Noel Richards: The 90s worship songs I don't think we should bring back
Twenty five years ago, we were the songwriters for a new worship movement in the UK. Every movement has a musical soundtrack and gives birth to songs. Those referred to in Martin Saunders' recent article were forged in the theological framework of that period.
The charismatic/evangelical churches were at the cutting edge of worship in those days. Most of the songwriters were involved in these newer churches, or at least, being influenced by them.
Worship had been taken to the streets with March for Jesus (MFJ). In 1988, 60,000 people gathered for the second MFJ event in London. By 1994 MFJ was a global movement with simultaneous events held around the world on a single day. On that occasion 80,000 people gathered in Hyde Park, London. I remember standing on the stage and thinking that we could easily fill Wembley Stadium with worship. Already, worship/prayer events were filling
national arenas in the UK on a regular basis.
So it was not surprising that our songs were anthemic and contained lyrics of glorious optimism. We believed that worship and prayer events would help pierce the darkness over our towns and cities. Spiritual warfare and victory was a recurring theme of our conferences and events.
When we organised the event at Wembley Stadium in 1997, our goal was to proclaim Jesus Christ as the true champion of the world, in the place where the 'gods of sport and music' had been worshipped. Very triumphalistic!
The 1990s saw a generation of pioneering hymn-writers such as Chris Bowater, Graham Kendrick, Dave Fellingham, Dave Bilbrough, Martin Smith and many others. Their ceiling became the floor for this current generation of writers –Tim Hughes, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, to name just a handful, whose music has gone global in a way that far exceeds what the class of the 1990s achieved.
Today's songs reflect what we think God is doing in this generation. As if we really know! The church and the world of 2014 is very different to that of the 90s. Inspirational songs that raised the roof, spoke of our victory in spiritual warfare and reaffirmed our identity in Christ, were extremely necessary then. That need remains, but there is a greater need in these days for the church to find a place of engagement within our society, for bridges to be built into our communities, for our faith to be lived out in a different way to that of previous generations.
My own thinking has shifted over these years. Whereas in the 90s I would have been comfortable with the phrase "we are going to take the nation for Jesus", I would not use that language today. Why? How would we feel if a group of people were marching through the streets of the UK singing about taking the nation for Allah? We would be extremely unhappy to hear that proclamation. Most of us do not want to live in a Theocracy of any shape or form.
Equally, how do people of other faiths and no faith feel, when they hear our militant declarations of Christian dominion? We have to view our evangelical language through the eyes of those we are trying to reach. We no longer use the word 'crusade' for outreach events, for obvious reasons. What was acceptable in previous generations will not serve us well today. This present generation of songwriters have not lost the sense of victory. That is still present in the newer songs. For example, Matt Redman's "Our God" says:
Our God is greater, our God is stronger,
God you are higher than any other.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power,
Our God! Our God!
However, we songwriters realised several years ago that our modern hymnology was very two dimensional – songs of praise/celebration followed by songs of intimacy. Where, for example, were the songs that opened our hearts to the needs of the poor or tackled the subjects of injustice and consumerism? If the role of our hymns is to bring teaching to the church – we are what we sing – then we need songs that address the real issues that our society and the Church is facing now.
The world of 2014 is very different to the world of 1994 and our hymns and songs must reflect that. Otherwise, we will be living in the safety of our Christian ghettos and not engaging with our communities. Worship that is nostalgic rather than prophetic. Yes, we had some great songs in the 1990s and we will occasionally take them out, dust them down and give them an airing. But we also need to keep moving on. There are great songs being written now and even better ones yet to come. But let's not limit our vision to simply filling churches with new and better songs, creating an alternative, cosy world to the one we live in. That makes us narcissistic.
Worship without mission is self-indulgent. There is a whole world out there for us to engage with and music is a wonderful way of conveying eternal values. Music is the art of the prophets and connects with people at a spiritual level.
The other day, I watched the video of Robbie Williams singing "Angels" at Knebworth Park in 2003. Over a three-day period, he drew crowds of over 375,000, and a further 3.5 million who watched live on television and online. This was reputedly the biggest UK pop concert ever. It gave me goose bumps to hear the crowd singing along. It was a worship
event (although Robbie is not God) and touched peoples' spirits.
So I finish by raising a couple of questions:
Could we see an even greater number of songwriters and artistes who are Christians, choosing to focus their career within the mainstream music business, writing and performing songs that are rooted in the moral values of God's Kingdom?
Will we see them filling bars, clubs, theatres, arenas and stadiums with music that transports people into a place where they can hear the sound of Heaven?
Noel Richards has been a singer songwriter and worship leader for more than four decades. He has released 15 albums and played in more than 30 countries.