In Cardiff, an obscure house church is doing more than simply issuing its own praise and worship tapes. The SPRINGWOOD MUSICIANS are sounding a clarion call to all Britain's churches and fellowships. Tony Cummings wrote the words.
As with many other things, there are almost as many perceptions about music floating around the church as there are melodies. Many Christians of course never ever give music a thought. And though there are some believers who perceive God is doing something in music, there is little agreement as to what that something is. For some, God's most significant work is to put the new wave of Christian pop stars (like Amy Grant) alongside that long time evangelical totem, Cliff Richard. For others, the most significant thing is the flood of worship songs that, through high profile events like Spring Harvest and March For Jesus, have rescued the church from osifying with its hymns ancient and ancient. For some believers, it is radical songwriters like Garth Hewitt or Steve Camp speaking for the lowly and outcast and against the power bases of injustice and self-interest. For others, it is the singers of devotional ditties helping to bless both the housework and the quiet time. Few indeed are the Christians who can see the threads connecting all these seemingly desperate musical expressions.
If anything, the Church today seems far more divided by music than drawn together in joyful recognition that all music emanates from a creator God. Between the Christian pursuer of excellence in art loudly pointing out that the best rock music is made by non-believers and the charismatic Bible Week enclave happy with an exclusive diet of repetitive and simplistic worship choruses, there is more than an aesthetic chasm. There is a gulf of incomprehension which has as its source an inability to understand the biblical principles of creativity, the world and the church and how all the individual expressions of musical creativity can only be properly understood if we see their points of connection. Christians must begin to view pagan pop star excellence and charismatic worship song banality not as threatening to our personal vision of the Kingdom Of God but imperfect expressions of God's perfect plan - a Church where pinnacles of musical excellence can be found and where puny, man-made theological divisions (rock 'n' roll vs sacred music; improvisational spontaneity vs practise-honed excellence; ministry vs performance) can be forgotten.
Much of our confusion about music stems from our ignorance of church history and Scripture. Church history reveals that jazz, the blues, the very rhythms of the rock 'n' roll beat originated not, as humanistic music histories would tell us, in red light districts but in Holy Spirit-wrought praise in the Afro-American churches. And Scripture reveals that the local church, far from being a place where members need to reach outwards to find musical stimulus from the world or the praise- and-worship-conveyer-beIt parachurch, can look within its own ranks to find there much that is good, holy and excellent. But where is this local church musical excellence - music that can somehow satisfy our aesthetic selves while taking us deeper and farther than any mere McCartney or Collins for all their pop-excellence can ever achieve? Where is this music that begins to wed the rock 'n' roll dynamic, so tragically stolen from the Church by the Devil, to praise and worship, that mysterious entity where a congregation is brought into deeper relationship with the living God? Kingsway Records recently launched an album series, Worshipping Churches, which showed that in Australia, there is just such a church, The City Christian Church in Sydney. Britain, too, had its representative Worshipping Church, Kingsway recording an album showcasing The Kensington Temple.
The album 'Our God Is Good' has pop production-sheen as well as excellent worship songs. But The Kensington Temple is unlikely to become a pointer for other local churches. It has a huge congregation on which to draw its musical ministry and has within its membership a number of professional pop musicians and singers. A church with pop stars in its worship group is, it has to be said, a little exceptional.
I first heard of The Springwood Church when they sent Cross Rhythms the two volumes of a live praise album 'And He Shall Reign' to review. I knew nothing of Springwood, but a contributor to 'And He Shall Reign' was Wayne Drayne, a praise and worship leader and songwriter from America of international standing. His songs on Scripture In Song volumes had long blessed me. I therefore suspected Springwood's tape would be above the usually abysmal standards I've learned to associate with live recordings emanating from church celebrations. I wasn't disappointed. Here was fresh, invigorating pop and rock-tinged praise, with at least three songs I immediately wanted to introduce to my own church's worship group. So when Springwood asked me to come down and attend a concert/celebration, with Wayne Drain and Britain's very popular Noel Richards ministering alongside the Springwood Musicians, I jumped at the chance.
