This is something I’ve often thought about; Jesus and the 12 disciples singing together in the upper room, as told in Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26. The significance of the Last Supper, recorded in all four gospels, is enormous on so many levels. It was the last time they were together as group, the last meal they shared, the first communion, the moment when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in John 13. Jesus spoke about the fact that he would be betrayed; that even Peter would deny him. He promised them the Holy Spirit, prayed for them; even prayed for you and me – the future generations of disciples. Even if the full significance of his words was lost on the disciples, they surely knew that things were coming to a head, trouble was brewing, and that storm clouds were gathering over Jerusalem.
Singing a hymn that night must have been intensely emotional for the disciples, intimate even, as they reclined together. The disciple John is even recorded as “leaning back against Jesus”, it says in John 13:25. They would have been able to hear each other sing; maybe John could even feel the breath of Jesus? Could he hear his heartbeat? Singing together in a group can be a vulnerable experience, but also a deeply unifying one. So what did they sing? There is no record of the hymn itself, nothing to suggest musical accompaniment, so I have to assume someone took the lead and sang a-cappella. Was that Jesus or someone else? Peter maybe? There were 13 men in a room, including fishermen, tax collectors and a carpenter. A pretty raw and unrefined group of singers, but after three years on the road with Jesus, you can be sure that they were passionate. And what about the hymn itself? Sung without accompaniment or sheet music, it must have been simple, yet memorable, and – this is my guess here – both compelling and heartfelt, too.
Fast forward to Acts 16. We read about Paul and Silas in jail, singing hymns to God. Not about God, but to God. It’s important that we catch that: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.”
Erm…wow! My friend Dan Wilt has a saying I love: “Songs are a place we go”. I think Dan’s right, and I think that’s what was happening with Paul and Silas in jail at midnight – the hymns they sang to God while they sat in the stocks – not a guitar in sight – took them into the presence of Jesus, reminding them that he was Lord and their hope was in him. Then a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the prison, and the rest is history. But back to those hymns – they must have been easy to sing; memorable melodies that stood alone even without a musical instrument. Just like the hymn they sang at the last supper.
Looking back at our worship roots in the Vineyard movement I see some parallels here. We’ve always been about singing simple songs to Jesus. Delighting in his presence. We’ve faced some criticism for this, but it’s a part of our history that we hold dear. Let me explain why: early Vineyard worship began in the 1970s with a group of burned-out Californian Christians meeting in their homes, singing simple songs to Jesus because that’s all they had left. The songs were sung directly to God, sometimes spontaneously, more often than not limited by their musicianship. The ‘worship leaders’ could generally only stretch to three or four chords on the acoustic guitar in those early days. As things evolved new songs began to flow and a record label was formed. Simplicity became a priority, as did intimacy and accessibility. Why? Because songs are a place we go, and as songwriters, worship leaders and musicians our challenge, ever more so in 2015, is to create spaces in worship – like the upper room or the jail cell – where we lead people into the presence of Jesus, tell him how much we love him and thank him for rescuing us. Then we step out of the way; allowing Jesus to work in power, mess with our lives, change our hearts and make us more like him.
I love music and I love the studio. I also love big rooms full of people gathered to worship. I believe we are to pursue excellence in our song writing and musicianship, but never at the expense of keeping things simple – something that is becoming increasingly challenging. Some of the best songs on the radio and in the church are the least complicated. These are probably the ones we’ll be singing when life comes down hard on us and we need a song to sing and a place to go to meet with God. Let’s not make worship music a spectator sport, writing or arranging songs in a way that can only be performed or sung by an elite group of musicians. It’s on us to write modern day hymns that are melodically rich and lyrically grounded in biblical truth. But we must also make sure they are easy to play and easy to sing for the average worshipper; equipping the Church with words and music that can simply express our heart for God and draw us closer to Him. These are the songs that will be sung all over the world, in season and out of season, in every tongue, tribe and nation.
The new album from Vineyard Records, Waterfalls, is out now and is favourite at threads HQ. It’s available from http://www.vineyardrecords.co.uk/web/releases/waterfalls/.