In the world of secular music, tastes and styles
change rapidly. What was the latest only a few years ago is now
old hat and ignored (remember ABBA?), or now regarded as classic
(such as the Beetles). This is now also true of the music that
is used in the worship of God. Until the early seventies, music
for worship was usually metrical, rhyming, and recognisable as
more or less hymnodic. Just look in your Billy Graham crusade
songbooks and you'll see this was the case. Then came the choruses,
of which Scripture in Song were perhaps the best known example.
But even these are now old hat for many.
Much of the music that is now doing the rounds comes from Australia,
from Hills Christian Life Centre in Sydney. The music is published
under the name "Hillsong". What is this organisation?
Pastor Brian Houston comments: "Hills Christian Life Centre
is a church with an intense desire to resource and bless the greater
church. That so many congregations world-wide are singing Hillsong
music is the fulfilment of a dream and a mandate that God placed
in our spirit." And Geoff Bullock, the music director writes:
"All over the world, congregations are expressing their love
for God with new music, new sounds, new ways. It is a contemporary
sound, a music that not only reflects the passion of those called
by God, but also reflects the culture of those yet to hear."
It appears that much of the music now sung by Christians is produced
by Hillsong, and dates from the 1990s. And much of the music
is indeed beautiful. However, we wish to make a few comments
on these songs. This is hardly intended to be the final word
on the topic, as it is not based on an in-depth review of their
output, but on our observations, and a reading of the lyrics of
a Hillsong collection entitled "God is in the House".
As already noted, the Hillsong personnel intend to produce new
music, new sounds, new ways. In practice this means music that
creates a mood ("reflects the passion of those called by
God"), and that is accessible by those who have never been
in a worship event before ("reflects the culture of those
yet to hear"). The latter presents few problems: Luther
and the writers of much church music did the same, using tunes,
or at least using the styles then in vogue, for their hymn tunes.
And a number of the Psalms and hymns we sing are in fact set
to popular tunes, such as Finlandia, the Emperor Quartet, and
Danny Boy. So long as the tune does not so lend itself to secular
associations which prevent the worshipper from concentrating on
the worship of the God to whom praise is being offered, we see
After all, there is a real danger in judging styles of music.
Speaking personally, our love for the Genevan melodies (in their
original modal forms) reflects, in part, our love for the music
of the renaissance and the baroque periods, and is not based on
any theological argument. Hence we will refrain from judging
the music per se.
There is however a danger in using only one style of music. In
part this is the flip side of what is mentioned above. Because
musical tastes do differ, some, and particularly older worshippers,
will have a preference for older styles. There is a tendency
for the new to drive out the old, especially when the back-up
music (be it organ or band) is produced by young people. Rather,
the biblical body metaphor suggests that a range of music styles
should be used in the worship of God.
Where contemporary music is used exclusively, one manifestation
of the concept of the Holy Catholic Church extending throughout
the ages and nations is lost. There is something thrilling about
singing an older hymn such as "O Sacred Head", the tune
of which was first sung by believers many centuries ago, and which
has been used by believers ever since in the praise of God. However
small, this is one demonstration of the catholicity of the church
of God despite differences of culture, language and epoch.
And the tunes should suit the lyrics of the particular song.
This should be obvious, but evidently it is not. A sad song should
be set to music that matches it. A song that declares that we
trust in God and are totally dependent upon him should not sound
like a braggart's chant. We have encountered songs where we felt
the tune was quite inappropriate, and have often wondered which
songs would be suitable for a funeral if Hillsongs were the only
source from which to choose.
It is well known that many a heresy has been spread by means of
song. Therefore real care must be exercised in the selection
of songs for worship to ensure that they are true to the teachings
of Scripture. On the other hand, there is a danger of over-scrupulousness
in assessing songs. Since poetry and music are expressions of
the heart as well as the head, expressions may be used that at
first hearing ring strange in our ears, but are in fact entirely
proper. This is the more so when the words are set to unfamiliar
tunes. We easily swallow the familiar camel, and yet strain at
the unfamiliar gnat.
This danger comes to the fore the moment one starts critiquing
any collection of songs. Many contemporary songs refer to Jesus
as lover, at which we are inclined to cringe. But so does Psalter
Hymnal 425. Likewise, many contemporary songs pile on descriptive
phrases in a seemingly unconnected fashion. But so does the old
favourite "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah". The point
is that we must beware that we are applying a fair and consistent
standard in any critique that we give.
As collections of songs though, there are certain weaknesses in
the lyrics that should be considered when using the Hillsong songs.
a. Unlike, for example, the Psalter, the full revelation of God
is not covered by the lyrics. The songs generally could be placed
under the headings of trust, joy, Holy Spirit, and glory. Areas
that are missing include such basics as repentance, redemption
in the blood, the law of God, and sanctification. No doubt these
are there in measure, but the theology strikes us as other-worldly,
reflecting the praise offered by glorified saints who have left
this world, rather than weak, though redeemed, sinners who are
working out their salvation with fear and trembling.
b. The view of the Christian life one derives from the lyrics
is thus one of victory and triumph, for we have "love, grace,
peace and power and joy in the Holy Ghost". It strikes us
that the Psalmists ("Hillsongers" of several millennia
ago?) had a much greater depth of experience than that, and so
indeed did the apostles if their writings are anything to go by.
