The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: I love Colin!


Music Exchange

(view original article here)

Colin Buchanan writes songs for kids that hook truths into hearts.

And not just My God is So Big truth. Colin hooks big truths like the sovereignty of God, substitutionary atonement and judgment for sin into kids’ hearts. My boys have been singing deep truths like this since they were four years old:

Every tick of the clock is ruled by the hand of God.

Remember the Lord – remember that he is in control.

God never says oops, never slips up, never makes any mistakes.

Justice and mercy, anger and grace. Tender and holy, he is the Lord.

Ze baddest sickness in ze vorld is sin. Every single heart has got it in.

Big words that end in ‘shun’ (this song gives a one-line summary for key Bible doctrines like justifica-shun, substitu-shun and propitia-shun).

Hard truths with sensitivity

It’s not clunky theology though – he doesn’t just teach a doctrine (wham!) and move on. He sings hard truths with deep sensitivity, helping us delve into the rich nature of the compassionate God:

In wise and holy tenderness he has planned your story.

He’ll draw his children onwards to enfold them in his glory.

I’m hugely grateful that Colin has played his part in helping our boys to build their house on the rock of God’s Word, but he has also planted these truths in the hearts of their parents too.

It’s also rare to find such an accomplished musician, who is so rigorous in singing truth, but who can also do so with real humour and grace. Colin says in his latest CD: ‘I’m very grateful for the Reformed tradition which holds the Bible as the inspired Word of God and our authority for life and truth. That means I’ve been taught the Bible a lot over many years. And because it’s all God’s Word, I’ve been taught from all of it – the hard bits, the confusing bits, the deep bits, the beautiful bits, the challenging bits, the comforting bits’.

Direct from Scripture

Some of Colin’s songs are direct quotes from Scripture with the verses comprising part of the song, but the songs that don’t use direct quotes show that Colin is a man who is steeped in Scripture, and who has worked hard to understand deep truths not only for himself, but to communicate those truths to children. I especially appreciate the way he appeals to boys in the characters he uses in his songs.

As a musician, I’m hugely impressed by the way he transcends so many different styles in his songs – from rap to Bavarian kitsch to house to Elvis. It’s brilliant. This does mean that his songs are hard to replicate in a Sunday school setting with us less-than-talented musos who are stuck in a one-style-fits-all straightjacket, but there’s nothing in the Bible that says it’s wrong to sing along to a CD.

Travelling minstrel

Usually I’m not massively keen on the Christian travelling minstrel – there are lots of keen Christian musicians who ask to play in our church, and who bring their case of CDs to sell. The only problem is that if they’re playing in our church, they’re absent from their own, which should be giving them the regular teaching, discipline and accountability they need (particularly as musicians). I’ve noticed that as a result, nearly all the content of their songs is more focussed on the individual’s experiences of God, and less on the clear teaching of Scripture. That’s OK up to a point, but Colin’s songs give me confidence that he is a man who is regularly being fed truth by a pastor and congregation who know him.

I wish Colin was over in the UK more often, but if staying at home amongst his church family means he is able to keep writing with depth and quality, then I’m happy to wait as long as it takes – and if my boys are too old by the time he next comes over, I’ll go to his concert myself.

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to en for monthly updates.

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: I couldn’t move a fly!


Music Exchange

(view original article here)

The letters column struck back!

Thank you to Dave Kimber for the response to my previous article, which shows that the Word versus Spirit issue is very much alive and kicking.

I need to answer a couple of points, in which I may have been misunderstood. First, I’m not sure from my article that anyone could deduce that I’m a cessationist. I’m very much convinced that the gifts of the Spirit are as useful for the building up of the church as they have ever been. As I said, I prayed earnestly for the gift of tongues. The prayer may have been answered in the negative, but I don’t know yet! All I know is that if it would useful for the building-up of the church, then the Lord will equip me with whatever gift is needed to glorify him.

Romans cures doubt

Second, is a defence of my use of Romans 8.16. Dave suggested that this is a non-Word reference to the work of the Spirit. However, I chose this verse because Romans 8.16 is very much the Word of God. In Romans 8.16 the Spirit is stating clearly in the Word of God that I am born of God. It was Romans 8.16 that I needed at my time of doubt. The Spirit may have spoken to me outside the Word of God to convince me, but as David Cook (Australian preacher) said to me just last week, ‘anything you hear outside the Word of God is a hunch’. Just a hunch. Only the Word of God tells me that I am a child of God because Christ has made me righteous by his blood. Praise the Lord that his Spirit, through the Word, gives us real assurance and therefore real life.

