Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 4

downloadHad Carole King not moved to L.A. to become part of the early-70’s boho-hippie musicians’ enclave in Laurel Canyon, her output in the 60’s with then-husband Gerry Goffin would have been enough to afford lifelong accolades.  The first #1 single by an African-American “girl group,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was the first of a slew of Goffin-King hits emanating from the songwriting factory that was NYC’s Brill Building.  And had King not recorded a single solo album other than 1971’s Tapestry, her place in the pantheon of influential singer-songwriters would be secure.  “I Feel the Earth Move” showed King could add a bit of r ‘n’ b grit to her songs, while the oft-covered “You’ve Got a Friend,” sung here in 2010 with James Taylor, whose version (partly because King allowed him to release it first) was even more popular than King’s, became a pop-music standard.

Paul Zollo’s chapter with King in Songwriters on Songwriting is shorter than some, but King waxes philosophical over several paragraphs on a couple of key issues for songwriters.

On the dreaded writer’s block, notice the third paragraph’s encouragement:

If you are sitting down and you feel that you want to write and nothing is coming, you get up and do something else.  Then you come back again and try it again.  But you do it in a relaxed manner.  Trust that it will be there.  If it ever was once and you’ve done it once, it will be back.  It always comes back and the only thing that is a problem is when you get in your own way worrying about it.

I’d like to say that I almost never have worried about it.  Because when it seemed to be a problem, when . . . the channel wasn’t open enough to let something through, I always went and did something else and never worried about it and it always opened up again.  Whether it was an hour later or sometimes a few months later, I just didn’t worry about it. . . .

Another thing that I do is I might play someone else’s material that I really like and that sometimes unlocks a channel.  The danger in that is that you’re gonna write that person’s song for your next song.  It’s just sit down and, again, if you’re a lyric writer, read something that you really like, enjoy something that you really like.  Or sometimes I’ll play something of my own that I really like, something that is already existing that is fun.

I’ve harped numerous times on the predictable harmonic structure of so much of today’s contemporary worship music, so King’s thoughts on finding variety in her songwriting caught my attention.  I love the first sentence, and, if I’m honest, I guess I’m advocating for a bit more perspiration in our cwm songwriting efforts.

Once the inspiration comes, that directs where the perspiration goes, where the work goes.  I don’t mean to sound like it’s some hippie philosophy of you just sit down and it’s all flowing through you.  Because there’s a lot of hard work involved in songwriting.  The inspiration part is where it comes through you, but once it comes through you, the shaping of it, the craft of it, is something I pride myself in knowing how to do.

I like to be unpredictable.  For my songs on my album City Streets, the A&R man looked at them and said, “Each song has a different structure.  And not one song has a structure that is recognizable.”  There isn’t one song that’s AABA or ABAB.  They all turn left somewhere.  And that’s something that I work at.

I do not like to do the predictable thing.  That’s not to say that’s it’s invalid to do that.  . . . Because one of the things that I try to be conscious about in writing a song and crafting a song is the concept of bringing it home.  That is, there’s a beginning to a song, and there should be an end of a song, and of course there’s a middle.  And I like to take the middle any place it wants to go.  But whenever I take it to the end, I like to bring it somewhere familiar, someplace that people feel it’s resolved, it’s settled; it comes back home at the end, whatever home means.

I’ll close with a quick case-in-point, re: harmonic structure, though I run the risk of appearing self-serving.  When I was a weekend warrior, I tried as often as possible to add a harmonic twist to the congregational singing, especially on weeks when I had players who could handle it.  For example, I led Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus Messiah” in G (down from his original B), which already adds a ii7 chord (actually, a ii maj. 9 at the start of the measure, given the melody) to cwm’s typical four chords, but I spiced it up even more.  In the twelfth measure of the chorus, where (in G) the harmony has landed on C the measure before, I had the band play an E-flat chord (flat-VI, which turns into a iv with the third in the bass once the melody comes in halfway through the measure) before landing on the G/D and finishing the chorus.

A huge deal?  Of course not.  Something to provide a change of pace, evidence of a little perspiration in the creative process?  I think so.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 3

Paul_Simon_at_the_9-30_Club_(b)Unlike a number of pop-music songwriters and songwriting teams who first came to international prominence in the 60’s (Bob Dylan, James Brown, Lennon-McCartney, Holland-Dozier-Holland), Paul Simon did his best work, by most critics’ estimation, in the 70’s and beyond.  (You could make a good argument either way for Jagger-Richards.)  Simon did, of course, write a number of great songs for Simon & Garfunkel, none bigger than the anthemic “Bridge over Troubled Water,” here rendered in one of S&G’s occasional reunion tours.  (Garfunkel, his voice better suited to the ethereal nature of Simon’s melody, sang lead in the original, with Simon harmonizing on verse three; in this rendition, Simon takes a soulful verse two.)

