Keswick 2010; the dumbing down of Christian music

Last year, I wrote an entry expressing my concern at the dumbing down of music at the Keswick Convention (Cumbria, UK) and in the Christian Church generally. This year, I again attended Keswick, but chose the first, rather than second or third week, as this has the reputation of being a little more ‘traditional’ on the worship side of services (1).

Once again, I’m afraid my review is critical. The music has, if anything, moved further down the route of the outdated, middle of the road sounding pop song. There are hardly any traditional hymns left. It saddens me so much to see our great hymnody discarded in this way and strikes me as irresponsible and almost criminal. I felt so miserable and angry about this, that one night I couldn’t sleep and lay awake for hours, my mind running across the words of so many wonderful hymns; Love Divine, all Loves Excelling; O Love That Will Not Let Me Go; Tell Out My Soul, the Greatness of the Lord! And so on. What will happen to these and thousands more? Well, if we leave it to people who organise large Christian events, they’ll be forgotten, that’s what.

During the first week of the Keswick Convention, most people are grey haired. Whenever I got chatting to one of these saints, they’d often say that, like me, they didn’t know many of the songs being sung, and bewail the passing of traditional hymns. This naturally leads many to feel excluded as they stand staring at screens, mouths moving like goldfish as they try to sing the new songs. Unfortunately, the effort is often in vain as the words don’t always fit the music too well. But there are other problems, and these apply across the board I’m afraid, not just at Keswick.

Some of the words, for example, are trite and twee; some of the music can only be described as atrocious. Many of the modern worship songs are pitched so low as to be almost impossible for an average male voice to sing. I’m only too well aware that the reason for this lies in a politically correct notion of redressing the balance after many years of traditional hymns being in keys which were high for some women to sing. But this perceived ‘counterbalance’ has gone way too far.

There’s also an element of performance in this kind of worship, giving it the feeling of being part ‘concert’. At the front is a ‘stage’ with all the theatrical accoutrements. The congregation are the ‘audience’. And part of the performance includes the current fashion for the band occasionally to take off between verses and play a solo without warning, leaving some of the congregation (audience) looking rather red-faced as they realise they’ve set off singing the next verse when they shouldn’t; (maybe just as they’re getting the hang of it?) This happened a few times during my trip to Keswick. I know it can’t really be so, but it did seem at this event as if those leading the worship were deliberately trying to confuse the congregation. And (to be even more pedantic) hearing ‘worship leaders’ taking breaths in the middle of such words as ‘up-on’ and even ‘Je-sus’ as I did last week, is absolutely cringe-inducing to anyone who knows the first thing about singing.

And why, at this and similar events, do we need to keep repeating choruses or last lines of verses etc., almost mantra like – even at random in the middle of songs, again in a seeming attempt to stymie the hapless congregation? ‘Let’s just sing that line again’ shouts the ‘worship leader’ over the noise of the band… and so we sing the line again… several times. This seems really odd. After all, most evangelicals would be quick to criticise what they see as ‘vain repetition’ in such things as Roman Catholic rosary prayers and many parts of the liturgy in the larger denominations. And even without this repeating of sections, some of the words of the songs are already painfully repetitious in themselves.

When I was eventually present at a service last week where a ‘proper’ hymn was sung (How Great Thou Art) we were treated to a doubled up ‘disco’ version which resulted in the melody being sung in half time, making it painfully slow. Conversely, on another day, Alleluia, Sing to Jesus was played so fast that it was almost impossible to fit the words in. Why can we not just sing the hymns as they were intended, and make the whole thing straightforward for the congregation? I guess the answer is that the organisers or those in charge of the music are under the misguided impression that if they make a hymn sound like a tacky ’80s dance record, then it will appeal to young people.

I really must stop this rant here. But before I do, just in case you’re thinking I’m some dinosaur who doesn’t understand, let me (without any intention of boasting) say that I spent most of my life as a professional musician, working mainly in pop music and for many years in the recording studio. I’m certainly not against modern music (well, not most of it!) What I’m really concerned about is giving God the best we can and glorifying his name (2).

Of course there are some good modern songs and hymns, and we should use them. But their use should be carefully balanced with the great treasury of hymnody we already have. At present, much of the latter is being dumped, despite (in most cases) being far superior, both musically and lyrically.

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Footnotes
1) I should add that I don’t like ‘worship’ to be seen as a separate part of a service (especially when it consists of dodgy music!).

2) Incidentally, it would also seem more honouring to God (in my humble opinion) to be presentably dressed. Are the scruffy clothes, ‘holy’ jeans, caps etc., really suitable? If we were visiting the Queen’s Garden Party would we dress this way?

  1. Once again Chris, I have to agree that this is all desperately sad (see my comments from last year which I stand by every word of – http://blog.kingsdivinity.org2009/08/keswick-convention-sadness/). No doubt those who promote this “worship” will say “We have to move with the times” or “We have to attract young people”. So does the message of the Gospel change with the times? – or do we hook young people into a free pop concert – and then tell them they are sinners and need to repent? Doesn’t seem right to me. However, if you put these questions to the organisers, I’m pretty sure you’d just get blank looks and surprise that you should ask such things!
    For me the most important points you make are to do with being honouring and glorifying to God. I’ll be quite blunt; it seems that whether something is honouring to God, in organised evangelicalism today, plays a poor second to perceived “relevance” or whether it’s a “big draw”. Whether this is another product of evangelicalism in the west being run today by businessmen rather than those immersed in scripture, I’m not certain. Nevertheless in the past, its surely the case that when God has unquestionably moved (e.g. revival), it is because His people have humbled themselves and sought to please Him.
    I have to say I’m very concerned by all this. I fear for the Church in the west if increasingly it presents itself as one that God cannot use; am I too gloomy? I for one would welcome any lucid and thoughtful answer to these or Chris’s concerns.

  2. Chris, I have only just found your comments while engaging in some research on the internet. I can thoroughly endorse what you have written. Although I have never attended the Keswick Convention I am aware that it is not what it once was. There may still be some good preaching – but so many of the “extras” are unhelpful – especially the music.

    I am very concerned too by the ready acceptance of so much musical trash nowadays. Obviously many who write the modern worship songs (as well as those who sing them) inhabit the mists of doctrinal ambiguity. Many of our traditional hymns speak to the soul. They were born out of a deep (and sometimes painful)experience. Just think of the background to “What a Friend we have in Jesus” or “It is well with my soul”. There is a depth that today’s trite and often banal compositions totally lack. Today’s worship songs frequently have no melody and are a poetic disgrace. They are an affront to the God of glory and are often nothing more than a second-rate pop concert performance.

    We need to get back to the “old paths” and the “good way” of Jeremiah 6:16 in our worship. The Living God is being insulted by the celebratory pop-induced “worship” of today. Thank you for publicly sharing your concerns. You are not alone!

  3. Giraffe.40… thanks so much for your comments. It’s good to know that I’m not alone… though I’m sure that people with views like ours are in an (ever increasing) minority. I should say that I’m not against the very best of modern worship songs, where the music is well crafted, ‘marries’ well with the words, and is suitable for being sung by a congregation. But I must say, there don’t seem to be many of these about.

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