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Friday
Jun052009

Album Review of Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth by Hillsong United

hillsong-unitedHillsong United, Across the Earth: Tear Down the Walls (May 2009)

It’s been a pleasure to buy a copy of United’s latest work.  I’ve been processing it, listening to it in my car, and dialoguing with a few friends about it.  I’ve been looking on United’s site and reading some posts to get some context for its creation.  Thank you, Hillsong United, for another beautiful offering to our Father in heaven.

I would like to review the album with some positive comments and then some constructive feedback.  Hopefully it will bless the Church and worship leaders to be discerning about the songs they utilize in their worship services.

Positive Feedback:

What I love, more than anything else about Hillsong and Hillsong United recordings is their attempt to aurally capture the corporate worship setting.  The lead vocals are always very tucked, and one hears easily the swell of many voices (whether choir or congregation) coupled with lots of verb to give it that “in-house” feel (I know many of them are actually in-house and the reverb is actual house acoustics).  I also appreciate that they have an arsenal of different lead singers, helping play down the notion of a “celebrity frontman.”  Not every church has the resources to have multiple worship leaders and lead singers, but it’s a blessing when they do.

The musical production is outstanding.  It’s the unique, “signature” Hillsong sound, with creative electric guitar and synth work.  The electric guitar/synth line (at least that’s what I think it is) on the opening track has that beautiful tension of familiarity and uniqueness (oh, so enjoyable).

The album title is creative in its double-entendre, and therefore it’s a powerful umbrella to encapsulate a powerful album.

The best song on the album: “Desert Song.”  As a person who, even at a young age, has had to endure some heavy suffering, I have a tender spot in my heart for any song whose theme is, basically, “even when God has ordained suffering for me, yet I will praise Him.”  "Desert Song" does this.  More than that, "Desert Song" has a unique, yet singable melody and chord structure, and has a nice flow and movement.  We will be using "Desert Song" at our church.

Another great song: “Soon.”  The church needs more songs that focus on the eschaton.  We get so caught up in the now, and yet Christ’s resurrection and down payment of the Holy Spirit has sealed for us a future that we need to be continually aware of.  “Soon” does this.  Among modern worship songs, it is rare in its second-coming focus.  It’s a sweet, beautiful song.

(It’s interesting that the two songs I most like are sung by Brooke Fraser.  I can’t find who wrote these songs [come on Hillsong, don’t make it this hard], but my hunch is that she wrote these two.  Why?  She wrote “Hosanna,” which is full of biblical allusion and theological reflection.  And these two song seem to come from a similar mind.  In general, I find Fraser’s writing a cut above the other Hillsong lyricists.)

Constructive Criticism:

An overall observation of much of United’s material, across their many wonderful albums, is that their lyrics tend to be disjointed (logical coherence is one of my criteria for choosing worship songs...see my article on criteria).  From line to line, I sometimes have a hard time making the immediate logical connection.  I understand that some songs are intentionally “impressionistic” (such is the case with the hymn on our album, “Light After Darkness,” by Frances Ridley Havergal), but when it happens for much of the material, I have to pause and ask the question of how healthy it is for churches to speak to God with such hiccupped communication.  For instance, here’s verse 2 of “Freedom is Here:”

And everything comes alive
 In my life as we lift You higher Let Your freedom arise
 In our lives as we lift You up
 Sing it out
            Sing it out
 Your freedom is here

One CAN discern logical connection with all these phrases, but it’s just a bit haphazard and stream-of-consciousness.  Historically, that type of writing hasn’t made for strong and lasting worship songs.

Another overall observation of Hillsong United (and this may be more of an underlying theological difference between Assembly of God / Charistmatic theology and my convictions) is that they tend to be triumphalistic in their lyrics.   For instance in “More than Anything”:

Because I’ve seen Your light You bring my world to life I’m coming after Your love

(PRE CHORUS) I’m not shaken I’m not letting go

As I’ve said about “Mighty to Save,” I just can’t in good conscience before God sing the Pre Chorus lyrics sincerely.  Because I know, no matter HOW far I’m down the journey of sanctification, I still have times where I AM shaken.  I still do have times where I slip and DO let go.  I can’t claim that kind of triumph.  It should be my ideal, but I can’t sing them honestly.

