by David Bunker
Not long ago a songwriter friend sent me a new song with the following message. “This is the result of a spontaneous worship moment. What do you think?” After listening, I responded, “it sounds like a spontaneous worship moment. If you want me to try and find a home for it, go back and work on it and then send it to me again.” Because the writer was a good friend, we were able to laugh about my less-than-sensitive response. But if I am being totally candid, those words reflect what I feel far more often than I actually say it.
So what is that that drives this discontent? It’s certainly not a lack of appreciation for true worship experiences, spontaneous or otherwise. Nor do I question the authenticity of such responses. But neither am I convinced every individual worship moment is intended for use in a corporate worship setting. At least not in its original form.
In order to clarify a perspective some would declare me as narrow-minded and out of touch, it might help to know how I arrived here. Admittedly, my musical biases are rooted in a deeply-held passion for the hymns of the church. The songs played an important role in my early years and their impact continues today. I am also a songwriter who has spent my entire adult life pursuing the call God placed on my heart as a young teenager. And while I would not characterize myself as a hymn writer in the traditional sense, the influence is undeniable.
So what is it about songs, written out in 4 parts, with somewhat archaic language, that deems them relevant in a discussion of current worship trends in some cases two and three hundred years after they were written? For starters, I think the answer is in the question. The songs themselves are still relevant. As of the writing of this article, the current top 100 CCLI chart features 11 songs that include at least of a portion of what would be considered a classic hymn. What songwriter wouldn’t dream of that level of staying power for one of their compositions? So perhaps I should rephrase the question. What is it about these songs that keep them relevant?
Are there common themes or characteristics that allow them to still work after so much time? When I was a young writer, my first publisher spoke often about songs laying right on paper. He said if I wanted to see what he was talking about, all I had to do was open a hymnal. He was referring not only to the uniform meter of text from verse to verse but interesting melodic lines and intentional chord structures. Attributes worth pursuing yet on their own would have all the warmth of a textbook. There must be more.
Could it be the poetic phrasing, so prevalent in the hymns, that allows the worshiper to visualize the lyrics as they are being sung? Is that enough to keep a song in the rotation for a century or two? I doubt it and yet for me, the imagery adds yet another dimension to the worship experience. One of my favorite verses from John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” is a classic example:
“The earth shall soon
dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called
me here below,
Will be forever mine.”
Another common characteristic I find in many of the songs that have endured is the scriptural foundation evident in the lyrics. As a lover of the stories behind the hymns, I have always been intrigued to discover how many of these classic texts were written by preachers or theologians. I believe without a doubt there was and is an accountability to theological accuracy in songs of worship.
There’s yet another option to consider. What if the answer is not any one of the attributes listed above but rather a measure of all of them? Song structure, imagery, and theology each represent a unique level of craftsmanship that doesn’t just happen on its own. It is intentional and I believe there is a direct correlation between the level of craft and the chances of long-term use.
At some point in the process every songwriter, past or present has had to determine for themselves if the extra effort is worth it. Do things like rhyme really matter? Does style outweigh substance or is substance itself merely a relative term subject to cultural influences? And does any of this really make for a better song?
Count me as one who believes it does. But I also think we can have both. When a song is able to connect with the intellect as well as the emotion, it can’t help but make for a more interesting song, which in turn has a greater chance of lasting impact. Martin Luther, one of the primary influencers of the Protestant Reformation movement in the 16th century and author of ageless hymns such as A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, believed that “we sing with our heart and mind.” He also is credited with saying, “What I wish is to make hymns for the people, that the word of God may dwell in their hearts by means of a song.” The Apostle Paul expressed a similar desire in Colossians:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.Colossians 3:16, NIV
I also feel there is a legacy aspect to this discussion we should consider as well. What are the worship traditions we are leaving for future generations of worshipers? How will our songs measure up? Will they know how God was moving in our midst by the songs we leave behind? I have to admit I find it somewhat intriguing to hear a song labeled as a standard simply because it has stayed on the CCLI charts for a full year. The truth is that some of our songs may very well stand the test of time but I think it should be left for those who come behind us to make that determination.
I could easily spend the bulk of this article highlighting works of songwriters such as Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts or even Fanny Crosby to bolster my position, but the hymns that inspire me as a worshiper are not limited only to those written in centuries past. Although I have never met writers like Keith and Kristyn Getty or a growing list of other modern hymn-writers, I sense a kindred spirit in their approach to writing. Their attention to craft is obvious and yet the element of craftsmanship seems only to enhance the accessibility for worshipers like me.
Or… could it be that accessibility is one the least discussed, yet most fundamental tenets of craft?
This article is not intended to be a referendum on worship styles, pitting one against another, but rather a conversation about our responsibility as stewards of the songs we have been given. There was a song I loved several years ago by Kyle Matthews called, “The Way We Go About it Matters.” I don’t remember much about the lyrics but I think about that title whenever I get the chance to encourage young songwriters. When it comes to writing songs for the church, the way we go about really should matter.
There is too much at stake to not give it the best we have.
I’m glad Paul’s words to the Colossians didn’t say we have to choose between Psalms, Hymns or Spiritual Songs. As long as God is the focus, and our worship is true, He will meet us where we are. Ultimately it comes down to what Jesus told a woman at a well in Samaria some 2000 years ago. A time is coming He said, where “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
You know… Maybe I need to go back and listen to my friend’s song one more time.