But his solo work, beginning with 1972’s eponymous offering (his one solo album in the 60’s paled next to his writing for S&G), has generally garnered more acclaim.  One of the big hits from that record, “Mother and Child Reunion,” ubiquitous on AM Top 40 radio (1360 WSAI, Cincinnati, the purveyor of the soundtrack of my 8-year-old self at the time and for the rest of my adolescence), originally conceived in Jamaica, presaged Simon’s eventual deep dive into what we now call world music, most notably and, at the time, controversially 1986’s Graceland, much of which was recorded in South Africa during the last vestiges of apartheid.  Aided by a popular video with comedian Chevy Chase, “You Can Call Me Al” brought Simon a measure of hipness that helped counter the charges of cultural appropriation (although few were using that term at the time) and the outrage in some camps that Simon didn’t speak out more harshly against the racial segregation.

Simon is surely one of rock music’s deepest thinkers, and his section in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting provokes much thought.  Hence, for the sake of space, I’ll let Simon’s words speak for themselves here; readers can provide their own application.

On finding the song instead of plotting it out:

I don’t consciously think about what a song should say.  In fact, I consciously try not to think about what a song should say . . . [b]ecause I’m interested in what . . . I find, as opposed to . . . what I’m planting.  I like to be the audience, too.  I like to discover what it is that’s interesting to me.  I like to discover it rather than plot it out.

On audience interpretation of his songs:

[T]here have been people who have interpreted some of my songs in ways that I hadn’t really thought of, but [they] were absolutely valid.  All of the evidence was there and it was valid.  And it was more interesting, sometimes, than some of the thoughts that I had, which just happened to be from my life.  They had a more interesting thing happen in their life.

On the opening lines in a song:

[Y]ou want to have that first line that has a lot of options, to get you going.  And the other thing to try to remember, especially if the song is long, you have plenty of time.  You don’t have to . . . grab [the audience] by the throat with the first line.

Regarding possessing a solid knowledge of music theory:

It can’t hurt.  It can help.  Yeah, there are some problems that you solve by information that only a teacher can give you.  You’ll have a much harder time solving those problems without that information.  You might solve them, anyway.  But why reinvent the wheel when the information is there?

When asked if that knowledge can get in the way of spontaneity:

[Yes,] I guess it can go the other way.  But certainly in popular music and rock and roll, that’s not the problem.  The problem is people don’t know enough.

When asked if patience is the key to overcoming writer’s block:

I think so.  Patience, persistence . . . whichever.  Sometimes you have to be very tenacious, and sometimes you have to give yourself a break and not beat yourself up and say, “Where is it?  Where is it?”  It’s not here, you know.  It’ll be here when it gets here, and that’s it.  There’s nothing more you can do.

On the randomness of visits from the creative muse, what believers would consider songwriting promptings of the Holy Spirit:

I had one period last summer where every day . . . I woke up exactly at 5:30 in the morning . . . with some song in my head.  It was like, “Wow . . . this great.”  Then I began to expect it.  I woke up one day at 5:30 and there was nothing.  That was the end.  It didn’t happen again.  Then big periods of time would go by when I would get nothing; then I’d get a bunch of lines on several different songs for a day or two or maybe three, and I’d think, “OK, here we go,” and then it stop[ped]. . . . But after a certain amount of time, you just get tired and you have to stop anyway and let whatever’s happening beneath the surface bubble around and wait for it to break through.

With this series, I hope to generate ideas for contemporary worship music songwriters.  I recognize fully that some of what Simon shares here (and others will share throughout the series) won’t apply across the board for congregational singing, but I’m convinced enough will transfer to make the effort worth my while (and worth your read).

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 2

Let me introduce you to a songwriter with whom I’m guessing most folks who stumble across this blog will not be familiar.  To be honest, I’m only mildly familiar with him myself, but having been impressed with what he had to say in Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting, from whence come the posts in this current series, I’m inclined to learn some more about him in the months ahead.  See previous posts for more details, but the primary aim of this series is to give contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters some ideas for improving their craft.

unnamedA cursory bio would note Mose Allison (1927-2016) was a jazz singer and a pianist (“The singer-songwriter Mose Allison might have been a lot better off if he fired the piano-player Mose Allison,” he once said self-deprecatingly), who crossed genres in a manner that makes his jazz a bit hard to define neatly.  Listen to his tunes and you hear all kinds of various influences filtering into his music.

“Parchman Farm” was one of his biggest hits, and you hear a good example of his rough-hewn pianism here.  You also hear him modulate a couple of times, a technique all but non-existent in contemporary worship music, a missed opportunity to bring a lift to a worship song and/or set about which I’ve written in a previous post.

