The Best Contemporary Worship Music Songwriter of All Time, cont.

downloadLast week in this space I declared Andraé Crouch to be the best contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriter of all time.  Today I look at five of his best songs for evidence to support my claim, songs that are found in most recent Protestant hymnals, a staggering accomplishment for an African-American composer given the surfeit of songs from writers of European and Caucasian-American descent in most hymnals.  (If you didn’t have a chance to read that post, you can do so here while also taking a look at a couple of links to great resources for broadening your church’s congregational-singing experience utilizing contributions from African-American writers.)

“The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” was Crouch’s first major contribution to the Protestant Christian canon of congregational song, written when he was in his teens and debuted with his group The Disciples in the mid-60’s.  Even casual readers of this blog will recognize my number-one pet peeve re: current cwm songwriting is its stultifying reliance on four-chord (and the same four chords in the same progressions) power ballads at the expense of just about everything else.  The current CCLI Top 10 contains nine such I-IV-vi-V (or any number of variations on the theme) power ballads and only one song that gets up and moves a bit, “This Is Amazing Grace” . . . and after you’ve been inundated with a tsunami of power ballads, any up-tempo tune feels like amazing grace, indeed.  Though “The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power” is also a ballad, its grooves are more slow-jam rhythm & blues than close-dance rock and roll, and it uses a whopping 8-10 chords (depending on how you harmonize passing tones), including two separate instances of rarely-heard-in-cwm diminished chords. 

If you only know one Andraé Crouch song, you probably know “My Tribute” (often known by its subtitle, “To God Be the Glory”).  Another vintage Crouch harmonization, utilizing several interesting chords, “My Tribute” employs an ascending melody on the chorus, propelling the thrice-repeated main-point (à la “Feed My sheep” and other biblical exhortations found in threes) before providing, Psalm-like, and in triumphal fashion, the reason God is worthy of the glory.  Also in the spirit of the Psalms, the verse and bridge use devotional language that celebrates intimacy with the Almighty while avoiding “Jesus is my boyfriend” sentimentality.  Last week, I mentioned Crouch’s ground-breaking efforts promoting diversity (The Disciples, shown in the video, featured both white musicians and several women), and you can see and hear the results of those efforts here, including a feisty trumpet solo from Fletch Wiley.

In addition to “My Tribute,” the song of Crouch’s that has crossed over into universal appeal most significantly is “Through It All”–as can be seen in this Gaither Homecoming Video celebrating the ministry of Billy Graham.  (That’s Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea Gaither acknowledges early on.)  Again I want to point out the evidence of diversity, how readily the racially mixed group on hand joins in with Cece Winans’ vocals and Crouch’s piano on the chorus.  There aren’t too many, unfortunately enough, African-American composers whose songs can be sung so familiarly by the stalwarts of southern gospel music Gaither assembled, including Hovie Lister, Howard and Vestal Goodman, and George Younce.  As an added bonus, you get an encore performance of one of Crouch’s shake-a-leg classics, “Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus.”  (Unlike “Through It All,” this one is rarely sung in white churches, as evidenced by the stoic response of southern gospel legend James Blackwood, although his son Billy and nephew Terry are doing fine to his immediate right.)

Blackwood fares better (see him over soloist Jessy Dixon’s left shoulder) with another Gaither video featuring Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon.”  In the spirit of self-referential, home-in-heaven gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Soon and Very Soon” celebrates the eventual sweet bye and bye (“No more cryin’ there,” “No more dyin’ there”) while simultaneously providing hope for God’s sustenance during the “nasty now and now” (to quote, believe it or not, an atheist bible-as-literature professor I had at the University of Cincinnati): “Should there be any rivers we must cross, should there be any mountains we must climb, God will supply all the strength that we need [and] give us grace to reach the other side.”

We close with the most famous African-American version of the kind of Scripture song that catapulted the Jesus People onto the American congregational-song landscape in the early 70’s.  Whereas Karen Lafferty gave us “Seek Ye First” (Matthew 6), Leonard Smith wrote “Our God Reigns” (Isaiah 52 and 53), and an unknown writer penned “Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Psalm 51, made popular by Keith Green), Crouch provided the beautiful setting of Psalm 103, “Bless His Holy Name.”  Once again, like in “My Tribute,” Crouch uses an ascending melody of a thrice-repeated phrase (“He has done great things”) to prompt the proper response: “Bless His holy name!”

Crouch’s songs are eminently singable, with firm attention to structure tools like voice leading and the use of conjunct melodic lines.  They are marvelously diverse harmonically, featuring chords almost never heard in cwm these days.  And their lyrics are Davidic in their balancing of first-person devotion (personal-story) with universal-Church exhortation (cosmic-story; thanks, Lester Ruth, for the terms).  Might more cwm songwriters aspire to Andraé Crouch’s creativity and industry!

The Lord be with you!      

 

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The Best Contemporary Worship Music Songwriter of All Time

A few definitions are in order here: 

Best: Over the last few months I’ve offered excerpts from several interviews conducted by Paul Zollo in his Songwriters on Songwriting, and I’ll use aspects of those to discuss the following writer’s excellence.

Contemporary Worship Music: I’m talking about music that would not be out of place on secular radio stations of some ilk regardless of whether or not the adjective contemporary means “absolutely up-to-this-very-minute current”–since music meant for corporate worship derives from that which has come before to establish a foundational reference (which is why you can decry contemporary Christian music [ccm] not meant for congregational singing for being behind the times, if you want, while not getting your underwear in a bunch that contemporary worship music [cwm] also lags behind the cutting edge).

Songwriter: Though known as a great performer/worship leader, I celebrate my choice for his songcraft.

All time: Many consider the dawn of cwm to be the Jesus People Movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s, while others put it a few decades earlier.  Either way, “all time” for our purposes here encompasses the last 60-80 years of congregational song in America. 

andrae-crouch-billboard-650-compressedWithout further ado, the best contemporary worship music songwriter of all time is Andraé Crouch.  Beginning in the mid-60’s, Crouch, the son of a pastor, began combining the joyous sounds of traditional gospel (even then much closer to the mainstream thanks to the work of Thomas A. Dorsey and others a few decades prior) with the sophisticated Sound of Young America coming out of Detroit and the hard-driving soul coming from the south, the two primary African-American contributions to pop-rock of that era. 

Like the best of Motown, Crouch’s most popular songs had immediate crossover appeal and were soon being sung by young Christians of all races and church affiliations.  Like Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Crouch appreciated the value of songs sophisticatedly crafted, hard-swinging up-tempo tunes and luxurious ballads, the best of which could be digested after one or two hearings and sung effectively by millions soon thereafter.   In between 1966-1976, Crouch recorded scads of original songs with his group The Disciples and became the major figure in contemporary gospel music, winning seven Grammys, six GMA Dove Awards, and numerous other accolades.

Who knows what hymnals will look like post-COVID?  It will be very interesting to see how the pandemic affects various aspects of church life moving forward.  That said, one of the reasons I celebrate Crouch in this post comes from his prominent place in most recently published hymnals, still a good indicator of universal appeal even in the age of projected lyrics on screens.  For years, if Protestant hymnals featured any African-American composers, they might have had Dorsey, whose “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” shows up frequently; a few hymnals also have his “Peace in the Valley” (perhaps because it was the title track and a popular hit for Elvis Presley on one of his several religious albums). 

Prior to Crouch, though, that typically was it.  On the other hand, the wildly popular The Celebration Hymnal–a 1997 joint effort by two behemoths of ccm, Word Music and Integrity Music–features five Crouch songs, a staggering number for all kinds of reasons, including race.  I have about 25 hymnals in my personal collection, and many of those have at least four Crouch-penned songs.  (As you would expect, the excellent African American Heritage Hymnal, published by GIA in 2001, features seven.  If you are looking for an excellent resource to help your congregation expand its horizons for the purposes of racial reconciliation, you can’t go wrong with this collection, nor with its sister publication Total Praise [GIA, 2011], which features even more fabulous congregational songs from the African-American church.)

Imps7It would not be an exaggeration to use MLK-like adjectives to modify any nouns related to Crouch’s efforts in segregated Protestant America, another reason his contribution to cwm is so significant.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s, when the American Church was still feeling the aftershocks of civil unrest in the streets a few years before, Crouch’s Disciples were the first major ccm/contemporary gospel band to integrate racially–and sexually, with women playing equal-footing roles, not relegated to eye candy or background vocals alone–a Christian version of Sly & the Family Stone.  A  few years later, Disciple Sherman Andrus left Crouch’s band to join The Imperials, more popular in white churches than Crouch’s, who carried a similar mantle, a real rainbow of a group with the African-American Andrus and Hispanic bass singer Armond Morales, as well.   

Others who might deserve the title mantle here?  Bill Gaither, of course (17 entries in The Celebration Hymnal), but I consider what he was doing to be more on the traditional end of the (horribly reductive) traditional-contemporary continuum, his efforts more Middle of the Road (MOR) than contemporary, by the very limited connotations of those categories that were en vogue a few years ago. If Keith Green had not tragically died so young, he’d have likely amassed enough material to qualify, the same for Rich Mullins.  Michael W. Smith was heading in this direction for a while, and if the Gettys keep on their current pace, they might be considered down the road.     

But I’ll take Andraé Crouch for now, with specific-to-the-songs rationale next week, along with reasons the current crop of hit-makers won’t qualify any time soon.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 14

I confess to a certain Ricky Nelson ethos with these blog posts in general and this series in particular. Nelson, a child star who appeared with his parents in the 50’s sitcom Ozzie and Harriet, wrote a smash hit in the early 70’s, “Garden Party,” about the less-than-enthusiastic reception he received playing a gig at NYC’s Madison Square Garden when he tried out his new, countrified fare to a crowd who clamored for his frothy-by-comparison, teen-idol tunes of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  (You can read the interesting story behind the song, with its “American Pie”-like references to rock music history, here.)  The takeaway line from the chorus says, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”  This series has been fun for me; I hope a few others have benefited from it along the way.

