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Dissecting a Thousand Tongues

Dissecting A Thousand Tongues

In a recent blog post I discussed the difference between personal-story worship songs and cosmic-story worship songs. I made the qualification that personal-story songs focus mainly on how God interacts with the author’s story, whereas cosmic-story songs show how the author has been swept up in God’s saving activity, having a share in salvation history. This begs the question, which is more fitting for the content of Christian worship? The cosmic gives perspective and identity to the personal, but this does not mean the personal is invalid. I believe that Christian worship songs are at their best when they somehow strike a balance between the personal and the cosmic.

Charles Wesley is one of the best examples of a Christian songwriter who often captured both the personal-story and cosmic-story within a single song. He was able to depict the narrative of salvation in a deeply intimate way. Lyrical expression was more than a cathartic experience for Charles Wesley’s soul. Instead, Charles felt deeply the importance of communicating the theme of God’s universal invitation to salvation. Yet, his lyrics were often testimonial as well.

One of Charles’ most famous hymns, commonly known as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” was composed as a reflection on his own faith journey. The original hymn contained eighteen verses and was written by Charles on the first anniversary of his conversion (three days prior to his brother John’s own heart-warming experience). He appropriately entitled the hymn, “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion.” (John Wesley later pared it down to eight stanzas for use in the Methodist hymnal, beginning with the line “O for a thousand tongues…,” which is why we know it by that title today.)

Though many of Charles Wesley’s lyrical works would be a fitting example of the unity of the personal with the cosmic, in this post I will examine the full eighteen verses of “O for a Thousand to Sing.” By looking at this well-known text, I believe we will see how worship can speak to deeply intimate realities while enrapturing an individual to the grand narrative of God.

Part One: Cosmic Doxology

Though our personal stories may have a place in worship, worship is directed to God and given for God’s glory alone. In other words, our testimonies are put in their proper perspective through doxology. The first words of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s spiritual autobiography give evidence to this: “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised!” Likewise, Charles situates his hymn with a doxology, beginning with praise and glory given to God:

1. Glory to God and praise and love

Be ever, ever given

By saints below, and saints above

The Church in earth and heaven.

Worship draws us into doxology. In our meeting with God, our primary response should always be similar to that of Isaiah 6, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! The whole earth is filled with his glory!” Doxology is the overflow of praise for who God is and what God has done. Only in this light will any following testimony be put in proper perspective.

Part Two: Personal Testimony

In stanzas two through seven, Charles Wesley turns more personal. He begins to give his testimonial account, offering a description of his own experience of salvation:

2. On this glad day the glorious Sun

Of Righteousness arose

On my benightened soul he shone

And filled it with repose

3. Sudden expired the legal strife

‘Twas then I ceased to grieve

My second, real, living life

I then began to live

4. Then with my heart I first believed

Believed with faith divine

Power with the Holy Ghost received

To call the Saviour mine

5. I felt my Lord’s atoning blood

Close to my soul applied

Me, me he loved, the Son of God

For me, for me he died!

6. I found and owned his promise true,

Ascertained my part

My pardon passed in heaven I knew

When written on my heart

7. O for a thousand tongues to sing

My great Redeemer’s praise!

The glories of my God and King

The triumphs of his grace

In this section of the song, the author (Charles Wesley) is the primary subject. This is about his experiences, his emotions, and his transformation. The language is deeply personal: “Me, me he loved, the Son of God/ For me, for me he died!” Even the singer/reader can feel a personal connection to the words. Yet, even though the lyrics tend toward an individual focus, Charles keeps the cosmic narrative in view. In part, his Trinitarian language (thereby acknowledging the Trinity’s work in his conversion) accomplishes this in lines such as, “Power with the Holy Ghost received/ To call the Saviour mine.” Additionally, Charles comes back to the doxological purpose of worship in the seventh stanza, “O for a thousand tongues to sing/ My great Redeemer’s praise!/ The glory of my God and King/ The triumphs of his grace.”