Can’t sing? Not a Christian?

I’m keen to follow this up because, as a church musician, I’ve seen countless young people who have their assurance of sonship based solely on a musician’s definition of the Holy Spirit – one chap doubted he was a Christian because he couldn’t sing, so didn’t experience the presence of God in the same way all his friends seemed to. Even more seriously, if our definition of the work of the Spirit is derived by any other means than God’s Word, we are in serious danger of creating God in our own image.

Of course, we are all limited and fallen in our understanding, especially me (as Dave Kimber correctly implies) but as I said in the last article, I’m going to hold on to the truth that Jesus’s words are spirit and life, because I don’t trust the other ‘spirits’ who try and convince me otherwise. A hunch is worse than second best. However, holding to the sufficiency of the Word of God as the way the Spirit works gives freedom rather than constraint.

Stott stood firm

The Word/Spirit dichotomy was well illustrated in a book by Jean-Jacques Suurmond, called Word and Spirit at Play, where the Word and Spirit play a game together – the Word brings order, and the Spirit brings life and vigour. The same idea was encouraged in the UK when a chap called Michael Harper (1931-2010) believed he had received the baptism of the Spirit in 1962 (a second baptism, as he was already converted). Noticing dull and lifeless worship in evangelical churches, he was keen to encourage these churches to become more open to the Spirit to bring things to life. Fortunately, John Stott and others stood firm and kept their confidence in the Word of God as the means by which the Spirit works, although others followed Harper’s lead. Harper himself ended up as an Archpriest in the Antiochan Greek Orthodox Church.

Spirit at work

Church musicians, when the Word of God is spoken or sung, the Spirit is powerfully at work, whether there is any immediate outward manifestation or not. I’m deeply thankful for this assurance, because sometimes I feel the music I produce wouldn’t move a fly sitting on the piano strings, let alone a tired and discouraged congregation member. His Word will not return to him empty, so keep teaching and singing the Word of God, because ‘the words I speak to you are spirit and life’, (John 6.63, ESV).

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, visit us online or subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Word and Spirit


Music Exchange

I work with brothers and sisters involved in church music from all over the world.

One of the very good things about this is that you are forced to think through theological issues carefully, so that they don’t become merely personal theological idiosyncrasies. Taking one particular stand on an area of theology can feel like a petty thing to do, as it can alienate you from the majority. It can also mean that it becomes the main issue talked about instead of the gospel itself.

Last one standing

However, some issues are worth taking a stand on even if we’re the last one standing, for the sake of the gospel, and the protection of the Lord’s vulnerable sheep.

The issue on the table is the relationship between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit work in perfect tandem in their work of bringing life to unbelievers and in helping believers remain in Christ. The way the Spirit works is through the Word of God. This means that, if a church is committed to teaching and obeying the Word of God, then the Spirit is powerfully at work. It’s not as if there are two different types of church – ‘Word’ churches and ‘Spirit’ churches. Nor is it that the preacher ‘does the Word’ and the musicians ‘do the Spirit’. The Word of God is the sword of the Spirit; the Spirit is the very breath/Word of God. One doesn’t work apart from the other. The late John Chapman said that you could-n’t get a cigarette paper between the two, but he was only stating in his own words what the Bible has already said so clearly.

Shifted by criticism?

As evangelicals we believe this, but we are always in danger of shifting, maybe because of lack of theological clarity, or maybe because people visit our Word-centred meetings and tell us that the Spirit isn’t there. We believe in the sufficiency of the Word of God, but criticism of our ‘Spirit-less’ meetings makes us think that maybe we need to change things to be more Spirit-aware.

The criticism of our meetings is fair – our meetings can often be dull and lifeless, but we need to be clear that, though this may be to do with badly-led singing or hardness of heart, it has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit being absent or powerless. If we teach the Bible clearly, then we should have a deep awareness of the work of the Holy Spirit as he is wielding his sword, ‘for the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow’ (Hebrews 4.12, ESV).

As soon as we try to drive the thinnest of wedges between the Word and the Spirit (e.g. by thinking that music can direct a movement of the Holy Spirit), then we start to define our knowledge of God through our own ‘spiritual’ experiences and not by the Spirit’s own revelation of God in his Word. This doesn’t just cause a lack of assurance in believers, it also opens up the door to things like the Toronto blessing and all the stuff about music ushering in the presence of the Spirit. It also means that those who think they are ‘Spirit’ Christians start trying to convert ‘Word’ Christians into ‘Spirit’ Christians (as if this were possible) rather than trying to share the Word of God with those who really are in the dark spiritually.

