A cold and broken hallelujah?

I was down at Evangelical Alliance Council last week, and added several other meetings in London with it. I had a conversation over a glass of wine with someone who I like, and indeed respect greatly, which, at one point, was depressingly familiar. My friend had been at a big Christian gathering; some recently-written choruses had been sung; the theological content (or lack thereof) of the choruses was deplored and/or ridiculed.

I hear so much criticism like this that sometimes I feel that I ought to join a 12-step programme – ‘My name is Steve, and I am a charismatic…’ The fact remains, I enjoy, appreciate, benefit from, this style of worship. Several times a year, I find myself in ‘big tent’ worship gatherings, and for me they are amongst my spiritual highlights (along with solitary silent retreats, prayer with certain friends, and being at worship with my own local church). I’ve had a go (or two or three) at defending modern worship music before on this blog, but a new thought struck me that seemed worth recording.

Some of the common criticisms are of course merely irrelevant. The poetic quality of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want poetry, I’ll read Eliot or Dante or (current favourite discovery) Whitman – if I want devotional poetry, I’ll read Donne or Milton or Herbert (or R.S. Thomas, actually). Hymns are not poems; this is just a confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were not great poets; they were great hymnwriters. (And Cowper was a very good poet, but a lesser hymnwriter.) The theological content of the songs is not up to… So what? If I want theology, I’ll read Augustine, Thomas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Barth, … This is another confusion of genre. Wesley and Watts were very, very far from great theologians (Watts tied himself in knots over basic Trinitarian grammar later in his life).

More interestingly, perhaps, and repeatedly, in the criticism I hear or read, the song is taken as an object (‘text’) complete in itself, and then criticised as incomplete in some way: it does not address this or that idea, held to be so central that it may not be omitted; or it is one-sided in its appreciation of a complex truth; or it does not adequately identify the One who is addressed in worship.

This, however, is to mistake the nature of these songs. It is akin to criticising an arm because it is not the whole body (to borrow an illustration). No song intended for public worship is written to be a whole, complete in itself; rather it is a component that may be correlated with other components to build a complete and adequate liturgy. An act of worship may be incomplete, less than adequately theological, or whatever; an individual song, prayer, or other liturgical component cannot be, considered of itself.

Now, there are no doubt songs – and indeed readings, written prayers, and other liturgical actions (elbow bumps of peace, anybody?) – that are so confused, lacking in content, or just plain wrong as to be unusable in any liturgical context. And, sure, there are plenty such in recent charismatic hymnody. (I had a friend who edited one of the early songbooks. He said that every other song arrived with a note saying, ‘the Holy Spirit just gave me this…’ to which his standard reply was, ‘well, I can see why He wanted to be rid of it.’) But more often, when you explore the criticism, the song is in itself perfectly serviceable; it was just used badly, placed in a context where it didn’t fit, or asked to support a weight it could not, of itself, bear. That doesn’t make it a bad song. It might be a great song, distorted horribly by an awful liturgy.

(It happens to the great hymns as well, of course. How often, at the wedding of a non-Christian friend, have you been asked to sing ‘breathe through the heats of our desire thy coolness and thy balm, let sense be dumb, let flesh retire…’ because ‘Dear Lord and Father’ is the only hymn the couple know? This is a far, far worse liturgical placement than any example from my recent experience of charismatic liturgies, but no-one blames the hymn for it.)

Recent Christian worship songs can be used to construct meaningful and beautiful Christian worship that is theologically profound and liturgically satisfying. Routinely, in my experience, they are. If they are mis-used, it is not the fault of the songs, but of the liturgist. Of course, all of us who have led worship have made egregious errors often in our time – but this goes for the construction of formal liturgical worship as much as for spontaneous charismatic expression. It may be that the liturgist in the one context sins more in omission – not considering the ways in which the set prayers for this Sunday might be deeply and painfully inappropriate for her congregation – but the failure is just as complete, and either way it remains the failure of the liturgist, not the failure of Thomas Cranmer, or of Matt Redman.

I was down at Evangelical Alliance Council last week. The worship was led by two young people (25?) with a keyboard and a couple of microphones. Blending sensitive use of Biblical readings, recent songs, extempore prayers, and even a time of open singing in tongues, they led worship in ways that I could not fault theologically, and that I appreciated enormously. Some of the songs were perhaps shallow in themselves; they were given context and depth by what else was around them. I was moved, inspired even.