Part Three: Cosmic Proclamation

As stanza seven bring the song back to a doxological proclamation similar to how the hymn first began, it also sets up a lyrical shift in the song. In stanza seven, Charles makes the personal request for “a thousand tongues” to declare his praise to God, acknowledging his glories and triumphs. In stanza eight, Charles uses the tongue (or pen) God has given him to make such cosmic proclamation (and perhaps, through our joining him in the hymn, he is granted the thousand tongues he desired):

 8. My gracious Master and my God

Assist me to proclaim

To spread through all the earth abroad

The honors of Thy name

9.  Jesus, the name that charms our fears

That bids our sorrows cease

‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears

‘Tis life and health and peace

10. He breaks the power of cancelled sin

He sets the prisoner free

His blood can make the foulest clean

His blood availed for me

11. He speaks, and listening to his voice

New life the dead receive

The mournful, broken hearts rejoice

The humble poor believe

Stanzas eight through eleven are a sermon of the gospel message of Jesus Christ, reflecting the universal call to salvation so important in the Wesleys’ preaching. Charles shows in these lines that with the experience of conversion comes proclamation of the gospel. Furthermore, though the call for salvation is universal, Wesley gets specific. In stanzas ten and eleven he shows that Christ comes to bring salvation to specific experiences of those to whom the proclamation is addressed: sinners are freed from the power of sin; prisoners are set free; the dead are given life; the sorrowful are given joy.

Part Four: Personal Responsibility

In the final seven stanzas of the hymn, Charles once again gets personal, but in a much different way than in his testimony earlier in the song. Charles now commands in boldness for others to make the Gospel story personal in their own lives, to find themselves caught up in the cosmic narrative of God’s salvation, to accept the triumphs of Christ, and to join his doxology:

12. Hear him ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,

Your loosened tongues employ

Ye blind behold your Saviour come

And leap ye lame for joy

13. Look unto him, ye nations, own

Your God, ye fallen race!

Look, and be saved through faith alone

And justified by grace

14. See all your sins on Jesus laid

The Lamb of God was slain

His soul was once an offering made

For every soul of man

15. Harlots and publicans and thieves

In holy triumph join

Saved is the sinner that believes

From crimes as great as mine

16. Murderers and all ye hellish crew

Ye sons of lust and pride

Believe the Saviour died for you

For me the Saviour died

17. Awake from guilty nature’s sleep

And Christ shall give you light

Cast all your sins into the deep

And wash with Ethiop white

18. With me your chief you then shall know

Shall feel your sins forgiven

Anticipate your heaven below

And own that love is heaven

Conclusion

The structure of Charles Wesley’s hymn moves from glory to testimony to proclamation and finally to exhortation. Throughout, the song demonstrates that worship is not to be primarily concerned with our own pious introspection but instead leads us to a cosmic acknowledgement and proclamation of God’s glorious work and character. Furthermore, worship brings us to share the good news of the Gospel through our doxological praise. Though many of us may not feel as gifted as Charles Wesley, we do have a story to tell. Through this hymn, Charles Wesley brilliantly shows us how every testimony presents a remarkable opportunity to give praise to God, tell the story of salvation, proclaim the Gospel message, and encourage others to take claim of it in their life. May God assist our tongues to make such proclamation.

Music and the Missionary

In 2004 I spent six months serving with World Gospel Mission in Uganda, Africa. The opportunity was life changing, one that continues to daily shape my understanding of Christianity and the Church. I easily fell in love with the people and culture of Uganda. Much of my time was spent in bush villages, teaching theology and Biblical studies to Ugandan pastors. Some of my most vivid memories of Uganda were the nights I would gather under the stars with Ugandan men and women, singing choruses and dancing for hours. There was great joy and life in those times together. The music was simple – repetitive choruses sung in simple harmonies, often accompanied only by a percussion instrument – but there was great beauty in the musical praise and prayers of the Ugandan people. I deeply miss sharing in those times with my friends.

My experiences in Uganda continue to prompt my reflection on music in worship. One particular feature of worship music I have come to understand is that good theological content is often fruitless without considering proper context.

One musical experience in Uganda stands out vividly in my mind, and I believe it is a good one to relate here in order to show the validity of both content and context in worship music.