Putdowns don’t come too much more caustic than those found in “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” with its brutally witty opening line, “If silence was [sic] golden, you couldn’t raise a dime” and with its interesting harmonic variations on typical blues I-IV-V chord structure, and I love his piano solo here.

The Who’s Live at Leeds album is generally considered one of the best rock and roll live albums of all time, and Pete Townshend and the lads cover Allison’s “Young Man’s Blues” in their own inimitable style, but one that’s faithful to the angst Allison brought to his lyric a decade before.

Allison’s interview with Zollo covers a lot of ground.  Here he details how he responds when he gets songwriting inspiration.  Believers, of course, would attribute what he describes to the Holy Spirit:

A lot of people keep notes and things and it’s probably a good idea, especially at my age.  But a writer once said, “The only things worth writing about are the things you can’t forget.”  So I sort of took that for my rule.  I wait for the things to keep coming back.  If something keeps coming back, if I keep thinking of that phrase, if I see manifestations of it at different times and different places, then I feel that it’s worth trying to make a song out of.

OK.  That’s one approach, and I get what he’s saying.  A counterargument: I vividly remember an incident from my often-arrogant teenage years when, having come up with a riff, a lick, or a chord progression (I can’t remember the specifics), I proudly played it for my dad, who taught at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music for 40 years.  He expressed sufficient enthusiasm for my creative effort and then, before taking his leave, suggested I write it down, lest I forget it in the days ahead.  “Dad,” I thought to myself, “I know you’re a music professor, and you know your stuff, but you’re obviously a bit off your game today since you clearly can’t appreciate the majesty of this creation, that which even far lesser musicians than I would never, in a million years, forget, such is its profundity.”  You know the rest of the story–and I’ve written down every remotely interesting lyric or chord progression ever since.  (But, hey, if the more-spontaneous approach works for you. . . .)

Songwriters benefit greatly from exposing themselves to all different kinds of musical styles, expanding their artistic palette.  When Zollo opines that Allison’s piano solos seem to have classical-music roots, Allison agrees:

Yeah, I listen to a lot of classical music; still do. . . . Bartok, Hindemith, Ives . . . Scriabin.  I went the whole route.  I started out with the contemporary people and went all the way back to Bach.  And now Bach is the one I like to listen to more than anybody.  It’s amazing, all the things he did staying within the diatonic scale.  His harmonic mode was limited in relation to what people can use now, but he was able to get an awful lot of variation within that one mode.  I listen to all kinds of music.  And anything I really like usually ends up in my arsenal for things to use. . . .

I wonder what the harmonic structure of the average cwm song would sound like if more Christians writing songs for the Church listened to “all kinds of music” more regularly.

And here’s something that doesn’t get talked about too much when we talk about songwriting–the benefit of taking care of yourself physically:

I think the best thing to keep you in shape creatively is to keep yourself in shape physically.  I run, I swim, I do whatever I can to try to keep myself together.  If I don’t exercise, I feel miserable.  But it’s hard to tell.  Feeling miserable, sometimes something comes out of it.

Next time you’re in a creative rut, maybe go out for a jog.

Much more to come in this series, friends, Lord willing.  I pray you’ve been inspired in your creative efforts.  The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 1

As mentioned last week, I am beginning a weeks-long series focusing on specific and practical suggestions for improving the quality of songwriting for the Church.  (See last week’s post for answers to four understandable objections that might arise from this effort.)  The suggestions come from interviews compiled by Paul Zollo in his mammoth tome Songwriters on Songwriting.

Bob DylanI’ll begin with one of the most influential songwriters of the past 60 years, and my personal favorite pop-rock artist, Bob Dylan.  I confess, I came late to this party; I couldn’t get past his voice, and I didn’t know much of his work since he wasn’t a hit-making machine on AM Top 40 radio, which served as the soundtrack of my youth in the 70’s.  It wasn’t until I had been teaching a history of rock and roll class at Judson University for a few years that I decided I had to find out why so many people I respected couldn’t praise Dylan’s art enough.  I picked up supreme Dylanologist Paul Williams’ Watching the River Flow: Observations on Bob Dylan’s Art-in-Progress, 1965-1995, which included a lengthy mini-book about Dylan’s late 70’s conversion to Christianity, handled very respectfully even though Williams wasn’t a believer.  That did it; I was hooked, much to the amusement or chagrin of any who view anything other than bel canto singing to be unworthy of scholarly attention.