I don’t need a 12-step programme, I’ll say it loud and proud:

‘My name is Steve, and I am a charismatic.’


  1. FredFredFred
    Sep 23, 2009

    Good heavens! A speech on charismatic religion to the cultured among its despisers! A sympathetic insider’s account of contemporary “worship as she is spoke” by the unwashed millions! A word in season that dispels the enveloping fin-de-evangelicle mist! A defense of Redmanesque songs against their thoughtless mis-use by “charismatic liturgists.” What next? Well done, man.

  2. Justin Stratis
    Sep 24, 2009

    I must say – any charismatic who includes my man Schleiermacher amongst a list of the great theologians is alright in my book!

  3. Terry
    Sep 24, 2009

    But how do worship leaders learn liturgy? I’m guessing many choose songs simply because they like them and they have some relevance to the overall theme of the service.

    Steve, I appreciate your balanced comments on matters like this. I know you’re a busy man, but have you ever thought about writing a short book on music, liturgy, etc., in a way similar to The Wondrous Cross?

  4. Steve H
    Sep 24, 2009

    Thanks for your comments, folks.

    @Fredx3 – welcome to the blog.

    @Justin: as Barth used to say of Schleiermacher, right or wrong, if you don’t recognise the sheer intellectual power of what he is doing, you really oughtn’t to be trying to become a theologian. But don’t you think that there is some level of consonance between Schleiermacher’s project of retrieval and the sorts of Evangelicalism that led to the charismatic movement – the shared stress on an awareness of an existential orientation as a key datum of theological understanding, for instance?

    @Terry: ‘Badly’ might be the answer to your first question… I suspect that most good worship leaders develop a tacit knowledge through experience – they have a strong instinct of what ‘feels right,’ that is generally trustworthy. Pastoral skills are perhaps best – perhaps only – learnt that way. A book? ‘Had we but world enough and time…’

  5. Jon
    Sep 24, 2009

    I presume your list of theologians is in chronological order rather than in order of preference…?

    Of Schleiermacher (and off topic here) – ho much do you agree that many people simply read him these days because of Barth’s dictum! A kind of Emperor’s new clothes syndrome in theology. I still find Schleiermacher SO dull when I read him and sometimes question whether or not I simply read him to persuade myself I am a good theologian because I feel his pull… Maybe that’s a good sign that I’m not?!

    • Steve H
      Sep 24, 2009

      Yes, Jon…

      Schleiermacher – I think Barth was being somewhat polemical; Barth was fascinated by technical theology in a way few theologians today are; he genuinely admired the scholastics and so on. Of course, he also recovered the importance of narrative and the rest, but Schleiermacher is one of the great technical theologians, and Barth wanted his students to learn to appreciate that.

  6. Justin Stratis
    Sep 24, 2009

    On Schleiermacher’s dullness: if you’re primarily reading the Glaubenslehre, you have to remember that the whole project was explicitly designed to purge Christian discourse of all its most exciting elements – namely, rhetoric and poetry (not to mention, some would say, the biblical storyline). Nevertheless, there is certainly an exciting element, I think, in observing the creative and relentlessly systematic ways in which FS executes this project – even if it happens to render that ‘chemically distilled Absolute Spirit’ which Barth found so distasteful. In any case, certainly the same dullness can’t be attributed to Speeches, let alone the sermons!

    Steve, I didn’t mean to imply any specific connection b/w FS and the charismatics (just happy to see him make an appearance!) – but now that you mention it, I do agree that both seem to view piety as a sort of ‘tapping into’ the power of a Spirit that is pervasively surrounding and thus constantly available for the Christian (or really anyone with an open mind). Moreover, FS says that the God-consciousness can only be incited to development by means of the stimulated sensible self-consciousness – perhaps, say, the stimulus of an eerily backlit worship band swelling to a crescendo?

    • Steve H
      Sep 24, 2009

      ‘God-consciousness can only be incited to development by means of the stimulated sensible self-consciousness’ – I hear Tim Hughes say exactly that just the other day…

  7. Robin Parry
    Sep 24, 2009

    Ahhh! The sweet voice of reason!