A good old-fashioned hymn-sing

One week, as I prepared to lead a pastoral training in a village near Lake Victoria, a missionary friend (who would be leading the training with me) approached me with a unique opportunity. Knowing I played guitar and often led music in churches, she asked if I would teach the Ugandan pastors some American hymns during the upcoming training. She had recently begun work with a translator to create a small hymnal of American hymns in the main Ugandan dialect of the region around Lake Victoria (Lugandan).

I spent the next few days meeting with the translator, learning Lugandan pronunciation, inflection, etc, and practicing familiar hymns in Lugandan. Having led music for a Hispanic church for six months prior to my going to Uganda, I found that I was excited to lead music once again in the familiar language of non-English speakers.

When I arrived at the training, my missionary friend introduced me and told the Ugandan pastors that for part of the first morning together, I would teach them new songs. I will never forget what she said next, “I am tired of your music being so shallow and repetitive. You need better content to your songs, so we are going to teach you some of our music.”

The importance of content

In my last post, I briefly examined the differences between person-story worship songs and cosmic-story worship songs. Instead of rehashing that out here, I encourage you to go read the post. I mention my last post because I believe person-story vs. cosmic-story is at the heart of what my missionary friend was (poorly) trying to tell the Ugandan pastors. She felt the over-focus of the personal-story in the Ugandan praise songs lacked the element of cosmic-story. As a result, she found cosmic-story songs rich in theology, translated them into the local dialect, and asked me to help introduce them to the Ugandan pastors.

A common premise throughout my posts is that the content of our worship is of the utmost importance. Our words in worship – whether in liturgy, transition, song, or sermon – give content to our worship; therefore we cannot be casual and lackadaisical about the words we use in worship. Likewise, the content of worship has formational value; thus we need to constantly evaluate the words we use and seek out proper content for our services of worship.

Both my missionary friend and I felt that by introducing new musical content to the Ugandan pastors, we could help expand the sung elements of their worship. The rest of my story shows how I failed to realize that context would make all the difference in how the content was received.

Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe

One of the songs I chose to teach the Ugandan pastors was the gospel-hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or in Lugandan, “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe.” I had worked up a bluegrass arrangement of the hymn while in college, and being from Kentucky, I thought it would be fun to show the Ugandans music from my home.

After being introduced by my missionary friend, I handed out copies of “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe” to the Ugandan pastors and asked them to join me in singing. Then I played the song in a bluegrass style… in Lugandan.

I was met with two main responses. Some of the pastors whooped and applauded my ability to sing in their language. Most of them laughed, completely confused and embarrassed by the unusual rhythm I had just played for them. No one sang with me.

After the song, I asked the pastors how they liked the song. The general consensus was this: the song was strange, but they appreciated my showing it to them. I then asked them about the words to the song, what they liked or didn’t like. I was met with complete silence. Then I realized, since my demonstration of the song was so jarring to the Ugandan pastors, they paid no attention to the words. My approach then changed. I spent the next fifteen minutes talking through the words of “Yesu Ye Mukwano Gwaffe” with the pastors, and then we sang it again – a cappella.

The importance of context

The whole purpose of my teaching new songs to the Ugandan pastors was to help introduce them to how music can be theologically educational as it proclaims prayer and praise to God. Unfortunately, in my original approach, the content was lost because I failed to take the context of the Ugandan pastors into account. Instead, I tried to force them into my context, a very strange and unfamiliar world.

As much as I believe content to be of the utmost importance in worship, I cannot ignore the fact that context is crucial as well. At a basic level, context is what makes things make sense. On a theological level, context is the incarnational aspect of ministry and worship. Context gets into the lives of others, moves us to truly understand their cultural environment, and allows us to tailor our approach in ministry and worship for each occasion.

By taking context into account, we remember that people come from very particular walks of life with particular influences and particular formative backgrounds. By contextualizing our worship – including our worship music – we acknowledge that God’s Spirit is not limited to certain looks, styles, or cultures. Instead, we affirm the goodness of God’s varied creation.

Context is not, however, an excuse for bad or shallow content in worship. In fact, I believe we should often push ourselves (and slowly and carefully push our congregations) outside of our own familiar contexts and into others’. We begin to see the vast, transformative power of the Holy Spirit as we break free from our own contexts.

