Songs and hymns - the best are yet to come!

Worship leader and singer-songwriter Noel Richards reflects on how changes in church and in society impact on the songs that we sing.

Every fresh move of God is accompanied by the emergence of new movements, both from within and outside of the existing church structures. They give birth to new songs that become the musical soundtrack for a generation. Back in the early 1970s the 'charismatic renewal' marked the inception of modern worship within the UK.

It started small, within what became known as the 'house-church movement'. The songs expressed intimate worship and exuberant praise. They also reflected an emphasis at that time on unity – as in the song 'Bind us together' written by Bob Gilman from London, in 1977.

Then in the early 1980s, through mainstream events like Spring Harvest, this fledgling worship movement 'went viral', with an explosion of new songs from writers such as Chris Bowater, Graham Kendrick, Dave Fellingham, Dave Bilbrough, Dave Hadden and many others. Traditional churches began to look at ways in which they could become more informal in their sung expression of worship.

As we moved through the mid 1980s into the 90s, our songs and expression of worship reflected what God was doing within the charismatic/evangelical churches. We believed we 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.

Praise, prayer and worship had been taken to the streets with March for Jesus (MFJ). In 1988, 60,000 people gathered for the second MFJ event on the Thames Embankment 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 gathered in Hyde Park, London. I remember standing on the stage, alongside fellow worship leaders and thinking that we could perhaps 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 in that period, were anthemic declarations containing lyrics of glorious optimism. A quick glance at the content of the Make Way series of albums confirms this. We believed that worship and prayer events would help pierce the darkness over our towns and cities. Revival was, as always, 'just around the corner'! Spiritual warfare and victory was a recurring theme of our conferences and events.

When we organised the event at Wembley Stadium in 1997, with an attendance of almost 45,000 people, 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 second generation of modern hymn-writers begin to emerge, who had been influenced by the aforementioned. Among them was Martin Smith who wrote anthemic songs for stadium worship, such as 'History Maker' and 'Did you feel the mountains tremble?' A soundtrack for the youth and young at heart of that time.

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.

However, several years ago we songwriters realised that our modern hymnology was very monochrome – 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? Or songs that addressed suffering, unanswered prayers and finding God, amidst the pressure of living in today's world.

The great hymn-writer Charles Wesley wrote more than 6,000 songs with the purpose of explaining theology to a largely illiterate population. If one of the roles of hymns and songs is to teach the church – we are what we sing – we therefore need songs that address the real issues that our society and the church is facing now.

In every way, our world is unrecognisable from that of the late twentieth century.

There is an even greater need in these days for the church to find a place of engagement within our multi-cultural 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. Our thinking needs to change.

My own thinking has shifted over these years. Whereas in the past 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. An example - we no longer use the word 'crusade' for outreach events, for obvious reasons.

We also have to ensure that the language we use in our lyrics is inclusive not exclusive. When my wife and I wrote 'All Heaven Declares' in 1987, no-one challenged our use of the phrase 'to reconcile man to God'. In this gender inclusive era, lyrics like that need amending.

What was acceptable in previous generations will not serve us well today.

If the world of 2014 is very different to that of thirty years ago, then our hymns and songs must reflect that. Otherwise, we will be living in the time-warped cosiness of our Christian ghettos; standing still and not engaging with our communities. Our worship will be nostalgic rather than prophetic!

Singers, songwriters and worship facilitators are not intended to be purveyors of soft-rock platitudes to consumers of worship. Our ultimate purpose is not to fill our churches with new songs and have better, more attractive meetings.

Worship without mission is self-indulgent!

As we move further into the 21st Century, the purpose of our songs is twofold. To continually turn the hearts of Christians outwards as well as heavenwards.

A few weeks ago, I was out walking with my wife when I saw an old Triumph sportscar parked at the side of the road. It had been lovingly restored, to showroom condition. The window was open and the driver was nowhere to be seen, so I poked my head inside the car and breathed in the heady aroma of wood, leather and that distinct Triumph essence. I was momentarily transported back to 1975, the time when I owned a similar car. I remembered the good times and forgot all about the rust, leaking hood and dated technology. I love those old cars but would never want to own one again. No, I much prefer the 21st century cars; with air conditioning, rear parking cameras, bluetooth technology and the fact that they work so much better!

It is easy to become nostalgic, viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles; especially when it comes to music. Particularly if today's styles are not to one's personal taste.

We do have a rich heritage of music in our culture and there is something about the classic symphonies, hymns, pop songs et al, that is timeless. We never want to lose those. They are precious. At the top of the list for music to be played at my funeral will be Nimrod from the Enigma Variations by Elgar, but I will also want something fresh and new.

As a songwriter, I am grateful that people still sing my 'classic' songs from time to time. Maybe you are one of those people and as you sing those songs, hopefully they remind you of a special time in your life. But I am continually writing new material. Still striving to write the best songs of my career, that hopefully encourage this present generation.

When it comes to our worship songs and hymns, we should not discard the great songs from the past, because their message is still a vital part of our DNA. We will always need songs that build up the church and remind us of our glorious destiny in Christ. Perhaps 'Amazing Grace' is the ultimate hymn – suitable for so many occasions.

The new songs being written today, can be broad in content and hopefully reflect what we think God is emphasising in this generation. This current generation of songwriters have not lost the sense of victory. That is still present in the newer songs.

The modern worship movement of the late twentieth century, has 'grown-up' and come to maturity. Today, the church is well served with an abundance of hymn-writers/song-writers of outstanding calibre and high standards of theology.

Great songs have been written, better ones are being written now, but the best hymns and songs are yet to come!

So let's not settle for what we have today. Let's keep moving on.

Noel Richards was a keynote speaker at the Different Voices national music event in March 2013. A recording of his talk at this can be found below.

New music in a variety of styles can be found in our New Music pages.