TagPraise and Worship

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash

Audience

Audience and purpose are foundational considerations for any piece of writing.

The audience of a praise and worship song is certainly our Creator, Lord, Redeemer, and Comforter.  Having God as our audience will certainly impact our writing; we’d probably want it to be as good as we can make it, not necessarily for his sake, but for ours.

The audience also includes those who will be singing the song.  The song will be different, both musically and lyrically, if it is meant to be sung by fidgety five-year-olds who tug on their ears and put their dresses over their heads.  The group which we call “youth” have different requirements for a worship song.  They like self-focused and angsty songs and ones that repeat words like “gonna.”   For most of the songs we sing on Sunday the audience is multi-generational and are written accordingly.  The point is, know your audience, and write accordingly.

Purpose

A praise and worship song must also have a purpose.  This seems obvious.   Of course, they all have one general purpose: to bring a group of people into the praise and worship of the triune God.  For a song to effectively achieve this general purpose, it needs to have a narrower one as well.

An excellent praise and worship song will hold together; it will be unified around a purpose--a very specific purpose.. #worshipleader #praiseandworship #worshipsong #praisesong #worshipsongwriting

An excellent song will hold together; it will be unified around a purpose–a very specific purpose.

All our songs are generally about God and some aspect of the  Christian life.  If you are writing a song that praises God, narrow it to praise just one of the persons of the Trinity.  But you can be still more specific.  If you are writing about God the Father,  narrow it to one which praises God as a father, or for his Creation, or for his strength to overcome what opposes us, or his grace to save us, or his providence, or his love, or any number of specific things for which we could praise him. Of course, this narrowing of purpose might mean your song won’t be sung as often, but it will be sung longer because it will lead to more meaningful worship.

Once you’ve settled on a narrow purpose, everything in the song will serve it.  We’ve already discussed diction here and here.  Diction serves the central purpose.  So do music and instrumentation.  Every aspect of the lyrics is also oriented toward this purpose:  rhyme, sound, imagery, figures of speech,  rhythm and meter, and everything else that constitutes the song.

Why a narrow focus?

After we sing a song a few times and get past the worshipful feelings it generates, the words of an excellent song will take us more deeply into worship.   It will do so because it will guide our thoughts and imaginations to specific ideas and images upon which to meditate.

If I ask you to think about water, your mind can go into a thousand different directions.  I think about the ocean, and then about the rain running down the hill in front of my house, and then about the water lines I need to drain before the first freeze.  These are all interesting, but because they are undirected, my thoughts flit from one to the other and never settle anywhere.

Now imagine a small stream in a misty forest, flowing through, and over, round grey rocks and pebbles.  Some are covered with dewy moss and strewn with yellow and red maple leaves.  With this specific manifestation of water, have a directed imaginative experience.  Hopefully, you saw the beauty, a particular kind of beauty–for this was my purpose.  Particular kinds of water can evoke ideas of peace, or awe, or fear, or cold, or discomfort, or cleansing, or sadness, or any of a hundred other ideas and images to experience.

Singing in church certainly will involve emotions, but worship should be about more than feelings.  A specific focus directs engages minds and imaginations more effectively than do generalities.

Singing in church certainly will involve emotions, but worship should be about more than feelings. A specific focus directs engages minds and imaginations more effectively than do generalities.

Is “Holy Spirit” too General?

“Holy Spirit” by Francesca Battistelli brings praise to the third person of the Trinity.  Musically, it will serve well to bring congregants into the worship of God, but I wonder if it is too unfocused to result in the deeper worship I’ve been talking about.  You can decide for yourself and leave a comment.

Verse 1
There’s nothing worth more, that could ever come close
No thing can compare, You’re our living hope
Your presence Lord
Verse 2
I’ve tasted and seen of the sweetest of loves
Where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone
Your presence Lord
Chorus
Holy Spirit You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory God is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence Lord
Your presence Lord
Bridge
Let us become more aware of Your presence
Let us experience the glory of Your goodness

While singing this song we praise the Spirit for his worth and glory and goodness.  We also sing about the longing we feel and the hope he gives.  We also celebrate the freedom from shame and our own loving feelings toward him.  We also confess he is the presence of God, both in me and in “the atmosphere.”  And, lastly, we offer a prayer for awareness of his presence.

There is a lot going on in this song, so much so that my thoughts don’t settle on one idea because they are rapidly rushed off to the next one, and then the next.

We can sing about all of these things, but we might need four or five songs to do it in such a way that brings people into a more holistic worship–one where the mind and imagination have a particular idea, story, feeling, object on which to meditate or experience.

“Blessed Be Your Name”

A song that illustrates the benefits of a more focused purpose is “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” by Matt Redman:

Verse 1
Blessed be Your Name in the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flows
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your Name when I’m
Found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your name
Pre-Chorus
Every blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in Lord, still I will say
Chorus
Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name
Verse 2
Blessed be Your name when the
Sun’s shining down on me
When the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be Your name on the road marked with suffering
Though theres pain in the offering, blessed be Your name
Bridge
You give and take away, You give and take a -way
My heart will chose to say, Lord blessed be Your name

This entire song is unified around a single idea found in Job 1:21: God is worthy of our praise in both the good times and the bad times.  The bridge proclaims the first part of the verse: “You give and take away.”  The title and refrain carry the central idea–“Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  The rest of this song does nothing but imaginatively expand on this theme.