Hold on to the truth

Speaking from personal experience, my own assurance was rocked when I was at university because I had a friend who claimed she would make me into a charismatic within a year. I was keen to hold on to the friendship, so I prayed and prayed for the gift of tongues (well, my friend’s definition of the gift of tongues anyway) to no avail. I wondered whether I was a Christian at all, but the Lord restored the assurance of my adoption when (through the Word of God) the Spirit testified with my spirit that I was a child of God (Romans 8.16).

Church musicians and pastors, please hold on to the truth that when you preach and sing the Word of God, then the Spirit is mightily at work, even if your meetings are accused of lacking the Spirit.

It isn’t the job of a pastor or a church musician to bring the Spirit to life. Keep teaching and singing the Word of God, because ‘the words I speak to you are spirit and life’ (John 6.63, ESV).

 

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Pet sounds


Music ExchangeIt’s strange how some instruments go in and out of favour in church music groups.

Our ears seem to be drawn to the same kind of instrumentation that we are used to hearing in mainstream popular culture. For example, in the 80s and 90s we were used to lots of saxophone: Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty), Careless Whisper (George Michael),Poirot (I mean the signature tune to Poirot, not that Poirot played the saxophone onCareless Whisper). But the sax has now largely disappeared from the pop scene. I’m sure that this is the reason that the sax has also disappeared from featuring on today’s Christian music CDs, leading it to being side-lined in church bands too.

A few strings

At the moment, the only classical orchestral instruments we hear on Christian music CDs produced in the West are a few strings. Everything else is electric or closely tied to folk music. So if it’s out with the saxophones, flutes and trumpets, it’s in with the banjos, Uilleann pipes, Dobros, fiddles, accordions and penny whistles (don’t worry — I don’t know what all of them are either.)

This can leave us church musicians feeling a bit out of it, because the majority of those who volunteer to help with music in churches play orchestral instruments. This is naturally the case because these are the instruments that people learnt at school.

I’m just as guilty of side-lining instruments that ‘don’t fit’. Rumour has it that I’m not fond of the clarinet. Just for the record, I use a clarinet sometimes for a Sunday morning service, though I admit that using the clarinet doesn’t confirm that I like the clarinet!

Using the gifts God has given

The point is that following stylistic trends can make us slaves to a certain sound. It’s not particularly healthy if we never ask the servant-hearted saxophonist in the congregation to play because that’s not the kind of sound that is wanted. The saxophone may make a come-back in another ten years’ time, but that’s not the only reason to encourage them to keep playing in church. Being a church musician is about learning to serve God’s people by using gifts he’s graciously given. If we see a keenness to serve, and the musician is skilful enough to lead a congregation well, then we are doing them and the wider church a disservice by standing them down.

The Men’s Convention band I played in a couple of years ago was laughed at by one of the overseas speakers for using ‘horns’ (trumpets and sax). This was a pity because the players served us all with humility and added a colour and light that is sometimes needed to drive the singing of 4,000 men. At the Evangelical Ministry Assembly a few years ago I also remember arrogantly suggesting to a brother that there wasn’t much place for a bassoonist in a contemporary church music group. I was rightly rebuked. A bassoon may not fit with our world’s definition of a music group, but the Lord’s definition of any group (musicians or not) is that they serve him humbly and that they serve his church sacrificially.

That’s why I use a clarinet. Not my cup of tea (OK, I admit it), but the person behind the clarinet is someone who is keen to serve Jesus, and who plays well enough to bring colour to the words we sing as a congregation without drawing attention to himself. That’s the ‘style’ of musician that Jesus wants. So please don’t be scared of using instruments that aren’t ‘in’ at the moment. We need to be growing servants of Jesus, not slaves to style.

Bagpipes in the morning!

Of course, it’s a good thing to be culturally sensitive — it’s not a great idea to pull out the bagpipes at an 8.30 am Book of Common Prayer service — but, if music is done well and sensitively, there’s no reason why any instrument can’t be played in a way that will bring honour and praise to God — even the clarinet!

 

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the October 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Apprentice’s advice


I recently came across the following church notice sheet blooper: ‘The church fundraising concert was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who laboured the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.’

As a regular church pianist you may be feeling the weight of the job you have to do. But the good news is that being a helpful church pianist is relatively easy once you have a few principles in mind.

