Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to write a worship song

1) Take a classic and well-loved hymn of which people are unaware. (This isn't too hard because your punters are aware of very few classic and well-loved hymns. It helps, though, if it comes from a slightly different tradition from your own.)

2) The hymn should be out of copyright. This means it can be chopped and changed at will; no one (apart from you) will need paying. It will generally be projected onto church screens with no mention of the original author at all. 

3) You will be adding a chorus, so it is important that the hymn is not too long. Look through it and cut out the verse or verses that seem least singable today; heavy theological terminology especially needs to be pruned. Don't worry if the verses cut were intrinsic to the logic of the hymn; that is going to be different and less clear now anyway. 

4) Feel free to alter other words to suit. You may have to do this again after you have written the tune so as to make them fit. Some changes may be to modernise, others will be random, and still others may be simply because someone goofed the lyrics in a key recording, and that became THE version that went out on YouTube. 

5) Write a decent, post-Coldplay tune. It must have a new and rousing chorus. 

6) The soul-stirring qualities of the song and especially of the chorus must come mainly from the tune, as the words you are adding to the classic hymn will not really say anything. Always remember, when fitting random evangelical cliché phrases into your new chorus, that main verbs generate meaning, and meaning generates controversy. Some song writers even believe that verbs are actually of the devil. 

7) Find a single word title for your "new song". It needs to be snappy, contemporary, and possibly related to building practices of which most users of the song will be intensely ignorant. 

Purlin? Nah. Bulwark? Better. Foundation? Better still. In fact, I'll stick with Foundation.

Cornerstone's already been taken. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Selfie Pout and the Worship Meeting

I was alerted to the following quote by its use in a recent blog by Kevin de Young. I am not always a fan of the perpetually curmudgeonly "Theodore Dalrymple" in the Spectator, but on this occasion he speaks pure and necessary truth:
No doubt the decline of religion accounts for the rise in self-obsession and self-importance that is everywhere observable. One of the great advantages of the Christian philosophy was that it managed to reconcile the unique importance of each man with humility. Every man was important in the eyes of God, and in that sense was at home in the universe because the universe was expressly created for beings such as he. His every action was known to God, and was therefore not without significance, however ordinary in other respects it might be; moreover, death itself was not without meaning, nor was it the end of his existence.
Yet, by comparison with the author of his being, he was infinitely small, as indeed was every other human being. However scholarly a man might be, God, being omniscient, was infinitely more knowledgeable; howsoever powerful a man might believe himself, it was finally God who disposed, so that all human power was both illusory and transitory. In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral service of the Church of England puts it; and it might have added, in the midst of importance we are insignificant.
I am not here concerned with whether this outlook is philosophically justified: with whether God exists, and if He does, with whether he is more interested in our doings and more solicitous of our welfare than He is with those of an ant, for example. All I am concerned to point out is that the religious outlook referred to above manages the difficult feat of assuring a man of his supreme importance without giving him a swollen head. (The New Vichy Syndrome, 63)
I think that is an extremely helpful thought from a professed atheist, and I have been mulling it over through the last few weeks, especially as it reflects on our meetings as Christians.  

In the non-conformist tradition, just as in the Anglican, it is as much the liturgy as the sermon which constantly reinforces our awareness of the tension between "humbling" and "exaltation". The fixed points of our meetings place us weekly in this glorious, near paradoxical space between "how like an angel" and "quintessence of dust." 

We are called to praise and adoration through readings and hymns which set before us the greatness and holiness of God in objective terms. That leads us to see ourselves objectively in our littleness and impurity, and we move naturally to confession of sin and prayerful declaration of our dependence. And then comes the sermon - a proclamation of good news to sinners, that leads us back to praise and fresh personal commitment, a subjective response.  

That cycle of objective and subjective, of seeing God and the glory of his Christ, seeing ourselves, seeing the gracious provision in Jesus, giving of ourselves, is wholesome and healthy and normal. You can see the same patterns in OT worship. And different Christian traditions have been strikingly similar, under the skin. 

