Out Standing Songs
By Jon Nicol - 12/01/2004 - 06:34 PM EST
I’ve been doing an unscientific study. There are 3 Christian radio stations in my part of the state that I can pick up in my car. I don’t have a long commute, but I usually end up listening to them on an average of an hour or two a week. One of the three is a national station that is pumped to local areas from Texas. It’d probably be somewhere between the CHR and AC formats. The other two are locally run with program directors who likely graduated college with near-useless communications degrees in the late 1980s. At least their song selections sound like it. They play a lot of CCM, but their idea of “contemporary” includes George Bush senior’s administration.
Here’s where the unscientific stuff comes in. Of all the new songs that are spun at these stations, I would guess at least 80% of them (and that’s a conservative guess) would be considered “worship.” There is a glut of worship music out there. Some of it is congregation-friendly. Much of it is more geared for performance. Although there’s a decent amount of good stuff, this article could quickly degenerate into a commentary on the state of contemporary worship music (read: "gripe-fest"). In fact, I’ve hit the delete button a few times now in order to ensure it doesn’t become that. The primary issue here is this, “how do we make our songs stand out from the pack?” How do we avoid being lumped in with the ho-hum? If you’re writing strictly for your own living room enjoyment, you probably don’t need to sweat this question. But if you want your songs to be listened to or sung by a wider audience, it has to have that “something” that helps it stand out. Much of that “something” is just plain old good writing: melody, hook, structure, etc. But I want to move our brains beyond technique to the some of the larger brush strokes of the painting.
Theme, topic, subject, etc. is what the song’s about. Do you wonder if some writers ever consider this? Often, songs are just grocery lists of God’s attributes with rhyme and rhythm. But consider the different possible themes of worship music: forgiveness, God’s love, the beauty of creation, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It’s nearly inexhaustible. But although it’s nearly endless, Solomon’s axiom, “there’s nothing new under the sun” often holds true. If you’re thinking of writing about a particular idea or theme, just know that someone else probably beat you to it. But write it anyway. Just say it in a unique way or come at it from a fresh perspective.
When it comes to themes, there are some roads less traveled in contemporary worship that can inspire the writing of a new song. Maybe those roads are well traveled in other areas or traditions but not in the sphere you inhabit. The relative lack of confession songs in my world led me to write a song based on 1 John 1:9. Also, in my realm, there aren’t many contemporary songs that specifically speak to the Lord’s Supper. So that need gave birth to a tune.
God is infinite. He’s more than we can ever wrap our minds around. We can try to imagine the most lovely, the most beautiful, the most powerful, the most gentle, the most loving Being, but it will still never come close to how lovely, beautiful, powerful, gentle, and loving God really is. Brennan Manning says it best: “God is always greater.” So we will always have fuel for new songs as long as our hearts and minds are willing to explore.
A Postmodern Return to the Ancient
If you haven’t picked up Passion’s "Hymns, Ancient & Modern" CD, please consider doing so. The worship leaders and songwriters of the Passion group did a live recording of revamped hymns--all old (more than a hundred years) and some ancient (dating back to the first millennium). The shift from the modern era to the current postmodern era has brought with it a desire to connect with our ancient story. It also has brought back mystery. For the postmodern person, it’s OK not to be able to explain God and grace and love and sacrifice in a 3-point sermon.
Write songs that ponder the mystery of God, that cause us to be in awe. Leave questions unanswered so we can walk away with wonder, instead of having everything tied up neatly in two verses and a chorus. In fact, from time to time, throw away the standard song structures and write something that doesn’t fit into the box.
And just like Passion’s songwriters and worship leaders, find those old treasures in the dusty hymnals you’re using to prop up the front of your guitar amp on the stage at church. Find them and revive them with fresh harmonies (chord progressions) under the original melody. Or if you find rich text but lousy music, write new music.
Stories & Metaphors
I mentioned above that the shift to postmodern thought has returned us to the power of the story. Don’t just right theological propositions into your songs. Tell the stories that range from “In the beginning…” to the final “Amen.” Tell THE Story.
And use metaphors. An example of this in a popular song is “Above All” by Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc. “Like a rose trampled on the ground/You took the fall and thought of me/above all…” OK, so you English majors will point out that, technically, this is a simile because of the use of “like,” but the rest of you get what I’m saying. I remember a song that said, “God’s love is as endless as the Montana sky.” If you’ve ever been to Montana, your heart will resonate with that. People connect with stories and metaphors, not doctrinal and theological propositions. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying to water it down. In truth, I’m saying go deeper--both in theology and in the language of the one’s heart.
Compassion and Mercy
I think one of the biggest wake up calls the evangelical church in North America needs is the call to be givers of mercy, to be compassionate people. You say “Christianity” to 10 different people, and you will have 11 ½ different descriptions. The majority would probably be less than flattering. The #1 reason for this? In my opinion, we’ve failed to love people with no strings attached and value their existence just like Jesus does. What if we, the artists, began to make art that calls the church back to her mission? And not only could our art be a catalyst for compassion and love-in-action for others, but it could also be one of the vehicles by which compassion and mercy is given to others. Write songs of hope and beauty and go sing them at a nursing homes, or homeless shelters, or where ever else you can find.
This being written a few weeks before Christmas, I’m reminded of a night last year when I experienced something of this. Students in my youth ministry and I were delivering packaged meals to an assisted living complex. Instead of just handing the senior citizens their meal with a “Merry Christmas,” we’d ask each one if we could sing them a Christmas carol. The first time was a little awkward, but the result was amazing. Who’da thought a handful of teenagers and their youth leader singing “Silent Night” could be such a blessing for the residents. I was humbled by the fact that they found so much joy in it. Some sang along. Some got watery eyes. Some just stood there and smiled big toothless grins like they hadn’t smiled for a month. As much as possible, allow your art to be a blessing to others with nothing asked in return.
These are a few ways to move past ho-hum that floods our Christian radio stations and churches each week. Don’t be afraid to think differently. Cheers.
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