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Saturday, June 17, 2006

CD Review: Worship God Live

I spent the last month or so listening to Sovereign Grace Music's latest release, Worship God Live. This album was recorded, as the title suggests, during a live worship and song session at Covenant Life Church in Maryland. Bob Kauflin, who serves as Director of Worship Development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, provided the CD for review without cost via an offer on his thoughtful Worship Matters blog.

As I've come to expect from worship music coming from Sovereign Grace, I was impressed by the substance and gospel-centeredness of the songs on the album. All of the songs were written by members of Sovereign Grace churches. The gospel-richness of the songs was typified by the chorus of Jesus, Thank You:
Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You
How often do songs speak of the satisfaction of the wrath of the Father in the cross? Such clear and faithful declarations of the truths of the gospel were embodied in the songs of the album. Listening to these songs left me with little question that bringing these into a corporate worship context would help guide the congregation into reflecting on the glory of God in Christ.

One thing I'm always looking for as a song leader is songs that will help a congregation sing as one, rather than as merely a number of individuals in the same room. While there's certainly a place for hymns speaking of "I" and "me;" it's equally important that God is saving for Himself a people, and the church is the Body of Christ made up of interconnected members. When we come together as the church, it's a unique time and context for singing as the people of God and not just a bunch of persons. Therefore, I always look for songs for the church to sing together that acknowledge our oneness in Christ. The songs in particular that I liked along these lines were God Moves (an update of William Cowper's hymn with an added chorus of "... God, we trust in You..."), Receive The Glory, the upbeat How Majestic, and, of course, the updated version of O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

I also felt that nearly all of the arrangements were fitting to the lyrics. That is, too often, it seems folks think one can take any lyrics and drop some fast rock beat on without any effect on the ability to appreciate the lyrics. That kind of thinking is equivalent to thinking one could simply take the original lyrics of And Can It Be and put them to rap without taking away from the hymn's "usability" in congregational worship. I think not. In general, the album did a good job pairing meaningful lyrics with appropriate musical arrangements. In particular, I liked the album's redux of O God, Our Help in Ages Past. (Sovereign Grace, in general, has done some very tasteful and high-quality "updates" of very good hymns. The Upward album showcases some excellent examples of this.)

One area I felt the album fell short was the very prominent presence of percussion and other instruments in the production. The band/instruments were audible to the point of taking away from the ability to discern and appreciate the lyrics. I actually had to turn down the treble on my stereo in order to reduce the "noise." I tried to capture this in a short audio clip, which first features a "flat" EQ version followed by toning down the high-end treble. This is just a personal preference, but it seems altogether too common in churches these days that the worship band/instruments are very audible and the congregation's "voice" seems lost amidst the performance. I think the recording would've been better with less emphasis on the high-end percussion sound (snares/hi-hat) and electric guitar(s). Oddly enough, I didn't really perceive this as a problem listening to some of my older Sovereign Grace live recordings from the now discontinued "Come and Worship" series such as Depth of Mercy. In that album, the voices were very prominent and the instruments were in the background as I think they should be in congregational worship. To grant benefit of doubt, recordings can only capture a snippet of the actual experience. And this complaint is relatively minor, since it's something I can correct with some equalizer tweaking.

Perhaps a more serious complaint is that the style of worship leading seems much more performance-oriented than to accompanying an average congregation. Namely, when listening to a studio-recorded session of "worship songs," I fully expect a number of creative insertions, solo variations, etc. But the more I listened to this album and tried to "worship along," the more I was distracted by a number of musical interludes and segues between verses in which the worship team members were singing their own solos. If you've listened to any common live "rock" worship albums, of course, you probably know what I mean. If not, here's a sample audio clip from one of my otherwise better-liked songs on the album, Jesus, Thank You. The question I asked myself was, "What would I do while these worship bands were singing their little solos? Would I watch and wait 'til they sync'ed up? Would I sing my own solo amidst a congregation? Or would I just watch and listen to them?" Since the last seemed most likely, it seemed to violate for me a core principle of worship/song leading: don't be the center of attention. Of course, I recognize that the congregation at Covenant Life is likely accustomed to this style — and that overrides my personal concerns. Perhaps it's due to their continuationist preferences. But in general, this style seems indicative of an unhealthy trend of performance-oriented "worship leading" that's more common than not, especially among churches trying to emulate "successful" mega-churches.

All in all, the pluses outweighed the minuses of the album. I wouldn't try to emulate the worship leading style of the band(s) in the album. But the songs themselves commend themselves to be introduced to congregational worship for any church interested in new songs that are full of the gospel, of Christ, and of a passion and zeal for the glory of God. Amidst so many options for so-called worship music that is far more self-centered than God-centered, this album is a great choice. That Sovereign Grace makes all the sheet music and chord sheets available on their website for free download speaks volumes of their desire to make sure song leaders can use these great songs within their own congregations. I'd encourage any song leaders to purchase the album and pick up song sheets for songs that they think would work for their congregation.