Contemporary church music

Contemporary church music

This past weekend, here in Medicine Hat, we were privileged to have the ordained Presbyterian minister, renowned preacher, composer and journalist, John L. Bell from Scotland’s Iona Community  visit our fair city and lead church folk from around Alberta in several workshop and worship sessions.

John Bell has the gift of inspiring almost anyone to sing. I was astounded how, within three to five minutes of meeting us, he had us singing beautifully, even in harmony, a simple song composed by the Iona Community.

In his talks, John regaled us with several humorous, inspirational stories—everything from dedicating one of his books to two of his former teachers who told him he could not sing; to a visitor causing a stir in a worship service when his glass eye fell out and parishioners by mistake retrieved a mint instead; to having the patience to listen with love and care to a man who spoke with a stammer.

In a more serious vein, one of the insightful observations that John made concerning Christian art and music in the Western Church is that the vast majority of works depict Jesus in a passive manner. He critiqued such classic hymn lines as: “The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Such hymns, according to Bell are not real to life; they rob Jesus of his humanity. So, John and the other members of the Iona Community compose hymns that are based on gospel stories that portray Christ’s humanity and hence are more real and accessible for folks today. In addition to lyrics lauding Jesus’ humanity, the Iona compositions also employ very singer-friendly pieces. The music is simple, often contemporary, yet inspirational—some of the compositions remind me a bit of the Taizé Community chants, once you learn them, they stay with you and you hum or sing them repeatedly internally.

May God grant John Bell a long and healthy life as he shares his music with the world!