As I spent more and more time with the Ugandan pastors, I slowly began to understand and appreciate their ways of worship and they slowly began to understand and appreciate mine. I loved their simplicity and the repetitive nature of their music, which made sense in an oral culture. They appreciated how the American hymns told stories and were able to teach about God and His work. Eventually, American hymns made their way into the nightly musical gatherings I had with the Ugandan pastors. Similarly, just two Sundays ago, I lead the congregation of my church in Lexington, Kentucky in a Ugandan chorus.

Ways forward

I often hear content and context set against one another in conversations on worship. Some hold the content of worship at such a high level of importance that they fail to notice it has become ineffectual. Others emphasize context to such an extreme that there is no real recognition of who – or what – is being worshiped. To allow content and context to work hand-in-hand, there will be tension. There is danger of going to an extreme on either side. For this reason, I believe we need to keep both before us in constant conversation.

Regarding worship music, it is imperative that we encourage musical and lyrical composition through our theological teaching. My biggest regret in Uganda was not taking the time to teach songwriting to the Ugandan pastors. In my desire to provide a deeper lyrical theology for the Ugandan church, I failed to realize that Ugandans would be able to find the musical expression best for their culture. My role as a teacher/theologian should have been to help provide the content of the cosmic-story, perhaps through existing lyrical texts, and give tips on ways the content could be conveyed through song. The Ugandans would provide the appropriate context in which to set the song.

Of course, ancient and traditional music always have their place in worship, when put in proper context. Likewise, as pastors and worship leaders, we can help contextualize new material and old material that might be new to our congregations. One great way to bring context to good content is by re-setting traditional texts to new tunes. This is becoming common in America, as evidenced in such projects as John Hartley’s Love Divine and Kevin Twitt’s Indelible Grace.

Similarly, the modern hymn-writer movement in England has become a way of thinking through how current styles of music can be used to convey good content in worship. Songwriters such as Matt Redman, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend are composing lyrical reflections on a variety of theological topics, setting the lyrics to good, singable melodies.

Our contexts are a natural expression of who we are – who God created us to be. Context is something to be celebrated and evaluated, not ignored. May we ever be willing to seek out the proper balance of content and context in our worship, ever increasing in awareness of God’s presence, attention to God’s Spirit, and the ability to express praise and prayer to God.

Examining the “who” in worship music

In his book Heretics, G.K. Chesterton states, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

I was struck by this quote, and it sent my mind to thinking, can the same be said about songs for Christian worship? In other words, does the following statement hold true?: A good worship song tells us the truth about God; but a bad worship song tells us the truth about its author. 

As I have written in previous posts, the words we use in Christian worship – including our songs – are formative. Words for worship must be chosen with the utmost care. Those who write lyrics for Christian worship must take seriously their role in directing and proclaiming praise of God.

Oftentimes, song lyrics can be (and should be) testimonial. Christian songwriters find inspiration through God’s work in their own lives, which prompts theological reflection in lyrical form. But perhaps Chesterton prompts us to ask the following question: on whom does the content of a worship song focus?

Personal-Story vs. Cosmic-Story

Lester Ruth suggests in his article, “A Rose by Any Other Name,”  that churches can often be divided into two different categories: personal-story churches and cosmic-story churches. He writes, “There are churches whose worship over time is most focused on the personal stories of the worshipers and how God interacts with their stories. In contrast there are churches whose worship over time unfolds a more cosmic remembrance of the grand sweep of God’’s saving activity. The goal here will be to show how worshipers have a share in salvation history.”

Applying Ruth’s two descriptions to Christian songwriting, the suggestion can be made that personal-story songs focus mainly on how God interacts with the author’s story. Cosmic-story songs show how the author has been swept up in God’s saving activity, having a share in salvation history.

