Last week at the Catalyst Conference, Brian Houston, who heads Hillsong Church, referenced a couple popular songs written by his church. Each of these songs is either not sung or rarely sung by their church today. Here’s the quote:
You may be shocked to hear we don’t sing Shout to the Lord anymore at Hillsong Church. It’s not 1993. If you come all the way to Australia and you hope to hear ‘Shout to the Lord,’ your chances are slight. We don’t even sing Oceans much anymore.
Whether you find this surprising or not, here’s the explanation behind this decision:
When it comes to influence, predictability is our enemy. Because you never get influence from doing things the way they’ve always been done. You get influence from creating new ways…Thank God for innovation. Thank God for creativity. Spontaneity is our friend in the church.
The Church: A Space for Creativity
As you can imagine, once Brian’s quotes were turned into headlines, people cried foul.
What about hymns?
Do you even want people to know your songs and sing with them?
Those who feel like the church is too forward thinking call into question the mentality of moving on from songs of years gone by.
But the church must maintain itself as a space for creativity. After all, our God is Creator. His words spoke the world into existence. That same Spirit dwells within His people. And we are His ambassadors. It stands that part of being a Spirit-indwelled ambassador is through creativity. One of the great creative outlets seen within the church is songwriting. Churches should sing new songs because God has provided new songs through His artists.
If you get stuck in a “hymns only” mentality, you have crippled the artists God has given the church for today. God has consistently done some of his great work through the gifts of artists.
God spent close to forty days instructing Moses on the provisions for the tabernacle, and yet He created the world in six days. What we gloss over as boring details clearly had much importance to God. The tabernacle, though built by the hands of mere mortal men, was the perfect design and idea of God. We should then find it striking that something so highly important to God was given into the hands of artists.
Hillsong Church releases a new album more than once a year, so their church should be singing new songs, potentially more often than the average church. That is part of their own localized expression of the Christian faith.
But What About Hymns?
No one should complain when a church stops singing a song. I’ve had plenty of conversations about no longer singing a particular song. Sometimes it’s a lyrical concern, sometimes the leadership feels like the song is no longer connecting, sometimes a song was reliant upon a musician or instrument the church no longer has available. There are plenty of good reasons to shift what songs are being sung by a church, but being a church focused on innovation is not one of them.
Innovation and spontaneity are the reasons Houston said Hillsong no longer sings Shout to the Lord, but those are awful reasons. It says “this song no longer feels cool enough,” and you move onto the next “big” thing.
In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith examines what he calls liturgies, large stories we center our lives around. These stories orient our lives, bending the needle of our hearts toward a certain end. So if your corporate worship gathering liturgy is most influenced by innovation, the past has no service to the goal.
And this is a huge problem, because the Christian faith is a historical faith. How Christians practiced their faith a thousand years ago carries weight to the Christian believer today. Putting this altogether, the form and practice of Christian worship provides life-altering shaping for our lives. Smith says,
“When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom” (78).
More Balance, Please
This is where I think balance is needed. Churches need not worship innovation if it does not serve the end goal of discipleship through worship. Similarly, churches need not worship with hymns-only, forsaking today’s creativity.
The problem here isn’t Brian Houston or Hillsong Church, though they can become representative of the problem due to their size and influence. The problem is that innovation is often the enemy to discipleship, especially when we continue chasing the ever elusive “cool” thing. Predictable might not fill the seats with people ready for a show but it will help steep the seat-dweller in a liturgical format where they can “rehabilitate their loves” toward God’s kingdom.
There’s a great challenge here of balancing new and old, of balancing big and small, of balancing innovation and predictability, but it’s worth the effort because it often changes people on a level deeper than they understand.