The Springwood Church is a house church, meeting regularly in cell groups in people's homes while every Sunday evening joining for a time of celebration at a local school hall. The Springwood suburb of Cardiff is a leafy enclave of pleasant proportions and eminent ordinariness. Many of the church members live in the same Springwood estate, including the church's chief elder, Graham Perrins. Graham, a seminal figure in the growth of the charismatic renewal in Britain, planted Springwood Church. In 1972 he moved from Splot, Cardiff to Springwood, taking with him some members of his flock. Cardiff has long been known by evangelists and church planters alike as a 'difficult' place, spiritually deadened by the Revivals of the past which have long since hardened into legalistic denominationalism, and highly suspicious of both rock music and the charismatic renewal. It seemed a particularly unpromising place to plant a church and indeed the breaking up of fallow ground has been a slow and gruelling process.
Today, Springwood has approximately 60 members, small beer when compared with many of the denominational churches in the area and nothing compared with the high-profile charismatic fellowships in other parts of Britain. Yet the Springwood Church has exercised an influence way beyond its" small" membership. Graham Perrins is a nationally acknowledged teacher and exhorter (this winter he has taken up an invitation to teach at an American Bible college). And Springwood has for several years organised national conferences and events giving significant spiritual input to Christians all over the country. But it's in their music ministry that the church are making the most significant contribution of all. Music is not, as in so many fellowships, some addition to the church's main activities put on by or for "the youth". Neither is it an example of an instrument-playing clique doing their thing while the rest of the church looks on. Music is so enmeshed into the centrality of Springwood's ministry and vision, that every church member is, in one sense, contributing to the music of Springwood whether God has blessed them with a voice like an angel or a corncrake. The lead for this whole-hearted embrace of musical ministry is Graham Perrins himself. As Springwood Musicians' bass guitarist Tim O'Hare explained: "Our music practises are led by Graham. You probably wouldn't find many guys who have an international platform for their ministry spending every Monday at music practise. If he's in the country, he comes."
Andrew Price came down from Liverpool in 1978 and two years later Tim O'Hare and wife Ann moved to Springwood, also from Liverpool. In 1982 The Resistance were formed with a line-up of Andrew Price (guitars, bass, trumpet), Ann O'Hare (vocals), Tim O'Hare (bass) and Joe Price (drums). Geared to take their simple pop music with an evangelistic message into youth clubs and events, The Resistance sounded, on the evidence of their surviving custom tape 'Resurrection', decidedly naff. But rather than going the way of hundreds of similar young hopefuls into the oblivion of unfulfilled dreams, the group prayed together, stayed together (three of them, anyway) and finally found creative fulfilment together in the bosom of their fellowship. Says Ann: "Our musical development was totally tied up with our spiritual growth. Graham helped us to see that putting things in boxes - that's my spiritual life, that's my musical ability - was wrong. He also helped us to discover that the gifts of the Spirit and the creative gifts are so inter-related that, again, it's unhelpful to think of them as separate."
The pivot for the Springwood Musicians was profound, Holy Spirit inspired praise. Graham Perrins was convinced that Springwood had to move into a deeper dimension of praise and worship than that experienced by many churches - even charismatic ones. A writer of worship choruses himself, in 1985 Graham was instrumental in conceiving a full scale musical based on the life of Abraham. 'Catch The Vision', as it was called, came to the attention of Ears And Eyes Records, who felt it had sufficient commercial potential to send producer Chris Norton to Cardiff to produce an album. But stripped of Graham Perrins' crucial spoken-word passages, the tape made limited sense and the 'Catch The vision' failed to find a larger audience. It did, however, put the church in touch with engineer extraordinaire Will Jackson. When in 1990 the church decided to record a selection of the worship songs by then flowing from the pens of Tim O'Hare, Andrew Price, Phil Jardine and Ann O'Hare, it was Jackson they drafted in to engineer the project. The 'And He Shall Reign' conference held at the Careleon College, Gwent in August 1990 produced two volumes of invigoratingly fresh worship music. They also had a strong rock music tinge and some fine contributions from American Wayne Drain. The 'And He Shall Reign' tapes had no means of commercial distribution but sold exceptionally well. Says the church's music project administrator Alan Mumby: "We only started by manufacturing 250 sets but we ended up selling 500 sets. There was clearly a demand for what we were doing. So, the following year we decided to go the whole hog and do a 'semi-studio' recording."