A good example of a Personal-story song is “You Are So Good to Me” by Don Chaffer. The lyrics to the first verse and chorus of Chaffer’s song state:

You are so good to me
You heal my broken heart
You are my Father in heaven

You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
You are beautiful my sweet, sweet song
And I will sing again

At first glance, it may appear that the focus of the above lyrics is on God. The song is directed to God and conveys attributes of God. The real focus, however, is on the author’s own experience of God. God is good to me. God heals my broken heart. I have found God beautiful and sweet. The scope of the lyrics fails to move outside of the author’s own personal experience with God.

In contrast, let us consider the first verse and chorus of Matt Maher’s “Christ is Risen”:

Let no one caught in sin remain
Inside the lie of inward shame
We fix our eyes upon the cross
And run to him who showed great love
And bled for us
Freely you bled, for us

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling over death by death
Come awake, come awake!
Come and rise up from the grave!

Christ is risen from the dead
We are one with him again
Come awake, come awake!
Come and rise up from the grave!

It is immediately evident that Maher’s lyrics have a much broader scope than Chaffer’s. The focus of the song is on victory through the mighty acts of salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. Maher gives a cosmic picture of worship as his song brings all worshipers to have share together in salvation history.*

Striking a balance?

To be completely honest, I really like both Chaffer’s song and Maher’s song. And I believe they both have their place in Christian worship. My goal in this post is not to set one type of song above the other. In fact, I believe Christian worship should be filled with a good balance of both personal-story songs and cosmic-story songs, as well as other liturgical acts. I believe we err when we lean too hard on one side and neglect the other. Sometimes I need to sing that God has been good to me, that he has answered my prayers, that he cares for me and has saved me. Yet, I find myself within a much more grand narrative of salvation, part of a cosmic story of redemption and victory. Setting a song like, “You are So Good to Me” along with a “Christ is Risen” helps move toward that balance.

Some songwriters are able to navigate both the personal-story and cosmic-story within a single song. Charles Wesley is a great example of this. For example, in the full, original 18-verses of his hymn “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” Charles begins with a cosmic doxological praise, turns to personal testimony, and ultimately gives way to proclamation of the Gospel message.

So, consider again if the following statement holds true: A good worship song tells us the truth about God; but a bad worship song tells us the truth about its author. 

My sense is that the statement is both correct and incorrect. Yes, every song of worship should tell us the truth about God. But often as the author encounters the cosmic story of salvation, his/her personal story gives voice to important prayer and praise. And perhaps we fail to see important aspects of God’s beauty and goodness by not paying attention to both.

*For the sake of brevity, I do not provide a wide variety of song examples. The two songs I consider here were not chosen through any formal methodology but were the first two songs that caught my eye when flipping through my church’s song database.

Christian Songwriting 101 (or The Lyrical Messenger)

As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with Christian song. As a child, I used to sit in the pew during worship services and flip through the hymnal, reading through the rich lyrics of the numerous hymns. I wanted to know and understand the words to the songs we sang plus discover new gems of songs I had never heard. The themes and images I discovered within the hymns stuck with me. Frequently, when I returned home from church, I would attempt to write my own lyrical compositions – most of which are too embarrassing to post. (Let’s just say that my Christian arrangement of “Let it Be” seemed a lot cooler when I was nine than it does now.)

As I have grown older, my interest in Christian song has steadily increased. Many of my academic studies have focused on the theological dynamic of Christian song in worship, a topic I examined in my post, “Introducing Lyrical Theology.” Worship planners and pastors have the responsibility of choosing appropriate material for worship because words matter. But for pastors and worship planners to choose good material, good theological songs must exist. It is the task of the Christian songwriter to resource the Church with lyrical theology. In other words, since the words we sing in worship carry theological meaning they must be carefully formed.

 

The Christian songwriter as a messenger

The Christian songwriter must acknowledge his/her crucial role of standing before the Church as God’s messenger. Worship songs (in part) proclaim God’s story, reveal God’s character, examine God’s commandments, and acknowledge God’s desires. The Christian songwriter is faced with the task of communicating God’s truth through poetic language. Through an economy of words, the Christian songwriter uses poetic devices such as meter, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, and figurative language to make known who God is and what God has done. The Christian songwriter proclaims in lyrical form God’s message of hope and salvation. Thus, Christian songwriters are important theologians of the church as they are responsible for both knowing and upholding correct theology in their songs.