Giving only three examples of Dylan’s mastery is painful, but I’m not going to break the51C2QQnT-wL._SY355_ rules on the first post.  Here’s what I consider to be the pièce de résistance of his oeuvre“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” from the amazing acoustic side of the album Bringing It All Back Home.  (The others on that side are the equally masterful “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Gates of Eden,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” the latter one of a couple of emphatic kiss-offs Dylan gave to those–especially the insufferably earnest Greenwich Village folk-music-revival enthusiasts–who had anointed him the “Voice of the Generation.”)  “It’s Alright, Ma” features some of Dylan’s most oft-quoted lines: “He not busy being born is busy dying”; “Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked”; and “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Each verse’s complex rhyme scheme is ridiculously structured (AAAAABCCCCCBDDDDDBEEB), and the descending bass notes support the overall tension-and-release harmonic structure beautifully.

Dylan is notorious for leaving great material on the cutting room floor, the most famous example being “Blind Willie McTell,” an homage to the great bluesman that inexplicably didn’t make the grade for the Infidels album but finally made an official appearance on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3: Rare and Unreleased (1961-1991).  Here’s another song with a delicious descending bass line that fuels an interesting chord progression.

R-2085365-1437050056-1390.jpegUnlike most of the others to follow in this series, Dylan professed a fervent faith in Christ and recorded three significantly overt gospel albums (and always has used biblical allusions in his songs both before and after his “Christian trilogy”).  The best-received of the lot was Slow Train Coming, which is in many Dylan fans’ estimation his best-sounding album ever, courtesy, in large part, of producer Jerry Wexler, of Atlantic Records’ fame.  That said, I like Saved even better–its lyrics more devotional and its music more gritty and less polished.  (The final album is Shot of Love.) “In the Garden,” which details aspects of Christ’s Passion, comes from Saved and features one of Dylan’s most interesting harmonic constructions.  (Recognize Tom Petty in the background?)

Moving on to the Zollo interview. . . .

Dylan, a noted musical sponge, on studying chords:

Do you like jazz?  It never hurts to learn as many chords as you can.  All kinds.  Sometimes it will change the inflection of a whole song, a straight chord or, say, an augmented seventh chord.

On keyboard keys vs. guitar keys:

So there are songs that, even with the piano, which is the dominant sound if you’re playing in the black keys–why else would you play in that key except to have the dominant piano sound?–the songs that go into those keys right from the piano, they sound different.  They sound deeper. . . . Everything sounds deeper in those black keys.

On combatting writer’s block by trying songs in a different key:

There’s a bunch of ways you can get out of [a writer’s-block rut on a particular song].  You can make yourself get out of it by changing key. . . . Just take the whole thing and change key, keeping the same melody.  And see if that brings you any place.  More times than not, that will take you down the road.

Others in this series will have more to say, and I’ll have less to say about them (making more application for cwm songwriting), but Dylan is special, and I’m extra passionate in his case, having myself been an unbeliever for so long.  If this post turns even one or two uninitiated toward exploration of Dylan’s canon, I’ll be pleased.  (He has that much to offer on so many levels, especially if we subscribe to the notion that all truth is God’s truth.)  Send me a note if you’d like a few thoughts on where to start . . . or come visit my class this fall, when I’ll do an entire three-hour session on Dylan.

The Lord be with you!

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Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Prelude

I have for too long complained about the unimaginative harmonic structure of much of contemporary worship music (cwm) without offering much in the way of suggestions for improvement.  Oh, every so often I’ve given some specific exhortation, but I’ve tended to harp more than help, curmudgeonly behavior to which I most definitely do not aspire.

41nVJJH1ahL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_Hence, today I begin a series focusing on specific guidance for songwriters that comes from some of the best composers in pop-music history, courtesy of Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zollo, a former editor of SongTalk magazine.  Zollo interviews many of the biggest names in pop and rock music (and several of its offshoots) in this 730-page behemoth of a book.  Despite some notable absences (Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder) and a dearth of entries from purveyors of contemporary R n B and Hip Hop, Songwriters on Songwriting is a must-read for anyone serious about honing compositional skills for any area of pop music . . . which, I would argue, includes cwm.  He begins with Pete Seeger and ends with Me’Shell NdegéOcello, and along the way we encounter the likes of Bob Dylan, Carole King, Dave Brubeck, and Alanis Morisette, among others.

For each post, I plan to highlight one songwriter, share links to three of his/her biggest hits/best songs, and offer quotes from each’s interview with Zollo, words of wisdom I hope will spark some interest for those who labor to put songs on the lips of the people of God in corporate worship.  Before diving in, I want to answer the understandable objections that might arise from this activity:

We can’t use what works for secular pop-rock music as a guide for what works for cwm.  I disagree.  While I will acknowledge a key component of the ancient Greeks’ Rhetorical Triangle–namely pathos, or your audience–is radically different for cwm, a song is a song is a song.  The same basic elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm drive a worship song the same way they drive a secular song; hence, we can analyze how well the melody works, how helpful the harmonic structure supports that melody, and how effectively the rhythm propels both in all songs that are meant to be sung, whether by a soloist, a small vocal ensemble, a choir, or a congregation.

