Fountains of blood!

(Review of ‘New Again’ – Word Alive 2016 album)

Since its inception in 1993, Word Alive as a conference has served the church in the UK through the faithful teaching of God’s Word. Amidst a wonderful all age teaching programme, singing God’s praises has been a highlight for many who attend.

Over the last few years Word Alive has released an album after each conference that captures the singing; which is no small feat given the fact the conference marquees are often battling to stay upright in the howling winds of North Wales!

So what do you get in a Word Alive album?

The most encouraging thing about every Word Alive album is the live sound of hundreds of people singing God’s praises. It is the USP of any conference album and this is no exception.

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What to expect in the 2016 album ‘New Again’… 

Firstly be prepared for some serious bass. I bought a car a few years ago and without knowing it, I managed to buy one with a rather nice music system – it came with a sub-woofer speaker (for lots of bass)! My boys rather enjoy this superfluous feature of our car, but I hadn’t fully appreciated it until I decided to listen to this album. One Saturday morning when driving to a football match, my youngest and I were listening to ‘New Again’ and I think everyone around us must have thought we were listening to some hardcore drum & bass. I say that to warn anyone with substandard headphones or speakers! But positively, it a really lovely rich mix.

Secondly be prepared for quite a bit of speaking/shouting/encouragement from the music leaders. I don’t say this as a criticism; but it is noticeably on the rise in live recordings and it does expose that contemporary inability to allow the words that have been written (here in the songs) to stand alone, doubting that their quality will suffice without further comment.

Thirdly be prepared to be very encouraged indeed as you hear a large congregation sing God’s praises. This is clearest in the more hymnic tracks: ‘Crown Him with many crowns’, ‘Before the throne of God above’, ‘It is well with my soul’ – it is wonderful to hear such clear, passionate singing in these classics of English hymnody.

Fourthly note, during the array of ‘new songs’ that were taught at the conference, note how the congregation at times seem more muted with the exception of two songs; two lesser known ‘hymns’, ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’ and the new hymn ‘He will hold me fast’ are incredibly well sung. (I know that for some ‘There is a fountain’ is a classic of evangelicalism, but it is not often sung these days in most churches – therefore it is ‘new’). My point is this; these two new hymns are very easy to pick up and therefore are sung very well, encouraging those present. Even the most tone deaf and musically inept, will find the predicable eight line hymn structure and melody form, etched in their brains by verse 2 – but there lies the challenge for the modern song writer. The strength of hymnic simplicity will hardly be a platform to show your musical wares – simple melodies don’t gain followers on social media! But we need more self-deprecating musical simplicity, so thank you to Matt Merker for his new arrangement of ‘He will hold me fast’, a true highlight on this album.

Fifthly note the inclusion of the William Cowper classic ‘There is a fountain filled with blood’.

‘There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;

And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains…

I was pleased to see its inclusion on the album, as it is a personal favourite. The imagery is stark, yet so beautiful; because it drives the beautiful doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement deep into our hearts.

But why have so many churches dropped this? Why are not more churches singing it again? I know a few churches have considered rekindling this ‘Olney Hymnal’ beauty, but often it doesn’t make it to the final playlist on a Sunday morning because the language is deemed too graphic for the contemporary ear. Why is that?

I wonder if our ecclesiology is so skewed to welcoming the outsider or unbeliever that we feel that we need to dilute the graphic nature of the gospel; poetically and beautifully depicted in hymns such as this, that so helpfully remind the believer that they are saved by the grace of God alone, through the sacrifice of Christ. After all, don’t we need a blood sacrifice to cleanse us?

Now you may just not like ‘There is a fountain’ – that is ok! But we must be careful not to avoid such wonderful reminders of the stark realities of our own sin and the necessary sacrifice that was necessary to prepare us for an eternity in God’s love. We have enough songs in circulation that use less graphic imagery, there is a place for them. But please, let’s not lose songs like ‘There is a fountain’ because it is becoming a rather rare commodity in British hymnody.

So ‘thank you’ to Word Alive for including this ‘great’ on this album. Personally I’m not a fan of the hillbilly arrangement, but that is so secondary, because I get to sing in my car with its awesome sub-woofer speaker…

When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save…

Word Alive is happening this year 8-13th April, Lou Fellingham will be leading the music, more details can be found here.

The album can be purchased here. Or listened to on Spotify here.

Review by Andy Fenton (Team Leader of Music Ministry) also found on www.music-ministry.org

‘Tumbling Sky’ by Matt Searles

a3712410159_16Before I get to Matt’s new album, its good to be able to say that this won’t be the only only album reviewed over the next few weeks and months from UK groups and individuals. That in itself is extraordinary; a great blessing and encouragement from God.

