Reviewed by Peter Dilley
Not negative in tone as its title might suggest, Pete Ward's examination of the development of contemporary worship music in the UK is as much an analysis of the cultural impact of worship songs upon the evangelical Church, and the changing emphases of these songs, as it is a discussion of the evolution of a market structure for worship music which encompasses worship leaders, publishing companies, record labels and festivals. Part One The Story Of The Songs sets the development of worship music within the wider context of changes in church life and culture, beginning with the Anglican evangelicals behind Youth Praise in the 1960s, gospel beat groups forming alliance within MGO, and the emergence of Buzz magazine. Early in the next decade came the influence of the Jesus Movement/Jesus People crossing over from the USA, the Festival Of Light, the emergence of charismatic renewal on both sides of the Atlantic, and the beginnings of charismatic worship music as exemplified within the musical Come Together and the publication of the Sound Of Living Waters songbook.
As the 1970s ended, Spring Harvest was launched, becoming a platform for worship songs from Graham Kendrick (and many others since), and Kingsway's first Songs Of Fellowship songbook. From there, Pete Ward charts how the connections and collaborations between events such as Spring Harvest and March For Jesus (and later New Wine/Soul Survivor), songwriters and worship leaders, the publishers and record companies producing songbooks, live and studio recordings, and copyright licensing schemes, all converge within a UK worship music infrastructure which is both vibrant and financially viable.
Part Two Singing The Story examines the many shifts in focus, first "from the world of the youth group and conservative evangelicalism found in Youth Praise Book 1 (1966). . . to Sound Of Living Waters (1974). . . In the lyrics of the songs we can detect a shift from an emphasis upon teaching doctrine to songs which are meant to be used as a vehicle for a more experiential charismatic worship. Central to this new emphasis was a fresh understanding of the Church as a body gathered to receive the Spirit." (pp121-2). Later, restorationism, praise marching and intimacy emerge as key emphases: "The symbolic word of Songs Of Fellowship Book One represents another shift in charismatic spirituality. Here, in the songs of the house churches, we engage in a restored Old Testament Vision of the temple and the people praising the enthroned Christ. . . It is this restorationist vision which also forms the backdrop to Graham Kendrick's Make Way material. . . Here the witness of the Church is invoked through public expression of faith in marching. Yet even as the marching was at its height, a new and more personal style of worship was to start to gain strength. This was linked to John Wimber. . . Wimber focused on the way that praise and worship grew towards intimate moments in the presence of God. . . expressed in metaphors drawn from the private worlds of romance and sexual encounter." (p137).
From there, it's a not huge step to The Survivor Songbook (2001) and what Pete Ward sees as "the key metaphor. . . the idea of the heart. There is a heart to worship. This heart is located in acknowledging that worship is all about Jesus." (p152) "Singing praise is often seen as a gift offered to God" and "Giving all to God
in praise links directly to lives lived in praise to God. . .with the song, the believer brings their heart." (pp155-6) Linked to this, "Sacrifice in praise relates directly to the treatment of the cross in the songs. . . the cross speaks to the believer of God's love. Turning to the cross, there is an assurance of God's love for the worshipper." (pp156-7) Also, intimacy now has an immediate dimension: "Although it is acknowledged that God is always present, there is a desire to know that this is so 'here and now'. Reference to the present moment locates this intimacy within the act of singing." (p159) And moreover, "The Spirit of Christ participates in these intimate moments. . . Here, the flowing power of love is recognised as the movement of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As songs addressed to an intimate lover, they most often speak of God as 'you'." (p162)
In the third and final section, Worship: A Critical Appreciation, Pete Ward first reflects critically upon the interconnection between worship and culture: "The worship story shows how the Church changed its style through the use of popular music. The energy behind those changes came from the desire to communicate an evangelical faith in the new youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s. What took place was a gradual 'contextualisation of evangelical and charismatic expression in a new cultural form." (p165) But, he cautions "if faith is to communicate it must be expressed in culture. Culture, however, is never neutral. As we express the faith, there are problems and contradictions that inevitably arise. . . As we explore new expressions of faith, new theological issues come to the surface. From a theological perspective, culture is best seen as a mixture of good and bad, useful and unhelpful. . . To fail to acknowledge that there are weaknesses as well as strengths in any culture is to risk going down the road of syncretism." (p165-6) Citing earlier writing by Graham Cray, he argues that the challenge for Christian worship is to be "'in Spirit and in truth'. . . in a process of continual revision and change, or renewal, inspired by the Holy Spirit. . . (Worship) must have integrity to the whole message of Scripture and to the mission of the Church. At the same time, it must strive to have integrity in relation to contemporary culture." (p167)