We can’t learn anything about worship music from unbelievers.  I disagree.  All truth is God’s truth, and all but the most hard-hearted of Christians have been moved to tears by art created by any number of folks who would fall into Fanny Crosby’s “vilest offender” category.  Why does that happen?  Because we intuitively recognize and are often deeply moved by the “finger of God” at work even if the artists don’t recognize It themselves.  Like Balaam’s ass, they are involuntarily used for greater Kingdom good, good that the most atheistic in their ranks would be loathe to acknowledge exists.

The whole argument is irrelevant because pop music is for listening and/or dancing; cwm is for congregational singing.  I disagree with the premise (though I agree with the reason used to support it).  Yes, cwm needs to respect perimeters within which congregations can sing well.  OK.  Is Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” (eight different chords, not counting suspensions) singable?  Listen to that crowd.  That’s some serious congregational singing!  Ditto Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” (six chords).  Look at the crowd singing along.  Hedonistic song?  Undoubtedly.  Infectious music?  Indeed.  Why should the devil have all the good music?

All this scrutiny is unnecessary; all that matters is that God is honored and the people of God sing passionately.  I disagree.  Strongly.  Here’s what I wrote in the aforementioned post, in the event you don’t read the whole thing:

“What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  God is being glorified.  The Church is worshiping, it can be argued, more passionately than it has in years.  How can that be wrong or bad?  It’s not, necessarily–but it’s also not evidence of worship musicians studying to show themselves approved (2 Tim. 2:15) where the craft of songwriting is concerned.  While I don’t wish to make Rory Noland and Greg Ferguson’s harmonically rich and satisfying “He Is Able” (with its nine different chords!) the standard, and I don’t expect every songwriter to be able to pull off the wildly inventive harmonic structure Jason Ingram, Reuben Morgan, and Stuart Garrard achieved in the first two verses of “The Greatness of Our God,” I am calling for better craftsmanship, as a general rule, in contemporary worship music, especially re: harmonic structure.

I then offered two specific words of encouragement.  The second was to put a moratorium on mid-tempo/power-ballad songs using I-IV-V-vi patterns exclusively.  Gracious, Christendom has enough already!  When I can routinely, successfully, and well in advance call out chord changes of cwm songs I encounter for the first time, we have, as a body of songwriters, become too predictable, and we run the risk of being mediocre stewards of the songwriting gift.  (For an interesting take on this issue, check out this video from Andy Crouch: 32:30 through 36:00.  If you have time for the whole talk, it’s excellent.)

The blog’s first exhortation was to study the masters, and I hope in the series to follow to do just that.  The Lord be with you, songwriters, as you craft music to put on the lips of God’s people!


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Should Contemporary Worship Music Be Beautiful? … Part III

Here are final thoughts concerning the title question, which I’ve tried to answer via anwolterstorff_nicholas_188x244 article I wrote for Worship Leader magazine back in 2018.  In case you missed the first or second installments, I’ve thus far made the following suggestions for promoting beauty in worship: 1) Cultivate beauty intentionally (i.e., it takes work and effort and won’t come to any of us naturally, given our current culture’s bent toward efficiency over aesthetics); and 2) Give equal time to transcendence (roughly, the notion of God being so much higher than His creation) and immanence (roughly, the notion that God is with us and knows us better than we know ourselves).  And now the final suggestion and concluding remarks, with input from Pastor Ian Simkins, global worship curator Ron Man, and author Nicholas Wolterstorff (pictured):

Find “Beauty in the Common”

The final suggestion for promoting beauty in worship is at once simple and difficult.  Anyone can do it; it’s that easy.  Most of us don’t; it’s that countercultural.  “We are often drawn and even conditioned to desire the dramatic and magnificent moments in life,” says Chicagoland pastor Ian Simkins, founder of the Beauty in the Common online community, “but that is to miss the power and presence of God in the common, ordinary spaces of our lives. . . . Beauty in the Common seeks to find those experiences, regardless of context, background, or story.  Beginning from a place of commonality allows us to better see the beauty in one another and the ways God is moving in and through those around us.”

For the purposes of corporate worship, Simkins echoes the assertion that beauty promotes evangelism.  “Life has a way of beating wonder out of us, but when the Psalmist invites us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ [Psalm 34:8], that involves more than just a weekly experience; it is, instead, a way of awakening awe deep within our hearts,” something which has the power to fill what Pascal called the “infinite abyss” in the soul of the unbeliever.  For those who approach Christianity with suspicion, beauty can serve as a gracious bypass to cognitive resistance.  “Rather than trying to convince,” Simkins concludes, “beauty seeks to invite.”

One such invitation could involve congregational testimonies.  Ron Man, in his blog Worship Notes, recommends we make room for and utilize different types of stories in our worship sets: “someone sharing why a favorite song or hymn is meaningful to that person, followed by the congregation singing it, . . . work stories . . . how God motivates and uses [parishioners] in their workday jobs, [or testimonies of] elderly faith heroes talking about their long walks with the Lord.”  Many churches already do this periodically, and with easy-access video technology, we have no shortage of options for promoting the beauty of our common experiences in corporate worship.  (Need a place to start?  Consider Simkins’ website:

Worth the Effort

“Beauty is most emphatically not the necessary and sufficient condition of aesthetic excellence,” offers Nicholas Wolterstorff in the classic Art in Action.  Hence, the pursuit of beauty in our worship need not involve stained glass or pipe organs (though it can), nor does it mandate multiple-thousand-dollar lighting rigs or sophisticated sound systems (though it can).  This is good news for the Church Universal, for all of us can pursue beauty on our own terms, as it relates to our particular circumstances, regardless of the sizes of our budgets or congregations.

Doing so is worth the effort.  Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”  May the Lord be with us as we endeavor to lead those we serve in fostering beauty in worship.

What follows in the weeks to come, Lord willing, is a look at how one specific aspect of contemporary worship, the creative efforts that provide the people’s song in our corporate gatherings, can be made more beautiful.  Until then, the Lord be with you!

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Should Contemporary Worship Music Be Beautiful? … Part II

Afew weeks back, I discussed beauty in worship, drawing from an article I wrote for Worship Leader magazine in the spring of 2018.  In case you didn’t get a chance to read the first part, I acknowledged the problem of beauty in discussions of this sort, where worship is concerned–namely, that arguments tend quickly to devolve into either/or rhetoric that pits utilitarian function over aesthetic form, when, truly, a both/and perspective serves the Church much better.  I then articulated my first assertion, that worship leaders would do well to cultivate beauty intentionally–because our culture does not reward such efforts very often or well.

6982496In the second part of this article, we once again hear from my Judson University/Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts colleague Mark Torgerson, Duke University professor of worship Lester Ruth, and Robert Webber (left), whose work, most worship scholars agree, helped kickstart a renewed interest–globally, but especially in America–in corporate worship 30 years ago.  Webber founded what is now known as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Jacksonville, Fla., where Mark and Lester were founding professors and where I did my doctoral studies.  IWS was a life-changing experience for me, and I’ve been grateful to be able to encourage three of my former students (with one on the way, Lord willing) to attend.  I continue to be blessed by my association with IWS.  Here’s part two of “Fostering Beauty”:

Give Equal Time to Transcendence and Immanence

Christian theology is riddled with paradoxes.  God is both completely just and wholly merciful.  God is omniscient but remembers our sins no more when we repent.  And God transcends our existence on earth while being immanent, always with us.  In the words of the fairly new song, God is a “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy.”  At the same time, God is, in the words of the fairly old song, “only a prayer away.”  Hence, our worship ought to balance content that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.

Generally speaking, however, “Christians have been particularly fond of remembering that the transcendent, holy God became immanent to us in Christ,” Torgerson states, claiming that this “focus on the immanence of God in Christ supported a twentieth-century emphasis on evangelism and service” in many churches.  (One need not be a sophisticated sociologist, historian, or aesthete to affirm Torgerson’s notion.  Whether we look at architecture, music, or a host of other considerations, most of us clearly worship in what Lester Ruth calls “personal-story” churches rather than “cosmic-story” churches.)

Let’s say Torgerson is correct that the motivation for the predominance of God’s immanence in our worship stems from a high view of evangelism.  (This clearly was the case during the advent of the seeker-sensitivity movement and remains a component of the modus operandi of seeker-friendly churches today.)  Webber argues that transcendence can serve the cause of soul-winning as easily as immanence.  In what he calls “my favorite story of evangelism through beauty,” Webber tells the (true) story of Vladimir, prince of Kiev, who sends a contingent of his charges into the world to discover true religion.  Searching high and low but coming up empty, they finally arrive at Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Wisdom.  Upon their return, they report their findings to Vladimir.

“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth.  We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places.  For we cannot forget that beauty.”  Indeed, the beauty of the worship featured elements both transcendental, provoking other-worldly sentiments in the worshipers, and immanent, manifesting beyond doubt God’s presence in their midst.

In his quest to know God intimately, seeking God’s immanence such that his soul thirsts, David finds a transcendental experience with God: “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Psalm 63:2).  Thus, this combination of God’s transcendence and immanence prompts David’s worship.  Worship leaders endeavoring to achieve a similar balance might find similar responses from their congregants.  (Need a place to start?  Consider adapting a Taizé chorus for your worship.  Cosmic-story lyrics and Renaissance-inspired harmonies promote an element of beauty rarely found in contemporary worship.  Check out Worship Leader archives from July/August 2012, the “Sing” column, for tips regarding making Taizé choruses work in a praise-band setting.)

