Social Issues · Theology

The Creation and the Creator: A Reflection on the Death of Artists

The past couple of years has seen the deaths of many celebrities and artists. It seemed to begin around the drug induced death of Scott Weiland, the former frontman for Stone Temple Pilots in late 2015. The following year saw many more deaths, among them David Bowie and Prince. None of those really had that much of an effect on me. I enjoyed a few STP songs, did not care for Prince’s music and was unfamiliar with it for the most part, and only heard a few David Bowie hits on classic rock radio. The death that first really affected me was the death of Chris Cornell back in May. Chris Cornell was the singer from Soundgarden who were instrumental in the rise of grunge rock in the 90’s and went on to be in Audioslave in the 00’s and had a successful solo career. He was one of my early musical heroes. He had a voice that could wail high above the stratosphere and he had a range of expression in his voice from gutsy angst to subtle beauty, all with plenty of soul. He was also a criminally underrated lyricist. He was a natural wordsmith who in my opinion exceeded his contemporaries such as Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. From his word painting of “Black Hole Sun” to his poetic emotion laden “Sunshower,” his lyrical abilities were up there with his larger than life voice. As I started looking to grow musically and get past what was on mainstream radio, I turned to Soundgarden. They and Chris Cornell in particular had an artistic depth and integrity that I admired and inspired me to cultivate my creativity in music. Though I grew past rock music in the following years and went on to get into complex progressive rock, symphonic classical music, and jazz, Chris Cornell still held a special place in my heart and I would listen to his music on occasion. When I found out that he had committed suicide by hanging, I was very saddened. Though I never new him, and it would be nothing compared to the death of a loved one, it was a strange feeling that a part of my coming of age and musical development had met a tragic end. Just a few short months later, another musician I used to enjoy, albeit to a lesser extent was Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. I discovered their music before that of Chris Cornell as their music was hugely popular when I was in high school. The themes of alienation and rejection resonated with me at the time as I was painfully shy and unpopular, unathletic, subject to rejection and ridicule, and seemed to be strange and different from everyone else. Now today as an adult, I would not recommend to a teenager going those experiences to listen to their music as it often did not offer encouragement, though there were glimmers of hope in songs like “Breaking the Habit.” After a career of over 15 years on Chris Cornell’s birthday strangely, he also committed suicide by hanging. Another piece of my childhood gone.

These are not the first artists to take their own lives. History is full of artists destroying their lives by suicide, drugs, alcohol, or other mediums. Why does this happen? As an artist myself I can certainly understand the thrill of creativity. There is nothing like laboring with your heart and soul and creating a work of art from scratch. All of your emotions, knowledge, and experiences go into it to create a work that reflects who you are. Then to see the fruits of your labor enjoyed by other people is a feeling like none other. Music is an especially powerful art form, particularly when the poetic and instrumental arts meet. As I mentioned earlier, my childhood was filled with social rejection and alienation, so music became a powerful release for me. I praise God that I was able to stay away from things that would have wrecked my life and spend time refining the gifts He had given me. Creating music filled a void in my life that nothing else seemed to be able to fill, or so I thought or felt at the time. In the years since I recorded my loud distortion laden guitar rock on my little 8 track machine, I wrote prog rock, classical compositions, jazz fusion, and recorded several albums of musical art of mine. Even today, I use that same energy and drive toward writing worship music. I also experience a new dimension when I hear music from other musicians that captivates me, such as hearing for the first time the music of Chris Cornell, Allan Holdworth (who also recently passed away), Kansas, John Coltrane, and Claude Debussy. I remember feeling transported to another world the first time I heard Debussy’s “Sarabande” from Pour le Piano. Chris Cornell’s aforementioned “Sunshower” still moves me with its stirring vocals and evocative, transparent lyrics. Tim Keller described this well when he said, “There is a sort of schizophrenia that occurs if you are listening to Bach and you hear the glory of God and yet your mind says there is no God and there is no meaning. You are committed to believing nothing means anything and yet the music comes in and takes you over with your imagination. When you listen to great music, you can’t believe life is meaningless. Your heart knows what your mind is denying.” 

There is undoubtedly something about music. It is so powerful that it can be mistaken to be the end all. I recently read a blog post from Bob Kauflin recently where he quoted Sting as saying, “If ever I’m asked if I’m religious I always reply, ‘Yes, I’m a devout musician.’ Music puts me in touch with something beyond the intellect, something otherworldly, something sacred.” One of the articles on Chester Bennington’s death included a quote of his saying, “if it wasn’t for music, I’d be dead.” Unfortunately, the sad irony of that statement was realized on July 20, 2017. Music is one of the many beauties of this world created by God alongside the trees, rivers, mountains, and skies. It was created for our enjoyment and cultivation and of course as a form of worship. However it was never meant to be worshiped or be some kind of end all. Creation, as beautiful, profound, and seemingly sacred as it may be is temporal and does not lead to lasting fulfillment. That can only come from the CreatOR, not the creatED. While the Bible says that creation points to God as in Psalm 66:4 (“All the earth worships you and sings praises to you; they sing praises to your name.”), creation in and of itself is not enough. The Apostle Paul in Romans 1:25 says, “They traded the truth of God for a lie. They bowed down and worshiped the things God made instead of worshiping the God who made those things. He is the one who should be praised forever. Amen.” (ESV) I say this not to be condemning, but to offer some sort of comfort. I know of the deceptive satisfaction that can come from the created, but I have come to know the satisfaction that comes from Jesus. That makes me sad for those artists I learned from who lived their lives looking for that fulfillment, desperately longing for meaning and answers, and reached the end of their lives without finding the living water that would forever quench their thirst, found in Christ Jesus alone. I saw that searching as I would read through Chris Cornell’s lyrics. Take a look at the lyrics to Audioslave’s “Like a Stone.”

