This year we have seen the four leading contemporary worship leaders - at least in terms of profile - each release a new album: Tim Hughes, Love Shine Through; Graham Kendrick, Banquet; Stuart Townend, The Journey; and last week Matt Redman, 10,000 Reasons.
It is Kendrick, the grand-daddy of modern worship and Townend, who offer the most interesting songs, both theologically and musically. Kendrick has found new life since 2001 (after a pretty poor 1990s) and this latest album is a rich banquet, divided into three parts: starters, main courses and desserts - it is an album crafted to make a whole, taking us through songs of gathering and sending, invtiation and blessing, command and creed, and trust and hope. Likewise, Townend who is fast becoming the modern day Charles Wesley in terms of modern hymnody gives an album which offers some fresh sounds and styles. There are songs that tell gospel stories ('The man who calmed the sea' and 'Simple living'), a song of intercession ('Kyrie eleison, have mercy'), a song that picks up Celtic-like blessing ('Christ be in may waking') and a wonderful song of welcome ('Vagabonds').
Redman's new album, while offering more than Hughes, appears a little far behind compared to Kendrick and Townend. Lyrically and musically there is not much new or different from Beautiful News (2007) and We Shall not be Shaken (2009). Redman wrote a preface for Robin Parry's Worshipping Trinity back in 2005, but I'm still waiting to see some trinitarian shaped songs that his comments I thought might promise. On this new album is a song called 'Holy' which has some good lines, but it switches between God and Jesus without any indication that God is triune. In addition, both Redman and Hughes appear to be writing songs which are getting more and complicated structurally (with pre-choruses, mid-8s, codas and differing choruses), as well as, demanding a full on musically accomplished band.
Hughes' album is the most disappointing, revealing little progression theologically on previous albums (personally I think his co-writer on many of the songs Martin Smith of Delirious does not help Hughes write congregationally).
In short, Redman and Hughes need to spend some time with Kendrick and Townend.
In terms of Holy Communion, there are some signs that contemporary worship is recognising the central place of Communion within worship - both Kendrick and Townend offer us new communion songs, to join 'Behold the Lamb' (Townend and Getty ©2007) and 'Remembrance' (Redman and Maher ©2009). What is perhaps interesting is how these new songs offer a very open table. So 'Remembrance' invites 'any to receive' and that 'all are welcome in this place' for 'None too lost to be saved / none to broken or ashamed'. In Kendrick's 'Banquet', the refrain is to 'Come and taste, come and see' - to 'find and be found', to 'know and be known'. While in Townend's 'Vagabonds' we have a long list of differing people who are invited to
'Come to the feast / there is room at the table / come let us meet in this place / with the king of all kindness / who welcomes us in / with the wonder of love / and the power of grace'
While all three songs take communion seriously as a place of encounter with the crucified and risen Christ as we remember, all three songs appear to unfence the table, with no requirement of baptism or even faith. So Townend even invites 'fiery debaters and religion haters'. It would be interesting to see if these songs find a place in the life of churches, whether they cause churches to re-think who is welcome to the table.