27 June 2013
A veteran of worship
If you've been a Christian in the UK for more than 30 years, you'll know of Graham Kendrick. And the writer of classics including Shine, Jesus Shine and The Servant King, has just released his 37th album, Worship Duets. Chine Mbubaegbu catches up with him to chat about the changing face of worship music.
How did you become a worship leader?
By default really – having learned a few guitar chords I served my time strumming along with church youth sing-alongs (though I'm not sure you could call it worship). Then along came waves of spiritual renewal and I was among many who encountered God in a fresh way.
There was a hunger for teaching and for experiencing the power and presence of God and I found myself in gatherings in which encounter would overflow in simple songs of adoration. There was a desire to be responsive to the Holy Spirit and the songs became the glue that helped the various elements flow together.
What's been the highlight of your career so far?
You're asking the wrong guy for 'highlights'. I'm likely to start analysing what a highlight really is and isn't and from which perspective. If you are looking for a moment that seemed particularly significant, there was a day in 1994 when March For Jesus first went global, and a wave of large public marches rolled through major cities in every time zone. I had this idea of being present as the sun rose up on the first march, then flying across the date line and being present as the sun went down on the last march. The BBC agreed to make a documentary of it and film marches in places like St Petersburg, Seoul, Berlin and so on. So I joined around 10,000 New Zealanders as the sun rose in Christchurch then flew via Auckland to the little island of Western Samoa in the South Pacific to join the last march. I got on the phone and was patched in to the public address system where 70,000 were gathered in Hyde Park at the climax of the London march. I marched with the Samoans, and we concluded the filming on a beach as the sun went down on an amazing day. The programme began with me reading from Psalm 113: "From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised."
Do you ever get writers' block? We've heard hanging upside down sometimes helps. Any tips for combating it?
Yes, in the sense of finding those fresh, original ideas that can seem to be so elusive. I have not tried the hanging upside down, but it is true that doing something physical like a work-out at the gym can help. Listen to other people's music, read inspiring writings or poems, listen to great preachers, teachers or communicators, collaborate with other creative people, listen for the stories and experiences of the people around you. If you are a guitarist, try alternative tunings, or adapt your playing to a related instrument such as a mandolin, ukulele or tenor guitar. Put down your instrument and make up a tune unaccompanied [to be free from habitual chords and tempos etc], open the Psalms and sing them spontaneously without trying too hard to compose a song.
Has the worship industry changed for the good, or are there things that we need to recapture?
There have never been so many resources available to churches and the musical standards have never been so high. However, authentic worship songs originate in communities and individuals where there is an overflow of thanksgiving and praise from lives that are being transformed by the power of the gospel. If writers or publishers get detached from that source, it will soon become hollow. We have seen the success of a certain kind of song genre, based upon the three and a half minute pop song. Think of motion, emotion and notion in that order – they are great at getting your body engaged, excellent at evoking feelings, but not really designed to carry a great deal of 'notion' the breadth of ideas that the subject of God demands; poetic language, grand themes, rich doctrine and so on. While there are great strengths in this genre it is not so good if it is dominant to the exclusion of other song forms, including hymns and other essentially content-driven genres, or to the exclusion of other worship texts – creeds, liturgy, composed prayers, and the heritage of previous generations of creative worshippers. The emergence of worship 'artists' and associated concerts and recordings has enriched Christian popular culture and sometimes spills over into the general marketplace. We just have to give attention to the context in which songs are used – what works great on an album or in a performance setting or a great stadium celebration does not necessarily work in a local church.
What is worship music for?
Music is a gift from God that we give back to Him with thanksgiving and praise. In worship we seek to lovingly and accurately, richly and comprehensively describe God's nature, character and deeds. In the same way that we are jealous over the reputation of someone we know and love, we should care about what we sing and what we expect others to sing about our Creator. Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as He actually is. What and who we believe God to be has eternal consequences both for His glory, and for the eternal destiny of every human being. Worship is a response, and will grow or shrink in direct proportion to our view of its object. A congregational worship song has the particular function of facilitating the corporate expression of praise, worship and thanksgiving from the hearts of the people, declaring the kind of God we worship, and what He has done for us. There are of course many different kinds of worship songs with differing functions, from simple choruses of adoration, to lament, to retelling the saving acts of God in the past, to anticipating His coming kingdom, to joy and celebration, to imparting doctrinal truths and so on. Whenever we choose a worship song we need to think clearly about how well it fits the purpose and context in which we intend to use it.