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?
Resources for Songwriting
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.
Importance of Phrasing
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?
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Dave is the Media Pastor/Director at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas.