Singing the songs or reciting the sermon?

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

One Sunday a few years ago, the BBC broadcast a service from the famous Keswick Convention in the English Lake District. The music was led by modern hymn-writer, Stuart Townend, and the service included several of his songs, including In Christ Alone.

Before leading the congregation in singing that, Stuart spoke for about one minute on the significance of songs in worship, highlighting their teaching function and their capacity to allow us to express our feelings and emotions to God who in turn interacts with us.

He raised a few chuckles when he suggested that people are more likely to leave church singing the songs than reciting the sermon.

You may have noticed at the end of church on a Sunday morning people will tend to go out singing the songs rather than reciting the sermon.

The point is not that sermons should be done away with (the Keswick Convention would be an odd place to suggest that); it’s an observation about the power of music.

Here are a few reflections on this – some for preachers and some for music directors and worship leaders.

For preachers:

  1. Let’s face it: he’s got a point. Have you ever heard someone reciting lines from your sermon in the car park after you have preached for 40 minutes? You may get the odd memorable line or two making an appearance on Twitter; and there may be some people leaving with a page or two of notes (what does anyone do with all those notes, by the way?)
  2. But that does not mean that we do away with sermons). However there is a challenge to us to do what we can to make our sermons more memorable.
  3. Which in turn does not mean you have to arrive in the pulpit having parachuted through the ceiling or driven up the aisle in a Formula 1 racing car; nor does it require you to replace the pulpit with a trampoline. All of these would make the occasion memorable, but possibly not for the right reasons.
  4. It may involve a judicious and creative use of some kind of visuals on the screen. If you are going to use Powerpoint or the like, try to make sure that it supports your message rather than distracting from it.
  5. It may involve the use of stories and illustrations. People who struggle to follow a detailed argument may come alive when you tell a good story. As with visuals, make sure it supports your message. (One of the dilemmas a preacher faces is when there is a great story, begging to be told, but it doesn’t quite fit the sermon.)
  6. Why not make use of a catch phrase or a tag line that accurately reflects the message of the passage you are preaching? You can repeat it several times during your message.
  7. Consider using alliteration or parallelism to outline the main sub-points of your message. For example – Preaching sometimes involves pulpits; Preaching should never include plagiarism; Preaching should always involve power.
  8. Ask the Holy Spirit to use the written word (Bible) to reveal the Incarnate Word (Jesus). Ask him to bring a word for the moment to the listeners’ lives. Ask him to open listeners’ hearts.

For worship leaders and song writers:

  1. Realise the powerful influence you have! Music sticks with people. How many times do you go through a day with a tune buzzing around your head?
  2. Since music is so powerful, make sure you get people to sing songs that are actually worth remembering. It works two ways. Silly, superficial words, set to a catchy tune, stick. Sometimes your dilemma will be that you have to ditch a song whose melody you really like, because its lyrics are not good enough. If some things are worth remembering, others are not.
  3. On the same lines, if you are a song writer, don’t waste your time writing nonsense! Give us things that we need to remember; give us things that will give wings to our spiritual lives.
  4. Remember the difference between songs that work really well at a rock concert, but don’t cut it in corporate worship. Corporate worship means the people sing, not listen.
  5. Writers – you need to write tunes that ordinary, not-terribly-musical people can sing and will remember. Don’t forget that while you can probably pick up a new melody after you have heard it once, some people will need to hear it, be taught it and practice it multiple times before it sticks with them.
  6. Consider working with the preacher to choose songs that will support the theme of what is preached. Even if it doesn’t work for every song in the service, work hard to make sure that the final song will reinforce what has just been preached. For example, if the preaching has focussed the grace and love of the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, why not finish with something like How deep the Father’s Love for us?
  7. If you are a writer, why not set yourself the challenge of writing new material to reflect a series that is being preached in your church. It will stretch your writing skills and it will provide a great resource to your church (and possibly the church wider afield).

(A version of this was originally posted in July 2012.)

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Gettys at the Waterfront

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We spent Saturday evening at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall (where you’re not really supposed to take pictures or use your phone): it was the third evening of the launch event for Keith and Kristyn Getty’s autumn tour, Facing a Task Unfinished. That’s also the title of their most recent CD release. The title comes from an old missionary hymn, written in 1931 which the Gettys refreshed and relaunched earlier this year in a unique world-wide sing that included over 5000 churches.

The Gettys were joined on stage by their band – an extraordinarily talented bunch of musicians who – it should be said – add to these events because of the enthusiasm they exude while making music, by Jonathan Rea and members of his New Irish project, and by Keith’s writing partner for his best known hymn, Stuart Townend.

Music and musical tastes can be quite a divisive issue in churches: we should be grateful for the way Keith, Kristyn and Stuart have contributed a singable, and theologically rich repertoire to the Church’s hymnody.

If you missed the concerts in Belfast, get the album (crank it up on the amazing tour of the world ‘Beyond these Shores’; and if you live in North America, get along to one of the upcoming tour events.

Grace – and a song that we sometimes sing

One of those older newer songs (Gerrit Gustafson published it in 1990) includes this double statement:

Lord, if you marked our transgressions,
Who would stand?
Thanks to your grace, we are cleansed
By the blood of the Lamb.

