n 1969, a young high school girl found herself sitting on a concrete slab with several other kids listening to an older man give a Bible study. That night she heard the message of God’s love and redemption. The result was a personal commitment to follow after Jesus. Not knowing how to share this life-transforming experience with her younger sister, she decided to write a song. It was only in that way could she convey the true meaning of what Jesus had done for her. As she shared the song with her sister, she too accepted the challenge to follow Christ. Then, the following week, the two sisters enthusiastically shared the same song with a friend in their Claremont High School choir.
This young man was also transformed by the message, and the song then had a trio of voices and accompaniment with guitars and a keyboard to support it. A few months, and several more song collaborations later, the emerging young group took a name, Children of the Day. The song that initiated this story of redemption eventually found its way around the world and into nearly every new hymnal to be printed from the 1970s forward. The song was, “For Those Tears I Died.” The familiar chorus, which begins, “And Jesus said come to the water / stand by my side” was authored by Marsha Carter-Stephens.
Such songs or, what some prefer to call today, modern hymns are not born singularly or out of thin air. The romantic fiction of the artist-poet as the sole bearer of treasures from heaven is, simply, fiction. The basic corroboration for such a song is that of the relationship between a writer and the audience. In this case the intended audience was very particular. The songwriter was communicating directly to her sister, in the most convincing way she knew how, her enthusiasm as a new believer. The motivation to communicate to her sister and the reception of the song, ultimately, led to the unification of that community as the salvation narrative was repeated over and over in countless musical performances and recordings. The essential component, however, in taking a song written for a particular audience or reason and moving it across the globe is where we find the ultimate collaboration—that being with the Holy Spirit. The song itself became a main staple in the mass beach baptismal sacraments that were broadcast around the world, not because of a brilliant marketing plan devised in a conference room, but because of the hand of the Spirit.
This relationship between poet, audience and Holy Spirit is especially critical in hymnody. Why? Because for a song to truly work as a hymn of faith the message must be owned by the audience. Thus, hymns of praise require the author to become transparent. This is different than that of secular poets and authors. Hymns are a unique form of literature.
Another modern hymn, made famous in the Jesus movement, was “Praise the Name of Jesus.” The author, Roy Hicks, Jr., wrote the song with the first verse repeated three times in order to give praise to the triune God. Fortunately, Pastor Jack Hayford made the adaptation of shortening the song to a double repetition of the phrase, which made it less cumbersome, and, ultimately, it was adopted around the world.
Although modern copyright law mitigates against this principle of congregation adaptation, the fact is that hymns are unique instruments and will continue to be adapted to the needs of congregation. We might call this work that of a “collective charisma” or the gifts of many to serve the community in the singing of one voice to God. Certainly the authorship of what is written down and made vocal again and again in a variety of communities and contexts, is not a copyrighted work that can be owned (tell that to CCLI). Our songs continually find collaboration with the people who sing them with their hearts offered to the Lord. Our sacrifice of praise, truly, is a unique offering to the Lord.
Chuck Fromm is publisher of Worship Leader magazine.