Often you don't realise you're in a rut until you begin to climb out.
There's something wonderfully familiar about the coming and going of the four seasons - the regularity, stability and security they can bring. When the air gets colder and days get shorter, we begin to anticipate Christmas... The decorations come down from the loft, the heating goes on, along with a whole bunch of unique family traditions that accumulate over the years.
For me, a similar anticipation happens each year in the run up to our summer festivals. Having worked at Soul Survivor for four years now, there are several things that mark the months leading up to our events. Checklists come out, deadlines are set, songs are rehearsed, and the countdown begins!
There's comfort in knowing what's around the corner each year, but as with any season or tradition, there is also the danger that we simply look to replicate what was done the year before.
In 2013, more than ever, we rediscovered the importance of moving on the sound of our worship. We used a lot more loops and tracks in our set-up, and instead of two guitarists, we had two keyboardists for a lot of it, doing a lot more synth-led rather than guitar driven arrangements, which we're hearing a lot more of in the charts at the moment.
Now, I've never been very technically minded, so when loops and tracks first started being used in worship, my natural reaction was to approach with caution... In part, because this was unknown territory, and in part because this looked like a potential threat to one of our highest values: spirit-led worship. I had all sorts of questions about introducing more technology to our set up: would we have to do songs the same way each time? Would we be able to go off-script and change up the setlist? Would we eventually end up doing karaoke worship on a Sunday?
Whether it's using loops and tracks, new songs or even different instruments, we as the Church have historically "approached with caution", for many - and often valid - reasons, with similar questions to the ones I was asking. We've all read articles like this one from a newspaper that's a response to new styles of music being introduced in church:
"There are several reasons for opposing it. One, it's too new. Two, it's often worldly, even blasphemous. The new Christmas music is not as pleasant as the more established style. Because there are. A. Many new songs you can't learn then all, it puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than godly lyrics. This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly, the preceding generation got along without it, it's a money making scam and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose."
Every time I read this, I get shocked again when I realise it was written in 1723 objecting to the use of hymns, and the instrument that previously had only been used in bars: the pipe organ! How times have changed...
Like I said, there are often valid reasons for resisting new trends in worship - once we've found a biblical model of worship that works in our context, we naturally want to protect that, and the values we've spent years cultivating.
But lets not confuse values with culture.
As the worship director, I hadn't seen it as a hugely urgent issue at the time, but looking back, the sound of our worship at Soul Survivor had got a bit stagnant. When our summer events began about 20 years ago, the style of worship was contemporary - probably quite cutting edge for churches at the time, and accessible to people who were new to a Christian environment. Over the years, the sound of popular music has moved on massively and for a youth movement, we were at risk of getting stuck in a "soft rock" rut. Whilst the music might still have appealed to a small minority who'd been on a journey with us for years, it would just seem outdated to the majority and quickly become an alien environment for people who'd never been to church.
It wasn't just our sound that had got a little stale either.
For years we resisted using any kind of lighting at our summer events. We have always been adamant that worship would never became a gig or a show. The focus was always to be Jesus, we would worship and applaud Jesus, not the band or the music. And at a time when lighting was starting to be used in a worship setting, we were so nervous of introducing something that might detract from worship that we thought it was best to stay away altogether. One year, my boss even went around to the back of the stage pulling out all the plugs for the haze machines!
A few years on, and we have seen how much difference that lighting can make when it's done well. Not only did it rescue our main venue from looking tired and not very youthy at all, but the lighting was used as an expression of worship in itself. Rather than distracting people away from Jesus, it actually helped them engage with Him, simply because they felt at home.
I've learned that just because a creative expression is part of the culture we live in, it doesn't mean we have to automatically write it off as unusable or in-adaptable for the church. Whether it's a smoke machine, a new song, or a pipe organ, I think it's one of our duties as the church to find more ways to engage with the world and the culture in which we live, so that we can communicate a gospel that is timeless, that will never age or go out of fashion.
One of the things I love about Jesus is that he never confused these two things. Emmanuel, "God with us", chose to be born into culture, into a Jewish family. He had a job, He went fishing, drank at weddings, partied with sinners. "He became like us" (Heb 2.17) whilst never compromising on His values. He didn't simply identify with mankind, He was the one pioneering the change! His teaching was completely counter-cultural full of God's VALUES, yet it was communicated with such intention, such accessibility, such relevance to people's lives.
We only have to look at history to see that there are many expressions that enable a marriage of culture and biblical values. It's definitely scary being the first to step out in a new direction, but this kind of renewal paves the way for the next generation of disciples to see Jesus as someone who is alive and relevant to their lives today as much as He was when He walked the earth.
Let's make it our duty to go looking for ways to engage our local community with Jesus without compromising what we've been called to. To find the places where the Church can counter-culturally thrive. Let's celebrate all that's gone before us, but let's not settle for being maintainers of the past. The spirit "blows wherever [He] pleases", and I haven't yet met a wind that stands still.