In general, Hillsong United could stand to have more biblical depth (with exception being the writing of Fraser, as noted above).  There’s nothing wrong with experiential lyrics, but United often teeters on being experiential to a fault, to the neglect of other things.  Thinking of worship from a congregational nourishment perspective, I wonder how nourished the United congregations are.  I know they’re inspired and even transformed by fresh waves of the Spirit, but are they nourished?  Is the intellectual side of their faith being nurtured?  Are their heads engaged AS MUCH AS their hearts? 

(I Head Revolution…I Brain Revolution…that would be a cool graphic)

 

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Thursday
Jun042009

isaac watts: pioneer of "contemporary worship"

Isaac Watts (1674-1748): English pastor, author, teacher, and one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time.  Many do not know that Watts was a polarizing figure in his day because of the startling changes he was introducing to Protestant worship.  After the Reformation through to Watts’ time, congregations almost exclusively sang Psalmody—hymns whose texts were exactly or closely derived from those of the biblical Psalms.  Young Watts found these “traditional” services dry and spiritually devoid, and one day (so the legend goes) he returned from worship complaining about the poor quality of the hymns.  His father responded, probably wanting just to keep him quiet, “Give us something better, young man.”  Watts’ whole life, as it turns out, seems to be a response to that initial challenge by his father.  The Church experienced a rebirth as the “contemporary” hymns of Watts and others who followed flooded parishes with theologically rich, highly emotive, powerfully engaging songs of worship.  Through Watts and others, the Holy Spirit breathed fresh life into the worship of Christ’s church, not taking away from the glorious heritage of biblical Psalmody, but adding to it a rich dimension of “hymns and spiritual songs.”  It is ironic, then, that traditional worship is often pegged as boring, dry, or even lifeless, when it is heir to some of the most exciting revolutions in church music history!

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Friday
May292009

in defense of "7-11 songs"

Modern worship is often criticized for its plethora of what are labeled “7-11 songs” (songs which have seven words, sung eleven times).  The criticism is that it is pointless, even stupefying, to say the same thing over and over again.  But before all such songs are dismissed wholesale, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  First, the heavenly beings themselves incessantly chant “Holy, Holy, Holy…” over and over and over again before the throne of God (Revelation 4:8).  (We might call that an "infinity-infinity song.")   Second, the Psalms themselves contain repetitions and refrains (cf. Psalms 8 & 136).  Third, the church has engaged in this practice since her inception (think of the repeated Kyrie Eleison [“Lord, Have Mercy”]).  Fourth, often times such “7-11 songs” are direct quotes of or strong allusions to Scripture, and when we are instructed to meditate on God’s Word (Psalm 1:2), what better way than singing and repetition?  There are of course ways where the repetition can be taken too far (and modern worship is guilty of this), but let’s remember that repetition is a biblical and historical church practice.

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Wednesday
May272009

"mighty to save" needs theological precision

"Mighty to Save" is now a well-worn mainstay in most evangelical churches of modern worship styles.  It's appeared repeatedly on CCLI's top lists.  And why not?  It's got all the trappings of a great worship song...singability, a resurrection-oriented chorus with stirring melodic rise, accessible chord progressions, driving rhythm to match the song's simlutaneous intimacy and explosion.  We use it in our church on a regular basis, and it's obvious that it's a favorite among our people (worship leaders know what I'm talking about when a song really gels with your community...it lights up the room). However, at Creek, we've chosen to amend the second verse, for reasons of theological precision.  The second half of that verse originally reads: I give my life to follow Everything I believe in Now I surrender We've changed it to: I'd given my life to follow Everything I'd believed in But now I surrender It's a subtle change...present tense to past tense (the pluperfect, to be precise).  And some of you will no doubt think we're being nit-picky here, but here's the rub for me with the original text.  It's a bit too triumphant and boastful for my taste, given that we're worshiping before a God who sees all--especially all the ways that we, even as blood-bought Jesus-followers, don't give our lives to follow Him.  Even more, "everything I believe in," apart from God's prior work to give me faith (faith is an extrinsic gift, according to Ephesians 2), is anti-God, anti-Jesus, faithless, and destitute.  If I truly "give my life to follow everything I believe in," I have to be honest that I'd head down the wrong road (think of the mantra of the book of Judges: "everyone did what was right in their own eyes"...scary).  I don't think the statement, as it stands, is theologically wrong (which is why I use the term "imprecise").  Many sing it genuinely as a kind of ideal to commit to, even knowing (like me) that they can't really live up to it.  It just strikes me as too triumphant for me to sing with an honest heart. So our emendation toward the past tense makes verse 2 more confessional, more humble, more needy--and before Yahweh's presence, that's the side I want to err on.  It exposes weakness as opposed to boasts strength.  It says, "I don't have the power...I need Yours, Lord." Worship leaders, if some of the songs you use cause some "theological itchiness," don't be afraid to amend the words.  Hymn-writers have been doing it for years with the nifty little tag "alt." (short for "altered").  And when congregation members ask why you hacked to pieces their favorite worship song, give them a humble reply, and use it as a pastoral-educational moment to infuse some biblical thought into life.