Recorded by Will Jackson's mobile at Wistaton Hall, Crewe, the Spripgwood Musicians album 'Fly High' is a revelation. The slick pop praise opener "One Body One Spirit", the eerily haunting neo-reggae "Save Me" (complete with superlative rimshots from drummer Phil Grady), and Ann O'Hare's haunting ballad "All That I Am", each have a freshness of musical approach to make it stand head and shoulders above slick praise albums with ten times the recording budget. One particularly outstanding song is "I'm Going To Praise You", which lifts the simplest of lyrics into a joyful doowop-blues celebration demanding a congregation's involvement. 'Fly High' is a joyful expression of what the Springwood Musicians have found - that praise and worship can be a joyful experience a long way from the hymn-prayer-hymn sandwich or a shallow charismatic sing-song. Says Graham Perrins: "I think that once you've started being creative in worship then there will be an overflow, our dancing, our drama, all this comes out of our worship. We try at Springwood to allow the musicians to enjoy themselves. Sometimes I'm criticised that I indulge the musicians. But we've got to keep exploring. We can't accept status quo. We've got to keep pushing back the barriers in music."
The Springwood Musicians display a dizzying number of musical influences. Heavy-rock and reggae, jazz and funk all find a place in their dazzling stylistic armoury. Says Graham: "We try to adjust our music to the gifting and ability of the musicians. For example, we have a classically trained pianist, flautists, but also self taught rock musicians. One of our regular things in practise is to take a song that we know well and give it six or seven different treatments. We will go through them all, country and western, folk, rock 'n' roll, classical, reggae, calypso."
Years of Monday night practise have polished the Springwood Musicians' culturally eclectic sound to pristine brightness. Yet it is finally not their musical ability that makes the Springwood Musicians so pioneering. Above all, it is their move into the prophetic dimension of music which makes Springwood a clarion call to the British church.
Few terms in music terminology are as widely misused as prophetic. Some music buffs label any songwriter prepared to take a stand against homelessness or the stripping of the rain forests as prophetic. And indeed, there may be a prophetic element in the songs of a Dylan or a Cockburn. But to limit the meaning of the word to social concern songwriters is to ignore a central thrust of Scripture that God speaks clearly and continually to his church. Graham Perrins defines prophecy as "the revelation of the heart, mind and purpose of God." On one of his best known ministry tapes from a 1986 conference he expounded on three of prophecy's characteristics: (1) the prophetic word's ability to produce that which it speaks about; (2) it's ability to provoke - whether that response is positive or negative and (3) it's status as the expression of God's present or current feelings of God to his people.
Cutting through all thoughts of dusty dispensationalism obsessives pouring over charts of End Times eschatology, Graham is at pains to stress the -dynamic as opposed to the static nature of prophecy - "a prophet is essentially always in the now" is one of Graham's most memorable phrases. In our church age the charismatic renewal has brought in a welcome revival of prophetic gifts. Although it has to be said that in some churches, some of what passes for prophecy is little more than 'thus saith the Lord' followed by a Bible paraphrase, through the prophetic God's voice is clearly and unequivocally being heard in other churches. But for many other fellowships, prophecy is never heard.
One of the possible reasons why the Church is not more visible in its operation of effective prophetic gifts is its wholesale neglect of a profound biblical truth, namely, there is a direct connection between the prophetic gift and music. From Elisha calling for a minstrel so he might prophecy (2 Kings 3:15) through to the group of prophets coming down from a high place playing instruments, praising God and prophesying (1 Samuel 10: ), the Bible is continually linking musical and prophetic gifts. Yet for generations the Church has ignored this biblical truth.
