Setlist or Hymnal?
In August of 2012, 3,000 people filled the Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa sanctuary to experience an evening of worship featuring the original Praise songs. The songs that were to be sung were exclusively chosen from the first seven Praise albums produced by Calvary Chapel between 1974 and 1980.The first Praise album, the granddaddy so to speak of this new folk hymn movement, was conceived and executed by Mike MacIntosh, Tommy Coomes, and Pastor Chuck Smith. The fact that these records have been in the marketplace nonstop for nearly 40 years gives weight to their venerability. Pastor Chuck established this “sung prayer” genre in a style that would likely be called “contemplative” today. This was not “tippy toe” music or its opposite—what could be tagged “triumphalisitic” emotionalism/arena rock—but rather very melodic, tight harmonies congregationally friendly, and reflective. I call it “iconophonic.”
After an introduction from Chuck Smith, Tommy Coomes, the Praise series producer and pioneer worship leader, stepped out with his band to lead the 21st century congregation in hymnody over three decades old. It was like striking a match to a barrel full of lighter fluid. The songs ignited hearts as they stirred the imagination with remembering mixed with new prayers to God.
Now these praise songs were not the only songs in the Calvary Chapel hymnal of the ’70s.Their pew racks also contained the standard print book hymnal containing a treasury of Christian Evangelical music spanning several centuries. This printed “Gutenberg” hymnal served (and serves) many functions. For example, just like the biblical pre-Incarnation Psalms, which were collected over a millennium in five separate books, the printed hymnal collects the best of the best over centuries. It also provides an education. A glance of the topical index of a printed hymnal gains you suggestions on the ways each hymn can be used in the service of worship, thematic information, and Scripture references. (This is why each song on a Song DISCovery CD has the same information; we were imitating what has been time-tested.)
But in the ’70s, individual churches began to sing in a language and a way that told not only the universal Church’s story with God, but also our own individual community’s faith journey. And we added our own songs of praise to the exhaustive collection of hymns.
Our new hymns were born in a new era of communications (FM radio/multi-track recording/cassette-tape duplicator). And the songs themselves (“Father I Adore You,” “Glorify Thy Name,” “Seek Ye First,” “In Moments Like These,” “Spirit Song,”etc.) first made their way around the globe in sound form … not print. It was the post-Gutenberg, pre-Google world of the cassette tape duplicator. The Calvary Chapel Hymnal grew12-14 songs at a time with each new Praise album release.
The addition of songs to the great living hymnody is just as alive and well in Christian communities today. But who is managing the hymnal? From the Psalms to the first collection of Christian hymns entitled The Odes of Solomon (first century AD), the tradition of Christian curation of hymns has been the bedrock for nurturing faith and sustaining community.
Who’s on Watch?
This brings up a couple of questions:
- What is the hymnal of your Church?
- Are you collecting the best of the best in terms of heart poetry to God?
- Are your hymns representative of historical Christianity as well as modern?
- Are the songs you sing representative of the multicultural, multiethnic, multigenerational nature of the kingdom of heaven?
- Do the hymns carry deep theological truth as well as beautiful metaphoric imagery?
Recently a history of worship music scholar studied the top 100 CCLI songs and reported that there was not one song in that repertoire which represented God as a Trinity. Interesting. I wonder what other gaps may exist in our own “folk supplements” to our hymnals.
All of this is to say that the worship leader is more than the creator of a setlist. Worship leaders carry the pastoral responsibility to steward the community’s hymnal—both Gutenberg and Google—and to curate songs that not only soar musically but resonate truthfully with the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a high calling. May God grant you the wisdom and grace for the task as you continually sift through the new song offerings and continue to build the hymnal of faith together.
Chuck Fromm is the founder of Worship Leader Media which includes Worship Leader magazine, Song Discovery, and the National Worship Leader Conference.