However, into this exciting melee of music production, ‘Tumbling Sky’ stands distinct. It is ‘something different’ and I don’t mean that pejoratively. What Matt has done is unique, is much needed and is long overdue in the current ‘worship music’ scene. Matt has written an album of laments…yes laments! (A lament is simply ‘a passionate expression of grief or sorrow’).

You can imagine in Christian music label HQ’s around the world, a conversation has occurred periodically around the subject. Many people will acknowledge the existence of laments and the importance of laments in the biblical playlist, but in a world of smiley veneers, of financial and commercial viability. that laments are probably the first genre of song that has been dropped off pre-production song lists.

But why is an album of laments so important? Over recent months I have become acutely aware in those around me and personally that life now, though full of many blessings in Christ, can at times really really hurt. The problem I see in too many is that they feel they have to put on a show, and what results is a thin veneer of stiff-upper lip, proud self-reliance. But the outward show over time moulds the heart and people become cold and distant from God and those around them.

When David felt in such despair he cried out to God, when it seemed that all was lost, that he was beyond the mercy of God, he didn’t curl up in the fetal position and mope. He (in the end) turned to God, he didn’t hold back his concern, his worry. His songs are not sanitised by any cultural norms, they are the raw authentic cry of a sinners heart before a merciful loving God.

Get real, because life is tough sometimes. But God in his kindness has provided biblical songs of lament to voice that hurt and pain that we all know, have felt, or will feel one day.

‘Tumbling Sky’ is a collection of those biblical laments from the Psalms. The musicianship and production is first rate and the album is very listenable to. But be warned, choose carefully where you listen to it. It came onto my iPod as I was at the gym running on the treadmill, enjoying a swift and sweaty 10k! Normally these are moments of endorphin fuelled glee, but I began to listen intently to the words and soon not only sweat was pouring down my face!

So who is this for? It should be for churches, but are we ready? Have you ever sung a lament in church? Should you sing a lament in the congregational gathering? The fear is that it would be off-putting for those investigating the Christian faith. But what are we saying? Are we suggesting to the watching world that life is a breeze, that being a Christian is easy, that the cross we take up is just a minor inconvenience?!

What we sing in church will speak loudly about what life is like in the Kingdom of God. Most of our songs ought to express our joy, declaring the victories of Christ and the hope of eternity. But what about corporate lament? What about singing as a church that life is tough, but that Christ is tougher and will safely bring us home.

Matt Searles, in ‘Tumbling Sky’, helps us take our pain and sorrow to God in song, but faithfully does what the biblical laments do; he reminds us of the covenant promises of God that we know in Christ.

This album is so helpful and I pray it is not the last of its kind. We need this.

Available here…Bandcamp iTunes

Also posted on www.music-ministry.org

Tone Deaf Worshippers…

truewor_medium.imyyaqlbeclq6viwrzroyknj6boguituIt’s taken a while, but I finally got around to reading Bob Kauflin’s latest book ‘True Worshippers’. I’m slightly regretting that fact now, because personally and also for my own ministry (and I’m sure for that of many others) I found it such a helpful and encouraging tome to read. But it isn’t weighty to the point of impenetrability, but like Bob himself, it exudes warmth and delight in the Lord Jesus with a passion to keep God’s Word central in every chapter.

So whether you are involved in leading music at your local church, or you just have a keen interest in music, this book is certainly for you. Buy a few copies; get your music team together over a coffee, a gin and tonic or whatever is your tipple and chapter by chapter read through and discuss both the doctrine and practical wisdom which is littered throughout specifically for you.

But even if you aren’t involved in leading music, don’t ignore this treasure! This is an easy book to read and it teaches exactly as it proposes in the sub-title, ‘Seeking what matters to God’. However, be prepared! This book will humble you as you see your need for God and it will delight you as you grasp more deeply the blessings of Christ and His church. It will encourage you as you seek to serve Him and to make him known.

To close, a few tips for when reading this book…

  • Be prepared to wrap the cover in some more subtle / tasteful covering. I’m not sure what IVP were thinking when they decided the vomituous colour palette for the front cover, but please be warned!
  • Read this book with your bible open alongside. Kauflin cross-references a great deal. This is not a criticism, but you will gain so much more if you read the book chapter by chapter, slowly and deliberately reading every passage referenced.
  • Lastly please warn, pre-emptively hug and pray for any friends who are tone deaf that may read this. Kauflin says ‘If you’re tone deaf, it might be good to restrain yourself just a little. But not completely’. Of course Kauflin is right, none of us want to be a distraction in the gathering, true worshippers will want to build up their brothers and sisters in Christ. But to my tone deaf friends I simply say, “sing loud”, because your dulcet tuneless melodies are a joy to my heart and to God!

