keswick convention sadness

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip up to Keswick for a few days during the final week of the Keswick Convention. I often try to get to the event and have spent many happy hours there. When I’d only been a Christian for a few years, I found it a great encouragement and help. I suppose my first visit would have been around 1993. At that time, the Keswick hymn books had just dropped out of use and the words to hymns were printed in the centre of the programme, with books being available on request. Around 1994 or 1995, TV screens were introduced around the main tent displaying hymn words (amidst much complaining) and paper texts were dropped.

On my earliest visit, I guess that a large proportion of the hymns sung were still of the traditional type. Gradually, this has changed, so that now, only maybe one in every ten songs sung is a traditional hymn. Until its demise a couple of years ago, the FIEC annual conference – originally held in Caister, Norfolk, but latterly in Pwhelli, North Wales – went the same way. Over the ten years I visited that event, we went from around 90% traditional to 90% contemporary worship songs. I must say that this state of affairs really saddens me. And especially at Keswick this year, there seemed to be a sad kind of irony going on too. Let me explain.

The worship was led by Stuart Townend and the band Phatfish. On just about every piece of literature… book, CD, poster etc., wherever Townend’s name was seen, it was followed by the words ‘writer of “In Christ Alone”’ You may think there’s nothing strange in this, but I found it odd that just about everyone I spoke to about the song came out with a comment such as; ‘isn’t it wonderful to get back to a song with some proper theological content?’ I kept thinking; ‘Yes, and a modern worship song which sounds like an old, traditional hymn!’

So here’s the irony: we already had thousands of hymns just like this one, and yet Keswick, along with churches everywhere, is throwing them out in bucket-loads. It’s been said that it only takes one generation of neglect for a traditional hymn to be forgotten. I would guess that we’re neglecting 99% of our wonderful heritage of hymnody, replacing it (with odd exceptions such as the song mentioned above) with inferior music and words. And I could weep.

  1. I agree that this is sad. Certainly so much of the new music in no way reflects the Gospel by which I was saved. It is often peppered with poor theology, which usually reflects the writers’ Church background, but it is part of a trend that even orthodox evangelicalism seems to be obsessed with. I do question the discernment of the leaders who insist we must have modern music as the contrast between the writers of the traditional hymns and the new worship music could hardly be starker. The lives of the first group were usually hammered out on the anvil of hard Christian experience, often with suffering. The second group are often would-be pop stars. Indeed there is a cynical view that today’s “Christian Music Scene” is merely a dumping ground for those who failed to make it in the secular pop world. I think there is circumstantial evidence for this. With Google etc., it’s not difficult to investigate where these people are coming from and if I am not happy with any writer, I don’t sing their music.

    The case of Stuart Townend is, in and of itself, interesting. Certainly of the new breed of “Worship Leaders”, he has been accepted into the evangelical mainstream more than most. This also goes for his Church leader, Terry Virgo, who has been remarkably successful of late in getting himself accepted in this way, now being a regular speaker at UCCF and I see is on at Keswick 2010. This is despite him being a major promoter of Toronto, which has been one of the most damaging things to British evangelicalism in the last 200 years, and has recently promoted Todd Bentley. Yet when brazen predictions of the outcome of such phenomena come to nothing, apparently it can be swept under the carpet! Surely there have to better standards amongst Bible believers? I don’t think such behaviour would be put up with in the secular business world but would rather be regarded as incompetence!

  2. David
    Thanks for your comment. Not only are the words to many of these songs ‘peppered with poor theology’, but the music is of a bad quality too. Unlike some commentators in this area, I’m one of the (seemingly) few who think this is an important point. I believe that we should be offering God the best in all things; I wrote a couple of entries on this some time ago.

    I think you have a point about ‘would be pop stars’ although I’m sure this is not always the case. Re your comment about ‘failed pop stars’, this can work in reverse too; I’ve heard ‘Christian pop stars’ (for want of better term) talking about trying for ‘A secular deal’ (i.e., trying to get chart success etc).

    Like you, I’m also bothered by the way in which the cult of ‘worship leader’ has made such inroads into evangelicalism.

    God bless


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