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Tuesday
May262009

sundays: dress up vs. dress down

For many, this is an old hat.  It seems like worshipers have gone their separate ways on such matters as musical style, use of screens, and Sunday dress.  But for me in my context (where I serve a congregation that worships in both traditional and modern ways), this is a present reality that I have to combat as a pastor who is constantly fighting the "two churches within a church" battle.  So here's some brief, broad-brush, philosophical/theological reflection on Sunday dress.  (And my saying "broad brush" is a plea for you all not to nail me with your exceptions, as I'm aware that generalizations are met with not a small amount of counter-evidence.  So hear me out.) #1: Those who defend a "Sunday best" position do so on solid theological ground.  The basic idea is that God is worthy of the best we have to offer...hence our best clothes--ties, dresses, suits, heels, polish, shine, and starch.  "God's best" in worship is biblical (just think of the luxury of the OT temple and tabernacle, or ponder the implications of the Shema). #2: (which may come as a surprise) Those who defend casual dress do so on solid theological ground.  Those who hold to #1 often fail to realize that many times (of course not all the time), those who dress casually do so because they value something in particular when it comes to relating to God...and guess what: it's biblical, too.  It's a little thing called authenticity.  Perhaps #2-ers are reacting against the down side of years of #1-ness.  That downside is that people can end up in ruts of putting on a show, flashing their best, trying to make themselves look good on Sunday when their home is a mess, their sin is rampant, and their life is in shambles.  Now it's obvious that #2 also can have down sides--sloppy dress can get into one's psyche and usher a person into an overly casual approach to Almighty God. So can #1's and #2's never worship under the same roof?  I sure hope not!  Both sides have great reasons, and perhaps the rub between the two is less a matter of good theology vs. bad theology and more of a matter of what one's upbringing and life's journey has shaped what their primary values are when it comes to worship and clothing.  The grace-point here for each camp is to acknowledge that the other side has some decent reasons and then apply Paul's love axiom (1 Corinthians 13) to one situation where it properly belongs. Jesus, with Thy church abide. Be her Savior, Lord, and guide, While on earth her faith is tried. May she ONE in doctrine be, ONE in truth and charity, Winning all to faith in Thee. We beseech Thee, hear us. 

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Friday
May152009

skipping worship = soul-emaciation

I've been struggling, even within my own church, to encourage Christians that Sunday mornings are not just important, they're vital.  I don't know why, but it seems like evangelicals (at least out here in the West) take church attendance lightly.  In Colorado, Yahweh wars with the gods of nature for the attention of the hearts of sinners and saints.  Skiing in the winter...hiking/camping in the summer.  There's always a reason to "skip church."  But worship is where we receive the REAL spiritual nourishment of the sacraments.  Worship is where we receive the genuine encouragement from being in fellowship with God's people.  Worship is where we receive the faithful preaching of the Word.  Worship is where we are SUMMONED BY GOD to be on Sunday mornings (or Saturday if you're a seventh-dayer).  We don't question the need for physical nourishment.  Unless we're fasting or just have out-of-the-ordinary eating habits, we regularly nourish our bodies 3 times a day with food.  God forbid that we Americans forget to eat!  So what about our spiritual nourishment?  If duty is not enough to get us there, maybe our skin-and-bones starving soul will eventually cry out for some self-care.

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