I recently attended one of those conferences that makes you glad to be a Christian living in Sydney. It was run by the Katoomba Convention people, who stand in the tradition of the great English Keswick convention movement that has spawned offshoots and imitators in many parts of the world, not just Sydney.
What I love about the Katoomba conventions are that for sheer quality of Bible teaching, they almost invariably hit the mark. It’s quite astonishing really, as there are so many other situations in life where you feel you’ve blown your money and worse, your time. The take-away food places that end with uncomfortable moments in the smallest room. The movie that you know five minutes in is going to be a waste of time, but there you are trapped to the bitter end with your friends. I mean come on—the third Lord of the Rings movie could have ended 45 minutes early and only the two people who weren’t sleeping would have complained.
But in the twenty plus years I’ve been to Katoomba, I’ve never felt let down and I’ve often come away exhilarated and excited by the power of God’s word, powerfully expressed.
The recent ENGAGE conference, with speakers Justin Moffat and Chris Chia addressing workers’ issues from Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah and other parts of the Bible was no exception. The most spectacular surprise was the music, which was brilliantly led, technically tight up-to-date and with carefully thought through words and some stellar renditions of new tunes to the old words of some glorious hymns. Not a false start or technical glitch in sight. No in-jokes amongst the musicians. No sermonettes from the song leaders. Only half a hint of a PowerPoint slip-up, but even that is, in my book, a cause for rejoicing. I was transported.
My only problem is where I was transported to. I can be quite specific, actually. I was transported back, in my mind and heart, to the Hillsong Annual Convention at Homebush Bay, Sydney 2006. Hillsong 2006, where the medium was the message, where speaker after speaker happily contradicted themselves and each other, and at the end of the day, it was all just one glorious delightful party with a great big hole in the centre where you would normally expect the theology to be fitted—and a large, almost unfilled absence where you would expect the cross and the atonement to be.
‘Right…’ some discerning reader will respond. ‘So you’re telling me that you went to a conference where the music was every bit as good as Hillsong, on a lower budget and with all the theological problems fixed, along with good speakers and great coffee. Doesn’t that mean…er…that it was a good conference?’
Well, yes, it does. It really does.
But here’s my two niggles worth.
The first niggle is that the antennae go up when I get the sense that we as Bible-believing Christians are being led down a path by an organization (Hillsong) where the gospel, if not completely absent, has receded a very long way into the background. Are we, Bible-believing Christians, running our music this way because that is how Hillsong is doing it?
There are a number of indications that we are. In the case of this conference, one not insignificant indication was that the whole style, sound, volume and appearance of the music was the same (not the words. Thank you God, not the words!) And especially when one of the key organizers of this convention, a man I respect greatly, tells me that ‘yes, we are in competition with Hillsong. We are aiming for the same market.’
Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. But if it is true, then it is at least worth asking ourselves a serious question. As we pursue headlong this great glittering prize of music that lifts and inspires our souls, and as we try to do it at least as well as ‘those people over there’, are there any traps that we may have stumbled into?
For me that question has been asked but not yet satisfactorily answered, and that is a concern.
The other niggle is much easier to name and claim. I loved the music and I loved the songs at this conference, and enjoyed it far more than at many other conferences I have been to, certainly including Hillsong 2006.
So why was I getting more and more annoyed? It struck me that my annoyance was not at the musicians at all, but that I (possessed of a singing voice that is probably too loud) couldn’t even hear myself shout. And being a man who loves the sound of his own voice, that bothered me. I certainly couldn’t hear the voices of the two people on either side of me, or anyone else for that matter—apart from the clear and beautiful voices of the singers on stage.
So I stopped singing, and promptly discovered that I was no longer annoyed. I loved the experience of the convention music, when I learned to treat it as a really well put together Christian music concert.
Which is a problem. Because if there’s one thing that the Bible is clear about when it comes to singing, it’s that the words we sing as a congregation, when we sing them are addressed to each other. Here’s Paul writing to the Ephesians:
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
Now don’t get me wrong here. The words of the songs at the convention were crystal clear, aided by the fact that as they were being sung they were being projected onto the screen in front of us (although I now can’t remember the words, and I have no easy way of referring back to them, which is an advantage of the old hymn books over the new technology). And it’s clear that I was indeed being addressed by the singers and songleaders.
But what I managed to lose somewhere in all the technical excellence—and let’s face it, the juiced-up volume—was the sense that we as a congregation were there to edify each other by what we sang to each other, and to God.
It was still a great, rockin’, foot-stompin’, Bible teachin’ convention. And I am going to be encouraging others to go along next year to hear Don Carson and Mark Driscoll. But part of me is a little anxious about where parts of this are heading, and why.