Until now. As an observer of and a participant in Christian praise in many contexts over 40 years, it is possible to say that those "norms" of Christian praise are becoming increasingly rare, right across the world. It is not uncommon to attend a "Christian meeting" where the name of Jesus is not mentioned and where the main focus of the songs is not on God himself. Instead, we sing about how great we feel just for being present, with a kind of self-congratulatory narcissism. It's all about us. You feel at times that anything that might point to our smallness and poverty, be it by virtue of our creatureliness or our sinfulness, has been deliberately excised from the meeting. On no account must anyone be made to feel small, let alone bad. 

In all of this, the church is reflecting society. Ever since the triumph of existentialism at the popular level, and its going to seed in the current breakdown of objective truth (let alone a True Word from a Creator 'out there') the measure of man is man, and every individual carves out identity and meaning for themselves, with only their own lives as their raw material. It's all about me. We are gods. We have only ourselves to admire, and so we pout at our cell-phones. 

Of course, we aren't islands. When it's all about me, we can't help but keep more than half an eye on all the other 'Me's out there; self-obsessed, we actually measure ourselves by the lives of others. Or rather, the projected, apparently perfect lives of others. Every day we are surrounded by thousands of selfies. Via social media, we know that everyone else is having a great time. They sure look like gods! Amazing!

No wonder that we all of a sudden have such a rise in issues of confused self-image, appalling lack of confidence, crises of anxiety and depression. Having placed ourselves on the pedestal as gods, we immediately knock ourselves off and into misery when we are honest, even for a split second. We cannot live up to any of our expectations of ourselves. Our culture is heading into the deepest of existential crises. 

But if someone goes to a church in this context, what will they find? What will the selfie generation find in the Christian community? 

Effectively, they will find many congregations indulging in mass selfie making. Our "worship" amounts to holding up a giant phone and gawping at ourselves. We come with our varied lives, from our varied weeks, with our varied pains and needs, but together we apparently must immediately lift up heads and voices and sing of how great we feel for being there and how much we are pouring out our very selves. Our meetings are about us and our feelings from the off.

Gone is the great, levelling, objective declaration of the reality of God, that brings a perspective to our lives, to moments of triumph and misery alike.  If the first place I have to look on coming to the meeting is me, what is going to wean me from my pride? What is going to lift me up and deliver me from my despair? 

By echoing the self-absorption of our culture, the church has abandoned its essential and distinctive contribution as highlighted by Dalrymple. We are seeing more and more people lost in sadness and a sense of deep inadequacy, because they have looked within for their meaning and have found themselves wanting. We see a general moral chaos and lack of direction, for everyone is encouraged to do no more and no less than what is right in their own eyes. Instead of sliding down into the same self-worship and relativism, the church needs to be offering the radical alternative: Behold your God! Look to him! 

Very often the difference will come down to simply reordering the elements in our meetings. Some particularly stupid songs may need to be abandoned, but others just need to be sung in the right place. Hymns of response need to be a response to something. A hymn of personal commitment may be entirely appropriate after we have heard of God's love in Jesus, but it may be a cruel or ludicrous mockery at the outset of the meeting. 

However the change comes, the church will only survive the present cultural landslide if we hold our nerve and recover our message. There are people out there who seem more lost in their lostness than our society has seen in centuries. Rudderless ships, sheep without a shepherd. In compassion, we have to show them something better than a sleeked and preened church selfie. They need more than statements of how great it is (or we are) to praise God, or songs that communicate massive commitment without expressing much about who we are committing to or why. 

The church in its meetings needs to recover the heart of Christianity. Our meetings need to beat with a gospel rhythm. We need to say to ourselves and say to each other what we should be saying to the world: You lost and wandering ones, look not at yourself; look outside, to your Maker, Judge and Redeemer! Hear about him: his greatness and kindness and justice and love. It is great to worship him, but because he is wonderful, not because we are! Look to him, and you will find him to be a Friend, and he will put you on your feet and make you stand, in present storms and at the last day.