Thursday, 1 November 2007

Conventional music

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.


The Shtes! said...

I don't mean to sound trite, and what you have raised is valid, but I wonder if the volume was more an issue of proximity? I know, for instance, at QYC at Mt Tambourine, I prefer to sit towards the middle because the location of the speakers means I cop a barage of sound that my ipod affect hearing probably couldn't handle!

Is it worth asking other people who maybe weren't so close how the singing in their section went?

DanielS said...

I'm completely with you on your second concern.

Somewhere out there there must be a skill full and sensitive sound crew who can find the right balance between 'a volume at which I can be encouraged by hearing God's people declare his praise' and 'a volume that gives energy to the music and allows the singers to lead the large congregation'.

Gordon Cheng said...

the shtes!

I was about a third of the way back, maybe not quite that, and off to one side.

But it was louder than other conventions I have been to at the same site.

Honoria said...

Hi Gordon,

Long time reader, first time poster.

As far as I can tell (as an ex-charismatic), Charismatics see "Worship" as a time of entering into the presence of God. "Worshipping" God in this way is a faith experience when the Holy Spirit descends on worshippers.

I don't know if charismatics do this consciously, but I think charismatics play music loudly and for long periods to create mood and effect on the singers.

And it works! We are corporeal and music has a powerful effect on our bodies. The thumping rhythm of the base can cause involuntary swaying in bank queues, music can affect shifts in mood and studies show that genres of music (e.g. music from the Classical period) stimulate mental processes. Loud, sweeping and emotionally evocative music in church effects us physically.

I have often been moved to tears during "worship" times. I'm not denying this could be the work of the Holy Spirit. But non-Christian music can also induce tears.

So I wonder if charismatics use music to manipulate. Through music, they create an effect which is taken to be an experience of the Holy Spirit. And one leaves the meeting under the false impression that they have met with God when really they have just been moved by the music.

The charismatic theology of the role of music (and, if I'm right, the manipulative practices in charismatic churches) is dischordant with Biblical notions of worship and community edification. If evangelicals copy charismatic practices in music, they need to be aware of the different theological starting point and avoid hyping up the music to get an effect.

Anthony Douglas said...

I agree - there was something not quite right about the music.

For one, I thought it remarkable that at a Katoomba conference, I would not know the majority of the songs sung - and I'm an active 'recruiter' of fresh songs for our church.

For two, I thought it even more remarkable that in such a context, it was near impossible to catch the details of a song in order to look it up later. The copyright details, which were not always displayed, were in an embarrassing point size, and shown for only a brief moment. Do they want us to remain ignorant of the songs we'll sing at Engage, or what?

For three, I was a little disturbed by all these new songs. I wouldn't tar them as Hillsong-ish, but they certainly seemed to lack the theological depth that can be found in many of the great new songs from folks like Emu, Sovereign Grace, etc. It was just too bland for me.

In fact, the only attempt that I saw to suggest the music had something to do with the rest of the conference was when Justin referred to some lyrics from 'the song we're about to sing' (Go Justin!)...although it then got bumped to after the break, meaning most of us would have forgotten the link.

It all just seemed very disENGAGEd from the rest!

Pete said...

I'm tempted to just buy the CD's in future.

That sounds silly, but I didn't really appreciate the whole vibe that much, despite my real appreciation of the talks.

michael jensen said...

oh Gordo, you ARE an ole fuddy duddy...

Gordon Cheng said...

fuddy me no duddy, jensen minor! I can get down and funky like the next dude (think Elaine on Seinfeld), but in my own time, and without thinking it's an act of special grace.

michael jensen said...

Yep. Fuddy is as duddy does...

Gordon Cheng said...

I prefer to think of this as a Dylan vs Abba discussion. ;-)

Oh, I'm Dylan*, by the way. I just need to clear that up.

*He was a folk singer in the 1960s, Jensen Junior.

Ben said...

How much of the 60s were you around for, Gordo?

I'm guessing not enough to really appreciate Blonde on Blonde at the time?

Mattt said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post Gordo.

The music was tight and really rocking! The fact that I couldn't hear my own voice nor those around me annoyed me too.

I've had a few discussions with people about ENGAGE and music is the most common topic. One friend suggested that KCC is sort of the benchmark for Sydney evangelicals - what they see there filters back to their churches. There is definitely a sense of Hillsong competition though.

Gordon Cheng said...

Ben, I was there for the whole darn decade.

Mind you, I didn't listen to this—how do you call it—'pop music until 1975. My first exposure was at James Ruse in the year 9 music class. Eleanor Rigby. Beatles.

It was a gentle way of easing me in, because it used stringed instruments. Up until then, it was Beethoven's Eroica for me, which I'm going to argue was far more radical.

Gordon Cheng said...

Well, at least more radical than Denim and Lace by Marty Rhone.

Guthers said...

I thought the best part of the music was the last verse of amazing grace - sans instruments.

Overall, the volume and subtle variations in melody didn't help me to sing along at all.

And I am neither old, nor fuddy, nor duddy...

michael jensen said...

Well I personally wouldn't know about the 60s at all. But it is unfair to characterise the 70s as ABBA when you also had Led Zepp and um... (help! anybody!) The um... Eagles? ELO? Dr Hook?

Ben said...

Ben, I was there for the whole darn decade.

You're kidding me! Wow, you look great, Gordo! Is it stem cells?

Craig Schafer said...

I'm never reading your comments again - that image of you dancing like Elaine in Seinfeld is going to haunt me for days.

Justin said...

that image of you dancing like Elaine in Seinfeld is going to haunt me for days.


mike said...

hi gordon, your way too aussie for a Chinaman. Go and learn Chinese.