(You can access that Worship Leader article on Taizé worship, entitled “Renewing Worship: The Positive Payoff of Messing with Convention,” here.)

Worship leaders, we tend to do really well, as Torgerson suggests, celebrating the immanent nature of God.  I encourage us, in the spirit of fostering beauty, to give a little more time in our congregational singing sets to God’s transcendence.

Coming next week, Lord willing: finding beauty in the common, everyday experiences–what Eugene Peterson referred to as the sacred ordinary aspects of life–especially as that relates to corporate worship.

The Lord be with you!

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How Do Black Lives Matter in Suburban American Contemporary Worship? Part II

Last week I offered the following gloomy prediction where matters of race are concerned in white suburban contemporary American evangelical churches: “[George] Floyd’s death will be a vague memory six months from now in most contemporary worship services in suburban America–having had an ethereal impact, if any–unless two things happen.”  The first of those concerned a willingness to abandon our status-quo service orders (including our status-quo congregational song choices), at least periodically, in times of strenuous civic upheaval.  That’s an effective, but short-term, way of acknowledging black lives matter.

A second, longer-lasting prescription suggests strongly that real change will not be effected until worship leaders–especially those of us who serve churches that have historically expected a steady diet of K-LOVE/CCLI Top 25 songs for congregational singing (not because they are bad but because they speak to, and in a language of, a very narrow sociological understanding of Christian faith)–educate ourselves a bit in order to do more than appear to pay lip service to our efforts to show solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters.  In the same manner that Black America has long touted education as a primary means to the end where any number of issues (self-respect, financial stability, et al.) are concerned, so, too, must White America use education to promote greater unity among its worshipers.

Hence, in no particular order, are a few resources (among a multitude shared by various ministries on social media) I think will help that cause:

Two Essential Books

JamesAbbingtonIf you’re a full-time worship leader–and even more so if you’re a weekend warrior–you likely don’t have time to do too much in-depth research on any subject, much less one as complicated as how corporate worship should speak to racial injustice.  So consider picking up both of Dr. James Abbington’s Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, one-stop shops for all things related to the rich heritage of the worshiping black church.  Volume One features such essays as W.E.B. DuBois’ “Of the Faith of the Fathers,” Sister Thea Bowman’s “The Gift of African American Sacred Song,” and the intriguing “I Am the Holy Dope Dealer: The Problem with Gospel Music Today,” by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. (intriguing not only in title but in content, which illustrates worship-wars rhetoric is not the exclusive domain of white churches).  Volume Two, published a few years later, takes a look at such topics as “The Theological Validation of Black Worship” (Samuel D. Proctor), “Back to the Heart of Worship: Praise and Worship in a Los Angeles African American Megachurch (Birgitta J. Johnson), and “Work the Works: The Role of African American Women in the Development of Contemporary Gospel” (Tammy L. Kernodle).  I used the first volume extensively when I considered the new songs of Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music, in my doctoral thesis; both volumes are excellent.

One Essential Web Post

The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, once again, has been quick to make available a slew of references, compiled over the years of its ministry, to help churches speak authentically during these trying times.  You can access their material here.

One Essential Playlist

Ryan Flanigan and the folks at Liturgical Folk, some of my favorite indie worship leaders, have curated a magnificent playlist drawn from some of their recent releases, Songs to Fight the Evil in Us.  Their efforts speak to my charge above re: variety of worship expressions, a good start for white worship leaders looking for different contemporary worship music.

Final Thought

Others more informed and eloquent (and, I fully admit, with more at stake) than I have urged the American Church to work for real and lasting expressions of racial justice in our congregations.  The gravitational pull of years of status-quo practices will be immense in the weeks and months ahead, especially since the enemy hates to see the Church break out of comfortable confines.  The last bullet point from the Calvin post says this: “[T]here is always a temptation to think that paying attention to this for a little while will help us get past it instead of thinking of this as a lifelong posture for every Christian eager to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.”  (Read that again and let it sink in.)  In the midst of unspeakable pain and sorrow, worship leaders have an opportunity to exercise prophetic muscles for the sake of the Kingdom.

The character trait that comes to mind here is humility.  Might we all pray, in the words of this great modern song (in the style of a spiritual, published by GIA as part of the Abbington-curated African American Church Music Series), “Guide My Feet” (“Lord, while I run this race, for I don’t want to run this race in vain”), taken from the Judson University Choir’s spring tour to Missouri a few months ago.  (The link takes you directly to the song; feel free to watch/listen to the rest of the service, if you are so inclined.  A nice rendition of Rich Mullins’ “If I Stand,” complete with hammered dulcimer, comes right after.)

