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An Interview with Graham Kendrick

Diane Benge

His lyrics have been translated into numerous languages. His songs are sung daily by millions of worshippers around the globe. Son of a Baptist pastor, Graham Kendrick was born in Northamptonshire, England in 1950. He began life as a singer-songwriter in 1972.

His lyrics have been translated into numerous languages. His songs are sung daily by millions of worshippers around the globe. Listen as Graham Kendrick talks in depth about worship, worship leading and the Christian life.

People use the term 'worship' very freely and mean many different things by it. What do you mean when you talk about worship?

I agree that the term is used very freely. Worship is not the easiest thing to define because, as Andrew Hill points out in his book Enter His Courts With Praise, it is both an attitude and an act, a concept as well as a relationship.

There are many excellent definitions of worship, but the best definition to my mind is a living breathing one — the person of Jesus Christ — who is the perfect worshipper. When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he told them "live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God".1

The imagery he used was worship imagery drawn from the Temple. It spoke of sacrifice, of complete surrender, of a beautiful life laid down. Jesus' total giving of himself for us was an act of loving obedience to God the Father, the culmination of a life of perfect worship. In fact, Jesus not only defines worship for us by who he was and what he did, it is only in him and through him that we can worship at all.

Barry Leisch in his excellent book The New Worship writes: "Frequently we are inclined to conceive of worship as our response to God — our response, our decision to worship. Worship boils down to 'us and God'. The human-Godward movement in worship is often viewed as wholly ours. If we are not careful we can short-circuit grace when we think this way. In reality, ours is not the only human-Godward movement. Jesus Christ himself performs the primary role."

Worship does not begin with us; it begins in the very core and nature of God, the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was there long before the world began. James Torrance in his book Worship, Community and the Triune Grace of God, says: "Worship is the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father." This is so much greater than just meetings and music, it is about getting caught up in the very life of God himself for eternity.

We often think of worship as a group activity — something that happens 'in church on Sundays' — yet worship is also an individual activity. What are some practical ways in which we can learn to live out our lives as an act of worship?

The writer and theologian John Stott notes eight different kinds of spiritual sacrifices in Scripture — worship offerings which are acceptable to God. These are in my words:

1 Our bodies continually offered for his service.2

2 Vocalised praise and public confession of Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour and all that his name sums up.3

3 Our gifts and good deeds.4

4 Prayer.5

5 A broken and contrite heart.6

6 The exercise of faith.7

7 Our lives poured out in God's service.8

8 Preaching the gospel and making disciples.9

When Paul writes in Romans 12 of offering our bodies as living sacrifices he says: "This is your spiritual act of worship." What do you think he meant by that?

Paul's audience would naturally think in terms of worship involving the offering of sacrifices from the flock or from the harvest and so on — and these tokens of worship being in many cases wholly consumed by fire or roasted and eaten as part of religious feasting.

So the picture is of total self-giving out of gratitude for what God has done for the worshipper. The fact that our bodily giving should be described as spiritual should not be at all strange if we understand that we cannot detach the spiritual from the physical or vice versa, and to give one is to give the other. David Peterson in his book Engaging with God concludes that "Worship in the New Testament means believing the gospel and responding with one's whole life and being to the person and work of God's Son in the power of the Holy Spirit."

You said earlier that worship is so much greater than 'meetings and music'. What are other aspects of worship that tend to be ignored?

Worship really has to do with the way we live our whole lives, and the best way in which we are going to understand what this means is by looking at the life of the perfect worshipper, Jesus Christ. If we neglect or choose to ignore any aspect of Christ's character, nature and deeds then that is an aspect of worship that we are ignoring. Some of the gospels' own descriptions of Jesus will help us in this direction, eg he went about doing good, he was full of grace and truth.

Corporate worship is often equated to singing. Why do you think this is?

Because music and songs have become so prominent in Christian worship in recent years they have become popularly equated with worship, and leaders need to be careful not to effectively reinforce that impression by careless use of language. For example, when somebody stands up half way through the service and says "Now let's worship", meaning "Now let's sing our worship", it could imply that everything that has happened up to that point wasn't worship.

It would be better to say something like, "We've been worshipping God through prayer, or the reading of Scriptures or the offering, now let's continue to worship through songs". After the sung worship the leader could say "We've been worshipping with our voices and songs, now let's worship God with our minds as we listen to the reading of the Scripture or preaching of the word."