The first verse is about praising God for the good times and the bad times.  The second verse repeats this pattern.  The pre-chorus gives two lines to blessing God in the good times and two lines to doing the same in the bad.

There is not a line or a word in this song that doesn’t clearly serve the purpose.

I have sung this song in times when it felt as if I was alone in the wilderness and other times in bountiful circumstances.  It’s like it’s a different song.  Its claim is that both the good and the bad times are blessings for which we praise God.  Meditating on the nearly spontaneous movement from receiving to praising has brought me into deep worship.  The act of singing itself becomes a testimony to the song’s truth.

I believe that the simple unity and specific focus of this song is one of the main reasons this song has been sung so often, and for so long in Christian gatherings.

My thesis in this series on The Poetry of Worship is that most of the songs we regularly sing in church are good songs.  But with repeated singing, a great song will bring us into deeper worship.  A specific focus can direct the hearts and minds of those who sing the song to a particular aspect of the nature and character of God, or of the Christian life.  This leads, of course, to an edification that lasts far longer than the Sunday service.  Perhaps a week.  Perhaps a lifetime.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

 

 

 

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

I have had the privilege to act as a consultant for aspiring praise and worship songwriters.  It was a great experience.  I was inspired by the creativity and passion that the writers brought to these songs, and I was happy that I could help to make these already good songs even better.

When giving, “cool feedback,” I found that one of the hardest things for me to communicate was why a particular word made the writing sound awkward or even amateurish.

I read a lot of artless writing.   The amateur writer doesn’t know that the monosyllabic and ordinary word, “shows,” is sometimes the best word, as in “Creation shows the power of God.”  “Shows” is always better than “exhibits,” and it is often better than “displays,” or “reveals.”  When I encounter the word “disclose,” I know that someone has been abusing their thesaurus.   It all depends upon the poem, and the line within the poem, of course, but these words, usually, don’t quite make it.  Writers will use them for various reasons–to make a nice rhyme or to maintain a rhythm, or because they think it “sounds” better.  It doesn’t.

And it’s hard to explain why.  Most simply, it’s because it’s just not the perfect word.

It’s not too difficult to say why the use of the term “desire” is better in “It is my desire to honor you” than it is in, “You are the love of my desire.”    But it is not so easy to explain why the word “ransom” is a better in the line “His wounds have paid my ransom” (“How deep the Fathers Love”), than it is in the line, “He is the ransom for my life” (“King of my Heat”)?

Why?  I just know.  And it’s not just me.  Many other people also have this mysterious power.  And you can have it too.

Developing a “Poetic Ear”

If you want to use words powerfully and beautifully you need to develop a poetic ear.  Teaching literature for over 30 years has trained my ear.  I read a lot.  I read the work of amateur writers, and I read the best writers of poetry and prose in the English language.  Consequently, I know where a piece of writing is on the continuum.  It is no surprise, then, that I am sensitive to lyrics in our worship songs that more closely resemble my students’ writing than it does that of Robert Frost.

You too can develop this poetic ear.  Read and study great poetry.  My guess is that the poetry with which most praise and worship lyricists engage is that of other praise and worship lyricists.  Even the big songwriters are often writing with unremarkable diction.  Reading these won’t help to develop the poetic ear.  If you really want to develop a sensitivity for good diction, read the very best wordsmiths–Seamus Heaney, Frost, the Brontes, Austin, Hardy, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, Shelly, Keats, etc.

If you want to write great praise and worship lyrics, don't use other praise and worship songs as your model. Develop a poetic ear by reading the best poets and writers of prose and poetry #praiseandworship #lyrics

It will take time, but if you start reading the best novelists and poets, in ten years time, you will be writing much better lyrics than you would if you didn’t.  “Ten years?!” you cry.  Well, if you are 36 now, I’m telling you that by the time you are 46 you will have moved a long way down the spectrum toward being a poet.  That gives you 30 years to write great songs.  That’s lots of time.

Lyricist or Poet?

Good writers never compromise diction for the sake of rhyme or rhythm, or anything else.  They strive to use the perfect word in every instance–they don’t settle.  The perfect word will have the precise denotation and connotation, and serve the rhythm and rhythm perfectly.  If they just can’t make it work, the poet will rework the line or the whole verse.  They don’t stop until it is perfect.

You can’t start here, however.  Before you know what the perfect word is, you need to have developed the poetic ear.  Even then, it will tie you into knots at times, but that’s the challenge of poetry–and I don’t think we have any choice.

If we aspire to write songs in praise of our King, they need to be excellent. We need to strive to be poets, not just lyricists. #praiseandworship #worship

What I am asking is not easy, but if we aspire to write songs in praise of our King, they need to be excellent.  Not for his sake, but for ours, and for those whom we lead in worship.  We need to strive to be poets, not just lyricists.

And becoming a poet takes at least as much time and effort as it takes to become a great musician, and how long did that take?

Posts in this series:

 

 

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In my last post, I introduced my project to help songwriters and worship leaders to write and select more meaningful songs for corporate worship.

