CategoryThe Church

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

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Music has sound, but so do lyrics.

Yes, even without music, the words themselves have sound.

And the sound of the words can carry meaning.

Onomatopoeia

One way that words have sound is called onomatopoeia.  This, as you probably remember, is when the word sounds like what it means.  Words like crash, crackle, and smack are examples of onomatopoeia.

But onomatopoeia can be way cooler.  Here’s a line from John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

In this case, the sounds of the whole line echo what is being described.  Read it out loud a few times.  Do you hear the hum and buzz of the bugs?  The sounds and the combination of the sounds that we use to make words, make the sound of those kinds of evenings.

Music has sound, but so do lyrics. Yes, even without music, words have sound. And the sound of the words can carry meaning.Click To Tweet

But this is only the beginning–the sounds of words and lines of verse can be even more suggestive.

Phonetic Intensives

Phonetic intensives are onomatopoeia on steroids.

Here are examples of what Arp and Johnson call phonetic intensives (excerpted from Perrine’s Sound and Sense, Eighth Ed.)

  • the sound fl often suggests moving light, as in “flame,” “flare,” “flash,” “flicker”
  • gl often suggests unmoving light: “glare,” “glow,” “gleam,” “glisten”
  • sl is often associated with wetness: “slippery,” “slick,” “slide,” “slime,” “slushy”
  • st often suggests strength: “staunch,” stalwart,” “sturdy,” “stable,” “stern,”
  • short i often indicates smallness: “inch,” “imp,” “thin,” “little,” “bit,” “kid,”
  • the tt in the middle of a word often suggests sudden movement, as in “spatter,” “scatter,” “shatter,” “rattle,” “clatter,” “batter”

This list is just the beginning of the incredible sound resources that are available to the poet to add meaning through the sound of words.  You don’t have to memorize this list in order to write poetry, for one think the list is incomplete.  The other reason is that you already know it.  We all do.  This isn’t stuff that a bunch of poetry nerds invented.  They discovered it–it’s in our language.  We just don’t think about it.  Poets think about it.  Good songwriters are poets.  Good songwriters will consider how their lyrics sound.

We all know that sounds have meaning; we just don't think about it. Poets think about it. Good songwriters are poets. Good songwriters think about how their lyrics sound.Click To Tweet

If you want to communicate a peaceful beauty, don’t use too many r or k or t sounds because these sounds are not peaceful or beautiful.  If you want the worshipers to feel happy don’t use “slow,” “deep,” “moon,” or any others that sound sad like these do.

Read the lines of your song out loud and listen to them.  Use your ears and feel them coming off of your lips–are the sounds of the words in combination consistent with what you are trying to communicate?  They don’t have to directly line up all of the time, buy the sounds certainly shouldn’t work contrary to your purposes.

Rhyme

I remember thinking it was funny that “love” was rhymed with “prove” in Joy to the World.  I used to sing “And wonders of his lūve” to make my brother laugh.  He always did.

John Stackhouse wrote a blog post some time ago in which he criticized Chris Tomlin’s lyrics, including his use of rhyme, or lack thereof.

The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes.

Perhaps it is true that Tomlin’s rhymes are not as thoughtful as they should be, but the fact that they don’t rhyme perfectly is not, in and of itself, a bad thing.

Perfect rhymes, that is, rhymes that repeat the final vowel and consonant sound exactly, can suggest things like innocence, stability, simplicity, certainty,  and order.  Imperfect rhymes, also called slant rhymes, can suggest the opposite.  If you are writing a song of confession, slant rhymes might be just what you want.  What song are you writing?  How can you use rhyme to reinforce the meaning?

Songs that rhyme suggests an order is reflective of the Christian worldview--indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place. That despite seeming chaos, God is in control.Click To Tweet

I like rhymes, not just because I am a Classicist, but because of what they suggest about the world.  Songs that rhyme suggests a pattern of order and control–a stability and predictability.  This order can be reflective of the Christian view of reality–indeed, one of the reasons we are worshiping in the first place.  We are acknowledging and finding comfort in God’s Providence.  The order suggested by rhymes, despite the seeming chaos that surrounds us, suggest that God is in control.

