Thursday, 14 April 2011

WE are what WE sing

The implications of singing to God are far wider-reaching than we could ever imagine. My friend Dave Bish at recently pushed an excellent article my way by Steven R Guthrie entitled 'The Song-Shaped Soul'. It's a study of singing as a spiritual discipline, with particular focus on a letter from early church father Athanasius to his friend Marcellinus on the benefits of reading the Psalms and singing.

Quite often we see singing and music as means of expression of what's within us. If I'm feeling down I'll listen to something that suits my mood and allows me to draw it out. I probably should beat myself out of such a mood with some happy hardcore, but in the moment I feel I want something to identify with how I'm feeling.

In my line of work, using music in prison as a means of reducing re-offending is particularly powerful. With those we've worked with post-release we've seen a 75% reduction in re-offending rates, which is an incredible statistic. Music and singing undoubtedly has a profound effect on people. Very often we link our success as a charity to the power music lends to inmates as a means of communicating and expressing what they have within.

However, among Athanasius' main points is the outcome of singing the Psalms as being IM-PRESSION rather than EX-PRESSION. Guthrie uses some stunning short statements in relation to singing the Psalms and its act of impression upon the soul. I can't help but see them applying across the board in other forms of singing and music.

'Singing is an act of imitation. It is im-pression rather than ex-pression'.
'Like children playing dress-up, we are formed by the words as we 'wear them'.
'We do not just say words, we inhabit them'.
'Song not only carries the words inside us; it also carries us to the in-side of the words'.
'When one sings, however, reason, emotion, physical sense and desire come alongside one another, each contributing something essential to the experience of music. As we sing, we become a harmony.'

He also quotes the philosopher Roger Scruton; 'when we respond to a piece of music 'a kind of gravitational field is created, which shapes the emotional life of the one who enters it. We move for a while along the orbit of a formalized emotion and practice its steps.' Music allows us to take the posture of the words that we're singing.

For me, as a regular member of the public, doing what I do in prison, as a worship leader, and as a member of the Body of Christ, this potentially has an enormous impact on what I/we sing and listen to...

If I'm simply feeding a state of depression in listening to depressing music, that can't be healthy. If I'm in prison with psychopathic tendencies, surely it's not the best idea to be singing death metal or anarchistic punk?!

If this is true, that singing through its impression on the soul could create identity, then also for the Church, and in my role as a worship leader where I'm looking to develop a corporate response to the glory of God and to lead people into an encounter with Him, I surely need to be using songs that will feed us with truth and develop a 'body/bride identity'. Paul talks in Ephesians 5:19 about 'addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with Your heart'. What an incredible responsibility we have! We are to impress upon ourselves and each other the truth in Scripture, hymns and spiritual songs. Singing as a Church not only shapes us individually but corporately. What a wonderful opportunity to develop ourselves into the Bride and Body of Christ. Might I suggest that the soul of the Body of Christ is best shaped through songs that tell of the mind of Christ, and that the Bride of Christ might best build her identity through tales of the passion of her future Husband.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Songwriter's block? Encountering Ephesians...

I'm kind of out of songwriting season at the moment - it's been a while since I finished anything anyway. We just moved house, we've got one 16 month old boy and another baby due in 4 weeks, time is short and I just don't have the space or energy to throw myself into it. On Mondays I get about an hour at lunchtime on my own to sit at a piano in Exeter Prison and be creative, but that's about it.

Last year was my most productive ever for songwriting. I think partly due to having a real focal point for it. As a church we've been studying Ephesians for the past year and Andy, Stu (pastors) and myself (creative director) decided at the start that I should be writing songs alongside it. It has been the most enjoyable experience of writing songs that I've ever had. Digging deep into Scripture and building what are pretty much sermons in song format has blessed both me and hopefully the congregation too. I feel that it has offered something so much more enriching and stable than writing thematically on attributes of God, letting the Word shape us rather than us shaping Word, and has encouraged a sense of momentum for our church.

What I really enjoyed about it though, and why I think it was so productive an exercise, is that it was more dependent on me burrowing in Scripture and pulling out what I found and putting it into poetry than on my songwriting ability. It pretty much got me out of the songwriter's block dilemma.

Trouble is, we've just about come to the end now. I've gone ahead of the preachers and written one or two for Ephesians 6 which we'll reach in a few weeks. (I think I got to chapter 6 quickly because I didn't quite know where to start a congregational song on complementarianism from Ephesians chapter 5 (although I guess I could base it around the Trinity?)).

My problems are as follows:
  1. I've so loved writing to this model that I'd now find it hard to write differently.
  2. If I did continue following this model then I'd have to wait for the church's next series to start writing again.
  3. The church's next series is Acts. Narrative. Uh-oh.

I see my options as being the following:
  1. Start my own little side project on something else by Paul.
  2. Write some more Ephesians songs.
  3. Stop being legalistic and write thematically. ;-)
  4. Tidy up those I've written and focus on recording them. (I got some really helpful and encouraging feedback from a very experienced hand the other day on improving the songs I've written).