Words are the poet’s primary tool so let’s start with diction–the author’s choice of words.

Denotation and Connotation

Words can carry meaning beyond the definition(s) we find in the dictionary, the denotations.  Many words also have strong connotations–the associations, or imaginative meanings they carry.  Connotation can be a very effective tool for writing powerful lyrics, but they can mess up a song too.  When choosing words for your song, consider not just what the words mean, but also what they suggest.

Word Choice: A Literary Example

What can a sensitivity to diction do for my songwriting?

We will start by looking at a poem and discussing the effect of diction, then we will look at a praise and popular worship song that does a pretty good job with diction.

“Desert Places” by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

This poem is the reflections on the loneliness of the speaker as he walks past a field in the evening.  But the words of the poem don’t simply explain the speaker’s loneliness–they allow us to imaginatively experience them.

In the first line, the words “falling” and “fast” are repeated.  Consider the effect of repeating these words in such close proximity–does it hint at a sense of alarm?  The rest of the first stanza partially allays this impression with a peaceful description of the snow-covered field.  But we can’t shake their disturbing effect, even in the peaceful context of a snowy evening.

When selecting worship songs, look for where the words are used in unexpected or unusual ways--these can make think again about what we know and reconsider meanings. #praiseandworship #worshipleader

After the first line of the second stanza, where the trees take possession of the field, we read, “All animals are smothered in their lairs.”  This line really shows the power of diction in the hands of a master.  Consider how different the effect would be if Frost had written, “All animals are cozy in their dens.”  Big difference.  The connotation of “smothered” is to murder someone by suffocating them with a pillow.  A “lair” where beast and monsters live.  Frost’s lines are disturbing, and this is the work of his choice of these particular words.

After this comes “The loneliness includes me unawares.”  This line, occupying the central position of the poem, carries the central idea.  The waves of loneliness come in four recurrences of the words lonely or loneliness.   Another group of words reinforces the idea of, for lack of a better term, absence:  “absent-spirited,” “blanker,” “no expression,” “empty,” “desert.”  The diction in the second stanza strongly emphasizes the ideas of loneliness and absence.  It is clear, the speaker doesn’t just lack friends.  We are talking about an existential loneliness.

The word “scare” is a most intriguing word in the context of this poem.  It lacks the sophistication of the other words used in this poem–it’s like he’s scoffing at the vastness of space, (“You can’t scare me!”)claiming his interior loneliness is far more profound.

This is not all we could say about this poem, but it’s enough to illustrate that the author’s choice of words can have a tremendous effect.

The best praise and worship songs will have words that excite our imaginations. #praiseandworship #worship

Word Choice: A Worship Song Example

When I went looking for a praise and worship song that provided a good example of diction, I went to the list of most popular songs from CCLI.  I found very little until I got to the twenty-second in the list.  And this contained lyrics from an old hymn. I did not expect to find anything close to the density effective word choice of Robert Frost’s poem above, but it is clear that selecting words for effect is not a priority for worship-song writers.

Here are some lines from Stuart Townsend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  This song, provides us with some examples of how diction can be used in a worship song.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory
. . .
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

In the first stanza, we find the word “wretch.”  The connotations of “wretch” are not simply that of a pathetic victim, but of a deliberately villainous rascal.  Words like ingrate, knave, liar, and lowlife, are its synonyms.  But in an amazing reversal of expectation, this villain is considered the Father’s “treasure.”  Here the connotations are of heaps of gold and jewels.   Meaning pulses at the intersection of “wretch” and “treasure.”

The second stanza shows us Christ’s suffering from the rejection of his Father on our behalf.  The pain of loss is “searing.”  It’s not just pain that this word communicates, but a very specific kind of pain.  The connotations of this word suggest the deliberate burning of flesh associated with medieval torture.   In spite of being ungrateful lowlifes, he pays our “ransom,”–another word loaded with meaning.

The first several times we sing this song, the music or some of the lines will bring us into worship quite easily, but after we sing it five or six times, we begin to experience a deeper conviction through the power of these words.  The gratitude that results will be even greater, and probably the volume of the singing.

My desire is that almost every song we sing in church gets more powerful every time we sing it, rather than less.  Diction is the first, but it is not the only step toward this end.

Next time we will return to the important topic of diction in Developing a Poetic Ear

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice Of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

 

 

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

Occasionally, during corporate worship, my focus is taken away from the God who is deserving of all my praise and drawn to the words upon the screen.  Although I try to resist the distraction, it’s not easy.  Sometimes I am diverted from a bit of bad theology.  Yesterday, I chucked because a line was just weird.  Other times it is because I notice the words don’t really mean anything.  And then there’s the mediocre, or even bad, poetry.

It is clear from their enthusiasm that many worshipers either don’t notice or don’t care.  Maybe the words don’t matter as much to my fellow congregants as they do to me.  They might have some way to look past the lyrics, event to the recipient of our praise.

I too am able, for a time, to ignore unremarkable lyrics.  When we sing a new song in church, I don’t begin by scrutinizing every phrase, word, and rhyme to see if it is worthy of my voice.  Unless the words are truly silly or empty, I can be lead to worship several times with almost any song.  It is only at that point when the repeated singing of a truly great song begins to open up deeper worship through its inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.

