I am not sure if this will be a regular posting. I guess it depends on whether or not the things I write about will resonate with anyone.
My wife Tricia, often says that we are accidental musicians, when we compare ourselves to some of the immensely talented songwriters and musicians that we know. The kind of people who eat, sleep and breathe music. Who are always buying instruments and gear. Who always have music playing in their homes and cars. This, we are not!
We are a bit of an enigma as we have ended up making a living as songwriters, even though we are not prolific in this respect. I have even got a Gold disc, for singing a song which was put an album that sold over 500,000 units in the USA. I wish I had also written the song.
Anyway, here goes...........
I have been reading a number of posts on social media about the state of Christian music these days. It seems that the biggest culprits in this ocean of blandness are the money men (sorry, Christian publishers) in Nashville and of course Hillsongs. I must confess that apart from “Shout to the Lord” and a few great songs from Reuben Morgan, I am largely unaware of the musical output from Hillsongs. Tricia and I don't really listen to much music these days, Christian or otherwise. We tend to prefer silence.
We did buy a new CD last week. We were in Port de Soller, Mallorca, taking a stroll after dinner when we heard this guy singing on the street. His voice was amazing and Tricia parted with 10 EUROS for a copy of his 5 track CD. If you want to listen to this very creative album, the guy's website is samuelgough.com
I do remember being involved in an event a few years back in Toronto, Canada, when 4,000 kids showed up for a Hillsong United gig. I was incredibly encouraged by the band when they told me that they had been inspired by watching the video of the Wembley Stadium event I helped organised in 1997. I guess my ceiling definitely became their floor and their music obviously resonates with a huge crowd of people.
So, is there a problem and if so, what can we do about it?
Back in the late 1970s in the UK, when there were very few contemporary Christian worship songs, a movement emerged that wanted to see change. We were tired of the ancient hymns and wanted songs that we could play on our guitars. We also wanted modern language that we could understand. Which I guess was a similar provocation to the likes of Wesley, Sankey and other hymn writers of the past. Today's good old hymns were once the radical songs of their day.
So, we started to write new worship songs, out of passion, rather than seeing it as a career move. Indeed, there was no money or a lucrative career in writing worship songs; or in being a Christian musician, engaged in performing evangelistic concerts.
In 1977, I remember being paid £30 for a week's work with a youth organisation in the NE of England. My travel expenses for the week came to £30, so I earned nothing. When my pastor pointed this out to the organisers, they simply replied that I should have more faith! Happy Days.
What is incredible, is how these new worship songs began to travel around the world, without the benefit of the internet. In today's language they 'went viral'. There was a hunger for new songs and new ways of expressing 'sung worship'. Songs were passed on by word of mouth and a rough recording on a hand-held cassette recorder (remember those?)
Worship conferences and events began to spring up, in order to equip churches and local musicians. Worship took to the streets with events such as 'March for Jesus', which gathered almost 80,000 in Hyde Park in 1994. It was a privilege to be swept along in all of this. We thought we were changing the world, but at that time did not realise that our world was irrelevant to the majority of people in the UK.
Tricia and I entered a new phase of writing in the late 1980s and we were humbled and amazed at how our worship songs became popular. We were accidentally successful.
For me this worship movement entered a new phase after the “Champion of the World” event at Wembley Stadium in 1997. Some executives from a large US Christian publishing company were there. They saw a stadium filled with almost 45,000 people, engaged in worship. Sometimes Tricia wonders if what they really saw was Dollar signs! However, there was a need for what we had in the UK, to impact North America. I remember going into a Christian bookstore in Seattle in the 1990s and being amazed at how far behind the curve, their worship music seemed to be.
Anyway, in a very short space of time, suddenly all these CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) artists in the USA were releasing worship albums. The US publishers took what we were doing in the UK and marketed it very successfully to the church of North America. But maybe it was not quite the same.
In the UK, the worship movement was a community. Writers who influenced and encouraged one another. In the US, worship became an industry.
Big money could now be made out of worship songs – for the company, the writers and the musicians. Making money is not a problem though. We all need money in order to survive.
Tricia and I earn enough to live, as songwriters, because publishers do a good job promoting our songs and albums. In fact as self-publishers these days, we are doing everything we can to get our music played. This is our job and it is not always easy.
So at one level we are grateful to the marketing skills of our US publishers who have opened up a huge market for us. However, we are also aware that this can easily lead to some people becoming writers of praise and worship songs; not because of a passion, but because as Christians, they see it as an easy way to fame and fortune. Rather than working at the coalface of mainstream music, where maybe their music would not quite cut it?
If worship music has become the goose that is currently laying the golden egg, who is really to blame? I am not sure we can lay that solely at the feet of publishers.
Perhaps they are simply responding to the needs of a generation of churchgoers, who have become consumers of worship – rather than true worshippers. In wanting to keep bums on seats and pay for the machinery that keeps modern church music running, has a monster been created, with an insatiable appettite for new songs, worship leading celebrities and light shows, so that congregations can say they have felt the presence of God? Which might be little more than cultural ecstasy!!
Do we prefer the blandness of easily listening, soft rock, platitudes, that make us feel good when we are caught up in the emotion of a Sunday morning experience?
The result of this, is that we are now losing sight of the fact that we have so much more to write about, than a God who like some kind of genie, mysteriously appears in our presence and gives us a nice warm glow on the inside. A God who constantly provides the faithful in the Western world with new cars, promotions, new jobs and bigger homes. Bad luck if you live in a developing nation!
Are we prepared to pioneer once again? To make room for worship songwriting, that acknowledges that life can be hard, painful and full of disappointment for most of us. If we are honest we cannot say that “God is good all the time”. Especially when we experience tragedy and unanswered prayer. Life is complicated and full of questions.
We need the songs that will strengthen our faith, without resorting to trite cliched phrases. We need songs that help us to find God as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Earthy, gritty songs that resonate with our journey, our doubts and fears. Songs that deal with the issues of terrorism, the refugee, globalisation, consumerism and so much more.
Or will we remain the same and continue to settle for more of what we now have?