On a cobweb afternoon
In a room full of emptiness
By a freeway I confess
I was lost in the pages
Of a book full of death
Reading how we’ll die alone
And if we’re good, we’ll lay to rest
Anywhere we want to go
(chorus)
In your house I long to be
Room by room patiently
I’ll wait for you there
Like a stone
I’ll wait for you there
Alone
On my deathbed I will pray
To the gods and the angels
Like a pagan to anyone
Who will take me to heaven
To a place I recall
I was there so long ago
The sky was bruised
The wine was bled
And there you led me on
And on I read
Until the day was gone
And I sat in regret
Of all the things I’ve done
For all that I’ve blessed
And all that I’ve wronged
In dreams until my death
I will wander on
Though they are beautifully written, they are honest lyrics of a man who is uncertain about where he is headed. It brings to mind Acts 17:23, when Paul comes across an altar among other Greek gods with the inscription, “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” It is very sad and I have to trust in the sovereignty of God, but the comfort is in that there is a God who is not unknown in this nation, though more and more it seems to be the case. If you know God, lovingly point others to His direction and tell them the good news. If you are desperately searching for something, know that there is comfort and healing in Jesus. He is the one the heals the brokenhearted and binds up the wounds. He brings purpose to our lives and one day we will experience a glory that is unlike anything we could ever imagine. One of my other musical heroes is Kerry Livgren of Kansas. I highly recommend his book, Seeds of Change, but it chronicles his journey of faith. While being an immensely talented composer and lyricist, a true musical genius, he never found what he was looking for, despite critical acclaim, accolades, and platinum record sales. He went through religion after religion and cult after cult seeking the truth until he encountered Christ and realized that he had found the answer he longed for, and never looked back.
I could go on with the subject, as it is one close to my heart, but I will simply end this post by quoting Christ’s words in Matthew 7:7. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (ESV)
Theology

Are You Competing in the Testimony Contest?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for a good inspirational story. I love watching rags to riches documentaries and biopic films about famous figures who came from a life of poverty and turbulence, overcame the many challenges that came from it, and became a success. I enjoyed watching the documentaries made on the bands Rush and Kansas and how they should have never been successes given their backgrounds and complex anti-mainstream music , yet made their mark in the rock music world. I’m not really a sports fan, but I did enjoy the film made about Jackie Robinson, 42 outlining his rise to success from poverty, battling the racism of his day while remaining above it. I saw it with my wife and in-laws and even caught my sports loving father-in-law crying during the more rousing scenes!

These types of stories have been inspirational to me and countless others and I am glad we have them. I wonder though, if the idealization of compelling stories seeps into our spiritual lives whenever we compare our testimonies. I know it has for me. I have been moved by others’ testimonies of coming from a life of drugs, alcohol, sex, and other worldly pleasures and being radically changed upon coming to Christ. Although I wouldn’t call myself a by-the-book, straight laced, goody-two-shoes type person, I’ve never been a really rebellious person and never got caught up in the “big sins” that some other believers have gotten caught up in before coming to the cross. My story of coming to faith is definitely not one to make a movie about. I grew up in a solid Christian family, went to church, got saved somewhere along the way, went to college, questioned a few things but never left my faith, met my wife and married her, etc. Have you yawned yet? No one likes those stories right? Just to be clear, I don’t nor have ever wished that I ever committed sins I haven’t committed. It was just that I would be a bit envious of those who had a powerful story about their conversion, because I knew that mine was not. After all, who would be moved to come to Christ through my testimony?

If you look at our Biblical heroes, you have the Apostle Paul, a hater of Christianity who wrote much of the New Testament in devoting his life to the Gospel. There is Peter who denied Christ three times, yet went on to do great things for Christianity. David, the murderer and adulterer was as the Bible described, a “man after God’s own heart.” Moses was a murderer and coward who defied a powerful pharaoh and delivered the children of Israel to the Promised Land. There are also the post-Biblical people such as Martin Luther who came from the corrupt Roman Catholic Church, William Wilberforce who came from wealthy hedonism to embrace a faith and become an anti slave trade activist, Keith Green who came from a past of sex, drugs, and hippie lifestyle and dedicated his life to ministering to the lost, among many others. These are all incredible stories and there are more happening as I am typing this blog post. Praise God for them and all the glory is His. However, the riveting tension of their stories does not make them any better in God’s eyes than the “boring” ones that no one will watch a movie or read a book about. Even more important, Christians who come from seemingly darker pasts do not necessarily have more to offer than those with “cleaner” pasts and they do not disqualify people like myself from service to God. What God is looking for is a “here I am, send me” attitude as exemplified by Isaiah in Isaiah 6:3. He can use anyone no matter where they come from or what experiences they have had. If you are looking for a Biblical hero with a “clean past,” take a look at Timothy. He comes from a godly heritage through his mother and grandmother, and as far as Scripture is concerned, