The World Methodist Council has finished its latest session in Seoul, Korea, and members like me have returned to our homes with many memories. One of the highlights for me was the worship at our host church, Kwanglim Methodist Church, one of the largest Methodist Churches in the world. It has dozens of church plants, five main worship services each Sunday, each one with upwards of a thousand worshippers of all ages. Yet, all of this is accomplished with a robed choir - and orchestra! - singing hymns that most British Methodists stopped singing fifty years ago.
All of this reminded me of a discussion I had recently with a colleague about modern worship songs. The two reasons given for having them were, basically, attractiveness and accessibility, and I sought to challenge both.
The myth of accessibility is a strong one in Methodism. Perhaps it goes back to John Wesley's 'plain simple Christianity', the idea that Christianity is easily understood and apprehended. I remember, as a young and enthusiastic evangelist handing out tracts with six little cartoons that claimed to offer the full 'salvation plan' that God has prepared in Jesus Christ. Still today, a good many Methodists believe that any unchurched person can step over our threshold on a Sunday morning and immediately understand what is going on.
We forget, at our peril, that the Church is a community into which we must be inducted, and not simply by opening the doors on Sunday morning, saying hello and handing a person a hymn book. The myth of accessibility has allowed Methodists to believe that they are absolved of any responsibility for faith-sharing, well, because it is all available on a Sunday. We have forgotten that the Christian faith isn't designed to be understood, but encountered as a gift, an embodied gift. Christianity is shared, not accessed.
Then there is the argument about attractiveness, that this music is culturally appropriate because it sounds like contemporary music. I have enormously varied cultural tastes, but most modern worship songs I hear are written by people my age or older and sound like the musical equivalent of the trendy vicar. My son is a music producer and creates fantastic stuff like traktrain samples . You won't hear this on a Sunday morning!
You also won't hear much communal singing, well, anywhere much these days. Contemporary music of the sort mimicked by worship songs is not designed for communal singing, but for performance by professional musicians. It requires real skill and talent to pull it off, but the audience are never intended to be a congregation.
Though trotted out a lot with reference to the missing generation, there is nothing to suggest a few modern worship songs are the answer to the reason they are missing in the first place. I had the real joy of conducting a baptism recently where the chapel was full of 20s and 30s with their children from a generation that was almost completely unchurched. It was pandemonium and, perhaps for the first time, I encountered a congregation that genuinely had never imbibed 'church rules'. There were no hushed tones or guilty looks as they crossed the threshold and they were dressed in what suited them and without a passing thought to what was appropriate. It was energising and exhausting in equal measure, trying to curate a space full of chatter and joy and distraction. When it came to the music, the parents had chosen music they vaguely remembered from childhood that they thought others might also remember. None of it could be classed 'modern'.
We have to be honest and say that modern worship songs mainly 'work' for those who are already churched. They provide an emotional experience in worship that is missing when the same people try to sing older hymns. For that reason alone, they are necessary. Emotion in worship, especially in Methodist worship, is an essential element that cannot and should not be dismissed. It is the heart connection that gives worship the power to change lives. What some modern worship song advocates fail to acknowledge is that some of us get that same emotional engagement from singing Wesley and Watts and the great ancient hymns of the Church. Part of that connection is with the deep wells of theology as well as with communities of faith who have sung these same words for hundreds and thousands of years.
The challenge, it seems to me, for those writing and advocating for modern worship songs is to do more than set passages of Scripture to music. The genius of someone like Charles Wesley was the ability to write poetry shaped by a deep personal connection to Christ, evoking Scripture, and grounded in the doctrines of the faith, yet set to popular music. I am convinced that there are many such people in our Church today. Our worship needs modern songs - songs of faith and emotion and theology and Scripture. For theology without passion is dead, but emotion not anchored in the truths of the faith is dangerous.