Common Rhyming Problems

Don't use these rhymes in your worship songs: love/above, jewel/fool, feet/seas, out/out, name/fame, up/cupClick To Tweet

There is such a thing as a bad rhyme.  And there are other rhymes require caution in their use.  Here’s my partial list:

  1. feet/seas: the “close enough” rhyme — the fancy word for this sort of thing is “assonant rhyme.”  Assonance is the term that describes a repetition of vowel sounds.  A rhyme is created by both the vowel and consonant sound. I’ve not made up my mind how much of a sin I consider “assonant rhyme” to be.   Stackhouse thinks they indicate a lack of skill or patience.  Perhaps he’s right.
  2. out/out: the same-word rhyme — there can be a good reason for rhyming a word to itself.  Repetition is used for emphasis, so the word you rhyme with itself must be a pivotal word, poetically speaking.  If it is not a word of significance, then take this opportunity to create a powerful effective rhyme.
  3. love/above: the cliché rhyme — the love/above rhyme is a cliché.  This pair has appeared in hymns for centuries.  Cliché is never OK.
  4. name/fame: the bad-diction rhyme —  don’t sacrifice diction for rhyme.  Don’t sacrifice rhyme for diction either.  The point is, don’t sacrifice.  I always wince in that song that uses the name/fame rhyme.  Yes, God is interested in his glory, in being known in all lands, but this is not the same as seeking fame.  That’s what people on American Idol do.
  5. jewel/fool: the forced rhyme — the bad diction rhyme is when you use an inferior word, just because it rhymes with a good one.  A forced rhyme is when you bring in two inferior words just because they rhyme.
  6. up/cup: the “Oh, Come On” rhyme — this means you’re not even trying.
Types of rhymes to avoid in the worship song you are writing: the *close enough* rhyme, the same-word rhyme, the cliché rhyme, the bad-diction rhyme, the forced rhyme, the *Oh, Come On* rhyme Click To Tweet

Rhythm

All songwriters know about rhythm.  I think rhythm is a requirement for corporate worship–some rhythmic consistency contributes to the “singability” of a song.

Rhythm can be restrictive, but real poets seem to be able to use the perfect word in the perfect place, without sacrificing meaning or rhythm.

Sometimes we find metrical variations in poems.  In the best poetry, these variations are purposeful.  In an inferior poem or song, the metrical variation is a result of the “close enough” mentality.

“Nature’s First Green is Gold”

To illustrate the function and power of sound and rhyme, I offer Robert Frost’s “Nature’s First Green is Gold.”

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay.

Again, there is so much that we could talk about in this poem.  The first line alone includes personification, metaphor, and paradox, and does so in such a simple and subtle way, that all this poetic activity doesn’t interfere with the simple sense of the line.  I will offer a short analysis focusing only on the sound, rhyme, and rhythm.

There is alliteration in the first line: “green is gold.”  The alliteration is not simply for the sake of alliterating; these words carry the central purpose of the poem.

Line 2, alliterates the h sound.  This is the lightest, most ethereal sound in our phonetic collection, and it’s describing the ethereal beauty of nature’s first green.  Contrast this line with line 7; where the d sound is alliterated.  This sound is the heaviest, most terrestrial of sounds.  See how the sounds echo the sense of these lines?

The whole poem is filled with long vowels.  Read line 4 out loud.  The sounds are of the same sad regret that the words convey.

The rhythm is regular, except for in the first and last lines.  The metrical variation  emphasizes “Nature’s first green” and “Nothing.”  These words frame the poem and carry the movement from elusive beauty to its loss.

Poets utilize every possible resource to communicate an experience to their readers.  What is their motivation?  Surely none have a purpose more important than the poets who write lyrics that will be used in the praise and worship of the King of the Universe.

Some thought, then, might be given to the sound of the lyrics even before the music is added, some thought to the rhymes and rhythms and what they communicate above and beneath the meaning of the words.

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: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

We sing to and of a transcendent God.  We cannot fully understand who he is or what he does.  And it’s not easy to understand our relationship with him.   We have his Word which is a start.  How do the biblical authors help communicate the mysteries of the God we worship?

They often use metaphor.

This is because metaphors are the best tools for dealing with complexity and mystery.

In Isaiah 64:6 God is the potter and we are the clay.  God is compared to a hen in Psalm 91:4.  And in Isaiah 42:14, to a woman in childbirth.

Even Jesus Christ, wholly God, used metaphors to explain who he was.

“I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35).

“I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

“I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5).

“I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12).

Most of life is mysterious and complex.  Most things cannot be expressed or understood directly or simply.  In order to express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, we make comparisons to familiar things.

But metaphors do more than help us explain and understand things.  In the hands of a skilled poet, they activate our imaginations.