It is at that point when the repeated singing of a great song opens up deeper worship through inspired lyrics, do I notice the inadequacies of those of an inferior one.

After this happens, every recurrence of the so-so song impedes worship, rather than enhances it.  Some have told me that I have a problem, that I shouldn’t be so critical.  This may be true, but I believe I have two legitimate defenses against this accusation:

  1. Does not our creator deserve the best that we can offer up?  As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don’t we want it to be the best of the flock?  Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well?
  2. God gives good gifts for the edification of the church and the world.  One of his gifts is the ability to create beautiful things–this includes poetry.  Some have only the gift of appreciation, but even so, I think we need to make as much of these gifts as possible so as to honour the giver.

It is certainly true that God probably doesn’t notice the difference between our best attempts and our blemished ones, for they are offerings of a sincere, but fallen people.  When  God’s people are commanded to sacrifice the best lamb, grain or ox, it is for our sake.  It is a reflection of how we think of him.

In the name of edifying the church, I will write a series of posts to help would-be lyricists take some steps toward becoming poets.   These posts will also be useful for those who choose the songs we sing each Sunday, as they too will be equipped to better judge the poetic from the prosaic.

As we bring the sacrifice praise to the altar don't we want it to be the best of the flock? Should we not strive to present songs of praise that are excellent, not just musically but lyrically as well? #praiseandworship…

My assumption is that most of those who write the songs we sing in church started as musicians.  Some of the more passionate and gifted move on to writing their own music.  It is natural that some of these would then try their hand at writing a song, lyrics and all.  What they may not realize is that developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument.  A poet’s skill is in the same category as the composer of music, who has to acquire a whole set of new skills.

Developing the skills to write great lyrics takes at least as much time as it takes to master an instrument. #praiseandworship #worship

This series of posts, called The Poetry of Worship, is designed to challenge would-be lyricists to consider some principles of poetry that will start them on a journey toward writing songs that will evoke, not just the emotions of worshipers, but their imaginations as well.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

 

 

Sentimental Worship

John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” (1779) tops almost every list of the most popular hymns of all time.

It’s been covered by Whitney Houston, Al Green, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Carrie UnderwoodElvis Presley and thousands of others.

Why this popularity?

The tune is beautiful, even when played by bagpipes.  The poetry is rich.  The song presents the Gospel of Grace.  Its significance is both cosmic and individual. It takes us from our present, through death, into eternity.  It’s the complete package.

Almost everyone who has recorded this incredible song has thought that John Newton’s song was sufficient.

Chris Tomlin does not think so.

He added a chorus/refrain to this old favourite.

Why we feel the need to add a new refrain to the good ol’ hymns

I get it.  Times are different.   We like choruses now.  The old hymns don’t have choruses.

Why do we like choruses?  Why does a song without a chorus just feel incomplete? It’s because, these days, we are very sentimental.  Not just Christian culture, but the culture at large.  More and more it is our feelings that matter, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

We might feel let down if worshipful feelings aren’t are not evoked by the songs we sing.   Consequently, many of our songs are designed to generate worshipful feelings.  The original “Amazing Grace” was not written to engender these feelings, so Tomlin gives us a chorus with some climaxing high notes that pull our feelings up, along with our hands, to that place where we feel worshipful.

Our worship is becoming more sentimental; if we don't feel worshipful, we feel as if we have worshiped adequately.

It is not wrong for the songs we sing to evoke worshipful feelings.  Nor is it wrong to add refrains to old songs to serve this purpose.  I like Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” which also adds such a chorus to Amazing Grace.

Our emotions ought to be involved in worship, but so should the rest of us.  My problem is when thought is completely ignored, as it is in Tomlin’s version.

The choruses that Tomlin adds to the best of our traditional hymns are designed to make us feel worshipful–more worshipful than we would feel if we sang the hymn in its original form.  Fine.  Unfortunately, these additions are often shallow and trite.  They can make us feel worshipful, but they do little for our mind or imagination.

Traditional hymns were not structured to provide an emotional climax, but they can be fixed with the addition of a sentimental refrain.

Metaphors are Magic

Metaphors are amazing things.  They are comparisons, but something magical happens in the comparison.   “Amazing Grace” has many metaphors including:

  • Life is a path with hidden snares.
  • Heaven is home.
  • Our heavenly bodies will be like the sun.
  • Because of Grace, death is a mere veil.
  • God is our shield.

Somehow these metaphors engage our minds, our emotions, and our imaginations.  And they contribute to holistic worship.  Let’s look at one of these metaphors.

He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.

Here the poet metaphorically compares the Lord to a shield.  All kinds of meanings flow from this comparison.  Most clearly, the Lord protects us for our entire lives.  But a little deeper is the idea that life is a war, and that we are in desperate need of protection.  It’s interesting that the song doesn’t name the threat, only the shield; this song is about God and his Grace; our foe can be the subject of other songs, not this one.  This is the power of metaphor–it is layered and complex and they can surprise you even after you’ve sung them a hundred times.

Mixed Metaphors are Ludicrous

The chorus Tomlin added to “Amazing Grace” can only be sung seriously if one ceases to think.  This is because he uses a mixed metaphor in his refrain.