Our final interview from Paul Zollo’s massive Songwriters on Songwriting features John Fogerty, the4cbba38f-2e52-41a9-95c2-5fd780c1711f-XXX_PO_031919Woodstock50Lineup11 driving force behind the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), purveyors of what is sometimes known as Swamp Rock, for its “Born on the Bayou” overtones.  You’ll also hear the progressive verb “choogling” used in reference to the band’s energetic boogie grooves, heard here in such Fogerty-penned classics as “Proud Mary”; “Down on the Corner” (given an interesting symphonic treatment here); and one of my first-ever-purchased 45’s as a pre-teen in the early 70’s, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” sung here as part of a hang-in-there-during-COVID video Fogerty recorded last year. 

(As an added treat, I’ll include what I’d consider one of the two best covers in the history of rock, Ike & Tina Turner’s incendiary rendition of “Proud Mary,” shown here, along with other music and some Q & A, from an episode of the iconic 70’s-era soul-music weekly TV show Soul Train.  [Ike was an abusive husband, unfortunately, and Tina eventually left him following years of mistreatment, just a hint of which you can sense here.]    The other best cover?  Jimi Hendrix’s transformation of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  You’re welcome.)

Here are a few lines from the back-and-forth in Zollo’s interview:

Zollo: When you write a song, where do you start?

Fogerty: I’ll sit with a guitar and I’ll be noodling: doing riffs, chord changes, whatever, to get a good rhythm or a good something.  Since I’m such a rock and roll guy, I try to connect a song with a riff, and therefore an arrangement. . . . [T]hat’s what gets me started.  And then I think about the title.  Because when you hear a song on the radio, it must have a good title.  Like “Bad Moon Rising [one of  CCR’s big hits].”  That’s a good title.  And I’ve got a book of titles I’ve been keeping for a long time.

Contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters, how about keeping a book of Holy-Spirit-inspired titles and then working from that vantage point?

Zollo: What busted you through [writer’s block] for [your most recent] album?

Fogerty: . . . I have to have a valid melodic structure that can hold up over a whole song.  And writing words is the last thing I do in a song.  Because they’re so doggone hard.  I agonize over words.  If I’m going to put all that heartache into it, it better be a decent song.

Songwriting is hard for me.  It’s not like they just come rolling out of my ears or anything.  And the only difference between me and the other guy who is a songwriter is that I cull.  I throw away a lot of stuff.  I throw it away until what is left is good.  I’m willing to do that work.  I don’t keep something until I think it’s great.

This series has touched upon my perception that cwm songwriters would benefit from what Fogerty refers to as “culling,” a process that certainly paid off for him; CCR had 16 songs in Billboard‘s Hot 100, nine of which hit Top 10.  Not that chart success always indicates greatness where songwriting is concerned, but Fogerty’s efforts have stood the test of time.  Will people be singing Chris Tomlin’s songs in 50 years?  (To his credit, I think our grandchildren will sing the best of his oeuvre.)

Zollo: [Your songs have] a timeless quality.  It’s surprising to me how few people know you wrote “Proud Mary.”  I think the reason is because it seems that it has been around forever.  And so many of [your] songs . . . have that quality as well, . . . perfect and timeless.

Fogerty: That is what I go for in writing a new song.  I feel when you write a song, it should all work.  There shouldn’t be a part of it that is awkward, that makes you wonder why [the songwriter] went there.  It should all go logically.  I try to make something that stands up by itself.  And I don’t rest until it’s done.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I received Zollo’s second, equally massive, collection of songwriting interviews for Christmas, and maybe I’ll launch a Part II of this series after I read it.  In the meantime, I hope to show how the essence of the 14 sets of songwriting tips from the past several months manifest themselves in the greatest cwm songwriter ever since we started talking about cwm in the 60’s (and even further back than that, as Lester Ruth argues in his forthcoming history).  Any guesses?

The Lord be with you!

 

 

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 13

5d10e581b206f.imageAs America continues to find its way forward, in fits and starts, following the summer of 2020’s racial unrest, it’s perhaps timely to lead off this week’s look at songwriting expertise with Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” with its powerful rejoinder, after hearing, repeatedly, “That’s just the way it is . . . some things will never change”: “Ah, but don’t you believe them!”  Other gems in the Hornsby canon include “Mandolin Rain” and “Jacob’s Ladder” (written around the time of the televangelist scandals of the 80’s), which show the breadth of Hornsby’s stylistic capabilities.  If you like bluegrass, check out the latter and dig the bass solo at the 3:35 mark.  

Hornsby got a degree in jazz studies, which informs his musicianship in sometimes startling ways:

I’m really glad I went to music school, because I think it really broadened my horizons.  I’m just a guy from a small town in Virginia.  [I w]asn’t turned on to a whole lot of interesting music there.  But at school there were a lot of like-minded, kindred, searching people, looking to do [new] things.  So consequently I got turned on to everything from Stockhausen to George Jones.  So if I want to move my music to another level, take a left turn, I don’t have a problem doing it, at least on the knowledge level, because I’ve studied a lot of different kinds of music.

Would that more songwriters for the church could go to music school or, absent that, would expose themselves to influences outside of the close-knit, potentially inbred current soundtrack of contemporary worship music (cwm).  I think it would make a difference. 

