Two days ago, in Loveland, CO (a ways north of Denver…why did they choose Loveland?), the Hillsong United army graced Colorado with the only other concert besides their Passion 2010 appearance in Atlanta on this tour-leg in the US. Besides the fact that I enjoy their music, great drumming, and prominent use of electric guitars, it was a chance for me to experience what is probably the extreme edge of the “rock show worship” spectrum, because that’s what they bring—huge line arrays, moving lights, driving subs, light screens, haze, and live video feed of the stage and crowd action. Despite the fact that many in my own church would find this type of spectacle un-worshipful at best and downright apostate at worst, I had a wonderful experience, genuinely worshiping God, surrounded by 4,000 others genuinely worshiping God.
Several concert notables:
- Joel Houston & Brooke Fraser were both present and leading, which I was thankful for
- Two other vocalists were leading songs, and it was a fairly even split between all 4 of them
- “Junior,” the drummer, was apparently very sick, throwing up into a large cup beside him several times during the event, and yet didn’t miss a beat
- They led some of my favorite songs of theirs: “Hosanna,” “The Stand,” “Mighty to Save,” “None But Jesus,” and “From the Inside Out”
- Their lead electric was tucked over in a corner, in the darkness, humbly playing his Gretsch guitar with vigor and precision
THINGS I APPRECIATED ABOUT THE CONCERT
The heart of the four worship leaders. In “rock show worship,” its extremely important that the up-fronters communicate verbally and non-verbally that God is the center of attention, not them. That came out loud and clear. All four leaders were there to magnify God.
The invocation at the beginning of the concert. At the onset, Houston prayed a prayer of invocation (at least that’s what liturgophiles like me would call it). That was important.
The abandon with which people worshiped. It is exciting to join 4,000 unashamed people, singing and shouting the praise of God. There was dancing, shouting, leaping, hand-raising, clapping…you name it. It was a side of biblical worship I rarely get to see, given my denominational and church context. Therefore, it was a little slice of heaven.
The lighting and effects. For many this is a turn-off. Not for me. One can have the perspective that lights are only for show, not for worship. My perspective is that lights function similarly to music. They can artistically surround the content of the service to amplify the message as a well-chosen frame magnifies a painting. When we were singing to fast tempos and celebrative words, the lights would flash, move quickly, and take on joyous color-tones. When we were singing about deep things, the lights were slower-paced and took on rich hues. Furthermore (and I’ll bet that I was the only nerd in the room thinking this), we were celebrating the day of Epiphany (January 6), for which a “light show” is ideal.
The sung “shouts” of praise. I used to think that singing out a melismatic, extended “whoa” was just plain stupid and pointless, but there was an instance in the concert that changed my mind. Right before a loud string of held out “whoa’s” rather high in the male vocal range, we sang about offering up a shout of praise to God. For the first time, I heard a beautiful, well-controlled but shockingly expressive shout of praise. Because the guys sang high, the girls sang low, and the unison effect in the room (yes, you could hear the people) was overwhelming. I don’t know if my church would ever buy it, but I saw a model for “shouts of praise” that might work better than a simple “everybody scream at the same time” kind of approach. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to insert a “whoa” into old hymns to new music, but the door has been cracked for me!
The drumming. I love great drumming. I love creative and expressive drumming. I love tom-work, and syncopations. I love “loud, clanging cymbals.” And I love, in a concert setting, when they’re miced well, EQ-ed well, and thrashed like there’s no tomorrow.
CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK FOR HILLSONG UNITED
In the three-plus hours that we were there, very little was said about the gospel. Without the gospel, just because you sing and shout “Jesus” a bunch doesn’t mean you’re engaged in truly Christian worship. Worship is about exalting God, but the Bible tells us that God is only rightly approached through the mediation of the Son (1 Timothy 2:5). The gospel is the message of that mediation. Brooke Fraser offered a brief “sermonette,” reading and attempting to apply Jesus’ feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8. The main thrust of what she said (which is a common misinterpretation of the passage, in my opinion) is that just as Jesus broke the bread, so we need to be broken, too. Throughout the night, we sang lyrics like “One way, Jesus,” and “there is no one else for me // none but Jesus // crucified to set me free // now I live to bring Him praise.” The gospel was indeed there, but it was neither clear nor prominent.
The content was very disjointed. I am speaking both about the flow of ideas from song to song and the flow of ideas within a song. From song to song, there was very little content-connection. There was definitely musical flow, but there wasn’t conceptual flow. I recognize that I’m more liturgically-oriented, which means that I value intentional progression and conceptual flow from element to element in a worship service, but I have a hard time with worship that seems to be a haphazard medley of songs, strung together apparently for musical rather than textual reasons. As for the songs themselves, in my review of Hillsong United’s lastest album, Tear Down the Walls / Across the Earth, I point out that their songs aren’t the best at logical and conceptual coherence. One line doesn’t seem naturally tied to the next. Over 50% of songs felt like that. While I’m not opposed to stream-of-consciousness lyrics at times, United’s version is overkill. Music seems to drive text more than text drives music, and that’s mistake number one in worship songwriting.