The Lord be with you!

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How Do Black Lives Matter in Suburban American Contemporary Worship? Part I

A cynic’s response: “They don’t.”

Painfully naive white America’s response: “We welcome everybody at our church, and no one is ever excluded.”

Painfully honest white America’s response: “Most of us don’t affirm black lives matter very well most of the time in our worship.  How can we do better?”

Thanks for asking.  Some suggest George Floyd’s killing is going to be an Emmett Tilliandownload tipping point for America–in other words, a straw-breaking-the-camel’s-back, tragic event (the culmination of a sea of previous unjust acts) that sparks real, if slower-than-desired change, the way Till’s murder galvanized those whose commitment to the cause and behavioral resolve eventually led to the Civil Rights Act nine years later.  I hope so–but even if it does, will it have a similar effect on contemporary worship in the suburban American Church?


Thanks for throwing a wet blanket on our good intentions, Mr. Worship Professor!

OK, let me qualify that gloomy prognostication.  Floyd’s death will be a vague memory six months from now in most contemporary worship services in suburban America–having had an ethereal impact, if any–unless two things happen.  We’ll look at the first this week and the second, Lord willing, next week.

First, contemporary American worship must be willing to break the status-quo mold in times of crisis–and then periodically ever after.  I’m going to extend shout-outs to two former Judson University students here (#ProudProf), both in the past two weeks having shown a way forward for any of us white folks in worship leadership in the American suburbs trying to effect the kind of change I’m suggesting would be helpful to the Kingdom’s cause.

Ian Simkins, teaching pastor at Community Christian Church, Naperville, Ill., has appeared in this blog before (once I get back to trying to answer the “Should Contemporary Worship Music Be Beautiful?” question in a few weeks, he’s scheduled to appear again), so anticipating his church would have something of value to impart yesterday, I caught the beginning of the service.  Not only did they eschew the peppy band for the week, but they, in Simkins’ words, “hit ‘pause’ on what the original plan had been and . . . call[ed] an audible for this weekend.”  Following a time of silence and some basic announcements, the rest of the service featured founding pastor Dave Ferguson, who is white, in (socially distanced) dialogue with Quentin Mumphery, who is black, pastor of New Hope Covenant Church.  How can we do better?  You can watch the whole service here.

I surveyed many church services yesterday, and I wish more had chosen to call a similar audible.  That said, I think we can accomplish the spirit of the goal I am proposing in other, slightly less (but only slightly less) radical ways.  Here, too, however, being willing to push against the gravitational pull of business-as-usual is critical.

A week ago last Friday, as cities in major metropolises had just begun to burn, a recent JU Worship Arts grad, Catlin Walton, led a powerful service of healing and hope for the congregation of First Christian Church on Chicago’s south side.  If you have 40 minutes to spare, it’s well worth the watch.

Following my second viewing of the service, I felt compelled to write the following:

As I experienced this service’s depth and breadth today, I appreciated Catlin’s efforts to acknowledge the gravitas of our current circumstances. I confess this is my bent (and doesn’t need to be everyone’s), but I have missed this focus occasionally in the corporate worship services I have watched since the pandemic relegated us all to virtual church attendance. I recognize and appreciate the desire to bring comfort through similarity–keeping the worship services as pre-pandemic normal as possible–but do we then unwittingly risk seeming unfazed by the horrors on the periphery of our existence? It’s not the equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but nor does it often enough do justice, I fear, to the real and true suffering of many in the midst of this pandemic … and now add another slew of people grieving yet one more horrific example of racial injustice in this country. Psalm 13’s “How long, O Lord?” rings true today, as it has perpetually down through the ages.

I fully recognize what works in a Friday evening coffeehouse doesn’t translate perfectly to Sunday morning.  I am also very aware of the need for worship leaders to help point people to uplifting and hope-producing truths of our faith, including God’s love and faithfulness, in the midst of crises.  I am not advocating perpetual lamentation in our corporate worship services for the immediate future.  But I wonder if the American Church would at the moment benefit greatly from a slightly broader perspective of our current circumstances, from a slightly different worship set or patterns of liturgy than we have employed with regularity in the recent past.  Perhaps a Redmanesque season–or even one song per set–of bandless, a cappella singing would be in order.  Maybe now is the perfect time to teach the congregation some Taizé choruses or African-American spirituals.  Etc.

Worship leaders, I pray prophetic boldness for you in this tumultuous season; your role over the course of the next several weeks will have lasting impact on the future of your churches’ worship.  I’ll share Part II on the effort to demonstrate how black lives matter in contemporary worship next week, Lord willing.

The Lord be with you!


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No Words

The tragic events of this past week prompt no words other than Kyrie, Eleison.

The Lord be with us all!

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