If there’s one wish I had for cwm songwriters, it would be for a little more willingness not to settle for the obvious chord progression, the predictable melody, the Christianese-drenched lyric.  I might be wrong, but it seems as if that happens a lot, when the same type of four-chord power ballad dominates the current lists of today’s “hottest worship songs.”  I’d love to hear popular cwm songwriters say something like Hornsby says here:

The process of writing, for me, is not very cut and [dried].  One thing for sure, it’s one long process of self-editing and self-critique.  I think a lot of [songwriters are not] . . . tough self-critics or self-editors.  

To combat his own penchant for laziness, Hornsby takes scrupulous notes and jots down ideas whenever he feels the inspiration:

Now comes the work; the inspiration only takes me so far.  I carry a notebook with me at all times.  I read your Tom Petty interview, and I was interested to see that he has all his old notebooks.  Well, I do, too.  Somewhere. . . .

Sometimes–like I saw Petty does–I go through [them] if I’m kind of barren, kind of dry.  Because there are a lot of things in there that never became songs.  I go through there, and generally I don’t find much.  But every now and then I [find] something that . . . emotionally gets me in some way.  So I accumulate a bunch of different bits. 

Practicing a lot can’t help but give you song ideas. . . . Something that feels great to you and feels like something you can really develop.  When I get a germ of a melody, I press “record” on my little box and accumulate a cassette of maybe twenty thirty-second bits.  It could be a chord progression; it could be a groove. . . .

The modern equivalent here, of course, would be the audio-recording app on your phone.  Hornsby continues, with refreshing honesty:

So I’ll accumulate this tape, and when it’s time to write the record, I go to this little wealth of information that I’ve accumulated, all these hopefuls–hopeful ideas–and I’ll listen to the tape, and a lot of the time I’ll wonder what it was I thought was good about something.  Because it’s in the moment, and sometimes something in the moment is really truly special, and sometimes it’s . . . not really that great.  I’m not good at identifying at the time something that is really [fabulous].  The real thing.  So it helps me to have a little distance and to go back.  

Throughout this series, we’ve heard songwriters discuss the differences in writing at the piano vs. writing with a guitar.  Here’s one more option for those with the means to be this creative.  Responding to Paul Zollo (whose book Songwriters on Songwriting has been the starting point for this series), when asked whether he, a jazz pianist by background, writes only at an acoustic piano, Hornsby says,

Generally.  But . . . I wrote some songs on accordion years ago and I liked that.  Because it takes you to a different place.  It’s good to get away from your typical trip.

Most of us don’t have access to an accordion and wouldn’t know how to play it if we did.  But I wonder what cwm would sound like if a few songwriters, on occasion, forced themselves to write via a $50 ukulele from Guitar Center or, in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, on a cheap Casio keyboard from Wal-Mart. 

Diversity is such a buzzword these days and appropriately so the vast majority of the time.  How about a little more diversity–melodically, harmonically, lyrically–in contemporary worship music?  Bruce Hornsby could serve as a great model for two of the three, anyway.  Consult your local Psalter for the third.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 12

The spring semester at Judson University pretty much launched, I’m going to try to finish up this series on excellent songwriting in the next month or so.  My mom purchased volume 2 of Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting for me for Christmas, and the second collection is equally massive, so I’ll probably share insights from it next fall, Lord willing, after I digest its 700 or so pages over the summer.

Since it’s been a while, let me bring us up to speed on this series.  As a Christian academic with advanced degrees in both English and worship, I sometimes despair of the quality of that which songwriters writing for the Church put forth and ask me to sing.  When I began this series last summer, I wanted to challenge worship leaders who felt God was calling them to write songs for His people to sing corporately to up their game–contemporary worship music (cwm) has enough four-chord power ballads to last until the new millennium–and to consider elements of traditional songcraft as they compose. 

Zollo’s interviews, though certainly not a definitive collection, have introduced us to some of the giants of popular song over the past 50 years, including Leonard Cohen, Lamont Dozier, Carole King, and Paul Simon.  Though none write from a specifically Christian worldview (I answer that and other objections to this exercise in the post, linked above), if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s Truth, we humbly acknowledge that even athiests and agnostics, by virtue of bearing Imago Dei, have, in their better moments (like all the rest of us, part darkness, part light) something to offer this discussion.  

SuzanneVegaLebanonNHWe pick up with an artist some would consider a one-hit wonder, but, oh, what a hit it was.  Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” bounces along like any number of examples of late-80’s pop fluff until you stop and digest the lyrics and realize she’s singing about the horrors of child abuse.  Though nothing else she produced topped “Luka” for culture impact, Vega nevertheless wrote numerous excellent songs, including an elegy to loneliness, “Marlene on the Wall,” and the haunting “Men in a War.” 

As was the case with earlier writers we’ve looked at, not all of Vega’s responses to Zollo’s questions serve our purposes, but a couple of quotes related to the artistic muse–which, of course, believers would describe as the Holy Spirit–struck me as I read.  When asked about a song that came to her “like a bulletin,” Vega said the following about those pieces that come fairly easily:

[T]he best songs are just like that. . . . It’s when you are connected with something outside of yourself.  It’s when you are connected with something happening in life.  It relates back to paying attention to the situation that’s outside of yourself. . . . It’s not enough to just invent it.  It has to be connected to something real outside of yourself.