To Joel Houston: Please don’t abuse your platform to encourage young people to disparage theology. Toward the end, Joel Houston talked about how people in the church spend time on unimportant theological matters, and then he preceded to say, I believe verbatim:
“I’m sick and tired of people in the church arguing over stupid things.”
Now, without a lot of context, I’m making some assumptions here, but I assume that Houston, due to his experiential faith and denominational background, is knocking theological debate and discourse. When people screamed and applauded after Houston’s statement, I cringed inside. Young people are cynical enough, and I believe Houston abused his platform in that instance, throwing a cheap shot without important clarifications. Of course I understand the sentiment. Christ’s prayer in John 17 is that the church would be one, as He and the Father are one. But I know how those young adults (the future generation of the church) took that. And there’s already been too much anti-intellectual bias in evangelicalism. I find it ironic that many (not all) charismatics continually emphasize the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, without realizing that this is the same “Spirit of truth,” who “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:3). I pray, for the church’s sake, that Houston will change his tune, because he’s leading the next generation astray. Theology can get into unimportant and trivial discussions. But the more you study it, the more you realize how important it is to rightly knowing and loving God. Deep theological reflection is not antithetical to a relationship with Jesus. In fact, it is its backbone.
The mixing was bass-heavy. I’ve been to enough modern rock concerts that I now know it’s the current mixing rage to crank up the subs so you can “feel” the music. I love that. I love the rumble of the music inside of me. Classical music lovers may not admit it, but when an orchestra swells in a reverberant room and you feel the vibrations inside your body, there’s something euphoric about it. So I like a good sub-rumble. However, as a guitarist, I was looking to hear the high end chimey nature of a well-played Gretsch, mixed with verb, delay, sustains, and tube distortion. Even on lead breaks, the electric guitar was drowned out by the drone of the subs amplifying the bass guitar, kick drum, and keys. Bummer. Because of this, I didn’t think United’s live sound came close enough to their recorded sound. More electric and acoustic guitars, less low-end, please. That’s just my opinion.
I realize that two nights ago I was standing in a pretty privileged position. Who else in the US will be treated to a Hillsong United worship concert this year? Those Aussies don’t make it up to the states near enough. And they are a phenomenon. They’ve uniquely tapped into the hearts of youth and young adults and pointed them to Jesus. Overall, my experience was great. I hope Hillsong will pay attention to little voices like me who want to see them improve and become even better at what they’re doing.
Great comments. I have often felt the same way about much of what comes out of Hillsongs. And for the record, I love the Epiphany comment. 🙂
Questions I am trying to answer for myself. Taken from several sources and compiled.
If the majority of singing to God is glorified "corporate" prayer, how should this fact guide the content and language of our singing in church?
How does it differ from "individual" song/prayer?
How do these look in the Psalms?
How many Psalms are from the perspective of the "individual" ? (Hebrew singular)
Singing should not be a "separate element" of worship that is less strictly regulated than praying, or preaching. We should not tolerate bad songs any more than bad teaching or bad theology.
Our corporate singing should lead us into mature forms of praise and prayer (Eph 4:14-15; James 1:4; Heb 5:12-14).
Church singing must be appropriately God-centered and not merely about how we feel.
The content and form of the music we use at any given point in the liturgy/service must be fitting, i.e. e opening hymn(invocation), preparation for the reading and preaching of the Word, Eucharist, and commissioning/benediction.
If the church is to be mature (and to mature) by means of its corporate singing, the content of our hymns must faithfully cover the full range of Christian experience both in living and how we view death.
A new convert or immature disciple may not always fully appreciate this kind of philosophy of church music. Some music and words will be difficult and challenging (as songs are in the Bible!).
Eric Routley, after surveying selected passages in the Old and New Testaments, says, “We now have some useful guides for judging church music. . . we have the principle that the Christian’s goal must be maturity in Christ. Our Lord could not have been clearer about this, and Paul found constantly (as apparently did other apostolic teachers) that to fallen human nature the status of slave is attractive, while that of the son is demanding. The prodigal son, we remember, was not permitted by his father, despite his bad record, to take the job in the kitchen he asked for. He had to wear the robe and the ring and like it. . . . We are therefore on firm ground in saying that where church music inhibits the growth of the Christian community to maturity it is to be censured.” (Church Music and The Christian Faith, p. 20).
