- A Conversation with former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine David Neff on worship, prayer poetry, and congregational song.
What elements, do you believe, bring longevity to a song?
A good song is, of course, both music and text. Melodies that last use a lot of stepwise movement, combined with the occasional leap of a fifth or a fourth. There is no better melody than “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” which opens with a drop of a fourth and then runs back up the scale of that interval and then back down again. Very easy to hear and very easy to sing. Not all melodies are created equal, and if a melody is weak and sentimental, we’ll enjoy it for awhile, but it won’t stick around.
But songs that last also require good text that is multi-layered. I profitably sang hymns like “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for many years without realizing their scriptural basis. But once I began to study that scriptural underpinning, every phrase began to take on extra meaning because it echoed with the scriptural context of the phrase.
In addition, though, good hymns resonate with human experience. And so we might sing a hymn for years and have it in our memories, but when we hit certain difficult times, all of a sudden some phrase comes back to us from the hymn and gives it a new depth. Example: “The Church’s One Foundation” talks about “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” That was just a nice sounding phrase until some of my family members died. Ever since those deaths, I can’t sing that hymn without tearing up. Likewise, there are several phrases in Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” that communicate his confidence in God’s sovereignty. These come back to me whenever I face serious difficulties: “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
Frankly, there are a lot of traditional hymns as well as a lot of contemporary worship songs that can’t give you that kind of spiritual reinforcement when you need it.
In what ways, if any, do you feel that contemporary worship bands have affected our worship understanding when compared with the traditional organ and classic hymns?
Contemporary worship bands and pipe organs have the same challenge: how to avoid a performance orientation and instead facilitate congregational singing. This must be the constant focus of church musicians, no matter what instrumentation is being used. It’s all about supporting the congregation’s worship.
But I will say that contemporary worship bands lend themselves to songs that have just a few simple phrases. Such songs have their place. In my own music ministry, I use the songs from the Taize community in France—simple, short, repetitive aids to meditation. I also use African American spirituals that have minimal text, where there is just one minor change per verse. “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” and “Were You There when They Crucified My Lord” are examples of such songs where after the first phrase of each verse, you know what to expect for the rest of the verse and can sing without a lot of complex thought.
But the gospel is rich and complex too, and songs with finely wrought texts often just do not work well with worship bands. I’d hate to lose the centuries of fine poetry we have in some of our hymnals. (Although I’d love to lose all the mediocre stuff.) Because the biblical story is so rich and complex, we need to maintain a worship tradition that matches that richness.
David Neff is the former editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine, where he served for 28 years before his retirement. He is also an experienced organist and choir director who for nearly 30 years promoted in practice Robert Webber’s blended worship approach to church music at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois (where Bob Webber belonged in the late ’70s and early ’80s). David now leads music at the Church of the Nativity, Cedarcroft.
And he will be at the National Worship Leader Conference, Virginia.