Her notion of writing “outside of yourself” strikes a chord when we sing so many songs that focus on our own, self-referential experiences in cwm.  To be fair, these kinds of devotional songs are rife in the Psalms, complete with first-person pronouns galore.  But the overall diet of the Psalter, of course, includes a wide variety of styles (especially lament) we hardly ever encounter in cwm.  A good question as a rule of thumb: As you survey your worship set on any given Sunday, ask yourself who gets the best action verbs.  If the answer isn’t the Father, Son, and/or Holy Spirit, there’s a problem.

In reference to a lyric that just appeared “as though I had nothing to do with it,” Vega noted the following interesting occurrence related to rhyming:

[Y]ou know you’ve really got it when everything starts to rhyme of its own accord . . . the rhythms and the rhymes just seem to be right there.  And it seems inevitable.  And you’re kind of held in the grip of this for a few hours.  For two or three hours you’re just held by this and you have to finish it.  You can’t just leave it.  You’re completely absorbed by this thing.  And it seems to be taking place in front of you as though you’re watching it.  It’s a very peculiar thing.  And it’s wonderful when you feel it.  And later you look back and think, ‘How did I do that?’  And it’s almost as though you didn’t do it.  And it’s very scary, because you’re sure it’s not going to happen again.

I was watching a special on JFK.  And I noticed that people, when they are very moved by grief, that their language became very condensed and would start to rhyme.  And they weren’t being poetic.  They were trying to express something that meant a lot to them.  And I noticed that the quality of their language changed.  Suddenly they started to speak in that way that you speak when you’re writing songs, if you’re close to something truthful.

Fascinating stuff.  So often I think we’re just scratching the surface of what’s available to us, even when considering an artform as utilitarian (in the best use of that adjective) as congregational song.  Here’s to “fuller, richer, and truer” cwm songs in 2021!

The Lord be with you!

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A Few Podcasts You Might Really Enjoy

Full disclosure: I don’t regularly listen to podcasts for the following reasons: 1) I have already mourned, for many years, that unless I live to be 120, I am going to go to my grave with numerous fabulous books left unread on my various shelves, so, given an hour to kill, I’d just as soon spend it with Dostoevsky, Lewis, or even Christie (if I need a little escapism); 2) I am the son of a music educator who preached that all music–high-brow, low-brow, and in-between-brow–had merit potentially.  “Warren, there’s good classical music and bad classical music,” he’d preach.  If he were alive today, he’d say, “There’s good screamo and bad screamo,” I have no doubt.  There’s just too much good music for me yet to explore; 3) I am also my father’s son in the sense that I function best doing something if I’ve going to be “held captive” by someone talking for any great length of time.  The ADHD strain in Anderson males takes root more noticeably in my brother, but I’ve got a touch of it, too, and because I don’t want to think too much when I’m engaged in other affairs like chores around the house, music is usually my background noise of choice.

That said, if I were to begin listening to podcasts, I’d start with these.  In the endless sea of talking heads available, I’m happy to suggest you consider the following.  I have a personal relationship with each of these entrepreneurs, and three are former students of mine.  That said, as the opening paragraph would suggest, I have only casually listened to two of these, and, for the other two, I am featuring them based solely on my experience as their hosts’ professor in recent years.  In other words, you listen at your own risk, and any opinions expressed on the podcasts, though they come from the hearts and minds of Judson University alumni, do not necessarily represent positions (political, theological, or otherwise) consistent with any similar positions espoused by Judson University.  (Once such a disclaimer would have been unnecessary–when the benefit of the doubt was offered far more universally–but that era is long gone, and, in our fractious times, it feels important to emphasize this.)  With that caveat, consider these for your podcast pleasure, offered in alphabetical order of the entrepreneur:

karinDr. Karin Anderson Abrell is a former psychology professor, a terrific author and speaker, and my sister, so I’m stupid biased when I say she offers great things to anyone in any circumstance related to relationships.  She has a complete-package social-media world encompassing numerous platforms under the general umbrella of Love & Life, including a Monday podcast.  She writes, “On Love & Life we explore research methods for happy, hopeful, positive living.  I delve into all the good stuff–how to have true intimacy in romantic relationships, more meaningful friendships, healthier family connections, and more fulfilling careers.”  You can access all of Karin’s materials at her website.

MattMatt Calio serves as the worship pastor at Crossview Church (EFCA) in DeKalb, IL.  I’ve known of Matt all his life, as his mom and I were at Judson together in the 80’s, but I really came to know and appreciate his deep thoughtfulness regarding the Christian faith when he came to JU, and he has continued his lifelong learning via his current pursuit of a master’s at Denver Seminary.  His podcast, called Bible, Books & Culture, airs every Friday.  Of the podcast, Matt says, “Our tag line is ‘seeing the grace of God in our literature and lives,’ so our hope is whether we’re reading a book, talking about our lives, or engaging in the world around us, we’ll be able to point out the grace of God in it all.”  You can access the podcast at Spotify and Apple Music

AaronI have worshiped under numerous worship leaders, and I’ve had the distinct privilege of helping to train many others who are truly excellent.  That said, if I could be led in worship by only one person, it’d be Aaron Niequist.  Raised low-Church evangelical, Aaron encountered high-Church liturgy in his late 20’s and 30’s, and it changed his life, a process eventually leading to his writing the excellent The Eternal Current, upon which his podcast is based.  He writes, “Even if your faith container seems to be failing, don’t give up.  You may give up on certain versions of religion, but let’s learn how to enter more deeply into the way of Christ.”  Aaron’s big-tent, both/and approach to worship is refreshing, and you can access the podcast and a bunch of other resources here.

