The Changing Nature of Worship Songs

In a recent article for Christian Today, worship leader Noel Richards passed commented on the style of worship songs written in the 1990s and those written now[1]. His central thesis is that there were songs sung then, especially during the events like March for Jesus, that are not appropriate now. His article was a response to a previous one by Martin Saunders, who called for ten 90s worship anthems to be revived, songs such as Called to a Battle and Champion, both Richards’ songs[2].

My intention in this blog is to examine Richards’ claims as evidence for a tentative thesis of mine: that the revival, known as charismatic renewal, which started around 1960, is now over[3]. The thesis is only tentative, as it will take more evidence than presented here to prove it. Up to now, it has been a thesis I have alluded to in articles and talks just based on my personal observations.

So to Noel Richards’ article.

Evidence 1

The focus of the movement has shifted from spiritual internals to human externals.

Richards sets his article’s context with this sentence:  

The charismatic/evangelical churches were at the cutting edge of worship in those days.  

Now I know exactly what he means, I was there at the time, leading worship, sometimes with his songs (thank you, Noel!). But I think he has revised history a bit. The charismatic churches were at the cutting edge of a movement where the Holy Spirit transformed people. Worship was part of that movement, but only part. The changes in worship style were an external and human-centred expression of the God-centred and internal work in people’s hearts.

Once people look back and focus on the externals, such as worship, rather than heart changes, such as baptism with the Spirit, then it is a sign that the movement or revival is over. Think how people still praise the wonderful hymns of Wesley from the 18th century. But the Methodist revival was about conversion and being saved, not about the hymns[4]! Only once the conversions ended, and the evangelistic and evangelical fire went out did people start lauding the hymnology.

Likewise, the elevation of worship songs and styles now is a sign that the charismatic revival that spawned them is over. The external has taken over from the internal, the work of man rather than the work of God. Richards says:

We believed that worship and prayer events would help pierce the darkness over our towns and cities.

Not really! We believed that people filled with God’s Holy Spirit would be used by him to pierce the darkness. The events were merely the means to receive from God.

Evidence 2

The movement ceases to be lay and voluntary but has become the domain of the professional and specialist.

Richards states:  

The 1990s saw a generation of pioneering hymn-writers such as Chris Bowater, Graham Kendrick, Dave Fellingham, Dave Bilbrough, Martin Smith.  

In reality, the true pioneers of worship in charismatic renewal were in the 1960s and 1970s. People like the Fisher Folk from the Church of the Redeemer Houston[5], or Keith Green. They were a small part of the “worship in the Spirit” pioneers, two of the few who became known as they managed to produce albums and song books. The bulk of the pioneers were not professionals, produced no media, and only achieved local prominence, but they were used by God to transform thousands of lives. History does not record who most of these pioneers were, but they wrote songs that ordinary church people could play, the key dynamic that took worship leading out of the hands of the musical expert and placed it in the hands of the Spirit-filled believer.

What the people mentioned by Richards actually pioneered was the rise of the worship music industry, along with many Vineyard and Calvary Chapel musicians in the USA. Undoubtedly their songs were better written, the musical standards higher, and they have been a huge inspiration to many, but from a Holy Spirit point of view, they were building on the work of others now forgotten. Their songs were undoubtedly used by God to pursue the revival, but their legacy now is a worship music genre that is so professional in its standards that it is beyond the reach of all but the best musicians. A complete reversal of the charismatic revival’s origins! [6]

 That the worship of charismatic renewal is now firmly in the hands of professionals and focuses on the production of media, such as albums, rather than producing Spirit-filled people is a sign the revival is over. In sociological terms, the “worship song” has been “routinized”, set into a fixed form. What was spontaneous has been codified and almost developed its own liturgy. Worship songs really do sound like “worship songs”, slightly dated versions of modern pop music [7] whose formula can’t be challenged. Revival challenges such things. Thus, I conclude the revival is over.

Evidence 2

The movement has become timid and unable to proclaim its message boldly

A feature of any revival is its willingness to engage with the world, proclaim its message publicly and face the consequences. Think of the origins of Christianity or the Methodist revival in the 1700s. The Holy Spirit drives believers into the open.

Richards says:  

The church and the world of 2014 is very different to that of the 90s.  

That statement is certainly true with regard to the world. There is now far more vocal and organised opposition to Christianity in the West than back in the 1980s. Dare I suggest that some of that opposition is a fruit of the boldness of Christians back in the height of the revival? Rather than seeing the current onslaught on the church by the Western political establishment and non-faith groups as a negative thing, it is actually positive because, at some point, the boldness of a Spirit-led movement rattled some cages.

Richards goes on:  

Whereas in the 90s, 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?  

Another change in the western world has been the demise of widespread protest movements. Gone are the days of the 1960s with student and political demonstrations and the strikes of the 1970s and early 80s. Such mass challenges to the nation no longer happen as few of the causes have enough enthusiastic supporters to carry them out. By the time Christians took to the streets in March for Jesus, we were about the last ones left!   