Amongst difficulties he highlights the rate of change and the rapid turnover of songs. "The problem of songs that emerge and are then disposed of" (p171), and the story from Soul Survivor congregation in Watford who "agreed to 'ban the band'" in 1997, in response to a situation where "the congregation and the leaders had become 'connoisseurs of worship instead of participants in it'. The quality of the worship was seen as being related to particular performers or individual songs. Those leading worship were being judged on the quality of their performance." (pp171-2) From that, he echoes other writers in warning against "worshipping worship. . . (being) absorbed in the latest songs but not 'taken up with God'." (p174); also that "the worship leader must avoid the temptation to become a performer. . .(and) be mindful of their role in helping those in the congregation to worship and to be active," (pp176-7), with a reminder that "worship, unlike attending a rock concert, is not a spectator sport." (p177) Mentioned too is "the problem of 'hype' and emotional manipulation. The incorporation of popular music into worship has also led to problems related to the mood or atmosphere that this kind of music creates." (p179)
Before leaving matters of culture, Pete Ward also casts a wary eye over questions of "the economic and business side of the worship scene" arguing that "we need to acknowledge the ambiguity of organisations, even when they are as successful as Soul Survivor or Spring Harvest", again stressing the need for balance between "connection to culture" and "theological integrity." (pp180-1) He returns to this in the following chapter, when examining the mechanisms of participation in contemporary worship: "To be critical does not mean that we should not be aware of the immense value in the activities of Christian organisations and businesses. It is simplistic. . .to dismiss all commercial or business activity as some kind of manipulation. . . We should not focus solely on the activities of the 'producers'. We also need to examine the way that people consume the product and make something of it in their own spiritual lives. . .the idea of the worshipper as a fan and worship as an investment. The interpretation of worship (and its critical appreciation) lies in a reading of the spaces between text and audience, consumption and production, agency and authority... At the heart of this 'investment' lies the widespread acknowledgement that charismatic worship is primarily to be understood as divine encounter, or intimacy." (pp192,195)
The concluding chapter is an analysis of "songs as narratives of encounter." He notes that "charismatic worship songs function in worship in an altogether different manner to hymns, or the older style of spiritual song. The charismatic worship song is not primarily a means to teach doctrine. Neither is it a way to create a flow or punctuate worship. . . (It) occupies a particular space in charismatic spirituality: it is the means to a personal encounter with God." With that, however, comes a shift from the "objective. . . which simply give an account of a theological or biblical event", and the "subjective, (which) also includes some reference to the implications of this for the worshipper", to the predominant use of material which is "reflexive, which focuses upon the act of worship itself. . . upon the worshipper and what is happening in the present moment. . .(which) substitutes gospel content for metaphors related to the intimacy of worship." (pp206-8)
Ward sees dangers in this: "Many songs are not really all about Jesus at all, they are all about the worshipper and their experiences in worship. . . they lay themselves open to the criticism that they have replaced the content of the Christian Gospel with human experience. Instead of worshipping Jesus, they give the impression that we are worshipping worship. . . The problem comes in the overall diet, not just of worship songs but of teaching and learning." (pp209-210) Salutary words, but he ends by suggesting a remedy and commending an example of good songwriting: "encouraging songwriters. . . to focus on the historical Jesus. 'Light Of The World' (by Tim Hughes) shows how a song with explicit theological content can lead to intimacy in worship and balance the reflexive with the objective in lyrical content." (p210) With so many worship songs written, and such a range of worship resources now available, the analysis in this book could be seen as being partial, but Pete Ward writes with a solid historical narrative and selects a representative sample of commonly-used songbooks from each era, assessing their content and emphases. Selling Worship has been penned from a constructively critical stance - songwriters, church leaders and all those with an interest in the content and direction of worship music would do well to take note of the issues it raises.
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