So we’re here in Adelaide for our three week tour, sharing the new album, ‘Into the Deep’ and promoting ‘Songs that Unite.’ STU is a website run by the Uniting Church of Australia, publishing and promoting songs by local composers, making them available to the wider church. They’re doing a great job at it too. They have a committee that assesses each song before its included on the site, so they’re taking things seriously.
Why am I involved? For me, its a dimension of the Incarnation. God is not a one-size-fits-all God. He doesn’t go the biggest city, or the highest hill and broadcast his message from there. He comes close, ‘moving into our neighbourhood’ (John 1:14 MSG). God takes hold of our language and speaks himself into being through it.
Recently, the landscape of worship music has been increasingly dominated by celebrities. We now have worship superstars. These people are no doubt gifted songwriters, worship leaders and musicians, but we have allowed a machine to develop inside the church, that turns these talented servants into idols. Rather than the church being ‘in the world but not of the world’ we have ended up with a parallel world of successful, pretty people at the top, and the rest lauding and applauding them. This looks more like ‘of the world but not in the world.’
Because of this celebrity-mindset, local songwriters have almost faded from the church altogether. Music leaders in the church see their role of sourcing new music as keeping up with the latest albums from United/Bethel/Redman/Tomlin, rather than discovering and encouraging the writers in their own midst. Because we’re having the best in the world beamed into our neighbourhood from afar, we feel our songs, our offerings don’t measure up, So we hide them, and then we forget how to make them in the first place. We compare ourselves to some of the most talented musicians in the Church, and when we’re found wanting, we disqualify ourselves.
Yet what we forget is that no one else knows the way God is in our neighbourhood the way we do. Brilliant as they may be, these songs that come to us from afar always have to be generic and universal in order to make any sense, and even then they often struggle. Yet, it is only the poet who is living amongst a particular community of people who can powerfully and precisely articulate their prayers and praises. It is the songwriter who knows that Mrs Brown is heading downhill fast that can help a community express its grief and faith when it needs too most. in language and images that come from their own heart, even if they couldn’t articulate it by themselves.
Perhaps this seems unrealistic, this notion that there could be songwriters in each local church who could serve their community with songs written for the seasons they find themselves in. Or perhaps we have been so conditioned to believe that this kind of talent is the domain of the successful and the pretty, the people whose albums are shipped around the world in response to popular demand and acclaim. Have we forgotten that God was born in the back shed, welcomed by rough outcasts, and strange foreigners? Have we forgotten that God delights to hide himself in the unlikely and even the unlovely?
To close, let me tell you a little story. Earlier this year, I led a songwriting workshop at a ministry conference. Except I didn’t tell anyone it was a songwriting workshop, because I knew most of them wouldn’t come if I did. So I slipped it in as part of a wider workshop on worship. I gave them the task of writing 4 lines to fit with the tune to Amazing Grace. We read a passage of scripture together, and I asked them to think about where this passage crossed paths with their home church family. At that intersection point is where I asked them to write. 4 lines. 8 syllables, then 6 syllables, then 8, then 6. Finished. It went well. People seemed to realise that songwriting wasn’t this impenetrable art, but something fun and soul-satisfying.
Months later I had an email from a woman who’d been part of that group. She was in a tiny rural church, often serving as the only musician. She had shared her 4 lines with the church, and they had started to sing them. I imagine there was no small amount of pride that these words had grown from among them, in such a small, embattled community. Then this woman wrote some more, and she started writing tunes to go with them. Some were shared as reflective pieces, others became congregational songs.
It can happen anywhere. It is happening. God can happen anywhere. God is happening.
So this is why I love the work of Songs that unite, because they’re allowing ordinary people to share their gifts with God’s church, without asking them to become celebrities first.
Of course, we need anthems that span the church, so I’m not advocating a diet of only local songs in a church. That would disrupt the sense of unity in God’s family. But at the moment, its our sense of the particularity of God in our midst that is at stake. Maybe a little balance would help.
If you’re a writer, get in touch with Annette at Songs that Unite about sharing your music. If you’re a worship leader or song selector for your church, check the site out. We need your help to make this work.