Hillsong Music: Can we use it?
"...It is wise to remember that many of these songs and hymns are not written for a Catholic liturgical setting. Theological content must be a primary consideration (even if it is a really great piece of music that the kids are desperate to sing)..."
"...Hillsong particularly has made a big difference to Australian liturgical music. Contemporary Worship Music, a genre begun in the United States and significantly influenced by popular music and personal relationships, has become an Australian commodity..."
In 2001, I was a freshly-minted assistant principal responsible for religious education in a large secondary school in Queensland. I had been told that, 'our kids just don't sing at Mass'. I was having none of that! Numerous assemblies, religious education classes and year level meetings had me marching up and down centre aisles calling out, 'I can't hear you!' and 'One more time from the second verse!' Sister Mary Catherine would have been proud. It felt like I was building that City of God all on my own. Clearly the kids did not sing and I was in denial. Sensing my dismay, the younger (and much hipper) music teacher suggested a different repertoire, drawing on some of the hymns used at his church. The change was instant. Suddenly, we were Shouting to the Lord. I must admit that I was not always sure what we were shouting, but it was loud, it was directed at God, and my new boss was very happy. Soon, Jesus was Shining and My Soul was Knowing (something?) Very Well. Mass was joyous.
Now, over a decade and a half later the music available to frustrated assistant principals preparing young people's liturgy is exciting. Hillsong particularly has made a big difference to Australian liturgical music. Contemporary Worship Music, a genre begun in the United States and significantly influenced by popular music and personal relationships, has become an Australian commodity. The type of music Christians opposed in the 1950s has made its way into our churches and now, ironically, some Christian gatherings resemble rock concerts.
Any liturgist or educator today would be crazy to ignore such success: each new Hillsong album tops the Australian iTunes charts. Justin Bieber attended their national convention in 2015 and they have downloads that rate in the millions and are comparable to Beyonce 's sales. The reason for the success is formulaic: catchy tunes that connect the popular and the sacred. But, before you oldies complain, let's remember that the formula certainly is nothing new. Folk music did much the same thing in the 60s and 70s.
However, for some, it is not the style but the substance that is the issue. Often produced by evangelical communities such as the Hillsong Church, the lyrics can draw on a theology where God is remote and spirituality is individualistic. Some songs can be great for private prayer but less good as hymns on Sunday. Despite these reservations, a total rejection of this music is unrealistic akin to sticking fingers in your ear; and chanting Here I am Lord while totally ignoring all the young people not coming to church. Pope Francis calls us to engage in a New Evangelisation, to be 'missionary disciples', engaged in the world (Evangelii Gaudium, 25). If this evangelisation is truly new, then we need to be prepared to do things in new ways. That said, evangelising in its truest sense is to live what we proclaim. Careful discernment is always required when selecting music for worship. What we sing must reflect who we are and what we believe. The task of good theology is to discover God in the present; and the best theology, the best of us, is discovered in liturgy.
It is not simply 'out with the old and in with the new'. Bono was recently interviewed on modern Christian music and he lamented that, 'The psalmist is brutally honest about the explosive joy that he's feeling and the deep sorrow or confusion...And I often think, Gosh, well, why isn't church music more like that?' It is a timely reminder that while seeking to renew our musical repertoire, we do not discard a hymn simply because we have sung it many times before. Hymns in this sense can be a beautiful reminder of the church universal. A new arrangement can help us rediscover a classic. Resources like the Catholic Worship Book II invite us into the collective wisdom of many - from present, past and ancient days. Beyond being pastorally legitimate, this music can model the very best of who we can be, revealing the breadth and depth of our relationship with God and creation.
I hope that, like me back in 2001, your choices of liturgical music bring a joyous opportunity for you to include young people in liturgical celebrations. It is wise to remember that many of these songs and hymns are not written for a Catholic liturgical setting. Theological content must be a primary consideration (even if it is a really great piece of music that the kids are desperate to sing). Ask, what are we proclaiming as we sing this together?Some songs can be great for a solo performer, but not easily sung by the assembly (and Mass is never, ever a concert). Lyrics should be communal rather than individual and be reflective of Scripture. You do not need a large number of songs: choose one and learn it well. Introducing too many new hymns can be distracting. The beginning and end of evangelisation is the invitation to be nourished within a Eucharistic community. We can build on our great tradition by learning something new from people who are clearly doing extraordinary things.
by James Robinson, Liturgy Brisbane