Back in her school-days, Amanda had been good at art. She promised herself that, one day, she would take up watercolour painting. And one day, in middle age, she did.
She bought the basic kit: tubes of paint in a selection of colours, a small easel, and a range of good brushes. Guided by YouTube videos, she made a start, and was soon making some progress. Not great art, perhaps, but highly satisfying, relaxing and, she felt, uplifting.
In due course, she decided it was time to join a watercolour evening class, where she could get some proper teaching, learn from others and be stimulated by their skills and their company. This she did, but got a shock at the first session.
As Amanda was getting her brushes and other stuff out of her bag, ready for the session, the teacher made an announcement for the benefit of herself and a couple of other new members: ‘No, leave your brushes where they are, please. At this class we have left such traditional items behind. Instead, we paint with nettle brushes only.’
‘And what on earth are they?’ asked Amanda, curious.
The teacher held up a limp-looking object for all to see. It looked a bit like a faded posy. ‘This,’ she announced, ‘is a nettle brush. As you can see, it’s a bunch of nettle stems, held together with a rubber band. You use this as your brush, dipping it into your paints and applying it to the paper to create some fascinating effects. This, my friends, is the future of watercolour painting!’
Being new, and wanting to appear compliant, Amanda took the bunch handed to her by the teacher and got to work with it. It was a struggle, understandably. For a start, the nettles stung her hand. Then she noticed that everybody else was wearing rubber gloves, and made a mental note to bring some next time.
But the main problem was the lack of precision and control. Sure, the nettle brush created some unusual effects, but not always the ones she would have chosen. After a few dips in the water-pot, it became even less controllable. Indeed, it became a positive hindrance to her getting the kind of results she wanted. How she longed for her familiar set of well-used sable and prolene brushes!
At her second class, increasingly frustrated, she asked the teacher when the nettle brush experiment would end, so that she could revert to her regular tools.
‘Experiment?’ retorted the teacher. ‘This is no experiment! This is the very essence of modern watercolour technique. It’s the only way forward for us. So like it, or lump it.’
After one more week of frustration, Amanda packed the class in, and never went back. Instead, she started meeting up with a couple of friends who, like her, were amateur watercolourists. They would get together one afternoon a week to paint together, encourage one another and, yes, to enjoy experimenting with new techniques, though it’s no surprise that nettle brushes never came up.
Now, for ‘painting’ read ‘sung worship’.
If, to you, ‘sung worship’ means the liturgical practice of your local parish church, or the customary string of eighteenth-century hymns at the Sunday-morning chapel service, this is not for you. I’m referring to the music of what are sometimes dubbed ‘the new churches’, the ones that are growing steadily, with some variety in the services, and oodles of young people. The sung worship there is led by a ‘worship band’. That’s mostly guitars, plus drums and a bass.
Of course, younger folk who have never even heard of fine-tip sable brushes, having been reared from childhood on nettle ones, think nettling is normal. To them, the contemporary style and repertoire of the worship band is normal. But anyone who has known anything of the musical and poetic riches of the church’s 2000-year history finds it excruciating. Like Amanda, after a week or two, they are ready to walk away, because asking them to offer sincere worship via this medium is as futile as asking them to eat their consommé with chopsticks.
Musically, most of the current songs are inept, to say the least. They follow the trend of modern secular songs in tending to be tuneless, counter-intuitive, pitched too high or too low, painfully repetitive and virtually unsingable—at least by a congregation.
As for the words, some are reasonable. They can use phraseology that would seem out of place in a traditional hymn, and that’s no bad thing. But a majority are theologically weak, as nourishing as watered-down soup. And the generous sprinkling of ‘yeah’, ‘oh-oh-oh’ and ‘gonna’ does nothing to beef them up. Many focus on me and how I feel, rather than on the majesty of God and his great salvation. Some, I fear, are complete gobbledygook, with words that would defy any attempt to say what they mean, or even how one line connects in meaning with the line before.
‘But this is the future,’ we’re told if we point out that nettle brushes sting and make a mess rather than enhancing our lives as a thing of beauty. There’s an unbelievable arrogance in turning up one’s nose at the rich musical heritage of the last two millennia by acting, in practice, as if any song more than five years old is one of those dreadful, old-fashioned sable brushes.