It’s the sentiment of Psalm 130:3-4

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you, there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

Back to Gerrit Gustafson and his version for a moment. If you’ve sung those lines, have you really meant them? I know you’d rather not have a worship leader stand at the front saying, ‘let’s sing these words as if we really, really mean them’, but it is worth stopping to think.

Lord, if you marked our transgressions, who would stand? Really? Are we that bad? Maybe a lot of those other people are that bad, but our transgressions? My transgressions? The song – and the Psalm too – pulls no punches on that one. If God is in divine scorekeeper mode, our language should be like Isaiah: ‘Woe is me.’

But thanks to your grace, we are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Really? Are we that clean? Can we be that forgiven? Back to the Psalm – one of the attributes of God is his forgiveness. And I think this is fascinating: ‘that you may be feared’! You would think that a God who never tore up the accounts, but who kept them all – every record of every sin – would be feared. On the other hand, a God who could bring up all your failures and sins and make you pay: that’s a God to be afraid of. But that’s not what the Psalm says: it says that this God is to be feared because of his forgiveness!

So do you really believe all that when you sing? (I mean really, really believe.) If God kept score, you would not stand, any more than I would. But if God forgives, you are clean.

As Jerry Bridges says:

Your worst days are never so bad that you’re beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you’re beyond the need of God’s grace.

 

Hymns for the Christian Life – new album from Keith and Kristyn Getty

Hymns for the Christian Life is the title of the latest recording from Keith and Kristyn Getty.

It’s a little over ten years since Keith Getty and Stuart Townend wrote In Christ Alone – a classic modern hymn (if that is not an oxymoron). Since then Keith and Kristyn as well as Stuart have continued to enrich the church with great songs.

There is a new recording of In Christ Alone on this new album. You will also find a few other items that you may recognise, not least a version of My Heart is Filled with Thankfulness and even a bluegrass/folk version of Nothing but the Blood.

The title of the album indicates something of a shift in thematic emphasis. We’ve got used to Getty hymns that help us in various aspects of corporate worship services – Come People of the Risen King as a call to worship; Speak O Lord as we prepare to listen to the word; or Behold the Lamb as a communion hymn. This time there are hymns that have been written to help Christians reflect on the connection between their faith and issues of everyday living.

A Mother’s Prayer is just that. There is a prayer about work (Before you I kneel). Simple Living is a song about money, based around a couple of stories from the Gospels.

And there is more; including songs that celebrate fellowship or the resurrection; songs that function as prayers for mercy, for the breath of the Holy Spirit and the solemn Gethsemane.

Once again Keith demonstrates his ability to craft a melody that is both singable and memorable (would be song-writers please note!). Musically the album blends Irish and American Folk (alternatively, think what would have happened if Charles Wesley had met Riverdance).

Keith reflects on the how the themes of the album are to challenge us as we sing:

For example, ‘Before You I Kneel (A Worker’s Prayer)’ should be hard to sing if we’re not seeking to honor the Lord in our working day. We don’t work for self-actualization or to find ourselves, we work to honor Christ, and through that we find ourselves in Christ. It should also be a hard album to sing if you’re out of fellowship with someone.

Kristyn says,

What excites us most about the work we do is seeing a song used by a congregation and hoping it becomes part of the soundtrack that follows a believer through life. As we write, it’s also exciting to think about people who come to church who don’t yet know the Lord and know what our faith is all about. It’s an unbelievable apologetic to not only see Christians singing together, but listening to what they are singing about, in terms of better understanding our faith.

You can watch a video preview of the album here, and find out how to get a copy here.

Was Keith Getty in your church at the weekend?

Keith Getty may be talented but he is not omnipresent, so the answer to the question – for most of you, unless you happened to be wherever he was worshiping on Sunday – is no. But then again, chances are that that the answer is yes – in terms of his influence – because you may well have sung at least one of his modern hymns over Easter weekend. I know the church we attended on Easter Sunday did.

During the past decade, Keith, along with his wife, Kristyn and his song-writing colleague, Stuart Townend, having been working hard to resource the Church with excellent new hymns. In Christ Alone is probably the best known, but Easter will have seen churches make use of The Power of the Cross (O, to see the Dawn) and See what a Morning (that’s the one we sang on Easter Sunday).

In a few weeks, Keith and Kristyn will return to their native Northern Ireland as part of a ten night “Celtic Islands Tour”. There will be three nights in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall (two are already sold out), one in Londonderry’s Millennium Forum, with the other nights in other venues in the UK, including Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. They will be performing with local choirs and orchestras and will be joined by Stuart Townend. As well as the involvement of local choirs and orchestras, (New Irish Orchestra in the Irish venues) they will be supported by a band comprising an array of accomplished musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.

In addition to some of the old favourites, the concerts will include previews of some new compositions that will feature on Keith and Kristyn’s new album, to be released during 2012.

Keith says:

All throughout Scripture we see the importance of offering our praise. The Psalms go so far as to command us to shout with joy to the Lord. That’s what we’re hoping to accomplish on each stop of this tour.

More information about the Gettys, their music and their tours is available frmo their website: www.gettymusic.com.