On the surface, a mixed metaphor looks like a metaphor, but it is a ludicrous comparison.

First, here are two wonderful metaphors that Jesus uses for himself:

“I am the good shepherd, . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

“I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never grow hungry.”

These are both legit metaphors, but if we mix them we have

I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

The comparison is nonsensical.

Unlike a metaphor, this silly comparison does not lead to deeper reflections on who Jesus is–it has no magic.  It just leaves us confused.

And Jesus did not say, I am the bread of life, and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Tomlin’s Terrible Metaphor

The chorus that Tomlin added to the most beloved of hymns is an assault on the mind–it climaxes on a mixed metaphor. It seems to me that a good worship song would take our hearts and minds and souls and imaginations into the worship of our Gracious God.

Here is the offending chorus from the song called “Amazing Grace (Chains Are Gone).”

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, amazing grace

“Like a flood, his mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor.   It is saying that God’s mercy is like a reigning flood.  But floods don’t reign, kings do.  This is like saying, “Like a flood, his mercy shines.”  Or soars, or melts, or skates.

The comparison is ridiculous.

Floods flow.  They overwhelm.  They cover and destroy.  They glut, stream, spate and surge.  For various reasons, none of these work very well as a replacement for reign–but, hey, it’s very is hard to write good poetry.  If we are going to add choruses to the old hymns, indeed if we are going to write worship songs at all, they should be the best we can make them, in every way possible.

Tomlin attempts to provide an emotional high in the singing of “Amazing Grace,” but this mixed metaphor makes this possible only if the worshipers don’t think about what they are singing.  It seems to me that we ought to sing songs that are like a symphony firing on all cylinders.

It seems to me that the songs we sing in worship should help to draw out whole being into worship of our Gracious God: hearts, minds souls and imaginations .

 

I was recently in a crowd of more than a thousand worshippers.  The echoing cords of the final note of the chorus we had just sung were still hanging in the air.   The very talented praise band beautifully transitioned to the next song, and its lyrics appeared on the large screens overhead.

You could feel the energy and delight run through the 1300 worshippers as they enthusiastically sang the opening line.

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

The energy and volume of the singing were double that of the previous song.   We were well into

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

when we realized that the song leaders were no longer singing.  At that moment I, too, was overwhelmed with the full-throated worship as we sang praises to our Provider.  It was totally appropriate for the band to pull back and let the praises of the thronging worshippers bless the Lord unlead and unadorned.

But the band had not spontaneously stopped singing to allow this amazing worship naturally flow towards its heavenly audience.

They had stopped singing because, unbeknownst to the people of God, they were singing a different song.

#Worshipleader Don't change up the traditional hymns; after 200 years, we still aren't tired of them.
We were singing King’s Kaleidoscope’s 2012 version of Come Thou Fount.  This is a great version of the classic hymn, but in this context it didn’t go over very well.

The singing collapsed.  The worship ceased.  Attention was wrenched from The Fount of Every Blessing and diverted to the song leaders so we could figure out what we were supposed to do.

The audience was going with the traditional song, but the band was doing something else–a four beats after each line and a syncopated rhythm.  In one place, the words were even different.

On the surface, it seems as if we realized our mistakes quickly, adapted to the new style and continued in this new manner.  But the energy of the singing was half of what it was when we started.  I felt disappointed and a little betrayed.  It was fine; I too carried on.  I tried to turn my focus back to worshipping our God, but something beautiful was lost.  I don’t think it was just the old folks that sensed this.  The crowd was filled with 20-somethings, and they, too, had lost some of their verve.

I want to implore all Worship leaders, while you add new instrumentation and alternate styles to these hymns that you, at least, stick to the same melodies.  I’d be happy if you keep the same rhythms and chords, as well; I love to sing the the bass part.

#Worshipleader It may be preferable to sing no hymns at all than to sing altered versions of them.

I have no problem with King’s Kaleidoscope altering this or any other traditional song.   These new versions can add new life to an old hymn, but altered versions are appropriate for a performance, or for Christian Radio.  Not for purposes of corporate worship. I suppose we could add a caveat: because the old melodies are so familiar, you need to give us some warning if we are going to be singing something considerably different.

My suggestion would be to just stick to the familiar version.  At least for another 30 years, when no one remembers the incredible experience of one’s small voice joined to a throng of others, in four-part harmony, singing poetry, with heart and mind and imagination, essentially unplugged, to the one who gives us breath.

Why Sunday Music Must Be As Unlike Pop Music As We Can Make It

If the amount of time given to the singing of praise and worship songs,

and the central position of the praise band on “the stage” is any indication,

many North American churches are implicitly asserting that singing of praise songs as the main way we interact with God in our Sunday services.

This means we’d better get it right.

We have all heard people, including some worship leaders, speak as if the term worship was synonymous with singing.  Even the title “worship leader” suggests the reduction of worship to singing.  Worship leader is an appropriate title if said worship leader also leads the congregants in the many other aspects of worship.  For instance:

  • prayer
  • scripture reading
  • the offering
  • the reading of the law
  • confession and assurance of forgiveness
  • the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed
  • funeral announcements
  • pleas for volunteers for the Sunday School
  • and anything else besides singing that also constitutes worship

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.

