Photo by Rachel Lynette French on Unsplash
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.
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 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.
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 1There’s nothing worth more, that could ever come closeNo thing can compare, You’re our living hopeYour presence LordVerse 2I’ve tasted and seen of the sweetest of lovesWhere my heart becomes free and my shame is undoneYour presence LordChorusHoly Spirit You are welcome hereCome flood this place and fill the atmosphereYour glory God is what our hearts long forTo be overcome by Your presence LordYour presence LordBridgeLet us become more aware of Your presenceLet 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 1Blessed be Your Name in the land that is plentifulWhere Your streams of abundance flows
Blessed be Your nameBlessed be Your Name when I’m
Found in the desert placeThough I walk through the wilderness
Blessed Be Your namePre-ChorusEvery blessing You pour out I’ll turn back to praiseWhen the darkness closes in Lord, still I will sayChorusBlessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be Your nameBlessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious nameVerse 2Blessed be Your name when the
Sun’s shining down on meWhen the world’s all as it should be
Blessed be Your nameBlessed be Your name on the road marked with sufferingThough theres pain in the offering, blessed be Your nameBridgeYou give and take away, You give and take a -wayMy 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.
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