The Bible instructs us over and over again to sing a new song to Lord. Psalm 33 tells us that the only appropriate response to God’s faithful work and his steadfast love is … music!
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
Make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
Play skillfully on the strings with loud shouts. (Ps. 33:1-3)
So, what did those loud, skillful notes sound like? We don’t know, really, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Because we would be tempted to imitate them and get stuck in a nostalgia cult, at best, or a sort of musical orthodoxy, at worst. The song should be new because the encounter with God is fresh and real. Even oldie but goodie songs should be sung with authenticity and new zeal.
Are there any new songs being composed and sung today? The answer is, more than ever. Where do we find it? Certainly there is composition going on in music schools. For example, in places such as the legendary Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, there are courses for those directing the worship, and who wish to create music for the liturgy for the 21st century. The same goes for the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and many other similar institutions. As well, of course, individual composers are putting out significant worship music. More classically oriented composers are producing important music in the Anglican or Lutheran traditions. There is an astonishing array of resources coming out of the Anglican Church in Great Britain alone. At the same time the contemporary worship music that originated in the Jesus Movement, has spread widely and produced an amazing set of composers. For many of us, favorites would include the prolific Graham Kendrick, as well as Stuart Townend, the Gettys, and more American-styled artists like Stephen Curtis Chapman, Kevin Twit, Michael W. Smith, and so many more.
But some of the most outstanding music is being produced directly out of the local churches themselves. It serves simply to enhance the congregation’s worship. Often the individuals or groups involved are virtually anonymous, because they are not interested in winning Grammys or appearing at large festivals. Where is this happening? And how are the musicians accomplishing their art?
It is happening, quite literally, all around the world. One of the exciting trends even in developing countries is to see churches moving from an understandable dependence on the music of the Western culture, to maturity and a proper use of local culture. We recently visited a church in South Korea which used not only traditional Korean instruments, but melodies and rhythms whose roots are in Korean folk music. The group Nulsoree specializes in this combination, and has published a number of recordings of their compositions. Of course, this is only one approach. There is also Korean CCM, which is a growing industry, much of which was developed in the Church. While far more “Western” than Nulsoree, the phenomenon of globalization means that the boundaries are quite porous, and, at any rate, there is much more than just imitation going on.
The Question Is …
How can developing churches be encouraged to compose their own, truly indigenous music? Heart Sounds International is a branch of Operation Mobilization which has been helping emerging churches create their own worship songs. According to the founder, Frank Fortunato, Heart Sounds helps people connect to their own melodies, so that they can develop a body of songs “in their own language and culture and music style.” To accomplish this they spend time with particular people groups and help them use their own music to set Scripture to song, and then they practice it with worshiping groups. They have now completed over 50 projects, mostly with unreached people groups in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.
How can churches in any culture, including North American, learn to create their own music, fit for their particular needs and aspirations, while at the same time refusing to be insular or making visitors feel uncomfortable? There is no one answer to this question. Of course it helps when there may be trained musicians in the congregation. Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church is blessed to have a music director, Dr. Paul Jones, who is also a gifted songwriter. He has composed or arranged numerous hymns, mostly in the classical tradition, well-suited to the demographic profile of that congregation. In a very different setting, James Ward directs music at New City Fellowship in Chattanooga. That congregation is in the inner city, and is quite multi-ethnic as well as diverse economically. James will write original gospel songs. He also takes traditional hymns and gives them a new musical setting. Many people are familiar with his beautiful melody rendering the old hymn, “Rock of Ages.”
Even if the church does not have the benefit of gifted musicians, there are practical guidelines for creating their own sounds. There are even courses and websites which can instruct people with only rudimentary musical knowledge in the art of songwriting. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has a number of resources which are quite hands-on. One of them is a website dedicated to answering the question, “How can I create a simple liturgical music for free?” It walks you through every step of coordinating the words of the Lutheran liturgy with simple but elegant melodies. It suggests you take a line, say from a Psalm, and identify the main words. Draw a line with curves where these words are highlighted. Then write a simple tune based on the curve. Then harmonizes it. At one level, this sounds easy. At another, of course, it takes some skill and a good ear to do this well.
Another such resource is provided by Churches of the Restoration Movement. Somewhat humorously, they point out that the music in many churches is predictable, quipping, “We’re in a theological Starbucks, and we’re all drinking the same latte. That’s not bad, but it’s like everything else on the menu has been wiped clean.” They go on to propose ways in which this can be improved, including very practical suggestions, such as, carry a note pad with you, read a lot of good poetry, be steeped in Scripture, let a melody come into your head and then work with it until it becomes useable ….
What I like about these resources is that they aim to achieve a balance between high musical standards and accessibility to the people. Some contemporary Christian worship is rightly accused of being superficial, repetitive, and so forth. This can be true of any style. Many of the hymns that came out of some of the great revivals, Wesleyan, Welsh, German, etc., are eminently forgettable! Yet enduring hymns emerged. Our job is to encourage good worship music, even at the risk of producing some, or many, that will be less than immortal.
God is praised not with mediocrity but with excellence. Meeting him, knowing him, that is the beginning of the songwriting process. Certainly, the music we sing should be good. And accessible. And thoughtful. Deeply joyful, yet realistic about the darkness in our world. The music that came out of the African-American experience, spirituals and then gospel, is simple, beguilingly simple. But it is profound. Let us encourage our churches to continue to produce their new songs, worthy of our God’s name!
Rev. Dr. William Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) holds the John Boyer Chair of Evangelism and Culture and is is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is also associate professor at the Faculté Jean Calvin. Find out more about him here.