But isn’t this just semantics?  Although it may seem like I am being petty, this is some serious stuff.

Little things like

  • using the terms singing and worship interchangeably,
  • and calling song leaders, worship leaders,
  • and removing all sign of the sacraments from the stage,
  • and calling that area “the stage”
  • and calling that area “the auditorium,”

are hugely important because we do them habitually.  The things we do habitually, change us–they shape what we do and the way we think and who we are.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are liturgical animals.  He argues that our lives are not given direction by what we think, or even what we believe, but by what we love.  According to Smith, “what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love, or what our love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding and orientation” (26–27 Desiring the Kingdom).   Smith then argues that our loves are shaped and directed by “liturgies”–habitual practices.  Traditionally the church used to orient our identities toward God and the community of faith through all sorts of liturgies: the physical spaces of worship, the sacraments, the church calendar, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, offering  “Peace.”  Fish on Friday, the rosary, daily prayers, and many other regular and repeated practices linked the spiritual realm with daily life.  In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies . for being liturgical animals, we’ve simply adopted new ones.  We’ve replaced the old ones with new ones.  And the new ones are largely modern and secular: Starbucks and McDonalds, Saturday hockey and Sunday football, Homecoming and Holloween, Twitter and Snapchat, You Tube and Netflix, craft beer and green-coloured smoothies, inclusion and saying “I feel,” when we mean “I think.”   These are not just things we do, they shape who we are because they are regular, habitual–they are liturgies.

We have replaced sacred liturgies with secular liturgies.  This ain’t good if you believe that a spiritual reality is meaningfully interacting with the material one.

Why do people have such a hard time with faith in our culture?  Because our rituals direct our passions and desires to other things–other ultimate loves.  There is some (a lot of?) anxiety in the North American Church about people, especially young people, vacating the pews.   To retain their members, and attract new ones, many churches have attempted to become more culturally “relevant,” but this has exacerbated the problem.  Being culturally relevant usually means importing secular liturgies into the church.  The Starbucks’ Coffee culture, showing movies on Youth Nights, dress-up parties on Reformation Day and the singing to the instrumentation and stylings of popular music are examples. The problem is that secular culture does these liturgies better than the church does, so the church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.

According to the Westminster Confession, one of the functions of the sacraments is as a “visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.”  The authors of the Confession understood the importance of having a different experience at church than in the world.

Our rituals used to be different than those of the world, but in some churches, even our sacraments are being secularized.  For the health, and perhaps survival, of the North American church, we need to be different, not the same.

Here are some questions that might be a part of a discussion around how to make the singing part of worship, unlike the secular liturgy of the popular music concert:

  • How can we increase the involvement of the congregation in the singing part of worship?
  • Is there a way to teach the worshipers how to harmonize?
  • Should we sing more hymns?
  • Should we sing different hymns (than just the 5 we do now)?
  • Should we sing hymns in their original forms, same harmonies and no modern (and inferior) additions?
  • Are volumes and mixes supporting congregational singing, or drowning it out?
  • Can we use different instrumentation than a typical rock and roll band?
  • Can we develop different song structures besides the verse-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus pattern?
  • Could we create a new genre of Christian music for corporate worship?
  • Is it necessary for the worship band to be front and centre?
  • How can we utilize lighting to take the focus off of the musicians?
  • Can we resurrect some traditional liturgical forms or elements of worship?
  • Can we invent new liturgical forms that are different than secular liturgies?
  • How can we emphasize God’s action in worship and the sacraments?
  • Can we move toward thinking about the sacraments as more than ceremonies of remembrance?
  • Can we mention, or even link our sermons to, the church calendar?

This list includes just some of the ways that we could bring more sacred liturgies into the Sunday service.  Do you have any ideas you could add to this list?

 

 

The Focus of Worship

Chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford

Traditionally, Christian worship has been arranged around two things, the Word and the sacraments.  These were the means by which human worshipers interacted with the transcendent God.  In churches with the more contemporary feel, a new means of encountering God has been given center stage.

In the Roman Catholic worship service, the sacraments are emphasized–particularly the Eucharist.  The primacy of the Eucharist is obvious; the altar from which Holy Communion is served is front and center.

After the Reformation, the new forms of Christian worship still emphasized Word and sacraments, but their importance was inverted.  The sacraments, reduced to two, were moved to the side.  The pulpit upon which sits a huge Bible takes center stage.

From Sacrament and Word to Band

More recently, North American Christianity has apparently undergone another reformation; this one much quieter than the first, but it is not insignificant.  The modern church has cleared the stage of the Word and Sacrament and replaced them with the worship band.  Some might argue that the Word and the sacraments are still central, it’s just that the physical representations of these things needed to be moved to make room for musicians and instruments; it’s not a shift in meaning, but merely a physical shift made from practical considerations.

My core assumption here, and why I think all of this matters so much, is that the physical environment and liturgies of worship have profound effects on the worshipers. and how they think about the God who we worship.