Says Graham: "Some Christians are a little scared of music. They're scared of over-emotionalism or they're scared of rock 'n' roll in the church. But there is a God-given facility within music that can be turned towards God himself. It can also be turned towards other ends. But it can be captured for God. At Springwood I've tried to give the people with musical gifts the encouragement and platform to develop those musical gifts, to worship God with them and then to begin to move into the prophetic. In the early days I was probably the only one who wrote choruses, I must have written 200 choruses; all I'd do is take a tape recorder and sing in the Spirit without any musical training or ability. I'm still getting royalties from some of those choruses! Once people with greater gifts than mine started doing it at Springwood, there was no point in me carrying on. I'm not competing with people who've got more gifting than I have in that area. But it released the flow."
At Springwood's 'Fly High' celebration last November, I witnessed for myself the power and impact of this prophetic flow. A school hall, gaily festooned with banners made by the church, was packed to overflowing. Parties had come from all over Wales. Wayne Drain and Noel Richards ministered powerfully. But for me it was the Springwood Musicians who captured heart and mind. Musically, Springwood were marvellous - a rhythm section punched out rock, pop and funk rhythms with the dexterity and discipline usually only found in pro musos; a snappy brass section who, despite being dressed like unemployed waiters, kept up a rapid-fire salvos of riffs; and a bevy of lead singers with guitarist Andy Price and the haunting-voiced Ann O'Hare outstanding. The songs they sang were memorable. But it was when Ann O'Hare stepped to the mike at the end of a song and began to sing a prophecy that my heart leapt. The prophecy proclaimed unity among the churches and called all the believers present to seek a new and deeper walk with God. As Ann's achingly expressive voice soared upwards first one musician then another took up the theme. The music ebbed and flowed in shifting tapestries of textural colouring. Here creative elements often compartmentalised into different boxes: praise, instrumental improvisation, prophecy, Spirit inspiration, human creativity; all merged in a blur of joy, hope and exhilaration.
Graham Perrins sees that a rigid distinction in music between 'natural' improvisation and Spirit-inspired improvisational music is unhelpful. In the Victorian age, artists, obsessed by the humanistic romanticism that was clouding their thinking spent hours, and whole volumes, trying to define the 'creative muso'. In more recent times liberal theologians have so confused the aesthetic with the spiritual that the results are unbiblical. But unlike some parts of evangelicalism suspicious of the creative arts, Springwood Church has refused to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It acknowledges that all human creativity is a gift from God and an echo of that creator God, and that the creative spirit is, ultimately, the Holy Spirit and goes out of its way to give musicians a platform for improvisational expression. There is now being extended to musician's workshops that the Springwood Musicians take all over the country (they'll be taking one at the Cross Rhythms Festival in July).
Graham Perrins explains a little of the techniques he has used to take musicians beyond the mechanical playing of a praise chorus. "For a musician to be an effective vehicle for worship he has to be playing his music -whether he's playing guitar or a drum kit as a whole hearted act of worship. One of the things that we constantly encourage at Springwood is an openness and a spontaneity in the realm of praise and worship. To some extent we can create structures to achieve spontaneity! So we would take a song and say 'Just keep playing, keep that platform'. Into that platform I would start, perhaps, to sing in the Spirit. But I'd also be aware that this is a gifting of what's going on in others. So I would say, 'Okay, you sing now', 'You play your sax now' and people would respond and the thing would start developing and we would be creating music and that is the exciting thing about it. Now that's what we try to do in most of our workshops; we try to give place to that creative thing. I suppose I would say my gifting, in some ways, is to create a platform for others to function and to flow and I often know when they are ready to say this. Just a look is enough to say 'okay', and off they'll go. You've got the platform - now you can be creative."
There are many things that the whole church could learn from Springwood. Its rediscovery of the link between prophecy and music; its returning of improvisational music to its original setting (remember jazz evolved in the church); its determination to esteem the musician as an essential minister in God's plan to speak to and bless his church. But above all, it's Springwood's size in this Age Of The Superchurch which can speak volumes to all of Britain's fellowships. Springwood isn't some high-powered organism with huge manpower and financial resources. It's a small 60-strong community of believers who have simply used the musical gifts God has given them and with human toil and Holy Spirit anointing developed them to a degree that they speak to all churches "what's happening with us could happen with you."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.