The Christian songwriter serves not only as one who declares God’s message to worshipers but also as one who gives worshipers the words to proclaim to God. The Christian songwriter gives worshipers a theology to sing. He/She is responsible for the words placed on people’s lips in worship. Lyrical composition is the Christian songwriter’s response to God through messages of praise, petition, lament, and celebration.* Worship music then places these words on worshiper’s lips as a message to God.

 

Forming messengers

The Christian songwriter has a unique and weighty responsibility. He/She is a messenger, a teacher, a theologian, and a worshiper. Awareness of each of these roles is crucial for Christian songwriters to continue appropriately resourcing the Church with songs for worship. From mature Christians come mature Christian songs.

It is fitting then to ask who is responsible for training these worship messengers? Though there are several valid answers, I would like to examine three influences of growth:

  1. Christian songwriters are responsible for their own growth
  2. Pastors are responsible for Christian songwriters’ growth
  3. Christian songwriters are responsible for each others’ growth

 

Christian songwriters are responsible for their own growth.

In part, Christian songwriters are responsible for their own theological growth. For their songs to have rich theological content, Christian songwriters must develop through contemplation on rich theological content. Examining worship music is a great place for Christian songwriters to begin. I encourage Christian songwriters to read through the lyrics of a variety of hymns, pslams, and spiritual songs. Look beyond popular or familiar music (though consider these as well) to other expressions and cultures. Notice the language and imagery used. Examine how God’s character and work is described. Consider the main message the song proclaims.

Christian songwriters should also familiarize themselves with important theological teachings of the church. Know your own tradition’s background and read from important figures that have contributed to your doctrine. Read from great Christian thinkers such as Athanasius, Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, A.W. Tozer, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Catherine Booth. Allow their wisdom to give content to the messages written in Christian lyrics. Matt Maher has a great way of doing this in his songs. “Alive Again” is basically a retelling of Augustine’s conversion, noted by Augustine in his Confessions. Maher’s reworking of Augustine’s account makes for a powerful song on the experience of God’s movement in one’s life.

Another important practice for Christian songwriters is to continually keep reflecting in lyrical form. Contemplate on scripture, sermons, and devotional readings by jotting down some lyrics. They don’t have to be good or complete, but keep in the practice of writing and thinking in imagery, meter, and rhyme. You can always go back and edit later.

 

Pastors are responsible for Christian songwriters’ growth

As my post, “You’re a Theologian and Don’t Even Know It” pointed out, all worshipers are theologians. Worship both teaches and proclaims theology, making each worshiper a theologian. The content of worship is of utmost value as a primary place of theology for worshipers. Worship is also a primary place of theology for Christian songwriters. The content of worship teaches the appropriateness of Christian song. It develops both desire and knowledge of God and his people. For me, it was it was worship that turned me on to songwriting in the first place, causing me to want to imitate what others had contributed to the church.

Christian songwriters are unique in the way that they are formed by worship but also give content to worship, though they are not the only ones. Pastors and worship planners share in this responsibility. Thus, there should be a careful partnership between pastors and Christian songwriters. Pastors need to consider how they are teaching and training Christian songwriters. Pastors should help songwriters think theologically, prompt ideas to be expressed lyrically, and offer good critique and feedback on Christian songs. (A good example of this last point can be seen in my friend Tom Feurst’s blog post, “Demolishing Building 421: This IS Where I Belong.”)

Pastors should also partner with Christian songwriters. For some pastors, it may mean actually practicing expression through lyrical form. For others, it may mean surrounding themselves with lyricists who have the gift or desire of lyrical writing. Deeper consideration of lyrical partnership to sermons could be beneficial to worship. Pastors can help Christian songwriters see theological gaps in existing worship music. They might also direct Christian songwriters toward certain scriptural or liturgical reflection. Pastors need to give and Christian songwriters need to accept pastoral encouragement, support, and challenge.

 

Christian songwriters are responsible for one another’s growth

I do not know many people who aren’t amazed by the fact that C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers met regularly together with other members of a group in Oxford called “The Inklings.” One of the primary purposes of their gatherings was to discuss and critique one another’s literary work. There is something striking about such collaborative creativity. Who knows what great treasures from these authors may have never existed if that group were never formed?