    • Steve H
      Sep 24, 2009

      Hi Robin, welcome…

  8. Andy Goodliff
    Sep 24, 2009

    Steve, is there a point that the average person won’t go (and probably have never heard of) to the theologians you mentioned.

    and I guess my other thought is, does mean we should or cannot make any criticism (by which I don’t just a general moan) of these songwriters? and should we not want to encourage those who write the songs to become better? I guess broader criticism comes from the creation of the ‘worship industry’, where these persons become popstars. I was on the spring harvest website the other day, where they have just ‘announced’ the 2010 worship leaders.

    On another, more directly positive note, have you heard the latest matt redman album. (you can listen via spotify.) Fantastic communion song which becomes a sung liturgy drawing out the meaning …

    • Steve H
      Sep 24, 2009

      Hi Andy,

      1. Yes, but still, the point is that songs are not the place to go to learn theology – that’s just not what they are for…

      2. Of course we can criticise, but we should criticise songs for failing to be what they are intended to be, not for failing to be something they are not intended to be. Criticising an act of worship is much easier, because its purpose is more definite; a song is like a building-block in my mind, and should be criticised as such, not because it fails to be a house. But we might say of this or that song that it could only be used in rather specific situations (the old Baptist Hymn Book had a section entitled ‘mainly for private use’); we might identify its place – this is a song that clearly intends to be used in an act of confession, say – and then criticise it because it is not very good at being what it is trying to be, and so on.

      3. Broader criticisms – SH announced their Bible readers several weeks before their worship leaders; is that equally offensive? The fact is that these people (both groups) are a draw to potential guests.

      4. If I knew what ‘spotify’ is, I’d go listen … as it is, I’ll wait for the CD!

  9. John Coffey
    Sep 24, 2009

    Well said, Steve. You’re becoming the Richard Mouw of British Christianity! I’ve really appreciated his sympathetic defence of popular evangelical religion – e.g. in Consulting the Faithful, and The Smell of Sawdust. He doesn’t forget where he came from, and (despite being a sophisticated intellectual) he’s not learned to sneer at the stuff that inspires simple believers. He’s got a wonderful essay on ‘nautical rescue themes in evangelical hymnody’, which anyone who has had to endure Sankey will read with appreciation!

    • Steve H
      Sep 24, 2009

      Hi John, Thanks. Presumably the essay you mention is required reading on Boys Brigade training courses?

      • John Coffey
        Sep 24, 2009

        If it’s not, it jolly well should be!

  10. Mark L
    Sep 24, 2009

    Steve, just to say, if you start a 12-step programme, count me in! Have appreciated your reasoned and sensible apologia for charismatic forms of worship. Like you, I wouldn’t want to present this as all there is to say about worship, but to dismiss it as some critics do seems to me to be incredibly patronising of the people I serve day by day….

  11. Brian Davison
    Sep 24, 2009

    There will always be more banal, iritating, muscially inept or just plain bad songs amongst the “new” songs than the “old” – simply because we don’t sing the old bad ones any more!! – they faded into obscurity where they belong.

    we still use only a small proportion of the works of Watts and Wesley, even though they were among the best of their generation.
    Leaf through a 1960s hymn book, or 1930s and see what we still use – there are only a few.
    Only a small proportion of what was written in the past have stood the test of time, and only a small proportion of this years crop will do likewise.

    So it’s not fair to judge “modern” or “charismatic” worship against the best 100 or so of the past 400 years and complain about quality.

    If you like singing new and different songs every few weeks then enjoy it. If you like quality (by whatever criteria you define it) be patient, there are very good songs being written, even if few and far between, and if a particular song really grates don’t worry, it will probably be out of fashion in a few weeks time,anyway.

    And finally (as Paul says half way through Philipians….) are we worshipers or connoisseurs of worship? Do we worship to give praise to God or to enjoy the music and liturgy? It’s nice to be able to do both but not essential.

    Songs come and go – some need to go sooner than others…..

  12. Chris E
    Sep 24, 2009

    Steve –

    I agree that theology is not best learnt from popular worship choruses (one of the questions to the ‘hymns teach theology’ brigade is simply the naming of the theology they teach).

    And yet .. surely worship choruses should present balanced biblical truth. Yes, you could argue that individual songs can present different aspects of truth, and that the liturgical flow of the service should make up the balance. And yet that’s putting a huge burden on what can sometimes become – in charismatic/evangelical circles – a sort of compereing that fills the gaps between songs. This is then accentuated by modern songs emphasis on our actions (“I will”, “I feel”, “I do”), or alternatively some attempt to peek behind the unapproachable light.