(Also published on www.music-ministry.org)

Book available to order here…

https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/true-worshippers

https://www.10ofthose.com/products/17986/true-worshippers/

I stopped running…

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On a rare but enjoyable morning run listening to some of my favourite old hymns in the sunshine, I stopped mid-run and chuckled to myself. Many who know me will know, that isn’t very me – ‘apparently my joy is deep’.  It was a momentary relief for my lungs, as they wanted to leap out of my torso and flee the home they have endured for so long. But why stop – I never stop!

I was listening to a great old hymn, the tune is very familiar ‘O Waly, Waly’ (often used to accompany ‘When I survey’); the words, certainly this side of the Atlantic less familiar. The hymn was ‘I asked the Lord’, written by the British gem of hymnody John Newton. In the words of Kevin De Young on his blog highlighting this hymn, he summarised it like this…

‘It’s a beautiful poem about how the Lord afflicts us that he might comfort us’. (See the blog and the hymn words here)

The words are personally poignant; but for brothers and sisters that I know and pray for, this, along with just a handful of other songs, ought to both teach and comfort us in our ‘trials of many kinds’. Interestingly Newton wrote this just one year before leaving his parish in Olney, leaving his friend and co-hymnwriter William Cowper. Newton had loved and pastored Cowper through paralysing depression over many years – but what a song to leave him with, what a gift for the darkest hours to come.

But it wasn’t the words that stopped me in my tracks this morning.

I was listening to a recording of this song from the brilliant ‘Together for the Gospel Live II’ album (click here for the recording and sheet music). Listen to the whole song if you can: I stopped running and chuckled in verse 6 at 3:30 on the recording, after the phrase ‘wilt thou pursue’.

“Lord, why is this,” I trembling cried; 
“Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?” 
“’Tis in this way,” the Lord replied, 
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

You will notice I stopped when Bob Kauflin played a truly sublime fill on the piano, I don’t know what it would be called technically, or even how to begin to describe it – but it made me chuckle. Why?!

Well you will know that sometimes when you look upon God’s creation; whether that a magnificent mountain vista, or a sea rolling with crashing waves – God speaks subjectively and it enlivens our hearts in that Psalm 19 way. For me, it often just makes me chuckle. Perhaps it’s just my instinctive reaction to something so beautiful and awesome.

Now you may be thinking ‘this is such subjective drivel’ – you may be right. Having listened to the words of this great old hymn, having heard that Kauflinesque piano moment of genius…it may have just completely passed you by. That is ok.

But personally at that moment, whilst running in the park, whilst praying about stuff and listening to such words. I was moved and for that I am very thankful! I was moved to respond with a chuckle to something so subjective; but it righty prompted a continued response as I reminded myself of the objective truths that I know in the gospel Word that was being sung and that needed to dwell in me richly (Col 3).

Life would be so very dull if we were unable respond in such ways and what else should we expect of a creator God? Subjective drivel this maybe – but if it draws me to the objective realities of life in Christ…well that has to be a winner! Practically…

  • Does that mean that every time I hear that few seconds of piano in that hymn I should respond identically – NO.
  • Should I try and ape such piano licks on Sunday and be disappointed that the congregation don’t respond in the same way I did – NO.

The temptation to make subjective moments into objective tools for the gospel must be avoided (especially in music ministry). Recreation and dependancy on subjective moments has no place in the local church and they must never replace an authentic response to God’s Word as it is proclaimed and sung.

Yes I would love to play the piano in that way – I can’t, very few can. But the piano playing didn’t stop me running in the park to ponder the musicality; if it had then it would be more a distraction than an edification. I stopped because the subjective vehicle of music drew me to ponder the objective beauties of Christ and it made me chuckle with joy 🙂

Whether Kauflin practiced and prepared that wonderful lick, or spontaneously ripped it out of his repertoire of magical piano fills; it just doesn’t matter. God knew before the creation of the world that it would happen and whether prepared or spontaneous; both would be equally works of the Spirit to enliven the Word being sung through that wonderful hymn.

Equally under God’s sovereignty, He knew that early one sunny morning in south west London an unfit bloke would don his running shoes, put on his iPod a selection of old favourite hymns and stride out puffing his way round a park. The beautiful location and stirring music, yes they are wonderful were gifts from God, subjective moments of kindness.

But I stopped running…I audibly chuckled and what matters most is that I authentically responded to the Sovereign God as I heard his objective, truthful, lifesaving, joy-giving Word sung…and that I did.

SDG

Music Ministry

Music ministry is vital to our local churches – really?!

