As worship leaders we live in pretty fortunate times: not only do we have hundreds – OK, thousands – of years of songs and hymns to draw on for our church worship; not only are there more worship songs being written now than in the history of the church; but we also have instant access to these songs, whatever part of the world they may have come from, via the internet. We probably take it for granted, but the number and range of resources available to us is quite extraordinary, and the ease of accessibility is something that worship leaders and service planners would have given their eye-teeth for as recently as, say, ten years ago.
Of course, quantity doesn’t equal quality. And as thousands more songs are added to this virtual worldwide ‘hymnal’ every year, it is worth asking the question: do we really need more worship songs? Is this latest batch of material actually adding depth and breadth to the current canon of resources? Or is it just causing the genre to become unmanageably bloated, and (perhaps more worryingly) encouraging us to adopt the kind of chew-it-and-spit-it-out attitude towards songs that we have towards so many other ‘products’ in our throwaway, consumerist culture?
It’s a controversial question. And one, of course, that confronts me personally as someone who is (for better or worse) regularly adding to this canon! So let me answer it like this. Yes, we do need more worship songs – but with some rather large caveats. Let me explain.
Worship songs can play a very valuable part in our Christian lives. They can increase our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us; they can help us poetically and eloquently express our worshipful response to Him; they can help establish important foundations in our lives that will help us in our daily living; they can powerfully articulate our prayer and intercession; they can retell Bible stories, and bring fresh insight into the great truths of the Scriptures.
However, I have to confess that a significant minority of the new songs I come across each year on various websites, events and albums fail to do any of the above. They are little more than a re-ordering of stock phrases in circulation among existing songs, just married to a new tune. It feels to me like the energy and skill has gone into creating a dynamic, memorable melody, and the words are something of an afterthought, which sound ‘right’ but say little.
Now, I’m not advocating a 21st century Herodian edict, where any worship songs that don’t match up should be killed at birth… Although I think it might be helpful if those who work alongside us worship writers – pastors, publishers, event organisers, record companies – played a part in pushing us to write material that makes a meaningful and distinct contribution to the genre – and are not afraid to tell us when it doesn’t.
But the best (and perhaps least painful!) way is for writers to police themselves. So I offer up the following suggestions to those who write worship songs, that we might at least pause for breath before rushing to get our latest work out there.
Because, although there are more worship songs out there than ever before, I believe there are HUGE gaps in our worship repertoire, and the Church is all the worse for it.
Write with depth
Songs can often reference a great truth, without shedding any light on it. If you want to write a song that explores, say, the faithfulness of God, it’s not enough just to write “You are faithful, You are faithful, You are faithful” – that’s a mantra, not an exploration! Instead, ask yourself: How does God show His faithfulness? Where have I seen it in my own life? How does His faithfulness affect my attitudes and decisions?
Write with breadth
We can lock ourselves into writing in order to achieve a particular effect: lyrics like “here I stand before You”, “with hands lifted high” and “I lift my voice to worship” are a sure-fire way to get a visible response from a congregation! And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But we don’t just write to create an effect; we write to point to the cause. We need songs that insightfully and imaginatively attempt to explore nature of God Himself, and the depthless wonder of His works, expressed most fully and gloriously in Christ. And when we do this with skill and creativity, the effects will usually look after themselves.
But songs don’t just have to give us an ‘experience’. They can teach us and challenge us. They can retell the stories of the Bible in a meaningful way. They can also (like the Psalms) attempt to explore the joys and sorrows of the human condition in the light of our faith. These kinds of songs may not ‘push the happy button’ for a congregation, but nonetheless they are vital in grounding our faith in reality.
Many of the songs we see in the Old Testament recount specific events in the lives of God’s people, as it reminded them that God is actively involved in ordinary people’s daily lives. In the same way, it is particularly powerful when a songwriter can reflect aspects of the specific journey of his/her congregation in song.
In my own church, a season of particular joy and freedom spawned a number of songs from our writers that became special to us as a congregation. At another time, a song that was written following the tragic death of a child helped us all to express together the pain and confusion we all felt.
Of course, writing a ‘local’ song doesn’t mean that the song will stay’ local’. There are churches all over the world that will go though similar journeys to our own, and may find comfort and inspiration from your song.
The crafted lyric is perhaps not as highly valued in today’s culture as in previous generations: Hal David, Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin in the ‘40s and ‘50s; Carole King and James Taylor in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and Bernie Taupin and Bob Dylan in the ‘70s and ‘80s – all examples of great lyricists whose songs have endured, due in no small part to the depth of their lyric writing.
There are exceptions today: Thom Yorke, Elvis Costello, Eminem, to name a few. But by and large in the world of popular music, the lyrics seem to come a distant second in importance to the music. And these priorities seem to have rubbed off somewhat in the genre of worship music as we have already seen.
So, although it’s OK to write the tune before the words, don’t think the job is nearly finished, just because you’ve written a memorable melody! Make a conscious decision to write a lyric on a specific theme. Gather all the relevant scriptures, quotes and book references you have on the theme. Meditate on it, apply it, ask yourself ‘what does that mean in practice?’, and begin to express it in your own words. Look for poetic devices such as contrast, alliteration, repetition, metaphor, etc. And look to condense your thoughts into more compact, memorable phrases.
In short, if you devote the same serious attention to your lyrics as you do to the melody and the arrangement, you may just find you’ve written something that gets bigger, goes wider, and hangs around for longer, than anything you’ve written before.