Personally, I’m up for a bit of nettle painting now and again, as long as it’s not all the time. And I wouldn’t want to go permanently traditional again and sing nothing but hymns by Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts. It’s only an insistence on either/or that drives people away: either the older folk, depressed by the tuneless, rhythm-driven modern songs, or the younger ones, repelled (or it is alleged they would be—I’m not so sure) by a singable tune and archaic, though meaningful, words.
But surely it doesn’t have to be exclusively one style or the other? Wise church leaders will insist on a healthy mix, for everybody’s benefit, just as wise parents insist that their kids eat some cabbage and carrots along with their chips and spaghetti hoops.
Which raises an important question: who exactly dictates the style, the ‘culture’ of a church’s sung worship? Leave it to the oldies, and every week they’d sing Amazing Grace, The Lord’s My Shepherd (to the tune Crimond), And Can It Be, and Crown Him With Many Crowns. Plus a dozen other traditional gems. Leave it to the youngsters, and every week we’d get the kind of songs I’ve shot down above. That’s why, if the ‘worship leader’ is eighteen years old and you ask him to include something ‘a bit older’, he’s not to be blamed if, in response, he starts up a song that was at its peak eighteen months ago. He doesn’t know anything older than that.
The default, nevertheless, seems to be to let the youngsters dictate the style. That, I’m convinced, is a huge mistake. The church is primarily a family, with a mixture of ages and personalities, and wise parents make sure that everybody has a say. To let the kids dictate everything is a recipe for disaster in any family. Kids, by definition, lack both experience and wisdom. It’s not their fault. It’s just that they haven’t lived long enough yet. No parents worth the name would ever let them run the family.
So, should we instead let Granny and Grandad dictate the pace? No. They’ve had their prime time. The day when they set the pace has passed, and they’re content now to take a back seat, though still as part of the family, with their wisdom respected, and their preferences at least taken into account.
So who does set the pace, the style, the culture in the family? The parents, of course! The middle generation, the ones old enough to have accumulated a bit of wisdom and experience but who still have some energy and go about them, and the strength and stamina to run the family. And in a church, that must be the leaders. They must cow-tow to the wishes of neither the youngsters nor the oldies, but steer a wise middle course representing love, balance and progress.
Only they can ensure we have a balance of nettle painting and the kind done with brushes. And that, I suggest, is the right formula for growth that is both deep and lasting.
What’s the alternative? Keep banging away with the nettle brushes and you risk losing the older folk, with all the wisdom, experience, finance and commitment that they bring to the church. Sure, the church will still grow, but exclusively with younger people, and that’s not a proper family; it doesn’t reflect the heart of God.
Stick with the set old ways seen in chapels nationwide, and you’ll end up with a shrinking bunch of pensioners and yet another listed building sold off for housing. That’s not family either.
Some have looked for a compromise by having two Sunday services, one called ‘traditional’ and the other ‘contemporary’, with worship-styles to match. It doesn’t usually work for long. It means that there are in reality two congregations—a sixth-form college and an old folks’ home—and never the twain shall meet. From what I’ve seen, both eventually fizzle out.
A variation is to do nettle painting alone at the main Sunday service. Any oldies with a robust constitution are welcome to come along, of course, but most can’t cope with it, so they don’t. Ah yes, so let’s have a completely separate Tuesday afternoon session for Seniors, with the same basic elements that mark the Sunday service: worship, word, communion. But the ‘worship’ bit, of course, will be sable brushes from start to finish, just the way Christian pensioners like it.
Again, it’s splitting the family, which is failure. In the New Testament, the primary metaphor for the church remains family. God is our Father, Jesus is our Elder Brother, and we are all brothers and sisters together—a typical family mix of different ages, male and female, intellectuals and artisans, musical and tone-deaf, introverts and extroverts, and all the other variations. We’re only family if we’re together.
If the Sunday service remains—as, in practice, it does in the ‘new churches’—the main weekly expression of the church’s life and worship, it is there, not somewhere else, where ‘family’ needs to be modelled. Our sung worship is a key element of that service: if that doesn’t express family, then family is absent. And family is what we all want; it’s what we need; it’s what we all long for. Not in theory; in practice.