When the Word is the focus of worship we find a very active God.  In the scriptures, God interacts with his creation and with his people.  He speaks, breaths, commands, warns, condemns, promises and whispers.  He causes water to come from rocks and turns it into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus is the Word made flesh; he healed, walked (even on water), taught, ate, fed, died, rose and ascended.  The Holy Spirit is also active as we read scripture.  He guides, comforts, indwells, guards, intercedes, baptizes, restrains and combats. God is active in the sacraments as well.  In baptism, he makes promises and in doing so he creates a people.  In Communion, Jesus extends the elements to us and says “take and eat,” “take and drink.”  When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we cannot help but understand our God to be active in worship, and in our lives.

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the things that we repeat every Sunday.  With the weekly repetition of the Eucharist, Catholic worshipers come to the profound understanding of the unifying presence of Christ in his body the church and the Grace we receive by his death.  With the Protestant emphasis on preaching, the weekly reading and exposition of scripture help the faithful to understand the centrality of the Word in our life.

When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.  Or at least there is a danger that something very important could change.

Properly understood, the Word and the sacraments point to Christ and they present our interaction with an active God. When the worship band takes center stage, something changes.
Who is active in the singing part of the service?  It seems to me the human beings are the primary actors, and this is a problem.  We can be receiving a weekly reminder that God is passive. One might argue that, just as in the sacraments, both God and humanity take part.  But this isn’t so obvious in practice.  Singing is something we do–we are active, but we think of God as listening–possibly smiling during the choruses or seriously nodding if the song has a confessional element.  When worship is primarily singing, God is relatively passive.

Things get worse when the band steps out of the worship leading role into a performance role making both God and congregants passive.  Now the musicians and singers are the only ones doing anything in worship.  Almost every worship leader that I know would recoil at this suggestion because they are forever on their guard for this shift, but just because they don’t intend it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t or it cannot happen in the minds of the congregants.  It really is a no win situation; if the worship leaders are not a little animated then it seems like they are not engaged and worship lacks energy, but if they move around a little bit, they are accused of drawing attention to themselves.  Perhaps this conundrum is a symptom of the deeper issue.  That the worship band shouldn’t be front and centre in the first place.

The problem is that from the central position, the Praise and Worship band is almost identical to secular performance bands.  It’s a minuscule shift, then, for the congregation to move into the role of the audience.  This shift isn’t unavoidable, but it requires some deliberate effort from the individual worshiper to experience the Sunday worship music in a different way than they would a concert.  And churchgoers aren’t usually doing this work.

I am certainly not saying that singing praise and worship songs in church is a bad thing, we may have gained much with this shift in focus, but perhaps we’ve lost something too.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but I have some discussion questions that might help us address these issues.

  • How can we do communion and baptism in ways that help us to see God’s activity in them?  If we’re calling them ordinances instead of sacraments, should we rethink that?
  • Can we put the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage, with the praise and worship band?
  • And can we preach from something other than a music stand?
  • How can we do worship music in such a way that it’s as unlike a rock concert or dance club as we can make it? Can mix our volumes in such a way that the voices of the worshipers are heard?  Can we reduce the lighting on the musicians?  And can we turn down the bloody bass!?

This last point will be the subject on my next post:

 

 

 

Bad Theology in the “New” Doxology?

Praise 1New doesn’t necessarily mean improved.

This is certainly the case for “The New Doxology” by Gateway Worship.

The first verse of the new one is the same as that of the old one, but they’ve added a chorus.

This recent fad of taking some of the greatest hymns of the Christian faith and adding a little ditty of a chorus, presumably, to make it more palatable to a contemporary audience, is not bad in itself (unless, of course, as the cynic in me wonders, it’s just a cash grab–to produce a popular song without having to go through the trouble of writing one).  We like to sing choruses these days, so it’s fine to write one for the ol’ classics.

But at least make it a good one!  By “good” I mean that it ought well crafted poetically and it should be Biblical.

This is where “The New Doxology” misses the mark.  It has us singing bad, or at least weak, theology.

The original song, published in 1709 by Thomas Ken, emphasizes the extent of the praise that the Triune God deserves as the source of all blessings.  It is a call for all “creatures . . . below” to praise him.  Importantly, “creatures” doesn’t mean animals, but all things that were created.  “Creatures here below” is the entire physical creation–which he called “very good.”   The inclusion of the “heavenly hosts” in the injunction emphasizes that there is nothing that is not called to praise him who made it.  The scope of this particular line is cosmic.

With man’s sin, everything fell, so the Fall is cosmic too.  But God set into motion his plan to redeem everything–a Cosmic Redemption.  Jesus said as much in Matthew 19:28, where he speaks of the “the renewal of all things.”  In Colossians, Paul says that God will “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (1:20).  We see the consummation of this Biblical theme in Revelation 21:1, with the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.  Genesis to Revelation point to a Cosmic Redemption–not just of human souls, but human bodies as well; not just of humans but of trees and mountains as well.

All this is packed into the old doxology.  But to make the new doxology we’ve added this:

Praise God, praise God, praise God, Who saved my soul
Praise God, praise God, praise God from Whom all blessings flow

In the light of the original hymn, which talks of creation in it’s broadest possible sense, the new chorus speaks of redemption in it’s most limited sense–God is the saviour of a single soul.  If it was a single believer, perhaps we could argue that, as we move from verse to chorus, we move from cosmic to individual.  That’d be kind of cool, but this chorus is not talking about a whole believer, but a piece of him.  The cosmic nature of God’s redemption has been reduced to a single human soul, simply so that we could use it as a rhyme for the word “flow.”