Understanding Metaphor

Before we get into some examples, we need to get some of the technical explanation out of the way.  This is very important, for if you don’t make the comparisons correctly, they will be ludicrous, not magical.

A metaphor has two parts: the thing you are describing (A) and the familiar thing you are comparing it to (B).  In the metaphor, “The wind howled,” the wind (A) is compared to wolves (B).  Note that you can name or imply either part of the comparison.  In this case, A is named and B is implied.

Just a few other related terms, that you probably remember from high school.  A simile is a comparison, but it is indirect, usually using the words “like” or “as”: “The wind sounded like the howling of a wolf.”  Personification is a type of metaphor when B is a person–“The wind whispered through the leaves.”  The term metaphor can be used to refer to the general category that includes the metaphor proper, as well as simile and personification.

Mixed Metaphors

I’ve only sung Needtobreath’s “Multiplied” one time, and it was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I remember it because of the problems with metaphor.

Your love is like radiant diamonds
Bursting inside us we cannot contain
Your love will surely come find us
Like blazing wild fires singing Your name

In this verse, we have God’s love (A) being compared to “diamonds bursting inside us” (B).  It makes sense to compare God’s love with something as beautiful, multifaceted and long-lasting as a diamond.  It also makes sense to compare the feeling of being loved by God as a “bursting” sensation.  But it doesn’t make sense to compare anything to a bursting diamond, because that’s not what diamonds do.

In the last line has a similar problem: “blazing wildfires” don’t sing.

Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace: My Chains Are Gone” is a more well-known example of the problem of the mixed metaphor.

If you don’t get these metaphor basics right, you might write lyrics that lead to confusion rather than to worship.

The Magic of Metaphor

When metaphors are done correctly, they can be magic.

Here is Robert Frost’s “Bereft”:

Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and the day was past.
Sombre clouds in the west were massed.
Out on the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.

As with all great poetry, there is so much more going on here than metaphor, but the metaphors are wonderful.

In line two, the sound of the ocean turns into a roar, which suggests a lion, and in line 11 the tone is “sinister.”  In line four, the door is “restive,” meaning it’s unable to keep still–like a person, so it is personification.  There is more personification in the “sombre” clouds.  All these suggest turmoil within the speaker and the suggestion of danger.  The threat increases as the leaves are metaphorically compared to a snake in lines 9-10.

When the stormy conditions are described metaphorically, we can imaginatively understand the complex feeling the speaker is experiencing–it is a particular kind of loneliness–a loneliness mixed with profound fear.  We experience it a little ourselves.  When we understand his feeling, we understand the final line.

A Metaphor that Works: “My Lighthouse”

I’ve written previously about the wonderful metaphors used by Katheryn Scott in  “At the Foot of the Cross.”  Scott’s metaphors are great examples of how to effectively use standard comparisons that lead into deeper worship.

Metaphors in our worship songs can help us express what is inexpressible, and explore the unknowable, but they can also activate our imaginations.Click To Tweet

“My Lighthouse” from Rend Collective Experiment employs an extended metaphor, a comparison that is extended through the whole song.

 

Verse 1
In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Verse 2
In the silence You won’t let go
In the questions Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Chorus
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
shining in the darkness I will follow You whoa
My lighthouse, my lighthouse
I will trust the promise You will carry me safe to shore
Tag
Safe to shore, safe to shore, safe to shore
Verse 3
I won’t fear what tomorrow brings
with each morning I’ll rise and sing
My God’s love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea, whoa
You are the peace in my troubled sea
Oh You are my light
Bridge
Fire before us, You’re the brightest
You will lead us through the storm

Sometimes our life is like a “troubled sea.”   Notice that the troubles aren’t general and abstract.   They are of a particular kind of trouble; they are not in the categories of lost car keys or bankruptcy and divorce.  It is not these trials that stir up the waves; it is a lack of trust.  The forces behind these turbulent waters are my wrestling, doubts, questions, failures, and God’s silence–a lack of trust in God.  The metaphor invites us to look beyond our troubles to the one we can trust to take us through them–to the lighthouse.

Lighthouses have two functions: to warn ships of danger and to guide them to safe harbour.  Remembering God’s promises will shift our focus from the dangers of doubt, and they will guide us “safe to shore.”  Christ and his promises a guiding light when we are on the dark and stormy seas, when we struggle with trusting God.

The metaphor doesn’t simply tell us that we can trust in God in our troubles, it places us on a boat, caught in a storm off of the coast (of Ireland I imagine) and it shows us a lighthouse through driving wind and rain.  We can trust the lighthouse to guide us.  And then, as we sing, we discover we will be all right, not by our own strength, but by looking to him.

