Summer festival worship. Are we stuck in a rut?

Summer festival worship. Are we stuck in a rut?

For those of you not familiar with Somerset’s third biggest attraction after Glastonbury and cider: New Wine is the UK’s largest Christian festival and together with Soul Survivor are probably the best place to see the latest worship music offerings. In previous years I have worked in various roles at these summer festivals as well as going as a paying delegate but this year I would be running Musicademy’s stand in the marketplace, selling their fine products to the discerning punters.

And so it came pass that I found myself, along with my trusty sidekick Mark, on the A303 sitting in traffic in a dangerously overloaded car full of DVDs as countless vehicles slowed to a crawl to allow their occupants to gaze in awe at Stonehenge. In spite of this annual road rage inducing madness, we arrived in under three hours and once we had set up our deeply unnecessarily large tent we were ready to go.

This year we managed to go to one of the evening meetings every day: something of a novelty after three years of  doing the children’s work. As such I have tried to capture the spirit of these events here, and offer a few opinions of my own on what was good, what wasn’t so good, and the current state of worship music in the UK.

Venue 2 was our favourite for the first week, billing itself as an alternative to the rather more “middle-aged” vibe in Venue 1. I liked the worship in Venue 2 a lot. It was led by Brenton Brown and Nick Herbert, both of whom I have never seen live before and was pretty impressed, especially with Brenton’s new song “Our God is Mercy”. There was even room for a brief cameo from Martin Smith one night. All in all I went away feeling inspired and that I’d met with God. And that, after all, is really all there is to it. I definitely plan to take some of the new stuff I heard back to my church.

For the second week we frequented Thirst, the youth venue, to see our friends from St Andrews Chorleywood who were playing in the band there every other day, led by Matt Macaulay. I genuinely thought the worship in Thirst was the best I saw throughout the whole two weeks. His lyrics have both simplicity and depth and he manages to avoid the clichés that so many writers fall into. And actually, that brings me on neatly to a bit of constructive criticism.

As I mentioned there was a lot that I liked about the worship this year, but stood in Venue 1 one evening I couldn’t help wondering: where was the really groundbreaking music we’ve seen here in the past? After all this is where such innovative artists as Matt Redman and Delirious found recognition. Maybe it was the fact that it was played constantly in the marketplace but by the end I was growing a little tired of this year’s New Wine album. They have obviously found their niche and good luck to them, but I can’t help feeling that a lot of mainstream worship music has gone a bit “soft” in recent years.

I know it has been said before, but I get the feeling we have slipped into this comfortable rut, repeating the same tired old clichés over and over. We are essentially just where we were before the explosion of new worship music that shook up the whole scene in the early nineties. And frankly, someone needs to shake it up again.

I think what is missing is what I like to call “Edge”. Tim Hughes has it, Matt Redman has it, Delirious had it, Kevin Prosch had it, and in fact a lot of the old hymn writers had it. It is the unquantifiable x-factor of a song which makes you sit up and take notice. Incidentally I think a song with real edge has to have this in both the music and the lyrics. I am just as tired of oh-so-tastefully-smooth distortion as I am of singing “worthy is the lamb”.

Obviously all this is massively subjective. For example, one band I hadn’t come across before was Trent. They were leading the second week in Venue 2. I came away a little underwhelmed with some of their songs and was going to mention this to Mark, but before I could he commented on how good he thought they were. It just goes to show that my immediate reaction to a time of worship could have been less to do with the standard of the songs themselves and more to do with the mood I was in and perhaps what the combination of Red Bull and cheeseburgers I had been living on were doing to my stomach at that particular moment.

Saying that, I would like offer a few humble suggestions:

We need to be creative and think outside the box a bit more. We need to be writing songs that sound different and don’t just follow the worship song formula. Besides, it is easy to forget that the lyrics we sing now were once new and fresh. Sadly though, they have been so worn out that they have lost almost all of the power and meaning that they once had. We need songs that are in touch with people’s real lives and engage with real issues, songs that resonate with our deepest feelings in a new and challenging way.

And there is hope. My pick for the best new Christian artist in recent years has to be Phil Wickham and I think he fits all of the above and more. Here is the chorus from his song True Love:

When blood and water hit the ground
Walls we couldn’t move came crashing down
Tears were filling heaven’s eyes
The day that true love died
The day that true love died

Not bad huh?

Jamie-MaxwellWhen not camping in a rainy field, Jamie Maxwell heads up the worship at St Dionis church in London. You can hear his stuff at

Thanks to Jamie for this blog post. This was obviously very UK focussed – feel free to write up the highlights of any festivals you were at – lots of our readers are from elsewhere in the world. What were the highs and lows of the worship for you? Did you pick up on any new songs that we should all know about? Or perhaps you disagree with his assessment that the worship industry is in part stuck in a rut. We’d love to hear your views.