A Word to Worship Song Writers: Take Up Thy Pen and Write

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

Robin Parry in his book, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship, did a study of every song on 28 worship albums produced by Vineyard Music between 1999-2004. What he discovered was that only 1.4% of the songs were explicitly Trinitarian. Only 38.7% explicitly mentioned any member of the Trinity. The majority of the songs (51%) only referred to deity in a generic “you Lord” way (p. 133-143).

This should raise serious concern for all Christians, but particularly those of us in the Wesleyan stream who have been nurtured and nourished for centuries on theologically rich hymnody. The reason is because when the “chips were down” it has been our hymns which have saved us. Even when the church became lured into exchanging the gospel for the latest cultural mess of pottage, our hymns managed to keep us on track. The rich theological depth of our hymns helped us to re-remember the gospel and become better hearers of the Scriptures. I have sat in church services and listened to sermons which were way off the mark theologically and, sometimes, even alien to the gospel. Then, the congregation would rise on their feet and sing,

The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
She is his new creation, by water and the word.
From heaven He came and sought her to be his holy bride;
With his own blood He bought her, and for her life he died.

Yet she one earth hath union with God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we,
Like them, the meek and lowly, on high may dwell in Thee.

Suddenly, I felt the life of the church and the good news of the gospel returning to the oxygen starved parishioners and we were able to go on another week. I wonder, will contemporary worship songs serve us in this way in our current crisis? Don’t get me wrong. I love contemporary worship. The songs of Keith Getty and Stuart Townend are among the richest I’ve seen. But, as Parry found in his study, they are only a tiny fraction of the contemporary genre.

Let me repeat: There are some great choruses being written today. It is just that the chaff almost overwhelms the wheat. We need a more robust engagement with the content of the gospel and the character of God in the writing of new hymns and choruses. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we started to see Trinitarian choruses written for today’s church? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if songs were written so explicitly Christian that they couldn’t be sung by a Hindu to Krishna? It may be that such a commitment might end up being the very life-line which will pull us out of yet another miry pit. So, if you are theologically sensitive and musically trained, pick up your pen and start writing! We need you now more than ever.

Comments

  • Tony Hall says:

    I couldn’t agree more but I am sorry to say that most songs written today repeat and repeat shallow meaningless lines that could refer to Krishna etc.

  • Besy says:

    You are absolutely right that it is the great hymns that keep the message alive. Growing up, I would not have any usable sense of God if it had not been for the hymns and traditional creeds.

    Currently, I am serving a stint as liturgist. When I got the bulletin for this week’s service, I was dismayed at the verbiage peppered throughout the liturgy which was all very modern–overall it sounded like it was up to us and we were not living up to our strength. As far as hymns go, we started with “Near the Cross”, then on to “Like A Fire Meant for Burning” which actually contains a line about it is not about sharing our creeds and traditions but “building a bridge of care” and then we concluded with “I am the Church, You are the church….”–a hymn I never recall singing in worship pup until the last few years. A recent article on seedbed alerted me to the fact how infrequently we refer to the triune God. So I countered all this with a prayer of thanksgiving that identified God as three persons and that it is God who rescues us and makes us a truly human person. I even included Wesley’s “Glory be to thee O holy undivided trinity for concurring in the great work of our redemption, and restoring us once again to the glorious”. I’ve got other goals when it comes to being liturgist–such as not being a verbal bulletin/MC. So far, all feedback from the pew has been positive in a general sort of way and mostly goes beyond the routine “thank you for helping out”. So I will keep chipping away. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • Modern praise and worship songs can be described and summed up in one word, “repetition.”

  • Terry Powell says:

    Listen to Christian radio and you’ll see that too many songs written and sung today contain poor and inconsistent theology. Why do we want to sing these songs to God, sing them into our minds and hearts, teach them to other believers, and present them as a testimony before unbelievers?

  • Mary Page says:

    I agree some of the new songs need to be checked for alignment to scripture. There are problems, major ones. The problem does not start with the musicians. The problem starts when they are chosen for worship. You have to check the text to see if it is within the range of known scripture insight. Let us not forget their is much bias in the churches against certain kinds of thinking. We love to ignore the Song of Solomon ~ we pay lip service to it. We love to ignore that Wisdom is called Sophia and the feminine side of God who encompasses all. Now as far as Hindus they are children of God and christians need to get off their pedastal and start finding ways to reach that population. If everytime a christian reaches out to a Hindus and does not quite get the gospel at seminary level understanding are we to stop sharing Jesus because it is not perfect? Most people never take the risk to witness because of the fear tha if they witness to someone different than them and if they do not write it or say it correctly that some one will be a nasty teacher and correct like the grammar Nazis do. You are to have the conversation despite all its imprefections. Despite not having it all theologically correct. You are to have the conversation. Then you are to share it with someone else to help you go back and have another conversation. Hindus are here to stay and so are Muslims and we can chose to ignore and endless war in our ivory tower or empty churches. Or we can chose like the apostles to take the risk and ot it anyway and trust God will use it despite our weakness. So I challenge you all to talk to Hindu about your faith and to talk to a muslim about your faith. You will be surprised many of them love Jesus too and they just disagree about the details. Hymns were not always perfect either. It took several drafts before they became theologically aligned. That is reality. Methodists have the tradition that Charles Wesley had his words in his songs changed a time or two to align but also to make it useful for congregational singing. That is a duty of a head muscian or choir director to make sure the text covers the things needed for the worship service either in one song or in several songs whether that is traditional, alternative, contemporary, or any other music we try to share Christ with. It would help if muscians and pastors would cooperate instead of attacking each other.