SarahThe final podcast entrepreneur, Sarah Reynolds, was a student in Communication Arts, one of Judson’s most eclectic majors, so it’s no surprise that hers in the most idiosyncratic, perhaps, of all the offerings here.  Her brand-new Fresh Out of Spoons podcast features a look at how to survive and thrive, even while living with chronic illnesses.  Sarah’s goal is to “create a fun and safe space to discuss life with chronic health conditions.  We also enjoy sharing tips on finding great doctors to work with, pain management techniques, and any other advice we can share based on our experiences with various conditions.”   

I’m pretty stoked to share these with you.  I might have to become a podcast convert myself!

The Lord be with you!

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A New Old Book You Will Want to Read

I have a handful of go-to writers when it comes to worship.  If I want to put contemporary worship music (cwm) into historical context, I consult my former Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies professor Lester Ruth.  If I want to focus on worship’s potential for corporate spiritual formation, I turn to Marva Dawn.  If I want to look at the rich contributions of the African-American church to worship, I grab anything by James Abbington.  If I want to rekindle my first love where worship is concerned–and see how all the above intersects in holistic and beautiful ways, I take one of my 19 books written or edited by Robert Webber off the shelf.

rory-header-3But if I had to choose only one author whose work I’d want to have with me on a desert island, it would be Rory Noland, director of Heart of the Artist ministries and a former adjunct professor at Judson University’s Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts.  I’ve known Rory for many years and knew of him before that.  Because I live in the northwest Chicago suburbs, I’ve been impacted by the ministry of Willow Creek Community Church, where Rory served for many years as music director.  When years ago I encountered a young man whose last name was Noland in one of my classes, I casually asked, “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Rory Noland, would you?”  He smiled and said, “That’s my dad.”  Soon thereafter, I invited Rory to share thoughts on The Heart of the Artist with an Intro to Worship class I was teaching, since we were using the book as the class text.  The rest is history.

I am very pleased to use this space to alert readers to the publishing of a second edition of that classic, The Heart of the Artist, newly revised.  From Noland’s preface:

The second edition contains a great deal of new content.  As I’ve taught this material over the years, I’ve continued to add new insights and illustrations.  While this edition contains the same basic content as the original, it reflects additional learning I’ve gained since the book’s first publication.  I’ve updated the scenarios at the beginning of each chapter that, along with the discussion questions, introduce the chapter’s topic.  People often ask me whether these short, slice-of-church-life stories are true.  I assure them they are; each one is based on real people I’ve known or encountered while ministering in the church.  But I jokingly add that the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Let me stop with that sentence to highlight what I love best about Noland’s efforts.  Unlike so many authors–all of whom, understandably, must promote themselves in some fashion since their writing helps support their families and careers–Noland never seems to make grandiose self-referential splashes or pronouncements.  He’s hardly ever on social media, the obvious place to blow your own horn (however justifiably), which no doubt costs him some prestige and renown.  And I just thumbed through all four of his books looking for one–just one–photo of him.  There were none to be found, and at first glance I don’t see one in The Heart of the Artist, 2nd ed.  Perhaps the motivation for this admirable humility comes from a bit of wisdom from the School of Hard Knocks.  More from the preface, honesty that has endeared Noland to so many:

I’m embarrassed to admit how spiritually immature I was in my early days of ministry.  Whenever conflict occurred, I was convinced it was everyone else’s fault.  Certainly not mine!  Much to my surprise, I began noticing that more often than not I was to blame; I was the cause of the strife.  Or at the very least my stuff was exacerbating the problem.  My immaturity and lack of character threatened to undermine the ministry I was trying to build. . . .

I didn’t write The Heart of the Artist because I had life all figured out and had conquered all my shortcomings.  I have struggled with every character defect discussed in this book, and I continue to wrestle with my old nature.  I have learned much along the way, most of which grew out of my quiet times with the Lord.  I’m happy to report that I have made significant progress over the years.  The Lord, in his mercy, has grown me up in significant ways, but I certainly haven’t arrived yet.  I continue to apply the things I share in these pages, and I feel privileged to be able to pass on what I’ve learned to the next generation of church artists.

I am so grateful that students at Judson University have over the years been some of the “next generation of church artists” whom Noland has blessed.  I am eager to dive into the revised edition of The Heart of the Artist.  The first one was a milestone in practical theology for church musicians and worship leaders.  This one will be even more significant, I have no doubt.

Just in case you don’t have them already, also consider Noland’s . . .

  • Thriving as an Artist in the Church, excellent for all the various creatives in your church
  • The Worshiping Artist, a fabulous handbook for growing worship leaders
  • Worship on Earth as It Is in Heaven, a primer on worship as spiritual formation.