That is the magic of metaphor.

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: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

I was in a worship setting a few weeks ago and we sang a few songs that I was quite familiar with.  Songs we’ve sung enough for me to start thinking about the lyrics.  They were perfectly fine,  but there wasn’t much there to consider–neither my mind nor my imagination was not stimulated.

What was going on?  The words were fine, the music was fine.  Then I realized what the problem was.  All the songs in the set were about abstract ideas.

Are our praise and worship sets too abstract? Click To Tweet

The lyrics of a lot of our praise and worship songs are abstract.  They are about grace and freedom and fear and sin and victory and you get the picture.  These are really, really good things to sing about, but we need to think about them more concretely.

Let me be clear.  There is nothing inherently wrong with songs about abstract ideas.  Psalm 145, a psalm of praise, is mostly abstract.  If David can write a song like this, so can you.  But a steady diet of this type of song is a problem–and we sing a lot of them.

We need also to sing songs that are concrete.  In Psalm 98 we find harps and trumpets, the sounds of singing, ram’s horns, and geographic features: the sea, rivers, and mountains.  In Psalm 103, we have “diseases,” “the pit,” “eagles,” “the east,” “the west,” “father,” “children,” “dust,” “grass,” “flowers,” “wind,” “children’s children,” “angels” and “servants.”

We interact with the world of concrete things with our bodies.  Our songs, too, will engage ideas through our imaginative connections with our bodies.

Imagery

The definition of imagery that my students often recite is, “When the poem evokes one of the five senses.”   This is a good definition, but it is limited because it doesn’t take into account the evocation of other physical experiences, such as nausea or cramps, that aren’t one of the five.

The word imagery is linked to imagination.   When Frost writes, “The woods are lovely dark and deep,” we do not see the woods with our physical eyes, we see them with the eyes of our imagination.  We have a whole body in our imagination that can experience all sorts of physical sensations.  This is imagery.

Imagery is a common literary device.  It’s so common because writers have long realized that we experience the world, first and foremost, through our bodies.

Poets use imagery to create vivid and realistic experiences in our imagination.   To illustrate, this is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

There is so much to say about this poem, but we will look at just a few lines.  In the last line of the first stanza we watch, though the eyes of the speaker, the “woods fill up with snow.”  This short phrase communicates, without explicitly saying it, exactly the type of snowfall we are imaginatively experiencing.  For the woods to “fill up,” the snow is falling straight down and it’s heavy–you know, those big fluffy flakes that fall slowly when there is no wind. All this meaning is packed into a few short words–meaning is beyond the words, so to speak because it’s all happening in our imagination.

To contrast the peaceful picture before us, the sound of the harness bells come from the impatient horse who doesn’t have any conception of a beauty that would stop a journey home to hay and oats.  The three “k” sounds in, “He gives his harness bells a shake/To ask if there is some mistake,” reinforce, though sound, the contrast of the jarring bells with the soft muffled sounds of the snowy surroundings; “The only other sound’s the sweep/Of easy wind and downy flake.”  Our imaginations are guided by the poet to a very specific, concrete experience.

Dark and deep woods might feel creepy, but for the word “lovely.”  With this word, the image that is evoked is one of beautiful peacefulness.  Taken together, readers imaginatively experience this very particular, beautiful and peaceful setting.

We have physical bodies and we are surrounded by physical things.  It makes sense that our poetry would use imagery in order to communicate experience.  Are there physical experiences that writers of praise music might wish to evoke in order to lead us into worship?

Imagery gives us concrete experience.  Our understanding of abstract ideas comes to us through physical things as well.   A good example comes from the chorus of “Great Are You Lord.”

We interact with the world, both spiritually and physically. So, our worship songs will engage our heart, mind, soul, and body. Abstract ideas of salvation will be accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, etc. Click To Tweet

The Concrete Chorus of “Great Are You Lord”

One of the reasons I like “Great Are You Lord” by All Sons & Daughters is because it is so concrete–embodied even.  Most of the verses are fairly abstract, praising God for giving life and being love, and bringing light to the darkness.  But the chorus and the bridge bring our physical bodies into the song.