  • Bob Moulton says:

    As a musician, worship music leader and sometime song writer, I couldn’t agree more. There is a place for the melodically simple, lyrically repetitive ‘praise’ song since most people are more accustomed to listening to music than singing it these days. On the other hand, one of the most profound songs in our hymnals is ‘Jesus Loves Me’ I welcome worship music (as opposed to performance music) with more depth.

  • Bob Moulton says:

    One additional point: the worst thing about many hymns is not the melodic line, the rhythm or the archaic language – it’s that they’re pitched too high for the average person.

  • K. Huffman says:

    The problem I have with this article is that the sole example it uses to make a point about contemporary worship not being theological enough is a theology that isn’t specifically mentioned in the bible. Many praise and worship songs are pulled straight from scripture. The word “trinity” is never used in scripture. The idea is there, but you get the point. As far as repetition goes, the bible speaks ill of VAIN repetition. The angels in heaven never tire of singing “Holy, Holy, Holy!” Sometimes we get so caught up in the old that we can’t make room for new.

  • D. Paynd says:

    One of the real problems with the contemporary compositions is the lack of theological insight that is derived from a heartfelt conversion experience, and knowing deliverance from the bonds of sin. The Wesleys wrote from experience: “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee.” It seems to me that many of the songs being written today are not written to convey a message, but just to write a song, i.e. they are just writing songs to write songs, and many times with the profit motive. I do agree that many of the contemporary songs have a good message and generate a worship attitude when sung properly. I am always open to new expressions of praise and worship, and appreciate it when it comes along and you don’t have to sing the same five words over and over again in three different octaves or variations.
    Although the word Trinity may not be used in the Bible, the concept is very assuredly there in many places. But, as Wesleyans we should be able to sing about the work of the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins offered through the sacrifice of Christ, and the wonderful glory of God that is beyond all human understanding. Like the Wesleys, I still rejoice in the phrase, “and can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood.”

  • D. Payne says:

    Dr. Tennent: Thanks for posting your review of Parry’s book.

  • Jake Elliott says:

    I disagree with several of your points, Mr. Tennent. While the statistic about the Trinity not being mentioned in the majority of contemporary praise songs is interesting, not all praise songs were written to function as a creed or specific reminder of our unique beliefs as Christians. Many are written as joyful or reverent songs of love or praise, and while these may risk working technically as songs for Hindu or Krishna worship services, that should never be an issue in a Sunday Protestant worship service. In the right context (a Christian worship service) the “You, Lord,” is clearly directed to our one God in three Persons.
    Secondly, in response to your comment about the chaff overwhelming the wheat, we have to remember that the five hundred or so hymns that are in our hymnals (of which I would guess only a couple hundred are used by most churches) are the wheat from almost two thousand years of hymns (Of the Fathers Love Begotten was written in the 4th century). There are most likely thousands of hymns that have been forgotten for good reason. In order for “wheat” to be produced, artists and writers must also produce lots of “chaff.” Consider the few praise songs you cherish out of many you may not as works of our time that will withstand the test of time. Consider the rest as fair attempts.
    Lastly, for those who are bothered by the repetition that seems to be a common style for contemporary praise songs, think of psalms such as 136, which repeats “His love endures forever,” or the refrains in chant in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church. Repetition has the function of teaching. Don’t you have to repeat a rule to a child over and over again until she/he understands it? Similarly don’t you find yourself with the bridge of a praise song in your head and then realize, “Wow, I didn’t understand the implications of that the first time I sung it!” I recently had the bridge of Nothing is Holding Back by Bryan and Katie Torwalt which repeats “Jesus, you make all things new,” a simple but beautiful truth that sunk in as it repeated in my head.
    Thank you, Mr. Tennet, for letting me push back against your post. I appreciate you starting the conversation as it is an extremely important one to have in this time when both styles are prevalent in the Church. I myself am a deep lover of hymns, but I equally love and respect the new praise songs that are coming out. I personally see the richness in theology in the writing of Hillsong, Elevation Worship, and Bethel.

    • Thanks for the push back. I quite agree that the overall context of the worship service can assist an otherwise weak piece of writing. I also heartily agree with your point about the sifting of wheat from the chaff over time. That is a good point. I don’t think that reality actually changes the overall point which is not to compare, but to move forward with excellence. As for repetition, I made no mention of that in my blog. That point was made by others. As a daily Psalm singer I love and cherish repetition. I have sung the 150 Psalms, I estimate, through about 15 times over the last five years. So, I love repetition. In fact, one of my concerns about the chorus movement is how quickly they are discarded. I would like to see some stay around and soak in. Thanks!

  • I too have theological concerns. However, I’ve been working on encouraging those who write (and choose) songs for worship, to write poetry. After we sing a song a few times, the worshipful feelings a song generates will often diminish. If the words of the song engage the imagination and the mind, the song will lead to even deeper worship. This is what the old hymn do. To this end, I’ve been writing a series of posts on just this at my website.