I’d like to write emerging worship songs. Care to join me?

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My friend and song writer/worship leader Duncan Owen, has written this thought provoking article about song writing and issues relating to emerging church and culture. So take a read, and post your comments, or e-mail him duncan.owen@virgin.net

Text is in continuation section as well.

I’d like to write emerging worship songs. Care to join me?

I’ve got a slight problem, I’m struggling to find new worship songs that I like. I’m a worship leader in a Vineyard church. We have a great heritage within our denomination of worship and songs, which I use to help me lead worship. There is also an ever-growing resource of worship albums at my disposal to add to these songs, almost to the point of overload. However, despite the apparent abundance of resources, I still struggle to find new songs that resonate with me as a worship leader and for a while I have wondered why.

It’s not that the songs out there are poor quality. They’re around the best-produced, recorded and arranged songs we’ve had throughout my time in Christendom. I could reel of some of the talented writers out there who have pushed the quality boundaries – Redman, Hughes, Crowder, Tomlin, Smith / Delirious et al. I also loved the UK Vineyard albums – Come now is the time, Hungry & Holy. I guess the biggest area I’m struggling with is the language & lyrics within a lot of these songs. They’re often reasonably well crafted and some have great theology woven into them. My problem is this - they don’t articulate the theology that I’m learning to love, by which I mean they’re not terribly ‘Emergent’.

[N.B. Should you have just read my last sentence and thought ‘what’s Emergent?’ I’d probably stop reading this article about now as the rest may make little sense to you. However if, like me, you have an appreciation and vague understanding of Emergent Theology, please carry on. I’d love to expand on the main areas of new understanding within Emergent Theology and how I consider that they may affect our song writing, but will abstain for now.]

I must admit to not being an avid reader, but books by Yancey, Willard & McClaren do contain thoughts, ideas & theology that resonate with me. These authors seem to be great orators of my previously subconscious internal feelings. I’m reading them and feeling - that’s a truer version of The Church, or of Christianity, or even life, that I want to be a part of. I’m also thinking - that’s a much more complete view of God, or the environment, or sexuality. So I read these ‘new’ views on scripture and I get annoyed with the parts of our modern theology that has a very different viewpoint. This then has a knock on when I listen to our songs, which are littered with the ‘modern’ way of thinking.

So my longing is this – for songs that express my new found friend – Emergent theology. As an avid music listener I want to hear them, as a worshipper - I want to sing them, as a worship leader - I want to use them to lead people to connect with Jesus and as a Song writer - I want to write them.

How might these new songs be different? I think Brian McClaren’s ‘Open Letter to Songwriters’ (http://www.anewkindofchristian.com/archives/000431.html) is the best exposition of this so far. The only thing I’d add to his thoughts are –

• A major theme is this - the shift from a me-centric gospel, back to a God-centric gospel (which Brian’s letter does actually cover in far more depth than this). • The change in thinking on the environment and having a theology for this enables us to include it in our songs. We can now express our corporate spiritual responsibility where we used to think of it as an individual practical venture. In fact I think our corporate response to the gospel of Jesus and the responsibility that carries may pervade our songs far more that we can currently imagine. • We’ll ask more questions in our songs as the emergent conversation allows us to do so.

A thought on a bit of a tangent. I’ve got a suspicion (which has been fuelled by many great thinkers in this field including the Senior Pastor of my Church) that the proliferation of Emerging theology will go something like this – • General dissatisfaction with the current theology and our outworking of that. This began over the past decade or so. • A new questioning leads to a new theology with a few voices tentatively speaking it forth. This has already started. • The new theology becomes accepted, but not yet mainstream (orthodox). This is process is probably underway, though a long way from completion. • The songwriters digest this theology and infuse it into their songs. This I guess is the point of this article. • The new Emerging songs we write get sung, possibly worldwide, and a wide audience finally accepts the ‘new’ theology. It has been said by many wise leaders that our theology will almost always come from our songs primarily and our sermons secondary. It’s the way it has been and it’s the way that is likely to continue.

In terms of how ‘Emerging Worship’ develops, I’ve no idea what this will look like when it reaches its peak. It’s probably an entirely different article or even book(s), but if the other great cultural shifts (Middle Ages to Medieval, Medieval to Modern etc.) are anything to go by, our new forms of worship expression may take hundreds of years to evolve. One could argue that the period from Bach through Mozart to Beethoven (say 1700 – 1850 for arguments sake) provided us with the era we saw the flowering of ‘Modern’ worship. This was some two centuries plus after modernity’s buds first appeared. For those of us who want to make Emerging worship happen now, I’d say – lets hang on and play our part in the transition from Modern to Post Modern Worship. It’s probably going to take a while!

Moving from The Theology of our songs to the musical content - The ‘ipod on shuffle’ rule. I also have another question. When I speak to my friends who don’t have a connection to a church, the term ‘Worship Music’ seems to have more negative connotations than positive ones (and it’s not just because they don’t buy into the lyrical content)? If I put my ipod into ‘shuffle songs’ mode, I can generally tell within a few bars (i.e. well before the singing) and usually within the first few notes, if the song is ‘worship’ or ‘secular’. To over simplify and over generalise, the secular music on my ipod is more likely to have been musically radical when it was released, it’s likely to be well arranged musically / produced to great standards of excellence and can contain huge integrity in its lyrical content (which of course may be based around anger, lust, confusion etc.).

