Fear, ABBA Gold and YMCA: an interview with Tim Hughes

Posted by Admin on 1 August 2013

Craig Borlase: I heard you say recently that you think we’re at an interesting point in worship. How come?

Tim Hughes: We’ve never had better quality songs to choose from - amazing songs on amazing themes from Hillsong, Passion, Soul Survivor, even a few good ones from Worship Central - and while that’s great, there’s a danger that we start to rely on the songs to create those amazing encounters in worship. And when we have these songs with great arrangements, great lighting and great production it can be hard to be spontaneous. So it’s as if the song has become the king, as if the song has begun to rule. But what happened to worship being our response to God’s initiating love, to His glory? Shouldn’t worship at times involve standing in silence for 30 minutes? Or singing our own songs? Or four hymns?

So I think that we need to move back to the idea of being Spirit-led. Yes, that can happen in preparation, but there is also something amazing that happens when a congregation starts looking to Christ. When we’re Spirit-led, our worship is never going to be the same from one Sunday to the next.

CB: Is the problem that we have too many new songs, or is it the way that we respond to them, as neophytes - only really getting a buzz when something’s all shiny and new?

TH: Maybe as worship leaders there’s a danger of being too focussed on the delivery of a new song - of reaching the point where people are saying ‘have you heard this new song? It’s amazing!’ And there are songs that have an amazing impact, songs that God uses, but the aim in worship has never been the singing of great songs. Songs are just the vehicle that takes us to Jesus. Maybe as worshippers we’ve become too reliant upon these songs connecting us with Jesus when we should be able to do that wherever we are - in silence, washing up or whatever.

CB: So is Our God Is Greater a better song because it elicits a stronger response than Be Thou My Vision?

TH: I don’t know. How do you value a success of a song? Is it how many downloads it gets? How many people around the world sing it? Is it how many people come to Jesus? We can look at it through our business/marketing eyes, but I think God looks at it very differently.

CB: I think so too. But how?

TH: Songs have different roles. Some are just for ourselves, some are for the church, some are for the world. What God looks at is the heart. So we need to be careful when we say what is and what isn’t a great song, although it’s true to say that some songs work better than others. At the moment Our God Is Greater works fantastically, and we’d say it’s an anointed song, but you can never really tell until you start leading it.

What I do know is that all of this has to be personal. I realised a while ago that whenever I sat down for a quiet time I’d always be writing a song. I’d got out of the habit of sitting down just to worship. ‘Worship is taking a private cry and making it public’: that’s my favorite definition of worship leading. If we want to lead people in worship - and be led by the Spirit - we’ve got to put time aside on our own.

CB: And I guess for some the times of worship on a Sunday will articulate exactly where they’ve been: it will be an outpouring of their private. But for others - a sizeable minority - their week has been silent, and worship kickstarts their souls to sing.

TH: That’s what happens a lot - worship brings back perspective. The world is trying to press us, challenge us and make us more selfish by caring about my success, my happiness, my wealth - and worship is so not that. It’s about the opposite. But it’s crazy to think that a great song can realign our thinking and our attitudes. Worship is first and foremost a spiritual activity, and Philippians 3:3 says ‘we who are rescued by the spirit of God...’ So the question for worship leaders is ‘am I getting dependent on well-put together set of songs or am I really dependent on the Spirit?’

I want to lead much more in the way that James Torrence said - that worship can either be a task or a gift - an invitation to have a relationship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, something that replenishes and gives life. But we have to learn how to lead in that way, which is difficult. It’s all about our relationship with God.

CB: So what have you had to undo - what baggage have you had to get rid of - to learn this stuff?

TH: Being honest, sometimes I need to take a few more risks. If I deviate from the plan then things often suffer musically. So maybe there’s a bit of pride that needs to go there.

A year ago I couldn’t remember the last time I’d got up to lead worship and felt terrified. I realised that I’d not been taking risks, that I had become comfortable - but I’d regularly felt that in the first few years of being at HTB, or when Worship Central was starting. Sometimes fear can be a sign that you’re in the right place.

CB: Who has taught you most in all this?

TH: Kevin Prosch pioneered it, but Mike Pilavachi taught me lots too. He just wakes up, sees which way the Holy Spirit is moving and heads off that direction. That’s in me a little as well, but there’s also a tension to pursue musical excellence: I find that there’s something about a really well written song, with great production that helps reveal God’s beauty. I guess there’s a balance to be found.

CB: What about lights and screens? What side of the equation do they sit on?

TH: They’re fantastic - no different from the way stained glass windows help create a sense of awe. But like all things (including musicians) they can be used to hype, to distract or lead badly. So the same principles for our sung worship need to be applied to the visual.

I do have questions about how it works if every musician has in-ear monitors and the lights are so bright that you can’t see. I’ve led worship at meetings where I literally cannot see or hear anyone in the congregation - so how can I really lead them? Surely part of what we do has to be about identifying what’s happening in the congregation and releasing it?

CB: I want to tell you about my father in law. He’s tone deaf, has no musical appreciation at all beyond YMCA and Abba Gold. Compare him to someone who resonates with music: is he missing out? Does he have bad spiritual genes?

TH: That’s where having a big picture of the church is really helpful. Worship isn’t about the style, it’s about God breaking into the world, the sense of revelation and us responding. For some that means standing on top of a mountain, for others it’s on their knees in tears. There is a place for all of it. And so we have to remember in our churches that not everyone is switched on to music. Now I’d hope that even if you are tone deaf you wouldn’t hate music, and that you’d allow your heart to worship as you gather and bring your offering along with others. So, no, I don’t think he’s missing out, but I do think that everyone should find a way of connecting with God through music - it’s a special thing that God created.

CB: Is there a tension in being someone who writes songs but also being aware that maybe we’ve all got too focussed on the singing?

TH: There is a tension, but you have to remember that we’re just servants in this. You can’t be too much of a musical snob as a worship leader and you have to remember that no one church has it all sowed up. It is kind of ridiculous that in the church can be so tribal, especially when we can learn so much from others - and I hope they’re learning a bit from us. At the end of the day it’s just like Wimber said: it’s neat in the graveyard and messy in the nursery.


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