The Lord be with you!

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MLK, Current Events, and 135-Year-Old Corporate Worship

Today Americans celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This year’s martin-luther-king-jr-9365086-2-402remembrance, in light of recent national events, provokes interesting social commentary, to be sure, given King’s penchant for non-violent responses in the face of aggressive resistance to the pursuit of justice. To whatever extent it’s true that “silence is violence” (a fascinating discussion for another day, assuming one is  willing to engage in dispassionate, heuristic dialogue), newspaper op-eds and the various spheres (Twitter-, blogo-) of social media are rife with pacifists, such is the significant volume–quantity and loudness–of the commentary these days.

All this has put me in mind of one of my favorite hymn texts, “Lead on, O King Eternal.” Andover Theological Seminary student Ernest Shurtleff, apparently at the encouragement of his peers, wrote the song in 1887 for his graduating class’ commencement ceremony. Kenneth W. Osbeck, in the classic Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, quotes Shurtleff’s motivation: “We’ve been spending days of preparation here at seminary. Now the day of march has come, and we must go out to follow the leadership of the King of kings, to conquer the world under his banner.”

If that sounds eerily like rhetoric emanating from our nation’s Capitol a week and a half ago, stay with me here. Take a phrase or two from “Lead on, O King Eternal” out of context, and you can make a case for all kinds of behavior that is irresponsible at best and directly counter to the cause of Christ at worst, what with talk of “lift[ing] our battle song” and the “crown [that] awaits the conquest.” “Lead on, O God of might,” indeed.

a315258ffc553b14d316c93cf796b392_400x400But the “might” to which Shurtleff alludes is what the brilliant theologian Robert Farrar Capon refers to as “left-handed power,” in his theology of Christ’s parables: Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment:

Unlike the power of the right hand . . ., left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive, open, and imaginative right side of the brain.  Left-handed power, in other words, is precisely paradoxical power: power that looks for all the world like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention. . . .

Which may not, at first glance, seem like . . . an exercise worthy of the name power.  But when you come to think of it, it is power–so much power, in fact, that it is the only thing in the world that evil can’t touch.  God in Christ died forgiving.  With the dead body of Jesus, he wedged open the door between himself and the world and said, “There!  Just try and get me to take that back!”

Following graduation, according to Robert J. Morgan in Then Sings My Soul (Book 2), Shurtleff pastored several churches in America before accepting a call to plant a church in Frankfort, Germany, where he and his wife ministered to European students.  “When World War I broke out, Ernest labored to exhaustion in relief ministries, feeding the poor and the displaced.  He died in Paris in 1917, during the war.  His life was the embodiment of his hymn. . . .”

As we inaugurate a new President on Wednesday, as rhetorical uncivil wars and rumors of literal civil wars abound, I commend, in the spirit of Dr. King, the second, lesser-known, verse of Shurtleff’s “Lead on, O King Eternal,” especially the concluding quatrain, my prayer for my fellow American Christians in 2021:

Lead on, O King Eternal,
Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace;
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums,
With deeds of love and mercy
Thy heav’nly kingdom comes.

The Lord be with you!

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A Prayer for Corporate Worship at the Beginning of a New Year

Happy New Year!  I hope 2021 has started well for you.  May God grant us grace to survive and thrive amidst whatever comes our way over the next 12 months.  Doctoral dissertations in sociology will be written in the years ahead concerning our collective understanding of thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have no doubt.

I am also quite certain doctoral dissertations in ecclesiology will be written in due time regarding the contemporary Church’s corporate response to the coronavirus, deep dives unearthing salient cause-and-effect relationships between any number of physical realities and spiritual applications in congregational worship.  A cynic would jump in here to say, “Duh!  Contemporary worship in the past 25 years has traversed one long syncretic slippery slope that ends up with complete abdication to Hollywood values.  The pandemic has only exacerbated what was an inevitable transformation from content-rich to style-rich worship in our contemporary churches.”  (One writer who tends to land in this arena with regularity is Jonathan Aigner, and although I don’t usually agree with him wholeheartedly, he certainly provokes thought, for which I’m grateful.)

Dan-Wilt-Circle-Shot-2-300x300If there’s anything I had reinforced in 2020 it’s that all-or-nothing approaches don’t tend to be helpful (for most non-emergency matters) in the midst of a prolonged disruption to the status quo.  A writer who is a bit more nuanced in his concerns for current worship trends is longtime worship trainer Dan Wilt, who has designated this year as a year of worship renewal for himself and those who would join him.  If you can spare the time, I’m sure this Saturday’s webinarThe Worship Disruption: A New Paradigm of Worship Whose Time Has Come–will be worth the hour’s sacrifice.  I have used Wilt’s material off and on in my worship classes at Judson University and have friends who have interacted with him quite a bit more than I who greatly applaud his efforts, hence the confident recommendation.

I think an overarching summary of the feelings of some who study worship trends can be summed up in the words of Paul, from my try-to-be-daily devotional reading this past Sunday, which encompassed 1 Corinthians 2.  In vv. 3-5, Paul says (as rendered by the NLT),

I came to you in weakness–timid and trembling.  And my message and my preaching were very plain.  Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit.  I did this so that you would not trust in human wisdom but in the power of God.