Having a safe group of trust and accountability can be of incredible benefit to the Christian songwriter. I do not consider myself to be a great songwriter, but I have found my songwriting skills strengthen when I allow others into the process. When I am willing to allow others ask questions about my songs, point out theological flaws, and speak encouragement on ideas and themes I present, I have found my work benefits greatly. Many times I discover that the message I was trying to present in a song wasn’t as clear as I had assumed or an image didn’t come across as powerful as I had hoped. Others’ reflections and suggestions end up enriching the limited perspective I had when writing the song.

Hearing from other songwriters is often a good catalyst for theological meditation. Theological themes can be prompted through discussion and examination of lyrics. Regularly evaluating and critiquing other songwriters’ work helps one reason through poetic and theological reflection.

Christian songwriters need a safe place to share their work. One of the safest groups is a gathering of fellow songwriters. Of course, it takes humility and vulnerability to lay one’s creative work before others for critique and review. Trust, honesty, and support are three key characteristics of suitable accountability. They are also essential to collaborative creativity. Perhaps there is great benefit for the church from songwriters joining in collaboration with one another. Who know what treasures are yet to be discovered by those willing to follow the example of Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers?

 

A word of encouragement

Much more can and should be said about the role, responsibilities, and growth of the Christian songwriter. I plan to tackle a variety of topics on Christian songwriting in future posts by examining songwriters like Charles Wesley, Chris Tomlin, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Matt Maher, Moses Hogan, and Marcos Witt. Each of these songwriters has contributed to worship music in very profound ways, and there is much we can learn from them. For now, I close with this encouragement to Christian songwriters: understand the responsibility set before you. Remember that from mature Christian songwriters come mature Christian songs. Be certain of your calling as a messenger of God. Grow in your knowledge and affection of Him. Proclaim His word for all to hear.

 

*Christian songwriters are also often concerned with musical composition, but my main focus in this post is on lyrical writing.

How Worship Music Works Pt 1 (or I Can’t Get This Song Out of My Head)

There is a quote attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo that says, “To sing is to pray twice.”[1] I have often heard a variety of assumptions made about the meaning to this statement. There are three in particular I would like to consider in this post:

1. When we sing a prayer to God instead of speaking it, the prayer has stronger emphasis. Since music is by its nature filled with greater emotional and associational power than the spoken word, music grants an emotional emphasis to what the spoken word may lack. Music allows us to pray in both word and heart.

2. Meter and rhyme serve as a good mnemonic device. Music makes text easy to remember.  Songs allow prayers to stay constant in our minds and on our lips, so in essence we “pray twice.”

3. Music allows for corporate participation by a group of people. By having a specific melody, meter, and rhyme, multiple people can easily join in song as a unified voice. A prayer or sermon is often spoken by an individual. Singing, however, unifies a multitude of voices. Depending on the number of people singing, the prayer is sounded twice, three times, one hundred times, etc.

Words of consideration and caution

There is significance to each of the above assumptions, though I am cautious to jump too fully into all of the rationale. Let me consider each a little further:

Since music is by its nature filled with greater emotional and associational power than the spoken word, music grants an emotional emphasis to what the spoken word may lack.”

First of all, yes, music is emotional and tends to grant a particular emphasis that sometimes lacks in the spoken word. Fewer things make me feel more patriotic than when I sing “The Star Spangled Banner.” The song emphasizes for me the joy and freedom I have to be an American. It moves me on an emotional level and emphasizes an important reality in my life.

I have often heard it said that music is for the heart and sermons are for the head. I believe this is a very dangerous dichotomy to make. Though music tends to lend itself more to the emotional realm, it is important to not too strongly associate music with emotion (or the heart) and spoken word with intellect (or the head). Emotions can change suddenly. If not careful, we may too quickly associate emotional experience (and thus music) with the movement of God. If this goes to an extreme, we might begin to believe God is at work only when our emotions are aroused. Head and heart are not isolated entities. Many spoken sermons, prayers, and liturgies have moved me emotionally while many songs have stimulated me intellectually.