So let’s take 3 general church music set ups and hopefully there will be something helpful in there for everyone.

The ‘piano only’ church

* Crystal clear introductions are vital, particularly if you have no vocalist. Play the first/last line of the song, make it clear when to start, and then bang out the first sung note as hard as possible. Modern songs often have intros included that sound great, but bear no resemblance to the melody and are pretty confusing if people are unsure/newcomers. So, even if week by week this seems dull, stick at it.

* Keep links between verses short for your comfort as well as the congregation’s!

* If possible, play the melody line along with the congregation in at least the first verse, for those who don’t know the tune.

* Don’t do too much. Clear rhythm is key. Too much ornamentation is confusing

* Have a strong and simple bass line. If the congregation are singing well, the bass is all they will be able to hear, so this helps to keep them in time and in tune.

Full band with bells on

Let’s say this band consists of piano, acoustic guitar, solo instrument, vocal, bass and drums. What instrument is most important for the congregation to hear?

Surprisingly, not the piano. (This is good for our humility?) The vocalist gives both visual and melodic direction, bassist gives depth and pitch, drums give rhythm, and guitar and piano simply fill the middle ground and support the rhythm.

The temptation for pianists in this scenario is to do too much. We either step on other band members’ ‘territory’ musically, or get overexcited and doodle. So in this case, imagine yourself as part of the rhythm section. Adopt the principle of a strong and simple bass line, perhaps venturing up an octave so that you and the guitar aren’t always playing the same notes, and just blend!

Little band

Many of the same principles as big band apply here, except that you can think through what is missing from the band. So if you have no bass or drums, beat out a steady octave with your left hand. If you have no melody instrument, get your right hand up there and play the tune. And in both ‘band’ scenarios, if in doubt, less is probably more.

On a more practical note, the most useful church pianists are those who can improvise, even a little. With much modern church music being written by guitarists, and also with a lot of older church music being a tad musically busy (for want of a better phrase), the ability to simplify and improvise is priceless. So if you can’t already, give it a go.

Most church music is written in C, D, E, F, G, and A, with the odd B flat. Try improving in a different key each week. If you have a keyboard with a transpose button, winner! It means you never need to know how to play in E flat — my personal nemesis. Just be sure you switch it off again before the next song… although if you forget once, you never will again…

Finally, make sure you spend time looking at the words you are helping people to sing. The most important thing is to be corporately praising our God with our church family, so be sure to join in with the rest of the congregation as much as possible. Play in a way that expresses the words and sing them in your heart if you can’t out loud, because more than anything else we have a God who is incredibly worthy of our praise!

Heather Cowan was a music apprentice at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and now works with students, youth and children at Christ Church Kensington in West London.

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Wincing in worship!


Being a sensitive muso (and most of us musos are ever so sensitive), I have a long memory.

Even though I’m always saying that it’s important to focus on the words of songs, I often find myself thinking about the comments people have made about a particular song rather than about the song itself.

So this article is me getting some of them on the table. If you’re a church musician you’ll have many more to add, but please indulge me just this once for an article that serves less to help musicians in their godliness, but more to remind me of how much I need to grow in humility. It would be worth saying that the views below are not all from those who attend the same church as me either.

New tunes
I’m going to start with a comment about a hymn that I’d written a new tune to. The tune had just received its first outing, and I was looking forward to some positive feedback: ‘I was just wondering if there might be another tune for that new song we sang this morning. The lyrics are absolutely fantastic but wasn’t so sure about the music.’

About a different song: ‘Simpo, did you write that new tune?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Not one of your best.’

Sounds familiar?
Here are tune similarities that some have picked up.

‘No eye has seen and no ear has heard’ — the tune for the chorus is the same as the Toys R Us theme tune. ‘Give thanks with a grateful heart’ — a dead ringer for ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys, (though I think ‘Give thanks’ pre-dates ‘Go West’, which was originally written for the Village People in 1979).

In addition to these, there are often comments about which tune to sing to which hymn. There are many who have problems with singing the Londonderry Air (‘Danny Boy’) and Austria (to ‘Glorious things of you are spoken’), though some are quite vocal about their preference of Austria over Abbot’s Leigh.

Misheard lyrics
Here are some comments about lyric misunderstandings.

‘I am the Lord of the Dance, said he’ — ‘What’s a dance settee?’ ‘My Jesus, my Saviour’ — ‘I can’t stop thinking about icing cakes in the chorus (‘Icing for joy at the work of your hands’)’.

Here are a couple of comments about some of the stylistic decisions I’ve made.

