Music in Worship ‒ Bridge Builder or Barrier?

11th October 2018


Newbold's Beach Lectures began in 1997. Never has this annual event begun with music. Preacher, broadcaster and hymn writer, John Bell, began the 2018 Beach Lecture last Tuesday (9 October) with two songs ‒ led by him and sung in parts by the ninety people gathered in Newbold's Salisbury Hall who became a choir for the evening. With this choral introduction, he showed how music can unite. His lecture went on to show how it can also divide ‒ both inside and outside the Church. 

It was a narrative recognised by the churchgoers who had gathered from the Newbold 81739community and churches in Bracknell, Wokingham, Camberley and further afield. Some people think the organ is a 'God-ordained instrument', others that guitars are somehow spoken against in the Bible or that as the missionaries taught in Africa, drums are 'an instrument of the devil'. Bell argued that divisions over music have always existed. Post Reformation Protestants would sing nothing but the psalms which they believed had been endorsed by Jesus. Later congregations wanted to sing hymns by Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Moody and Sankey's use of a piano accordion in evangelism was controversial. In Bell's native Scotland people questioned the Presbyterians' use of folk tunes in worship.

These days, Bell suggested, church music has become 'more sectarian than ever before'. This has happened not only in terms of musical style but in the words. "I am amazed at how restricted the v81740ocabulary of songs has become", he said. The variety of biblical expression, as in the psalms, is forgotten. Not only praise but lament, intercession, repentance and fresh expressions of the variety of human experience, 'the singing of a new song', are all neglected. "God's command, 'sing me a new song' is not a command just for the choir or soloists", Bell said.

He encouraged worship leaders to recognise the diversity of music available for worship. No single hymn book is sufficient on its own for people who come from different backgrounds. Various kinds of music should be employed in worship from Lutheran chorales to Victorian hymns, from Taizé to Bach. They are all different and they should sound different. Context is crucial. Our context should enable us to determine what is appropriate and what is not!

At this point in the lecture, John Bell sat at the piano and demonstrated what he was talking about by leading81741 the audience in singing from the handout he had prepared for them entitled, Deep Praise with Diversity. They sang songs to honour the variety of experiences familiar to people in any worshipping community: songs of praise and songs of lament, songs for those who are sick, prophetic songs reminding us of the injustice in the world and songs for Pentecost about the gift of the Spirit.

Finally, Bell moved to remind British Christians about a vital use of music to create bridge-building worship. He demonstrated the use of hymns and songs from Christian worship in Christian groups where English is not the mother-tongue of the worshippers. "If in Britain we do not sing songs from other parts of the world our children and grandchildren will ask us why we practised musical apartheid", he said. 'Mungu Ni Mwema' is a song based on Psalm 103 about the goodness of God from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Singing that together (with translation provided) was the last song from the 2018 Beach Lecture Scratch Choir!

The Q&A session was lengthy. When asked about his own favourite music, Bell talked about the three most formative hymns on his Christian faith ‒ all of them learned when he was a small boy: 'Oh, what can little hands do to help the King of heaven?', 'Jesus loves me' and 'Praise Him, praise Him all you little children'. There were many practical questions about providing a balanced diet of music for diverse contemporary churches.

This is the first time John Bell has spoken at an Adventist event. After participating in what one person described as 'a rich musical feast', and others as 'fantastic' and 'provoking', some people are planning that it should not be the last!

The full lecture can be heard online until Tuesday 16 October on the Newbold College of Higher Education Facebook page.

(Photos  - Victor Hulbert)

[Helen Pearson]

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