It can be a source of real blessing – after all, that’s how the Word of God dwells amongst us richly (Col 3:16). Yet it can also be a source of tension and division…

What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?
You can negotiate with a terrorist (an organist told me that joke!)

So often, when people join or leave a church it is over musical style, and not theological issues that really matter. Many of us can think of churches where significant theological changes have gone through without an eyebrow being raised, yet adding the drum kit or cancelling the band-led service sees people leaving. So we all need to help each other!

The Colossians verse mentioned above is very helpful:

“Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

It speaks to those of us who think that music is the most important thing, reminding us that singing in church is to reinforce the preaching and small-groups and other Bible teaching ministries. No band can be so good that they make up for a weak pulpit; no bass line or guitar riff can supply what’s missing from Bible-loving small groups. But it also speaks to those of us who think that Bible teaching and training is the only thing. It reminds us that music ministry is how the Bible dwells amongst us richly – singing Bible-saturated songs develops Bible-saturated people.

The fact that music should be a means of blessing and unity, and yet is sometimes (maybe often) a source of frustration and complaint lies behind the reason a number of us set up a network called Music Ministry a few years ago.

We have numerous resources online and you can also join us for one of our conferences coming up soon, particularly…

London – Saturday 15th November (Speaker: Jonathan Stephen)
Belfast & Dublin in Feb 2015
Nottingham in Sep 2015

For more information and to book click here

Our conferences are for all church musicians, sound technicians, music leaders and church leaders. We will have some great Bible teaching, we will teach new songs, there are band workshops and much more. We aim to help musicians work better together with the other members of their group – however large or small.

At the heart of our belief is that biblically driven worship and music will always seek to be culturally sensitive – whether caring for the ‘others’ in that particular gathering, or the ‘others’ not yet in our gathering but who we long to reach. We Christians are foot-washers, seeking to serve others just as Jesus served us (Jn 13: 13-17). The heart of our conference will be how we can play cracking Bible-faithful, cross-centred songs in a way that serves our congregations.

(Thanks to Andy Towner for letting me republish this from an article he wrote for a ‘North West Partnership’ publication).

Music Ministry

It has been a thrill to be serving alongside a team of folks training local church musicians over the last couple of years. We have run a number of conferences around the country and seen over 1000 people in the last year come along to be taught theologically and practically how to best serve Christ in the local church with the gifts God has given them. Last Saturday we were over at WEST theological college for the second South Wales conference and this Saturday we are at St Helen’s Bishopsgate for the London conference. Nigel Styles is speaking and there are seminars for musicians, PA teams, and a chance to learn new songs together. More info can be found here, lots of folks are coming already but feel free to come and pay on the door (we start at 10am).    

Music Ministry is developing all the time and we thank God for various partnerships that are growing around the country. In the next couple of years we are hoping to run conferences in Edinburgh, Belfast, Sheffield, Manchester, Oxford, Birmingham, London and South Wales.

We also have termly training sessions for people that lead church musicians (e.g. music directors), for more info click here. Our next teaching session is with Adrian Reynolds (Director of Proclamation Trust) who himself is a very able musician – 12th March 2014 at St Helen’s Bishopsgate, London.

We have numerous apprentices being trained, songs being written, great old hymns being revamped and a website full of free PDF downloads with video tutorials (coming soon). 

Emotions

Emotions Cover

Finally I have just finished a book I started 3 months ago, ‘Emotions – living life in colour’ by my friend Graham Beynon. Once again the publishers managed to clothe one of Graham’s books in the most effeminate outer garment but, despite the girliness of its cover, I once again enjoyed Graham’s relaxed writing style and helpful applications. This isn’t a book review as such, more an observation on one particular chapter that I think would be really useful for all local church musicians to read to help them in their ministry. Saying that, I found the whole book a huge encouragement and it certainly raised some issues that conservative evangelicals have been remiss about for too long.

Chapter 7 ‘Emotions and God’s praise’ was of particular interest. Much of the material I recognised from a talk Graham gave at the London Music Ministry conference last November (link). I was really grateful for the challenge to appreciate corporate sung praise/worship, recognising that there should never be ‘heat without light’ – emotional response without divine understanding. You will have to read the chapter to fully appreciate what that means!

Call this a pointer in the direction of a very helpful book for those of us engaged in music ministry. It helped me to be watchful over the power that music plays with our emotions, but it also challenged my inbred reluctance to allow my emotions to be directed as God’s Word allows, encourages and instructs. Often British ‘middle-classness’ is our emotional guide, but I think that means we live our lives in dull shades, rather than living life in colour moulded by the Word of God.

Music ministry within the local church is part of living that life in colour – we need to think rightly about this ministry and do it rightly – read this book, it will undoubtedly be helpful (Link to purchase via The Good Book Company).