We love singing the laments of Psalm 22 and 77, because they
are so true. And because they accurately reflect what it is to
be human, their prescriptions for salvation and joy are believable
and edifying. We would feel straight-jacketed to only have sentimental
or subjective or praisy-type lyrics as our musical worship diet.
c. As one would expect, there is a charismatic focus in the theology
of the lyrics. This can be seen for example in the use of the
term "fire", as in "You touch my soul with holy
fire", (by which we suspect not the cauterising fire of Isaiah
6, but rather the charismatic flame of Acts 2 is meant). It also
appears in the tenor of whole verses: "I believe the promise
about the visions and the dreams, that the Holy Spirit will be
poured out, and his power will be seen. Well the time is now
and the place is here, and his people have come in faith. There's
a mighty sound and a touch of fire when we're gathered in one
d. We also detect a view of God that seems to be more tri-personal
than Trinitarian. There are songs to or about the Holy Ghost,
about Jesus, and about God, but the unity of the Godhead is not
stressed (cf.: Holy, Holy, Holy or Come Thou Almighty
King in our Psalter Hymnal).
All the above can perhaps be summarised by saying that the songs
reflect an under-developed biblical and systematic theology.
They also reflect an almost exclusively subjective, rather than
a Christo-centric view of the work of God, and a devaluation of
the primacy of the Scriptures.
The songwriters consciously desired to write in a contemporary
style, which is commendable. We realise that there is an evangelistic
focus on the part of this group, and to a large degree one must
use today's language to communicate with one's contemporaries.
Hence, though the (over)use of the term "awesome" or
"choice" in reference to God may ring strange in our
ears, we feel it may be appropriate, so long as the content
of that term is fleshed out.
We do wonder though whether "contemporary" needs to
mean "devoid of poetry". It is partly that the Hillsongs
are lacking metre, and (usually) rhyme. We believe that these
are desirable, in terms of learning the song in the first place
(they aid prediction), and as easier ways to produce lyrics that
at least sound poetic. But even more, the phrases are wooden,
repetitive, unimaginative and lack the emotional appeal that one
would expect of poetry. We have termed this the "concrete
mixer" approach to writing songs: throw in a whole lot of
pat phrases, mix twice, and hey presto! Where is the majesty,
the pathos, the depth of feeling and the beautiful language of
the hymns and psalms of days gone by? Just try this: read through
the lyrics of a Hillsong without the music going through your
head at the same time. We think you'll agree that the words have
to be carried by the music. The music provides the "poetry"
that the words should have independently.
What then? So what? Yes, these are just our thoughts, based
on a cursory review of the Hillsong songs. Take them for what
they're worth. But we would suggest the following when it comes
to selecting music, particularly for youth camps:
a. Carefully review any song that is to be used, according to a number of criteria such as theological accuracy, appropriateness of the tune, and quality of the lyrics. Although we would question one or two of the points listed, the Statement of Principle for Music in the Church in the front of our Psalter Hymnal provides a useful summary of matters to consider.
b. Endeavour to provide a balanced diet of music from different
ages, cultures, genres etc. The latest is not all there is, and
is not necessarily the greatest either.
c. Recognise that any new songs sung in contexts outside the stated
Sunday worship services may become favourites, and that home churches
may be pressured to use them. This being so, make sure that whatever
is sung is suitable praise to God. Give Him the best. Avoid
d. Plan those occasions where God is to be praised in song. There
is a place for free choice sessions. But it is usually better
to have a person preselect the songs (and plan the accompanying
reading, meditation and prayer) to ensure a balance or a theme
is maintained. This will also prevent theologically or contextually
inappropriate songs being chosen.
e. Let us encourage those in our midst who, following in Asaph's
footsteps are able to use their artistic gifts to God's glory.
If anyone should, we should be subjecting this area of
human activity to God's glory. Where are our poets, musicians
and other artists?
What we have written is not intended to suggest that Hillsong
songs should not be used at all. However, it does suggest restraint
and balance in using these numbers. We are wary of the almost
revolutionary triumphalism of the Hillsong staff: focussing only
on what they perceive God to be doing through them, they appear
to have no concept of what has gone before, of church history,
and of a church that is more than just a contemporary and intensely
personally subjective manifestation. Their contribution is perhaps
that of pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants, and that
only by God's grace.
May we truly bring glory to God in the songs we compose and sing.
Mr Rob & Mrs Andy Vosslamber& Andy Vosslamber
28 August 1997
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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / email@example.com / revised October 97 / Copyright 1997