Graham Kendrick on lyrics, the impact of the pop song in worship and choosing songs by theme
Here is another podcast from our interview series with Graham Kendrick. As before I’ve written up the interview in some depth but you’ll find more on the audio recording if you have time to listen.
Do you choose songs based on a theme?
With Baptist roots and a strong history there of themed services, Graham finds that following a theme is rather engrained in his practise. The first question he will ask is to find out what the scripture passage is “That’s my starting point. I want to support the teaching. It is a good thing when a pastor and worship leader can work together”. Like this songs can be chosen that prepare the congregation to hear the word of God.
He sees enormous power in songs that can reinforce the content of a sermon but of course, the service’s content or theme is not always available and in these cases Graham will pray and prepare trusting that God will give him something appropriate. He sees the power of songs to teach – the sermon can be ephemeral – you perhaps remember 5% of the sermon but if the teaching is backed up (such as by note taking) and the percentage recall shoots up. Similarly if there is a song that supports the teaching and you make that connection then people remember the song and the sermon – it is a powerful, yet oft forgotten tool.
“You sing me your songs and I’ll tell you your theology”
What we sing is closer to what we actually believe. Bishop Graham Cray said “What we never sing we probably don’t know”. Graham doesn’t feel that many of our songs are inaccurate, it’s simply that there is an imbalance “We sing a lot of songs about how we are loved or forgiven, about revival, about having more of God but there is this narrow band of subject that somehow other subjects don’t seem to fit. There are many subjects we don’t sing about. Where are the songs on the sacraments, on baptism? Songs that unpack what is going on.”
Graham feels that a lot of our culture is a reaching out and a yearning – this yearning can be for more of the spirit, more experience of God and a desire for revival. The music is often a yearning sort of music. But he asks “Where are the songs that celebrate what we already have – that the Holy Spirit HAS come, that celebrate who we are in Christ because of his finished work? The weakness is that we push everything into the future – one day there will be this great move of God – but we neglect what is here now. What can we do today? What can we do tomorrow? Can we not sing something that projects us into the more immediate rather than the distant future?”
He feels that the church needs more songs about daily work. But when we sing songs with subject matter outside of the norm people ask “when are we going to worship”. It’s as if we have come to church to escape from the demanding pressured world out there. We need to be equipping the saints for works of service. Where are the songs that equip us for Monday?
The Psalms include a much broader pallet of topics – thanksgiving, sadness, lament as well as praise – they are packed full of authentic human experience and in the midst of those experiences ask how do you find God? Graham says “If you look at the Psalms and relate that to what we sing in church we find the positive praise songs but very little of the personal lament. We have become very selective about what we sing about.” There are times in a church community (where there has perhaps been a tragedy) where it is right for us to use a psalm to take us to that place.
Graham then reflects on the themes in the songs of the 90s and the expectation of revival that didn’t really come to fruition. Click through to listen to the podcast for more on that.
The pop song in worship
Because we have so comprehensively embraced the genre of the pop song in worship (and Graham feels that we’ve done it well), though we benefit from its strengths, the immediacy, the emotion, the ease of learning and remembering, we’ve also embraced the weaknesses. Pop songs were never designed to include a great deal of content. Graham says that when he has tried to take a pop melody and load it with content he then feels that it sinks – like over loading a rowing boat with boxes.
Certain types of language fit well in the pop genre and feel natural. So as a writer you are unconsciously editing out lyrical content in order to fit well with the genre. There’s nothing wrong with using that genre but we need to explore and use other genres – the obvious being hymns. The Celtic style is more narrative and enables you to tell stories over a longer time. As writers, however, we tend to edit out those styles that perhaps our voices are less suitable for. We need to work with a wider palette and perhaps bring in co writers.
Graham believes there is a shift underway – a hunger for content and a breadth of subject matter. This will inevitably bring in a wider style of worship music. This should enable more musicians – those with expertise in a different genre such as strings players or traditional piano players – to be drawn out.