Theology is a pursuit that cannot be separated from holy living and our desire for the Triune God. Our intellectual contemplation of God helps our desire for God grow. Likewise our growing desire for God urges us to contemplate God more. To be moved emotionally in worship without contemplation is dangerous. To be stimulated intellectually in worship with no increase of desire for God is incomplete.

“Music makes text easy to remember.”

On the whole, I agree that music makes text memorable. There are quite a few Bible verses I can recite from memory today because I learned them in song form as a child. My sister taught herself European geography using a Justin Timberlake song. Cadence, rhythm, and rhyme are a few of the musical devices that have helped provide a structure for memorizing texts since ancient times. The Psalms are a great example of this, and their true brilliance shines quite bright in the original Hebrew.

I have often made the assertion that not many churchgoers will recite a sermon the next day in the shower but many could still be humming a tune to a song sung in the service. Some pastors have pushed back against this notion saying to make such a claim is to set up an unfair contrast. A song may be used in worship multiple times throughout the year while sermons are typically only preached once. One pastor even argued that if a congregation heard the same sermon preached twelve times in a year, congregants would be able to recite the sermon as easily as a song they’ve sung twelve times.

I admit songs have a better chance than sermons of being memorable due to their quantity of use, but I am not convinced that hearing a sermon preached twelve times would make it as memorable as singing a song twelve times. The nature of sermon and song are quite different, which is actually the point I try to make in the shower analogy.

Songs are characterized by simplicity and redundancy, qualities that make them ideal to convey a message. Even within a single song, a chorus or refrain may be repeated multiple times. By the careful partnership of music and words, worship songs are able to capture succinctly the essence of theological ideas. Additionally, songs provide a natural structure for memory. Even musical arrangements without words tend to easily stick in our heads.[2] (Andy Griffith, anyone?)

We must be aware that since music has the advantage of making text memorable it can easily put false ideas or corrupt images in our minds. That is why we need to be careful about the content of what is being taught through music (which you can read about in my previous post, Lyrical Theology). Likewise, songs tend to convey ideas that have been more fully expressed and contemplated elsewhere, such as in sermons.

“A prayer or sermon is often spoken by an individual. Singing, however, unifies a multitude of voices.”

There really is something amazing about a multitude of voices combining to sing praises/laments to God. I love joining a congregation in worship, standing as one body and harmonizing in one voice. Each individual voice, instrument, handclap, etc contributes to a singular, unified sound. I believe it is a beautiful example of how the church exists as the body of Christ.

Music is a natural act that brings the church together in one voice, but it is not the only one. I love joining with the gathered church in proclaiming creeds, reciting prayers, and responding in various liturgies. These acts are just as important and crucial to worship as musical ones, so I am careful not to set one above the other.

Musical theology 

Not all music inspires contemplation, functions theologically, or is appropriate for religious reflection. Worship music in particular must be true to the message and spirit of proper theological reflection. In its simplest definition, theology is the study of God. It is an exploration, a discovery, and a challenge to know more about God and his relationship to humanity and to the world. Since we are finite and limited creatures trying to better understand an infinite and boundless God, theology must use both reason and imagination. Worship music gives memorable and imaginative expression to theological themes elaborated elsewhere more systematically, such as in sermons.

As you can tell from the “Pt 1” of the title, this is only the first of a series of posts on the nature, role, and importance of worship music. Much more can be said and there is much more I hope to write on how worship music works. I look forward to reflecting more with you about music’s ability to step into worship, contributing in a unique way to theological understanding and experience.

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Interested in reading more on musical theology? Check out this book: Music and Theology by Don Saliers


[1] For any of you church history nerds like me, the actual quote from St. Augustine is this: “For he that sings praises, not only praises, but praises with gladness: he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection also of one loving” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Commentary on Psalm 73, 1). Over the centuries the quote has somehow been abridged to, “To sing is to pray twice.”

[2] I admit that this may not be true for every person out there. Some people just don’t pick up on music as easily as others, and that’s okay. But I think this principle does tend to be true for the majority of us.

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