To be honest, I think this is going to be a season for completing and finishing. I think I've got another two or three Ephesians songs left to be written, for which I've got tunes but no lyrics. It's going to be a case of ploughing the same passages again. After all, God can speak and highlight different things to us from the same passages time after time after time. Ephesians is so rich in truth I could spend years in here. There's adoption as sons, predestination, redemption, the forgiveness of sins and unification of all things under Christ as an eternal purpose in Eph 1:3-10 alone! Wow!

And then I wait for the test of writing songs around the truth found in the narrative of Acts.


Tuesday, 5 April 2011

God of Victory

I bought the Village Church album God of Victory the day it came out. The whole album.

It's the first Christian album that I've bought in a while. These days it's easy to listen to stuff all the way through on Spotify and gauge whether you think it's worth investing in or not.

See, I've bought so many worship albums before that haven't appealed to me as a worship leader that I feel I have to check out new ones completely before I get them. Otherwise financially I might be a bad steward! The last whole album that I really enjoyed was the excellent Red Letter album that I got through Noise Trade. It's a regular for my 3 hour round trip from Exeter to Shepton Mallet prison on Wednesdays.

When I buy worship music, I try to buy for the benefit of our congregation (although I'm not sure how well Red Letter's stuff would work in our setting). That's why I love it when local churches or people with local church priorities put albums together. I love that Sovereign Grace have released lead sheets for their latest offering, Risen, in congregation-friendly keys. Good move SGM.

I'm also looking for fresh and healthy lyrics. So many songs I hear these days are spoilt by what I call 'throw-away' lines (ones that are just there to fill the gaps) or those wo-o-oh bits that appear to be so popular. I mean come on, if you're going to write a good hook you could at least put some fantastic scriptural words to it so that people have more chance of taking them away and reflecting on them! It seems a bit wasteful. (Rant over, sorry.)

I didn't listen to God of Victory on Spotify. I listened to a couple of the 30 second clips of the album on iTunes and bit the hook. And this is one fish that was happy to be caught. I instantly knew that I would be in safe hands. I think I could have made a call on it without listening to any of it prior to purchase. I love listening to Matt Chandler (The Village Church) preaching – he's always biblically sound, encouraging and exhorting. You know that it's rubbed off on Michael Bleecker and the others behind this album.

The lyrics are great. This songwriting team has worked so well together. Lines like 'All things in me call for my rejection; all things in You plead my acceptance' in the song 'To the cross I cling' totally do it for me. I love the contrasts of the first verse of the song 'God of Victory' and then later – 'O may my sin be bitter, so Christ will be sweet'. Amen to that. That's what I'm looking for – lyrics I can say amen to. And lyrics that lead me to a heart connection with my Saviour in truth. 'Glorious Day' in particular brings me closer to Jesus. I love the exhortation to the Church to respond in 'O God of our Salvation' and I love the intimacy and truth of Lauren Chandler's 'You are Faithful'. This is an album that draws you in with a great deal of truth enabling you to meet and see Jesus, and then actually turns that into a heart connection with Him. That's what I'm looking for.

A quick note on the production and musical side of things. I think I was expecting it to fit that regular local church mould. I'm not sure what I mean by that, but you might – as in is it original? Do you know what? - I think it is. In terms of chord usage, structure and musical style, my team could learn to play a lot of these songs quickly (another beautiful thing about a local church album), but it still feels fresh. It doesn't feel squeaky clean like so much of the Nashville sound that a lot of people try to replicate, but the production and playing is impeccable. I can't quite put my finger on it. It shouldn't be new, but it is. It is fresh.

I've listened to it again and again and again and I'm not bored. There are so many good tracks.

I love it. Great job guys - you've just blessed me, my family and our church, and most importantly, God.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Knowing Where You're Going

It was great to gather the worship leaders in our church yesterday evening. Over the past few weeks I've been trying to create a resource that will run on a near monthly basis to help develop both experienced and inexperienced worship leaders in our church, going through basic and more specific areas that need development in our church context. Last night was the start...

The aim of last night was to get our guys and girls clear on what the role of a lead worshipper is – from why we gather together to sing songs, to what it is to be 'led into' the presence of God, as well as looking at leading ourselves, our responsibilities in leading and defining spiritual leadership in our context.

Part of the evening's discussion involved purpose statements around the following question.
In less than 40 words, how would you describe your role as a lead worshipper?

What would you write?

It was fantastic to share our passion and vision for God's people together and such a blessing to have so many in our team who are excited about introducing and connecting others to Jesus through music and encouraging a corporate response to Him as His bride, the Church. I'm really looking forward to our next session together as a team in which we'll be practically examining how as worship leaders we can be vocal and direct, encouraging and motivating the church...

The takeaway section from this week was to write a visionary statement looking at leading ourselves to Christ and then leading the church (which will probably need a few more words)...

What do I want to see God do in my life (in terms of encountering and engaging with Him)? What do I want to see happen amongst those in our church as a result of our times enjoying God together?

I want to know that all of the guys and girls that I oversee in the team are focussed and on a mission to glorify God with the gifts He has given them.

I'll leave you with my wife's purpose statement...

To first be an authentic worshipper - then to introduce people to Jesus and the Father, facilitating the work of Spirit in order to encounter and engage with God for His glory and our joy.

I love my wife. I find the way she has used God, glory and joy in the same sentence to be very, very, very attractive.