I think the difference is that ‘we’ in the worship music market have settled into tried & tested methods for leading worship and the album versions are usually just faithful reproductions of that. ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’ wrote King Solomon in one of his more melancholic moments. Perhaps he was having a similar experience as I’m having with worship music (I know it’s a long shot, but it somehow comforts me to think that other followers of God may have struggled in similar ways to myself). There are some surprising exceptions to the ‘ipod on shuffle’ rule (from both sides), but in worship circles, it’s largely ‘same old, same old’. N.B. I know this seems to contradict my second paragraph, but I stick by that as well. Worship music may be doing well, but secular music in many ways has stolen the march on it when it comes to overall quality and excellence.

I’m guessing that the Worship ‘machine’ and not purely the writers, has something to do with this observation. Most Record Companies (the production line within the ‘machine’), particularly within the Christian market, seem to be quite conservative in their tastes / output and Christian music in general is usually stereotyped as sounding a little dated. It seems it takes us at least a few years to catch up. I know this has a certain amount to do with the demographic of the record company’s customers and indeed that worship songs usually are sung by all ages within the churches that use them.

However, if I was to follow a little logic here, does this mean that - knowing Jesus makes us musically unaware or creatively stilted? * I hope not, in fact I believe the opposite. My understanding of God as creator is of a generous giver who creates most of what we see as an overflow of His giving nature and indeed longs for us to do the same. I hope I can internalise this thought and see my own creativity as - giving to those who enjoy it, and as a form of servanthood. This would be a big departure from our current mindset that idolises the Visionary Creatives for their inspired work. We’re right to worship God for His creation, but we should also worship Him for that which we create as well – He made us to do that! [*N.B. I’m aware that this is a mass generalisation and there are some great exceptions to the observed rule; please don’t hear me being disdainful of all worship music or all creative Christians. In many ways this article contains a plea and an encouragement to be as creative as our maker made us to be.]

In contrast to all of the above four paragraphs however, I love the value of the arts that we are finding in Emergent theology. ‘The Arts’ are usually a sorry second place in our modern systems. Just look at education and see how the arts were generally viewed as less important to the learner than Maths & Science. Modernity values right & wrong or black & white, whereas the emerging theology seems to value all colours. (This is a huge aside, but I can’t wait for a time when science, music and theology are explored or even taught as one. Maybe then we’ll have a more holistic view not just of God, but of the value and excellence within His creation. Maybe that will be the start of true enlightenment!)

So what does this mean to me if I want to write Emerging songs? My thoughts are based around this - that I should value His excellence and find ways to hone my songs before they’re released. So where does Emergent come into this? I’m not sure, but I have a few thoughts. • Emergent is in essence is a global conversation. It seems to be largely made up of a loose association of hopelessly addicted Bloggers and a few others, like myself, who feel attached to the conversation by reading books and processing slowly. I must admit that I have a preconception that blogging is only for people with time on their hands and a Mac laptop to help them fill it! Having said that, I can see that blogging has been invaluable, especially in the development of the Emergent conversation. So, what if my blog holds all my meanderings of songs, complete with a community copyright that is generally associated with blog sites. I open it up to people thinking Emergent thoughts and wrestling with the same issues that I am and allow them to comment, offer suggestions and possibly even re-write my musings. These songs then take on a life of their own and are allowed to breathe, evolve and be pruned long before I ever have to buy studio time to get them recorded. • If these songs are online, they can be accessed by worship leaders to comment on their usability as songs, or by people who may feel a connection to them. Maybe if we start to work like this, such songs might find their own way into ‘the marketplace’. • I also think a wider base of input will help to develop a new language style for our songs. This style goes beyond the theology of our songs into the use of words that aren’t currently represented in our worship songs. Maybe people hailing from different cultures and denominations may help to influence and widen our word palette. All the songs we sing are incredibly formal in their lyrical style and suit our Caucasian mainly middle class congregation perfectly. The lyrical style of recent secular music offerings that I’m enjoying at the moment is very informal to the point of sounding almost conversational. Perhaps this might also influence our songs. I guess I’m a little tried of the trite rhymes and clichéd expressions that have so easily crept into our songs. N.B. I know we’ll make up new clichés, but for now I’d really appreciate a departure from the old over-used ones.

Why did I write this article? • I’m looking for fellow worship leaders who have already started walking this path. Perhaps together we can discover some great Emergent worship songs. Any suggestions? • I’m looking for songwriters who are asking questions that might resemble some of the above. Perhaps together we can fine tune our thinking and hone our first expressions of worship in the new theological light. • I’m looking for Emergent Theologians with a penchant for musical forms of worship. Maybe you can help the songwriters to write our new theology into easy to sing expressions of our love of God. Maybe you can help us by offering comments or amendments to our songs, long before we have the embarrassment of releasing them in an unfinished or incorrect state. Maybe we can learn together instead of the musicians writing the songs and the theologians writing the books. • I’m looking for professional musicians, artists, recording engineers, producers and creative individuals who would like to help on this journey. We may start an international conversation that leads to a global shift in our worship / creative release. • I’m looking for encouragement & support, because sometimes this journey looks like a long walk off a short plank.

Yours, In Christ.

Duncan Owen.

Duncan a worship leader and fledgling songwriter. He trained as a musician and recording engineer and now makes a living as a freelance sound engineer. He’s a member of Vineyard Church Sutton and along with his wife Lorna coordinated the worship ministry there over the past four years. They live in Worcester Park, England with their two lovely children Neo & Calla.