    Corporate worship in the form of singing songs whilst leaving people in their own thoughts dominates our services in a way which is historically is fairly novel, so it’s worth asking the question of exactly what it’s supposed to be *doing*. It seems to me that for some, it’s become an alternate form of sacrament (yes, even in Baptist circles!), which is supposed to magically conjure up the presence of God. I’d also argue that it ends up inverting the scriptural purpose of such gatherings – which is that bountiful God condescends through the means he has ordained to serve and build us up.

    I too have been greatly blessed by times of charismatic corporate worship – and grew up in a charismatic church, but these things when repeated can occasionally start to feel more like the prophets of Baal trying to bring Baal down than an encounter with the true and living God.

    • Steve H
      Sep 25, 2009

      Hi Chris, thanks for this.
      I’m not sure I agree about ‘balanced biblical truth’ – often songs (ancient as well as modern) express one part or side of a more complex whole (‘God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform’; ‘My God how beautiful thou art’; …). The same is true of collect-style prayers. I confess that I don’t always even try for ‘balanced’ when I am preaching – the preacher’s task is to apply the text she has been given, not to locate it within a system of theology.
      You’re right that this pattern of worship is relatively novel, and that it places a significant burden on the liturgical president. Free church worship always has – it is the curse on the flipside of the godly blessing of not being tied to a prayerbook.
      As I noted in the original post, my take on what is happening in charismatic worship is not so much sacrament as aesthetic: we are not trying to bring God down, so much as to open ourselves up, to create the sort of psychological and affective context in which we experience an openness to God’s words and a liberty in response.
      Of course, there is lots of bad charismatic worship out there; in Britain at least, there is far more (in terms of numbers of services, if not numbers of worshippers!) bad liturgical worship.

      • Chris E
        Sep 25, 2009

        There are various forms of balance, of course. I don’t expect that every worship session or in fact every sermon covers the whole counsel of God, that would be an impossible task.

        However, I do think that there has to be a balance between God’s action and our reaction, indicative and imperative, if you like. Stripped of grace phrases like “I choose to be holy” “We bring our perfect sacrifice to you” can only be a crushing form of Law that isn’t even distinctively Christian (references to Jesus aside).

        we are not trying to bring God down, so much as to open ourselves up, to create the sort of psychological and affective context in which we experience an openness to God’s words and a liberty in response.

        That sounds very sensible, but again it can put the primary responsibility on us. The flip side is that if we didn’t experience an openness to God’s words we didn’t become sufficiently open. That this is the interpretation is attested to by the number of times I’ve seen worship leaders becoming frustrated at the lack of a psychological and emotional response and trying to get the congregation lathered up.

        Of course traditional liturgy can also be done in a horrible way, but charismatic worship is what is under discussion here.

      • Steve H
        Sep 25, 2009

        Hmm. I don’t like the notion of a ‘balance’ between God’s action and our reaction – divine and human causality is not a zero-sum game. That’s the Calvinist in me, though…
        We need some account of what the aim, humanly speaking, of liturgy is, and psychological and affective openness is the best I can come up with just now.

      • Chris E
        Sep 25, 2009

        I wasn’t suggesting an equivalency – and even if I was, what I was commenting on would seem to be even further from the Calvinistic position than that.

        I was merely pointing out that worship songs tend to major in our actions, rather than God’s, and it would seem to me that this emphasis is the wrong way around.

  13. John Belstead
    Sep 25, 2009

    I agree that to expect the width of theology from songs is a bit much and the majority of ‘problems’ with modern songs is the way that they are used.

    There is the additional problem however that for some worship leaders anything that was not written in the last five years is cast off as old and irrelevant thus throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    • Chris E
      Sep 25, 2009

      That isn’t helped by the informal policy at a number of churches, where essentially the worship group learns a ‘set’ of songs, sings them to death, and then changes the set after a few months.

      • Steve H
        Sep 25, 2009

        Hi John, welcome.

        I don’t disagree with what you say, or what Chris says in response. Part of the point of trying to move the focus of criticism from the songs is to open up the question of ‘charismatic liturgics’ if you like – I think that, if we are to improve worship, the focus should be on how songs and other liturgical elements are chosen and used, far more than on the pieces themselves.

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