Adolescent and teenage music styles are omnipresent in our culture. What does this mean? We are a culture that cannot grow up. And what is worse, modern Christians in their 40’s and 50’s cannot seem to grow out of the “contemporary” Christian music of the 1970’s.
Singing unites the community around shared commitments and history (Num. 21:16ff.; Judges 5:1, 2, 12; 2 Sam. 1:18; 2 Chron. 35:25; Psalm 147-150; etc.).
Singing Biblical songs will reinforce who we are and what God has done for us and our fathers (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc. . .).
A comparison of the text of biblical songs with both modern and classic hymns and praise songs.
What are Biblical songs they like?
Read the Psalms, the song of Moses (Exodus 15), and the Magnificat (Luke 1) for example.)
1. Lengthy and comprehensive – each tells a story (Ps 78)
2. Mature, rich poetry and vocabulary
3. Primary focus on God and his work
a. They have a proper perspective on self
b. They are Christological (Ps 2, Ps 72, Philipp 2, Rev 4-5)
4. They display the full range of biblical emotion
Contrast that with modern and classic hymns/songs:
a. Often short Biblical excerpts that don’t tell the full story (“Scripture songs” – Psalm 118:24)
b. Simplistic, often childish or adolescent, even sometimes casual/irreverent language
Oh when He rolls up his sleeves He ain’t just puttin’ on the ritz,
Our God is an awesome God…
His return is very soon and so you’d better be believin’ that
Our God is an awesome God (Rich Mullins, 1988)
Lord I lift Your name on high
Lord I love to sing Your praises
I’m so glad You’re in my life (Rick Founds, 1989)
c. Primary focus on self (I just want to [see You, praise You, etc.])
d. Limited emotional range (…And now I am happy all the day – from “At the Cross,” Ralph Hudson, 1885)
What texts actually fit the Biblical-song pattern?
1. The actual words of Scripture i.e. the Psalms and other Bible songs
2. Versifications of Scripture (ex: the metrical Psalms found in our Psalter)
3. Scripture-based hymns — "My people, give ear", based on Ps 78; "At the name of Jesus", based on Philip 2
4. Hymns not largely based on one particular passage but which reflect the theology and language of the Scriptures (ex: "Crown him with many crowns," and others)
Those are important thoughts, Mark. I continually wrestle with many of those myself. Here is my struggle: The Scriptures offer us a strong set of ideals (which you articulated well). When I have pursued those ideals rigidly in the past, I have in turn "lost" the people (e.g. they appear disconnected in worship services and make comments that expose that the richness and depth is lost to them).
Hillsong United was definitely an "adolescent" worship concert. I think the music was strong and sophisticated for the pop rock genre, but the texts and expression of the texts were indeed largely adolescent:
Searching the world
The lost will be found
In freedom we live
As one we cry out
You carried the cross
You died and rose again
I’ll only ever give my all
Jesus we’re living for Your Name
We’ll never be ashamed of You
Whoa o oh
Our praise and all we are today
Take take take it all
Take take take it all
Nevertheless, I know enough of these students and young adults to recognize that it is the only thing that connects with them. Now, of course, one can argue that just because it’s the only thing that connects with them doesn’t make it right or profitable. One can pursue them, mentor them, educate them, and raise their level of biblical awareness in worship, such that they recognize the immaturity of what they currently connect with and strive for something better. That IS the ideal. The issue for me is that I’ve seen the rubber meeting the road long enough now that those students don’t always respond to that kind of pastoring. What do we do in such a circumstance? For me, it seems that the love principle wins the day, along with the all-things-to-all-people principle of Paul. This means that I will seek to appreciate efforts like Desperation Band in CO Springs and Hillsong United Sydney. Yet I try to hang on with prayerful hope that those who find their only vitality in such church music will "grow out" of that to a higher level of maturity. My attendance of the concert, even while I genuinely enjoy, appreciate, and incorporate some of their music, was an attempt to operate in that love…to hear it out when in previous years I would have dismissed it. And I saw fruit, genuine passion for God, and edification going on.
Having said all that, I believe songs like "Hosanna," "Desert Song," and "Lead Me to the Cross" are shining lights in the Hillsong United repertoire that are exceptions to some of the aforementioned criticisms.
Anyway, I understand what you’re saying, Mark. I’m just pointing out the pragmatic tension that inevitably exists when the perfect, biblical ideals meet the imperfect, broken church.
Man, you hit that on the head! I would offer almost the exact same praises and critiques…or at the least I heartily agree with yours. The thing that grieves me most are the kind of errors one might hear in sermonettes and little quips like Houston had. Furthermore, and most importantly, feelings may be elevated greatly in authentic worship to God, but I believe that this worship is meaningful to us when heavily deluged with Scripture and a sound Gospel message (noting that worship is for God in the first place, not man).
Keep it up brother! 🙂
– Trevor, a fellow worship leader