Claiming that God still speaks is no simple thing. What might seem as an obvious or innocuous statement to some, is actually a complex and controversial proclamation. There is power in the Word of God. Throughout history many have claimed to wield his Word or have “the” only true understanding of his voice, and used that claim to give power and justification to their own personal, sometimes evil, ends.
Yet, in contrast God’s speech is creative, transformative, and effectual. “Word” in the Hebrew, dabar, is more than what we imagine as a word. It is both “spoken word” and also “action or event.” We get a sense of the power of God’s speech in Psalm 46 where it describes when “he lifts his voice, the earth melts.” And in Jeremiah 23:29, “Is not my word like a fire saith the Lord; And like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?”
If there was any question about the power of the word of God, one needs only open to the first page of Scriptures. In Genesis, “God said … ” and “… there was.” In other words, when God speaks, creation occurs. It leads one to consider, if God still speaks, then God still creates. And the theology of creation—in the beginning as well as today—is the bedrock of understanding for any Christian thinking about communication. When God spoke man into existence, something fundamental shifted in the way God interacted with his creation. He began to let humans become the expressors of his creative will.
Can you imagine God sitting on a rock watching Adam, as he gave names to all the animals? We know from Scripture that God’s heart is moved and filled with delight by the things we do. David was described as being a man after God’s own heart and in Psalm 37 he paints a picture of God enjoying humanity: “The steps of a man are established by the LORD, And He delights in his way” (v. 23). And in Zephaniah 3:17, we are reminded, “The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”
And although man was last, he wasn’t least: man and woman finished the work. As God completed each aspect of creation, he saw that “it was good.” But with the final stroke—Adam and Eve—he looked at creation’s vast array and said “it is very good.”
In Scripture there was another important event that caused God to express his approval: “This is my beloved son in who I am will pleased…” Jesus, the second Adam, received God’s audible approval. Jesus was God’s completed work. Of course, Jesus is the Word of God, and while he was on earth, he also spoke for the Father.
Since the Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s dabar has been perpetuated, first by a rag-tag group of outcasts known as the disciples, and now by the people you meet with each week—the body of Christ. We as his creation are partnering with him and presently speaking for him as well. Man has been filled with the living breath of God—voiced in sound.
Divine and Human
In Scripture we see that God speaks through created things, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” but God also speaks through man in creation. What the disciples received at Pentecost was life in the Spirit. A charisma that would allow letters/words not their own to become dabar again. This process of man partnering with God through the gift of communication is never clearer than in New Song recorded in Scripture—in the Gospels and Epistles, some of the most powerful, moving, and transformational passages were taken from hymns of the day. God using songwriters to contribute to his Word.
But New Song can also be controversial. For example, in more recent Christian history, we find a storm brewing in Europe in the late medieval period of Europe as hymn writers, those carrying the New Song, were martyred and burned at the stake (John Huss, Georg Grünwald, members of Wycliff’s Lollards, the Waldensians, among many others).
Yet, that type of violent tyranny (yes, at the hand of people falsely wielding the Word of God) eventually gave way to, if not acceptance then at least, indignant forbearance. John Calvin instituted a New Song by putting new melodies to the psalms. The Catholic Queen referred to them as Geneva ditties. Yet even with that type of derision, Calvin’s New Song became sacred treasure for future generations, so much so that new hymns written by humans became forbidden.
With cultural production the icon becomes an idol that must be smashed or remediated by a future generation, hence when dabar is expressed in the form of hymnody via New Song through writers like Watts, the hierarchies that championed the previous expression are often opposed to them. Isaac Watts’ psalms and hymns like those before them were initially controversial, but gave voice to America’s first great awakening. God’s poets of prayer had been silenced by institutional authority and hierarchies, but found new inspiration from Watts, who was followed by John and Charles Wesley—and then exemplars such as John Newton and William Cowper in a fresh wave of creativity that sprang up as a new chorus of praise and worship.