Minor intro into ‘In Christ Alone’ — ‘I hate it’. ‘Be thou my vision’ in 4 time rather than 3 — ‘I hate it’ (different person this time!).

Theology?
There have been various theological points made, all of which could be disputed as they are comments about man-written songs rather than the Word of God itself.

‘Blessing and honour’ — The choreography’s the wrong way round, ‘Your kingdom shall reign over all the earth’ should refer to the one like a son of man who is presented to the Ancient of Days, not the Ancient of Days himself.

‘Oh, to see the dawn’ — comes over as being Catholic (because of seemingly wanting to see Jesus’s wounds). ‘You’re the Lion of Judah’ — Jesus didn’t descend into hell.

And here are a couple of very subjective comments about particular songs.

‘Everlasting God’ (‘Yesterday, today and forever’) — ‘Is there any way we could make sure that song disappears and never comes back?’ ‘Indescribable’ — ‘Unsingable, unscannable’.

There we go. Who’d be a church musician? As I said, I’ve only gone for a small selection, and I’m very blessed that I don’t get much negative feedback from my own church family at all. Please pray that we church musicians would remain focused on our responsibility to lead people in the praise of God, and that we would praise him ourselves while leading others. This is the best way we can be of service to God and to his people, rather than becoming slaves to our long memories.

 

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

The Music Exchange from Richard Simpkin: Songwriters serve who?


‘P.S. Are you singing any good new songs lately?’

This is a phrase that often comes at the end of emails sent to me. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there seem to be more and more asking the same question, which is odd, because there are hundreds of songs being written every week and disseminated on the internet from all over the world.

What’s more, the theology of the songs being written is much more solid than in the mid-90s, but I’m still struggling to find new material that a normal congregation finds easy to sing. Even at the London Music Ministry Conference (which I help run) I haven’t been bowled over with confidence in the new songs we’ve presented during the ‘New songs’ session.

Ten million YouTube hits

What about ‘10,000 reasons’ by Matt Redman? Extremely popular, over ten million views on YouTube, two Grammys, lots of churches trying to sing it. But (and please don’t burn me at the stake — it’s only a song, not the Word of God, and this is only my fallen opinion…) it’s actually quite hard to sing when there are only 50 in the congregation, and it’s hard to play by the average Joe church muso. There, I’ve said it. It’s a good song to listen to and to sing along to, and it has helped literally millions of people delight in the goodness of God. That’s not the issue — it’s wonderful that songwriters are writing faithful songs that are being sung by so many people. The issue I want to address is the lack of strongly congregational songs being written these days.

Listening or singing?

This is down to lots of reasons. I have always believed that the main reason is the pressure on songwriters to write to the ‘listening’ market (CDs, mp3s, downloads, concerts, gigs) rather than congregations who want to encourage and admonish each other with the truth in a church meeting. Again, it’s a great thing to have concerts that proclaim the name of Jesus, but here are some humble pleas to Christian songwriters who want to serve the average congregation.

First, praise the Lord that lyrics are much more Bible-centred and less ‘me’-centred these days. Then, once you’ve written the lyrics, please write us tunes that are easy to sing, and that serve the words well. This word/music balance has always been a battle for Christian songwriters (and the music usually wins in the end!). We need tunes that make it as obvious as possible which note is coming next. If we’re always fumbling around for the notes it takes the focus off the words and we end up listening to the musicians again. One way of solving this is by writing the tune first rather than going for a chord sequence or riff.

Now I love guitarists, but this is the reason many songs written by guitarists are hard to sing — because their songs are driven more by rhythm than by melody. Put the guitar down, think of a tune, then pick the guitar up and shape the chords around the tune.

Second, please don’t try to be too clever (especially those who write songs from the piano). If you feel that your songs are a bit samey, please don’t ‘freshen things up’ by writing songs in crazy time signatures. Most drummers struggle to play them and congregations struggle to sing them — especially if the time signature changes half way through the song.

No bridges please

Third, we don’t need a bridge. No really, we don’t need a bridge.

I know that a bridge makes the song long enough to make it a viable track on a CD, and it can heighten the tension before the last chorus, but it’s yet another tune we have to learn the music to. Most of us leave the bridge out anyway, so it would save us all a lot of time.

To conclude, songwriters, please keep those songs coming, and please carry on working hard to help us sing great truths in our congregations, not just on CDs or on stage. We love listening to you, but we’d also like to sing with you!

Richard Simpkin is Director of Music at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, London.

This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057