the ideal forms to praise God with."
Fraser Grace, Christian worker, poet, founding member of the Back To Back Theatre Company and organiser of The Hap Club in Birmingham would no doubt agree with Karl. The Hap Club meets in an upper room of the Hare And Hounds pub in Kings Heath, Birmingham. The Club has been going for about a year. In addition to their monthly residency in the Hare And Hounds they have organised praise and worship raves in Manchester and Solihull, put together a workshop in Manchester and organised raves for three weeks at Spring Harvest. Says Fraser, "The Hap Club began when a group of us decided we wanted to explore worship that had some connection with our creative lives."
Despite the shared vision of The Hap Club and Last Daze there are also major differences. The greatest of these is the radically different music policy. Where Last Daze use exclusively Christian dance music, culled from the choice acts from American 'sanctified dance' albums, The Hap Club use almost exclusively "secular" music ranging from instrumental acid house through to 70s soul music like the O'Jays "Love Train" and the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There." Fraser Grace says about The Hap Club policy, "There's a lot of vaguely spiritual stuff that speaks about God and love and we use a lot of that. In the end it comes down to the deejays - we use live deejays, none of our music is taped. Chris is the main deejay and he's into soul so we tend to veer towards that. We come from a position that wherever we discern goodness in music that's valid to be used in the worship of God."
Karl Allison takes a very different stance in the Last Daze music policy. "I think it's vitally important that a crowd are given a clear focus on Christ in the lyrics of the songs. We play DC Talk or Daniel Winans or whatever and as the crowd get down, actively encourage everyone to think on the words. Now it's theologically true that because we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us, we can go to a high street disco and, because we're worshipping God in our hearts, receive some kind of blessing when we dance. And it's true Christians need to guard against dualism. But to throw a heap of non-Christian tracks at a dance crowd even if you've screened out the off-colour, immoral stuff, exhort them to worship Christ, and expect a corporate experience of the presence of God is expecting rather a lot I feel. The music of Last Daze plays has a very strong biblical emphasis. For instance, we're playing tracks by rappers. Disciples Of Christ who've done an album on the theme of holiness. A crowd needs focus to enter into corporate worship and my reading of Scripture is that the responsibility for that focus rests with the worship leaders and musicians, or in the case of a rave disco, the deejay."
Strangely, in terms of a visual message Last Daze and The Hap Club almost completely reverse their differing positions. While Last Daze transforms its room in the West Croydon Citadel into a passable imitation of a disco with coloured lights and pop posters of Seal and Simply Red, The Hap Club retains the coloured lights but also goes in for candles, icons and pungent billows of incense.
The connection between orthodox church imagery and practise and pumping dance music is an obscure one. One possibility is it simply demonstrates youth's rebellion against the aesthetic shallow-ness and visual banality that characterises so much of both Non Conformist evangelicalism and the house church movement. Another possibility is that the need for ministry and a sense of the enormity of God is being found by youth in symbol and religious aesthetics rather than the prosaic certainties of much evangelical-ism. For both The Hap Club and Last Daze video images are important. Some of The Hap Club's video work, much of it created by the club's resident visual genius, Tim Dendy, is outstanding. Tim, a medical graduate from Birmingham Poly is now working with CBG. The Last Daze, newer to the rave praise movement have yet to find their own Dendy and are currently using carefully selected clips for their giant screen video from producers as diverse as Hanna Barbera and the Moody Bible Institute.
The undisputed pioneers in the whole Rave Praise movement is St. Thomas's Crookes. Their Nine O'Clock 'NOS' service has long had inquisitive Christians and media men flocking to Crookes, a suburb of Sheffield, to take in the sights and sounds of a service where audio visual and house-orientated worship music, originally composed and recorded for NOS, contribute to update the liturgy. When Cross Rhythms visited NOS in February the service was decidedly fragmented, the teach section (on the theme of Guilt) too drawn out while the projections on the white walls too often arty-incoherent or plain irrelevant to properly enhance the short spells of undeniably powerful music. That music consisted of sequenced dance beats with live vocals from a sister with a touch of Bonnie Raitt in her voice.
A truly effective way to coherently blend teaching, congregation participation, music, light shows, videos and teaching seems to be elusive for all the Rave Praise pioneers at present. The fact that a disco rave is a complete sensory experience means that there can be very discernible drops in atmosphere when switches to disciplines away from the dance floor are tried. And the lack of original music to so far come out of rave praise is another disappointing factor. One exception to that is the pretty revolutionary rave worship conceived by Andy Thornton, producer, studio owner and organiser of the monthly rave-orientated The Late Late Service at St. Silas Church, Glasgow, the church responsible for the rave worship at Greenbelt '91.
Last Daze too have begun work on an original set for acid house and hip hop praise songs which they are recording with production company Work Station for use in their raves and for release as an album. Last Daze's Karl Allison feels that what is happening with rave is a return to Biblical principles of worship. "The Bible tells us to worship God with our whole being, to dance before the Lord. I have my doubts that that means the charismatic two-step and exuberant contemporary dance is great for all-out praise. We play a song called 'Dance Like David' and that's how I see what we're doing. We may not wear ephods but the young people who come to our raves are worshipping God with everything they've got."
The final word goes to The Hap Club's Fraser Grace. "It takes a huge
amount of work technically to put together events like this and
involves teams of dedicated, creative people. I think it's thrilling
that there are more and more people prepared to give such time and
effort to worshipping God. I think that's very exciting."