In the first half of the 1800s, Negro spirituals mirrored David’s psalms of distress and deliverance, and Charlotte Elliot and William Bradbury created the perennial “Just as I Am,” while Sarah Adams in 1841 offered “Nearer My God to Thee.” Philip Bliss is remembered for “When Peace like a River (It Is Well with My Soul).” In the last quarter of the 1800s and into the new century, New Song was led by Fanny Crosby: “Blessed Assurance,” is only one among 9,000 songs the blind poetess authored.
The music that emerged from these and others was encouraged not by a selling culture, but by a sharing culture. Christian hymns at their base motivation were created to praise God and share his attributes in the congregation—folk culture and hymnody have so much in common. Folk is not about a style, rather substance and content. However as all things do, when new revivals break out, structures built to support and encourage the selling culture can emerge and even dominate. At Worship Leader, we believe a new era has emerged, just as the guitar led the way as a new tool in the emergence of New Song in the Jesus movement—with songs of praise such as “Glorify Your Name,” “Seek Ye first,” “I love you Lord,” “As the Deer”—a torrent of New Song is pouring from houses of prayer, small and large, giving platforms to prayer poets of this generation.
In the pre-digital era of sharing, production and distribution became very expensive. In 1977, the first studio I constructed cost $750,000 and that was just the beginning. A single project would require $30,000 in sound production, $10,000 for the parts of production (art, photography, design, and packaging) and $15,000 creating inventory to put in the pipeline for a 12″ vinyl platter. The term mechanical royalty refers to the money paid publishers and writers and has its origins in the “piano rolls” on which music was recorded in the early part of the 20th Century (and later pressed vinyl) and was administrated via a publisher/record company/licensing agent. This was the printing press era of recording. And only those who had a “deal” or a good deal of extra cash could participate.
In the digital era, global distribution is open to whosoever will via the long tail of Amazon and iTunes—and the cost in many cases is zero. Although in the commercial field there is still a segment of New Song built in the studio environment where perfecting sound is the goal, with the purchase of an iPad and GarageBand, the cost of production has been democratized. What cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars can now be duplicated for a few thousand.
This isn’t new information. Probably everyone reading this is aware of new production realities. What we don’t know however is the impact. With these new tools combined with social media, we have what leaders are calling a digital reformation. No one can predict the influence of New Song as it relates to the institutions of production and selling of the past. What does seem to be clear is that more prayer poets are connecting with pastors and theologians and other writers now, and across time. They are connecting, collaborating, creating, and circulating more than ever before. There is an outpouring and sharing of New Song going on. The new hymnal chronicling God’s story in the hearts of his globally-connected people is being sung. Today’s hymn writers and their congregations are joining in with the great cloud of prayer poets across time. Our only hope is that God—the inspiration and audience of New Song—is indeed pleased.
Here is our word of encouragement to New Song Prayer poets.
- As a writer of hymns, realize your songwriting partner is God. It is his story. He is still speaking and his words are more than type on a page. They’re active and action-filled, transforming, alive, sharper than a two-edged sword. Write to put a smile on his face.
- Do all you can to master technology, so it serves the message and not vice versa.
- This is a new era of community and the key is listening and being attentive to your community. Look for God’s transformations as people sing.
- Learn from other contemporary prayer poets, and those from across history
What have they done right?
What have they done wrong?
What has been confused?
- Learn to write songs of listening. We are formed by our worship.
- Keep writing. My good friend Jack Hayford has written well over 700 hymns, none of which you’ll hear; He also wrote “Majesty,” which almost every believer and Christian community has heard … and sung.
- You have been commissioned to give voice to your community. Faithfulness in little will be blessed. It is in your community where you truly learn to be a servant.
- As great as New Song can be, music culture reeks with idolatry and narcissism. Be conscious of this and find ways to look beyond yourself.
God’s leaders of prayer don’t show up to show off. They show up to bow down. It’s a new day. It’s a New Song with a fresh opportunity to collaborate with God in serving the Church and your community.
Chuck Fromm is the publisher of Worship Leader magazine.