Have we forgotten that it is healthy in a free country for ideological groups to publicly challenge a system? That it is actually good for all of us that groups take to the streets saying they want to change the nation? Even groups we do not agree with? Why should Christians be uncomfortable with people singing they want to take the nation for Allah just because they disagree with it? Could it be that Christians have become uncomfortable with boldness and the certainty of their beliefs and thus fear such qualities in others? If so, that is a sure sign the revival has ended. The change in the content of worship songs away from definitive belief statements that Richards describes also suggests the church has lost confidence in its fundamental message.

It is ironic that as Christians are no longer comfortable with taking the nation for Jesus, humanists are quite comfortable with taking the nation for secular humanism and are very vocal about it. They, and similar “rights” groups, are quite willing to engage in the public arena and influence policymakers and the media to change society into their version of it. They set the agenda for what is politically correct and lobby to get laws changed, even “laws” that pre-date human history! There is a boldness and revival in humanism and lifestyle ideologies, but it seems there is no longer one in the Christian church.

So I agree with Richards that the church of now is not the same as in the 1990s, the peak of the charismatic revival. In short, it has lost boldness, lost its fighting spirit, and lost the heart for what that revival was about, being saved and filled with the Spirit. Hence I conclude the charismatic revival is over.

Richards asks:  

How do people of other faiths and no faith feel, when they hear our militant declarations of Christian dominion?  

My guess is they feel the same way I felt in the late 70s when Christians kept telling me about Jesus; offended, irritated and angry. But I am glad they did, I found Jesus! It is never acceptable to society to proclaim Jesus. So when revivals come and society is disturbed by noisy, blunt, uncompromising Christians, rather than apologise for it, accept that this has always been God’s way. Every revival in history has had this effect and always will. It makes revived Christians unpopular with society and often with the church, but it is God’s way. Jesus needs enthusiasts!

Don’t Lament the End of Revival

If the charismatic revival has ended, don’t lament it. Revivals do end. Most end very quickly as they bring rapid changes in individuals, thus spreading rapidly and ending rapidly. The Welsh revival of 1904 is one such example. A revival that seeks to change churches, as well as individuals, needs time to enact those changes, thus taking longer to spread, so lasting longer.  But they still end.  

The good news is they start again. History, the Bible, and my church’s growth models show that it only takes a small number of people to receive a fresh move of the Spirit and it will spread and lead to widespread conversions. I can understand why the church is embracing new ways of engaging with society and trying to make itself relevant. But it is a new work of the Holy Spirit and revival that will save the church from its current decline and save the world, not new methods. In 1960 that revival was only a prayer away, it still is [8].


[1] Noel Richards: The 90s worship songs I don’t think we should bring back. Christian Today, 30/10/14

[2] Power in the Name. 10 great 90s worship songs we must bring back, Christian Today, 27/10/14

[3] I know not everyone sees the late 20th-century charismatic renewal as a revival, but consider the evidence:

  • It was about the Holy Spirit changing people; it spread and transformed mainstream denominations with Holy Spirit ministries;
  • It was behind the Jesus people revival;
  • It spawned many new church movements, notably the UK restoration churches, some of which are still growing;
  • It changed the nature of Pentecostalism;
  • Many of the largest congregations today originate in this movement;
  • It is behind the Alpha Course, probably the most successful evangelistic course ever;
  • It has transformed the way churches across the world worship;
  • A high proportion of ordinands for ministry have come from this background.

Charismatic renewal as revival needs an article in its own right!  

[4] The “Wesley” in “Wesley’s hymns” refers to Charles Wesley. Of course, the movement was led by his brother, John, the more famous of the two and the one whose surname gives name to “Wesleyan” as a theology. Charles was also a fine preacher, but his fame is due to his songwriting, an important part of the movement, but only a part.  

[5] The Keyhole/The Way In (Church of the Redeemer)

[6] Don’t get me wrong. I really appreciate contemporary worship music. All the songwriters that Noel Richards mentioned, and many others, had a huge impact on the charismatic renewal and on many people, myself included. But there is always a danger of the means becoming more important than the end. It happened to hymns, choirs, and even preaching. The same could now be happening with worship music.  

[7] Pop music, rock music etc., has also had their movements. They had periods pioneered by the rank and file, exploding nationally and internationally, only to end in professional routineness. Mass media played a large role in propagating such movements as Rock n Roll, Mersey Beat, Punk and Britpop. But the rise of the Internet, and the vast number of TV and radio channels, have changed the way music is heard and distributed. Together with an extensive back catalogue of songs and styles to access, it is now much harder for new distinctive musical movements to form. As such, modern pop music has become quite a mish-mash of styles that is hard for modern worship songs to emulate and stay “modern”. Nevertheless, even 2014 worship songs still sound like a “best-of” compilation from an Indie band of 10 years ago!  

[8] To understand the beginnings of charismatic renewal as far as mainstream Christianity is concerned, read Dennis Bennett, Nine O Clock in the Morning.  Still available new and secondhand.



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