New Sounds - an interview with John Mark McMillan, Chris Llewelyn (Rend Collective Experiment) and Eli Dummer (The City Harmonic)

Posted by Craig Borlase on 2 October 2013

Here's one from the WeAreWorship archives, but the truths these guys express are timeless... 


New sounds, new styles, new songs - the church has always experienced times when the way we worship in song changes. What can we learn from those at the heart of this period today? Chris Llewelyn (Rend Collective Experiment), Eli Dummer (The City Harmonic) and John Mark McMillan (writer of ‘How He Loves’) wonder out loud.

Like the sight of an implausibly young doctor, teacher or police officer, the arrival of a new style of worship music is one of those surefire ways of reminding some people that they’re not getting any younger. And none of us really like to face up to a truth like that. So it’s not surprising that the ‘new’ sounds that filter into our sung worship can sometimes find themselves a little repressed by those who are not too happy to find themselves now branded as ‘old’ hands.

They ask questions like why do we need new songs anyway? Or do these new songs really have anything new to say after all? Or why do they have to go about changing things for the sake of it? All of which are fair questions. Or are they?

‘The minute that we stop finding new expressions to connect with God we’ve lost something really important,’ says Chris. ‘God is so multi-faceted, there are so many sides to Him that He’s worthy of so many kinds of expression.’

And anyway, adds John Mark, ‘there are always new expressions surfacing among various communities of believers. It’s just that the majority may not realize what else is available because they're connected to a pipeline that feeds them limited types of content. We're all different and we shouldn't all be singing the same 15 songs.’

So, because of the very nature of God Himself - a Creator to beat all creators - we cannot help ourselves from wanting to find new ways of expressing ourselves through worship. But if there is a criticism (and yes, we do think that’s an OK word to use in a church-oriented publication like this) of modern worship - both the very new and the slightly less so - it is often based on the opinion that there is too much repetition across songs - that they become clones of each other. According to Elli, the antidote to this is found deep within the writing process:

‘I think it’s healthy to be revisiting many of the great universal themes within Scripture and communicating them in our own way (faithfully, mind you). Otherwise we run the risk of not actually communicating anything with our songs. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve already gone down that road with many of our ‘worship songs.’

‘People tend to grow numb to things that they hear too often,’ says John Mark. ‘If worship music is to be ‘real’ to a group of people, then the sounds and words we choose have to represent them. It needs to be the language that would best fit their own heart's conversation with God.’

Besides, says Chris ‘there’s quite a lot of new thought about at the minute. Whatever you think about the emerging/emergent movement, it’s certainly influential and has led to some raw and honest expressions, and a renewed focus on art for art’s sake - and I think that’s all good stuff.’

So ‘new’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘good’?

‘I’m more concerned about being honest,’ says Eli. ‘New music is great, but if we’re aren’t being conscious that we’re writing honestly - using the language of the community of which we’re a part and not just sub cultural stuff - then maybe we’re just running in circles.’

Honesty is one of those key words that reoccurs when talking with these ‘new’ worship leaders and writers. Not that we should be surprised; the last few decades have seen a rise in both corporate pr and grassroots reactions. As we have grown use to a world dominated by a handful of brands, so some have started to crave that which is home-spun and authentic. Is the new worship soundtrack a way of reacting to similar developments within the church?

‘People are beginning to gravitate back towards the local community aspects of living,’ suggests John Mark. ‘In the same way, the local church is beginning to realize that they don't need to depend on large corporate systems for their expressions of worship.’

There’s another songwriter who was famously accused of betraying his roots when he stepped into a new phase. John Mark makes the link:

‘Bob Dylan said: "The world doesn't need any more songs... Unless someone's gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That's a different story." I like to put it this way: the truth is always the same, but people change. Both music and language are evolving human expressions. So the music and language we use in worship must change as well.’

You can’t get too far in any discussion of new worship without being aware of a strong sense of the paradoxical nature of the task: that here we are, trying to find new ways to express ancient truths about an indescribable God. Which seems like a good a time as any for a quote from one of the last century’s most influential theologians:

‘If I should take my stand on the shore of Your Endlessness and shout into the trackless reaches of Your Being all the words I have ever learned in the poor prison of my little existence, what should I have said? I should never have spoken the last word about you.’
[Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence]

Chris: ‘Our words are always going to be inadequate - we’ve got that - our music’s always going to be inadequate to express God. But silence isn’t an option either.

Silence isn’t an option. Surely someone’s going to claim that as an album title one day soon? It’s true: we create these new songs because not because we’re trying to define God or come up with something new that all the others who have gone before us have somehow overlooked or missed. We create because it’s in our genes, it’s what we do to. We create because kids imitate their parents to learn from them, to share time with them and to draw strength from the love that flows between them.

‘People tend to be able to have a more authentic connection to God when the music represents their own unique expressions of worship,’ says John Mark. ‘But I think the responses are the same though. People laugh, cry, shout, or react the way anyone would when they realize that their world has been transformed, or at least when they actually believe it.’

So what next? Where will this burst of honesty-driven, local-church-scripted, community-conducted worship take us? What will the worship life of the church sound like in 2021?

‘I’m not sure anybody knows,’ says Chris, ‘but I can see moves towards much more honest reflections on faith and exciting moves in music - a wider range in musical expression, rather than one genre dominating as it does at the minute.’

For Eli the answer’s a little harder to come by: ‘I’m not even sure I understand 2011 yet, let alone 2021! But suffice it to say I hope it sounds and looks like the people that make it up.’

‘I hope that each local church could move toward embracing their own unique expressions,’ says John Mark. ‘I think the worship of each body of believers could look as different from one another as the diverse body of individuals that God has made us to be. I'd love to hear a music born in the church that would be worthy to be a part of the greater musical conversation of the world. Not just to fit in, but so that people outside of our subculture could get a decent chance to hear what we have to say.’


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