Some years ago, I went to a friend’s wedding. As there were many non-Christians present, the minister made an effort to explain, simply and clearly, what was happening. It was amazing. They were really into it. I had the feeling that this was the first time they really understand what was going on in church. Then we started singing.
And suddenly they couldn’t understand a thing. Not a single word. They were with us during the wedding, but we lost them in the songs.
Great tunes, shame about the words
Recent decades have seen an explosion of worship songwriting. Each year brings new worship songs, CDs and songbooks to be rapidly devoured by a hungry church.
But often I feel like those folk at the wedding. Often when I think about what I’m singing, it doesn’t make much sense. We’re supposed to love God with our heart and soul and mind, but, where worship songs are concerned, we settle for two out of three, putting our mind on pause while we sing incomprehensible songs with archaic imagery and repetitive themes.
In this article I want to examine the words of our worship songs. I’m not advocating a return to ‘old fashioned hymns’, nor do I want to criticise today’s song writers, who are gifted people, writing from a desire to see people deepen their relationship with God. But I do want to encourage people to think.
The examples I’ve chosen come from writers who I consider big enough and talented enough to take a bit of mild criticism. So, if your work is found here, take it as a kind of compliment...
Pop v Poetry
The fundamental problem, I believe, is that we’ve downgraded the importance of the lyric. ‘Traditional’ hymns were poems, created in a society where poetry was a major popular art form. Writers such as Wesley and Watts left the music to other people; they were poets, what concerned them was the words.
Today the aesthetic which shapes the worship song is not the poem, but the pop song where the emphasis is on the melody and the beat rather than the words, most of which use the same vocabulary and cover the same themes.
The same is true of worship songs. The words often seem second in importance to the music. They talk about the same things in the same way. And often, we end up singing little more than the religious equivalent of ‘I love you baby, oh yeah.’
The rise of the singer-songwriter
It used to be common for songs to be the product of a composer and a lyricist. But in the pop world, the singersongwriter reigns supreme. The truth is that most singer-songwriters are better musicians than poets, but that never stops them.
Worship songwriting has bought in to this model as well. In one recent collection of songs, nearly 90% were written by individuals. Specialist lyricists are rare. The singer-songwriter reigns supreme.
Heart not Art
Too often we think that ‘heart’ is better than ‘art’, that godliness can replace good technique, and prayer replace practice. Obviously, anybody who wants to write about God in any medium needs a strong devotional life, but you also have to learn. Most worship songwriters have probably never had any training in words. Do they really work at it? What resources are available to help them learn?
You also have to work hard. The great composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim fills an entire notebook with thoughts and ideas for each song. How many worship songs, I wonder, are written down on the back of an envelope?
It must be good, it’s in the Bible
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the most important ability in writing worship songs is the ability to cut and paste verses from the Bible — simply rip out a chunk of scripture and glue it into place. Never mind if the words don’t fit, or the isolated verse doesn’t make sense. It’s the Bible! It must be holy.
But verses out of context don’t necessarily look holy. Often they just sound bizarre. Here’s my all-time favourite: We’ll bind their nobles tight in iron.
The first time I sang this I thought it was referring to some cruel mediaeval torture, with a hunchbacked gaoler leering wildly and yelling, “Bind his nobles!” (It’s actually ripped out of Psalm 149.)
The writers would argue that they are sharing important scriptural truths, but frankly, much of the time it’s just lazy writing. It’s so much easier to stick a Bible verse in place than to come up with your own thoughts and words.
It must be holy, it’s old
In fact, you don’t even have to the Bible, you can just use biblical images. Or even stuff that just sounds like the Bible.
Our worship songs are full of images from thousands of years ago, often expressed in a kind of ye olde scriptural English. But how many of these still make sense to congregations? Songs about sheep and shepherds may well have a Biblical precedent, but a modern, urban congregation wouldn’t know a shepherd if one came up and belted them over the head with his crook. And the only sheep they see is cut up and clingfilmed in the supermarket meat department.
The result is songs that sound like the Authorised Version of the Bible as rewritten by J.R.R. Tolkein. You get songs which include phrases like ‘We enter your sanctuary and minister at your holy throne’ or images like ‘the morning star is shining through’ (both songs were written in 2002).
The morning star meant something in the days when people got up at dawn. But now? Now, we all use alarm clocks.
Using well-worn, not to say worn-out images, is easier. Finding new pictures is hard, far easier to just take an old one out of the box and click it into place. It’s like some spiritual version of cockney rhyming slang; silver and gold=riches, swords and armour=might, fragrant oil=holiness, and so on.
Also, I think there’s a more subtle reasoning at work. Many people somehow see worship songs as a kind of extension of scripture. And so, even if you’re not singing scripture, you have to sound like you are.
Worship songs aren’t ancient texts, they are the children of our culture and time. So why clothe them in antique costume?
It must be unholy, it’s modern
The flip side of the over-use of ‘Biblical’ imagery is the under-use of modern images. Trying to find a modern image in worship songs — one which could only have come from the twentieth century — is nearly impossible. Here’s what I found:
Songs using modern images
Songs of Fellowship
Spring Harvest 150
Soul Survivor & Update
Out of some 1,000 songs, only 14 use any distinctive, contemporary image. You can find flocks of lambs, vats of anointing oil, enough two-edged swords and chariots to stock an army. But no cars. No electricity. No Internet, newspapers or TV. No trains. (Well, I did find one train, but only in the phrase ‘your train fills the temple’. The song, written in 1999, seems to have been written for young people. I wonder how many of them stood there imagining God arriving on the 3.15 from Paddington?)