Chorus:
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise
We pour out our praise
It’s Your breath in our lungs
So we pour out our praise to You only
Bridge:
And all the earth will shout Your praise
Our hearts will cry, these bones will sing
Great are You, Lord

While we sing the song, we confess that the air in our lungs, the one we just inhaled a moment before, is a gift from Him.  And we use that very air to praise him.  I think that’s amazing.  If you think about it for a second, we owe him our very breath.  And what else can we do in response to this realization but use that gift in worship?   This little line is incredible. In the very act of singing, we are doing what we are singing about.  And it’s so biological.

Isn’t this breath-to-praise pattern part of our everyday worship?  Any and every gift from God can be just as seamlessly turned into praise of the giver.  This is what holistic worship is.  We worship God with our all the gifts he’s given us.  Everything from the most basic breath, to our time, money, talents and passions, are turned into praise in the same seamless beauty in which we breathe and sing.

Wow!  When this dawns on you, it changes the way you sing the song.  It’s an idea that moves from the body, through the imagination to the mind and it evokes the emotion of gratitude and the desire to worship.  That’s what I’m talking about–holistic worship.  That’s what I am advocating for all songs that we sing in church.

The bridge is just as biological, and just as spiritually profound.  It states that “All the earth will sing your praise.”  The earth is that physical reality in which we live and it praises God in all its physicality.  What would be more natural than the crown of creation joining the terrestrial chorus in praise of our creator?  But it’s not our voices this time, nor our feelings or thoughts.  It’s not even our souls or spirits.  In league with the rest of the material world, our very bones–the core of our physical being, will sing praise.  This is profound in every sense of the term.

Again, the repeated singing of these lines brings you deeper into worship as the profundity of this idea sinks into our understanding.

Our whole life is about interaction with the world, both spiritually and physically.  To worship with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body would naturally involve songs about abstract ideas of salvation, accessed through the concrete images of lungs and bones, the cross, bread and wine, mountains and flowers, harps and trumpets, rain snow, and . . . a horse and bridle?

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: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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.Click To Tweet

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.

”SingingClick To Tweet

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: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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 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 Click To Tweet

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.

”[tweetshareClick To Tweet

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: Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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. Click To Tweet

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.Click To Tweet

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.

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: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

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 worshippers 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, to the recipient of our praise.

The Test of Repetition

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.Click To Tweet

After this happens, every recurrence of the so-so song impedes, rather than enhances worship.

Is it My Problem?

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 three 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.
  3. My third argument is more complex, and it is contained in the series of post that follows.  In essence, better lyrics lead to deeper worship, even if you don’t care about the lyrics.

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.  But does God need our songs and sheep?  When  God’s people are commanded to sacrifice the best lamb, grain or ox, it is for our sake.  It is a reflection and a reminder of how we are to think of him.

The Poetry of Worship

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?Click To Tweet

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. Click To Tweet

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)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Symbol (8)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)

Concert versus Worship

 

Free-Photos / Pixabay

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.

Worship Leader?

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.  The appellation “Worship Leader” is appropriate if this person 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.

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

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

Little things will turn and shape our thinking.  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,”

These are hugely important because we do them habitually.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

James K. A. Smith Changed How I Think About Everything

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.

Secular Liturgies

In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies.  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, YouTube 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. Click To Tweet

Are we training people to leave the church?

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.

The church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.Click To Tweet

The Function of Difference

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?

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

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 sat 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 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.  In other words, 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.  Even if the move was simply practical, and I don’t think it was, it will shape the hearts and minds of the congregants so that the central location of the band will mean that the music is central.

Active to Passive Worshipers

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 some water to come from rocks and some he turns into blood.  He makes walls fall and curtains tear.  Jesus, the Word made flesh, heals, walks (even on water), teaches, eats, feed, dies, rises from the dead and ascends.  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” and “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.

When the Word and sacraments are central, and properly understood, we encounter a God who is active in worship. If singing songs is central, does God just sit there and listen?Click To Tweet

Liturgies Shape Us and the Way We Think

Human beings are shaped by worship, especially through the repeated things.  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 their lives.

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.Click To Tweet

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.  Are we 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.

Who is most active in worship?

Things get worse when the band starts to slide out of the worship leading role into a performance role.  This makes both God and congregants passive.  In this scenario, 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 of the Central Position

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.

Questions to Consider

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 find a place for the table, the font and the pulpit someplace on the stage?
  • 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: Concert versus Worship

In my series The Poetry of Worship, offer ways we can improve the lyrics of the praise and worship songs we sing.  More importantly, I explain why we ought to.

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Baptism as a Reminder

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.Click To Tweet

The God Dimension

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

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