As I contemplate the preaching under which I’ve virtually sat over the past several months, rare was the delivery that featured any timidity or trembling.  Yes, of course, Paul’s speaking metaphorically, and, yes, God deserves our best, which includes effort spent in preparation.  But isn’t Paul addressing something deeper here, something that, if applied more often, could help stem the tide of the leadership failures we’ve seen in recent years, that which has prompted so many concern-for-celebrity-culture editorials, this one here being representative of many?

My study-bible notes on the passage above say this:

Human weakness is no barrier to God’s work (2 Cor. 12:7-10).  The real power is not in charismatic preaching, finesse of presentation, or logical persuasiveness (cp. 2 Cor. 10:10), but in the message itself, centered on Christ and his death for our sins, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, who convicts the human heart.

In that spirit, I conclude with a prayer for corporate worship in the contemporary church as we embark upon this new year, acknowledging the “strength for today” that has brought us to this place through frequently dismal circumstances and the “bright hope for tomorrow” in which we rest as best we can on any given day–sometimes confidently, occasionally anxiously, often gratefully, always with God as the source of whatever strength we can muster at the moment:

Sovereign God, Subject and Object of our worship, grant us, in the words of the great hymn, “wisdom [and] grant us courage,” especially where congregational worship is concerned, that our sacrifices of praise might to greater and greater extents form us spiritually “for the facing of this hour,” “for the living of these days,” “lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,” and “that we fail not man nor Thee,” through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

P.S.  I hope to finish up the “songwriting tips from the experts” series in the weeks ahead, culminating in a look at some current and recent songwriters writing for the Church whose work any aspiring Christian songwriter would do well to emulate.

The Lord be with you!

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Thoughts on Worship in the Academy at the End of a Rough Year

CWPA Demoss Stacked FC Logo PRINTWe celebrated the blessed end of a really difficult semester this past Saturday in the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University.  (OK, we really celebrated Christmas, as is our wont in early December, but this year it certainly felt putting 2020 to bed for good earned a silver medal where reasons to be festive were concerned.)  I offered up a few reflections at the beginning of the worship concert, and I thought they might bear repeating here.  I pray they will be a blessing to you.

Good afternoon.  My name is Warren Anderson, and I’m the director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University.  Welcome to the annual DCWPA Christmas Concert of Worship.  We’re so glad that you’re with us—either in person, as part of our live stream, or viewing the concert after the fact.  Thanks so much for taking the time to celebrate with us.

And what an unusual celebration it is this year!  Twenty-twenty has been a year for the history books in so many ways: from a global pandemic affecting millions around the world to civic unrest and contentious political elections here in America.  Both at home and abroad, many now live with new-found economic instability. 

On our own campus, we have had community members lose loved ones to the coronavirus, some at the end of long, well-lived lives, others well before their time, at least as we commonly understand that concept.  Normal campus life—for administration, faculty, staff, and students—has been altered so much and so often that embracing myriad accommodations has turned into the norm, the default setting for business-as-usual at the end of 2020.

And yet . . .

Here we are.  We are finishing up this semester . .  . on schedule.  We will graduate the December class of 2020 next Saturday . . . on schedule.  We are celebrating the DCWPA Christmas Concert of Worship today . . . on schedule. 

It has been difficult, yes, but along the way we have, by God’s grace and mercy, been stretched beyond what any of us could have imagined last year at this time. 

We have had meaningful, sometimes painful, but always fruitful conversations together regarding racial reconciliation. 

We have wrestled with the notion that all Truth is God’s truth and that all of us, even those on the polar extremes of any spectrum we encounter (be it theological, political, or cultural), bear the Image of God and cannot be canceled or dismissed if we are to follow the example of Jesus. 

And we have learned—and are continuing to learn—what it means to be a faithful, Christ-centered academic community in the midst of a confluence of circumstances the likes of which have not been seen in any of our lifetimes.  Yes, it has been hard.

But here we are.

And so this afternoon is a microcosm of the fall semester at Judson University in the year of our Lord 2020.  We have probably changed the details of this concert 20 times in the last four weeks, each time conceding various aspects of the norm to COVID. 

But here we are. 

Like the instruction that has occurred in our classrooms this semester, some of this concert is going to take place live, and some will be “online,” to use that term loosely. 

But here we are. 

Like our students, some of you are going to worship with us face-to-face, and some of you will do so from the comforts of home through the miracles of various technologies.

But here we are.

Yes, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “The show must go on,” an admittedly performer-friendly paraphrase of Phil. 3:13-14: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” 

Thanks again for being with us.

And then I prayed this prayer, amended slightly from a version that appears in the wonderful The Worship Sourcebook, with which I close this blog post with blessings for Advent!

O God, whose will is compassion for the poor, hope for the hopeless, and peace for the afflicted, let your herald’s urgent voice pierce our hardened hearts, steel our timid spirits, and announce the dawn of your kingdom.  Before the Advent of the one who baptizes with the fire of the Holy Spirit, let our complacency give way to conversion, our oppression to justice, and our fear to joy.  We ask through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near: your son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen

The Lord be with you!

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