It seems to me that thinking of worship merely in terms of singing robs us of a vast array of worship experiences and robs God also. In what practical ways can we broaden people's experience of worship in a group setting?

Most gatherings for corporate worship have a limited time available and if one thing becomes dominant something else is inevitably going to be marginalized. For example, the public reading of Scripture may be getting neglected and where it is present there may be a lack of imagination in how it is done. If as much creative energy was put in to the reading of Scripture as often goes into sung worship, I think it would be a revelation to many churches!

The Scriptures do not have to be read in a boring monotone: they can be read with dramatic emphasis, divided up into parts for several voices, turned into responsive readings with the congregation taking part, presented with imaginative use of typeface via computer-generated graphics — the list goes on.

God can be worshipped in silence, with the use of symbols, with touch, taste and smell — as well as the more common seeing and hearing — through actions that help the congregation participate in a tangible way, through writing something down, through interacting with the people around them in a prescribed way. And of course the sharing of the bread and wine is at the core of Christian worship, yet often suffers neglect.

The natural tendency of any group of people that meets together regularly for the same purpose is to settle into predictable patterns, so it is important to constantly examine what we do and why we do it and how we can do it better or differently, not just for the sake of variety but in order to explore the richness of the possibilities that are available to us.

How do we reclaim the word worship so that it carries its fuller meaning rather than being watered down to a single activity?

First by using the word thoughtfully and accurately and with the intention of teaching a clear understanding simply by the ways things are done and explained as we go along in our meetings. Secondly, by clear biblical teaching of what worship is and what it isn't, and what we mean by the word.

Often it is assumed that people understand what leaders think of as obvious, but that is not always the case, added to the fact there are often new people coming into the congregation who perhaps didn't hear the explanations first time round. How about featuring two or three testimonies of 'How I worshipped God this week without words or music'?

They say that as we get older we become more reflective. Would you say that that has happened to you, and if so how has it affected your approach to leading others in worship?

Yes, certainly I have become more reflective, although it's always been in my nature! I have sometimes been envious of people who are much more naturally exuberant and enthusiastic in their personalities and therefore in the way that they lead praise, but the great thing about the body of Christ is that we all have our own part to play.

One of the major ways in which one's own disposition or approach is going to influence worship is through the choice of material, and each worship leader is naturally drawn to the type of songs which they relate to the best. Of course there are strengths and weaknesses in that we are not leading worship for our own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community of worshippers. Therefore we have to set aside our own preferences in order to use material which will help them to worship, even if it doesn't necessarily suit us personally.

I'm aware of course that an overdose of reflection can be unhelpful in certain circumstances, and so in some situations I will deliberately work in partnership with another worship leader who is more naturally exuberant and has a more extensive 'celebration' repertoire.

As we have said, musical forms of worship — and singing in particular — make up a large part of what Christians do when we get together. Music is a powerful medium capable of moving people's emotions. Maybe it should come with a warning label. What are your thoughts on this?

There is no doubt that people can be carried along by the excitement of the moment and the emotional power of music, and so it should always be used responsibly. Leaders have to discern between what is soulish and what is spiritual. One simple rule is that the Holy Spirit is always interested in glorifying Jesus whereas the soul is always self-interested, concerned with whether it is feeling good or getting what it wants, forgetting other people.

Jesus always showed a tremendous respect for people's free will — he always led, he never drove — he clearly wasn't interested in responses that weren't genuinely from the heart. Whilst seeking to lead people as one body, we must also give people freedom not to respond in a prescribed way.

Jesus said that "What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the spirit is spirit",10 and this is a principle to keep in mind when we consider our motives and methods whilst using music. What we do from a sincere heart by faith is generally safe ground.

John Leech, a church leader writing on the subject, commented, "We have a God who takes risks. Music can be misused: indeed it has been. Many of us, given a shot at divinity, would have considered it too dangerous and subversive and would not have created it, thus keeping the human race safe from its rather disturbing possibilities. But God did create it, and for all its dangers most of us would say that we are glad he did. It seems that great beauty often comes wrapped in a dangerous package, yet God allows the risk and gives it to us anyway."