Christ Tomlin is up to much the same thing.  He added a ditty to one of the greatest (and most popular) hymns of the faith, Amazing Grace.  Besides the new bridge showing a complete lack of understanding of how metaphors are supposed to work (the line, “And like a flood His mercy reigns” is a mixed metaphor; floods don’t reign, kings do), he brought back the sixth verse of the song, which had been dropped from hymnals, presumably because of its theology.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine

Here again salvation is brought to the level of the individual; the rest of creation will “dissolve” and “forebear” to do what it was created to do.  It seems to me, if God is only able to redeem human souls from all that he made and called “very good,” the devil will have won and “all creatures here below” can give up their praising, for they are all doomed.

The idea that God saves only human souls to live with him in a spiritual heaven is contradicted by the Bible.  So where does this idea come from if not in the Bible?  Plato.  Plato believed that the physical world was distinct from and inferior to the rational world of Ideas.  When Christianity interacted with Greek culture, the ideas of Plato became Christianized.  The world of Ideals sounded a lot like heaven and we accepted the idea that physical and spiritual things are separate, and we took on the idea that the physical world is evil.  These are Greek ideas, not Biblical ones.

To sing of “The God who saved my soul” we are in danger of reducing God to a mere saver of souls.  Are we perpetuating the pagan idea that material things are not “good.” If so, we are reducing God’s concern, and consequently ours, from all things to just some things.

It was my impression, from listening to many sermons and podcasts of several different denominations, that the reductive “souls only” redemption was fading out.  After all, we no longer sing the old hymns that promulgated the idea.  But we’ve got song writers stepping in to mess up the theology of a new generation of Christians.

If the good folks at Gateway actually believe that Christ redemption is for individual human souls then my critique still stands for the chorus still contradicts the verse.  For those congregations that believe in a cosmic redemption, please, let’s just use the “old” doxology, or write a chorus that represents the greatest of all blessings–Redemption–in its cosmic scope.

For more on this vision of holistic salvation:

 

Cervantes and Praise Songs

Praise 1

I find it difficult to praise Him, while singing Hillsong’s “Praise Him.”

I’m reading Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel De Cervantes. I came across the passage today where the Cannon discusses the inferiority of the popular books of chivalry whose authors write “without paying any attention to good taste or the rules of art.”

I’m not sure if the views expressed by the canon are those of Cervantes, but they are close to mine when it comes to much of Christian art, particularly that branch that gives us the songs we sing in church each week.

In this passage from Don Quixote, the canon is speaking of drama, but his comments apply to all art forms, I think, including praise and worship lyrics.  I have made some changes, that I am sure Cervantes would not object to.

The praise songs ” that are now in vogue . . . are, all or most of them, downright nonsense and things that have neither head nor tail, and yet the public listens to them with delight, and regards and cries them up as perfection when they are so far from it . . . . the [lyricists] who write them, and the [worship leaders] who [perform] them, say that this is what they must be, for [congregations] wants this and will have nothing else. . . .

Apparently there is no point to “go by rule and work out [lyrics] according to the laws of art” because these “will only find some half-dozen intelligent people to understand them, while all the rest remain blind to the merit of their composition. I have sometimes endeavoured to convince [worship leaders] that they are mistaken in this notion they have adopted, and that they would attract more people, and get more credit, by [writing praise songs] in accordance with the rules of art, than by absurd ones, they are so thoroughly wedded to their own opinion that no argument or evidence can wean them from it.

“I remember saying one day to one of these obstinate fellows, ‘Tell me, do you not recollect that a few years ago, there were three [songs sung in the churches] of these kingdoms, which were such that they filled all who heard them with admiration, delight, and interest, the ignorant as well as the wise, the masses as well as the higher orders?'”

“‘No doubt,’ replied the [worship leader] in question, ‘you mean the “Blessed Be Your Name,” the “10 000 Reasons,” and “Revelation Song.”‘

“‘Those are the ones I mean,’ said I; ‘and see if they did not observe the principles of art, and if, by observing them, they failed to show their superiority and please all the world; so that the fault does not lie with the public that insists upon nonsense, but with those who don’t know how to [write] something else.”

The song that inspired this post is Hillsong United’s “Praise Him.”  I’m not qualified to judge this song musically, but I think I know a formula when I see it–it has that progression that almost all of the popular praise songs have these days. My problem with this song is the lyrics are so general.  I will commend its writers that the clichés they employ are at least on the same subject, but they aren’t really about anything except there’s lots of praising going on.  There is nothing in the lyrics that engage either the mind or the imagination. Without this engagement, even if the music is really excellent, the experience is, at best, merely emotional.  Under these conditions, my worship experience is about as meaningful as watching clothes tumble in the dryer.

I believe that we should bring God our best–not just our best music, but our best everything–this includes our lyrics.

I leave you with just a few lines of Josh Garrels’ song “Colors” which are about praising Him.

So let all the creatures sing
Praises over everything
Colors are meant to bring
Glory to the light

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