Three of the ‘modern’ songs listed above were written for children, one of the few areas of worship where modern images abound. Children get telephones and butterflies and skyscrapers. It’s only when they grow up they get confused.
Song writers should reflect the present, rather than retreat to the past. They should reflect a God who knows about our world, who knows about beer as well as wine, baked beans as well as bread. A God who might prefer to wash me with soap, rather than cleanse me with hyssop.
Me, me, me
You cannot read a modern collection of worship songs, without noticing the prominent use of ‘I’ or ‘me’. In one collection I estimated that over half the songs were to do with the individual and the individual’s relationship with God.
Obviously this is not wrong in itself; the same mode of expression can be found in many Psalms. But when so many songs talk about ‘I’, when phrases such as ‘I want’, or ‘make me’ or ‘give me’ arrive in such numbers, it is difficult to escape the feeling that I should only be interested in God for how he makes me feel.
We are a consumer generation, and, increasingly, we want to ‘consume’ God, to turn him into a commodity for individual benefit. The result is worship songs that concentrate almost solely on individual emotions and feelings; songs which talk less about Jesus, and more about, well, me.
Worship songs should surely fix on the object of worship, rather than the one worshipping, but at times its hard to see even a speck of God for the great beam of self-obsession obscuring the view.
I don’t know how to say this nicely, but the fact is that sometimes the words simply don’t make sense.
There are nonsense choruses like the one that runs, ‘Ba bap bup bup bah/ Ba bap bup bup bah’ (obviously the distinction between ‘bap’ and ‘bup’ is crucial). There are also the number of times when the writer hasn’t really thought things through. Take the following phrase, from an otherwise excellent song:
‘Oh my words could not tell, not even in part, Of the debt of love that is owed by this thankful heart.’
What I think the writer means is that words can only ever convey a tiny fraction of what our debt to God is. But the line, as it is written, implies that words couldn’t actually tell you anything about the debt we owe God — ‘not even in part’; that it would be pointless to try, that words are useless. Well, words might be inadequate tools to express the debt we owe to God, but they’re not completely useless. And I don’t think the writer thinks they are, either.
What can we do?
By now you may be convinced that I’m some kind of ecclesiastical Victor Meldrew, or that I just want to criticise, or simply that I’m wrong. Fair enough.
But even if you don’t think there is much wrong with worship songs, they can always be better.
At their best, worship songs contain great truths, memorably told. If nothing else, the following approaches might help today’s worship song writers to make their songs even more memorable, even more powerful, even more prophetic than before.
- Take it seriously. It is a great responsibility to pass on a message from God; make sure you get it right. Precision matters. The angels are watching your punctuation.
- Work hard at your craft. Practice, practice, practice. Refuse to be satisfied. Always try to climb higher. Never say ‘that’ll do’.
- Make every word count. Be prepared to justify every single word you use. Avoid repetition. Brevity is next to godliness.
- Test your words. Try your words on others. Test them to destruction. Then put them back together, only stronger than before.
- Share the load. Work with lyricists and poets as well as preachers and teachers. Seek out and encourage their development in churches.
- Never stop learning. Read great poetry, great song lyrics, the works of great hymn writers. Learn, don’t copy. Give what you learn new shape in your own work.
- Don’t use old words if new ones are as good. Some words have no substitute. But where there is a modern alternative, use it. Our day-to-day language can be holy.
- Think in pictures. Reject the old, tired images, and paint pictures of your own. Find the pictures that will make your audience look with new eyes.
- Bring us a new song. Walk your own path. Do you have a new message, image or approach? If not, why are you writing?
- Tell me about God Avoid introspection and self-obsession. Someday you will be gone. Your words will live on, if they focus on someone who was, and is, and will be forever.
David Peacock, head of the Music & Worship Department at London Bible College, kicks off the responses to Nick Page’s article.
Some of the difficulties Nick refers to arise out of the fact that the model of the pop song has been transferred to a worship song environment.
Expectations for both genres are different. It is important that within community worship we have vocabulary to respond to God that is truly formative. It is crucial we use language that is understandable and has biblical integrity. That doesn’t mean all our songs need to be ‘lyrically dense’, but it does mean [even in a short song] that the words should be well crafted.
Singer-songwriters have a tremendous influence on contemporary worship, but do not necessarily have a theological education as past and present hymn writers. The challenge today is how to address this. For some that may mean study courses or even going to college. Are church leaders providing checks and balances to songwriters in their communities? Are song writers willing to have others critique their lyrics? The biblical view of worship is predominantly corporate. Although we will always want to respond to God individually, and therefore need the vocabulary to do so, it is also true we need more corporate song lyrics. In fact, many hymns in our heritage are to do with an individual’s relationship with God. But there is probably more content about God!
The Bible should permeate all our worship material. Some Biblical imagery doesn’t connect today and should be contemporised where appropriate. Of course, other writers are using contemporary imagery. The Iona Community’s music texts engage with present-day issues and are rich in contemporary images – they spring from the Community’s spirituality. Worship songs often reflect the theology and spirituality inherent in the worship stream where they originally emerged. The issue is more complex than just the song itself. Not all is doom and gloom. Increasingly there are songs emerging today that do address Nick’s concerns. But… are we using them?
What do you think? Agree/ disagree with Nick Page? Come across any particularly helpful contemporary worship songs? Maybe you are a worship leader in your local church… Have your say - write, email or fax your comments to Feedback, Christianity+Renewal, PO Box 17911, London SW1P 4YX. Fax: 020 7316 1453 email: firstname.lastname@example.org