What is the place of emotive, 'feeling' type lyrics as opposed to rational thought-based lyrics in the songs we sing?

I think they belong side by side and a balance should be sought between the two. The problem today is that an overwhelming number of new songs tend to come into the experiential category and I have met many worship leaders who comment that there is a shortage of songs which simply describe the character, attributes and deeds of God. Hence it is going to be harder work to achieve the balance.

However, a song doesn't have to be one or the other and perhaps we should aim at writing — and hunting down — songs which do both. In fact it is already agreed that one of hymn writer Charles Wesley's greatest strengths was to combine scriptural truth and good biblical doctrine with personal expressions of gratitude and love to God. Worship is about revelation and response — and sometimes it seems to me that a song is asking for the response without giving us much revelation to respond to. Ideally a song gives us a richness of both.

In evaluating worship songs the relative importance of melody and lyrical content is often discussed. What is the task of a good worship song?

I guess it's an obvious observation that ideally a great melody and a great lyric should sit together. One of my personal regrets as a songwriter is where I've virtually thrown away a great lyric on a poor melody or vice versa, and wish that I'd started over again on the weaker component. There's no doubt that today a strong, catchy melody is the key to the success of a song and the lyric tends to tag on behind, although in terms of longevity, weak or flawed lyrics tend to become more of a problem the more a song is used.

A good worship song has to facilitate expression of praise and worship from the hearts and minds of a broad range of people. It has to be simple enough to be understood in the time it takes to sing it, but not simplistic in a way that insults the intelligence of those who sing it!

There must be theological integrity — in other words, the content mustn't stray far from Scripture and should use broadly understood language and imagery of devotion, which means the lyrics must be largely free from obscurities, doubts and ambiguities. A song needs to be comprehensible to the culture in which it is formed but also true to the unchanging Gospel, suitable for glorifying God, unifying believers and expressing doctrine. Melodies must be within a suitable range for male and female voices in unison and intervals, syncopation, tempo etc must be accessible to the average congregation.

Some Christians struggle with worship songs that feature inane phrases, sentimentality and lack of theological soundness. What criteria can we use to vet the lyrics of the songs we sing?

Because there are so many new songs offered to the church these days, there is a danger that churches try to learn too many of them and therefore come to know a lot of songs in a shallow way. It is good to think of a new song as a potential long-term friend as opposed to a casual acquaintance, and because every song is going to influence people's thinking and understanding about the Christian faith, it is helpful to think of every song as a teaching package and to question whether or not it is a worthy one.

I don't think it is always a good idea to hand over the choosing of songs entirely to a worship leader, especially if they are young and inexperienced and their perspective is more to do with preferred musical styles than having a grasp of the pastoral implications of what is appropriate in a particular church at a particular time.

Ideally those responsible for the music get together with the key leaders and from time to time review the repertoire and look at a number of new songs with a view to which ones will serve the church best. It is better to focus on a few good songs which are going to become thoroughly a part of the repertoire than to skim over dozens which will be disposable.

In terms of criteria, common sense will always get us a very long way, and — having listened to a song together — simply reading out the lyric without the music will generally expose any weaknesses. However, I don't think we should expect songs to always be precise theological statements: in fact, if they were, they probably wouldn't be singable — take a look at a theological book and try and sing it!

Often we will have to make an 'on balance' judgement, ie on balance, this song, despite minor flaws, is a really good one to invest in or, conversely, this song in the long term will not be helpful. The circumstances and explanations surrounding the way in which a song is first presented will shape people's perceptions of it, eg the difference between "the leadership believe that this song sums up what God is saying to us this year" and "here's one I came across the other day"!

How important is it that songwriters undergo a course of theological training?

My guess is that, like myself, most contemporary praise and worship songwriters have not undergone a formal course of theological training. However, theological training does not always have to be formal, and if a songwriter grows up in a church where there is good Bible teaching and if they read good material and take an interest in understanding the Scriptures, that can take someone a long way.

And not every talented songwriter would necessarily even qualify to enter a theological college, but may have enough gifting and knowledge to come up with the goods. I definitely encourage songwriters who have the academic potential to consider some theological training — which of course these days doesn't have to be full time residential but can be distance learning — as an investment into what could potentially be a lifetime of productivity serving the church.

It is important for every songwriter to realise that scriptural understanding and insights don't come out of nowhere and you will only give out of your mental database what you have fed into it. Quality output depends on quality input.

What is your opinion of the 'worship as performance' phenomenon?

I often remind people as I begin to lead a time of sung worship that they are the performers and God is the audience and those of us behind the instruments and microphones are there to help them give their worship as we give ours. I think that helps people to know what it's about, because on the face of it a band on stage can appear to be a concert, and in the context of our culture it would be very easy for people to adopt the role of spectators.

Occasionally I will take a congregation through a brief vocal warm up as one would with a choir, which as well as warming up the vocal chords is a clear cue to everybody that they're there to participate. I think there is a danger wherever the worship leaders and musicians are particularly skilled and the PA system particularly effective that it turns into a concert, or the volume levels become such that people feel overwhelmed and that there is no point in them singing because they can't be heard anyway. Having said that, there are times when a performance of a worship song by a band or a soloist can be tremendously worshipful for everybody and at such times their participation may be silent but can be deeply meaningful as they agree and identify and respond in their hearts.

There is often talk of 'excellence' related to worship activity. What is the place of excellence?

I think the concept of excellence has to be unpacked. Are we talking about excellence in the view of those on the platform or those in the congregation or indeed from the point of view of God as the audience? God is clearly interested in the excellence of the heart, and a quick look at Amos 5 will remind us that without justice and righteousness in the lives of the worshippers the most excellent musical expression will be an offensive discord in God's ears.

I have often been in meetings where worshippers are present who suffer from disabilities such as cerebral palsy and whose worship expressions to most ears are tuneless and indecipherable. But surely, if the heart is expressing love, it is just as beautiful to God as the same excellent love expressed in the most talented vocalist's offering. Excellence must be traced back to the heart because it can also be attempted for the sake of pride.

If we are seeking to give the best that we can to God because we believe he is worthy of it then God will surely receive it, even if one person's technical best is the next person's poor-to-awful! This is a particularly relevant issue amongst musicians brought up in an atmosphere of either affirmation or censure based upon the quality of their technical performance.

Excellence motivated by fear of failure is not quite pure worship either. Our gracious God has chosen to use the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the wise and the strong, and of course at the other extreme this should not be used as an excuse for laziness and neglect. Perhaps the key is in the words of King David when he said "I will not offer to the Lord that which has cost me nothing."

Are there gaps in our repertoire of songs? When we are faced with tragedies such as the fall of the World Trade Centre and bombs in a Bali nightclub, where are the songs that address our distress and fears and bring them to God?

Certainly there are many gaps, and many worship leaders were stumped the day after 9/11 because, in the light of such tragedies, many of the regular songs would be inappropriate and many would seem shallow and triumphalistic. In contrast, the songs recorded in the Bible cover every aspect of life and include such things as lament. If we can't find an appropriate song at a certain time perhaps we can always simply read the Scriptures, perhaps over an appropriate musical backing.

Talking of gaps, in general I believe we need more Scripture songs, songs clearly based on specific Bible stories and characters, songs of mission, songs which prepare us for persecution and adversity, songs which are clearly Trinitarian in their doctrine, songs about perseverance, heaven, hell, providence, daily work, songs about the poor and needy . . . . The list could go on.

It has been said that most Christians learn their theology from the songs they sing. Can you comment on the importance of the songs we choose to sing in our public gatherings?

Someone once said to a church, "You sing me your songs and I'll tell you your theology". Songs are almost the only thing that Christians learn by heart these days, very few will memorise Scripture or learn chunks of doctrine by heart, non-liturgical churches don't learn creeds and so on. Therefore the choice of songs sung in a particular church should, I believe, be a lot more deliberate and strategic and every song regarded as a teaching package which will influence everybody's thinking.

I know pastors who will not allow certain songs to be sung, however good they may be in other respects, because of the danger of reinforcing an unhelpful emphasis or error, and whilst this can be taken too far, I think it's generally a good idea for a leadership and a congregation to know that their leaders are being thoughtful about everything that they sing, and that it can be trusted as helpful and reliable.

When Paul had given a lot of corrective teaching about public worship he summed it all up by saying "Let everything be done for edification." This is a very simple but profound rule which I think we should seek to apply as much to our sung worship as to every other component of it.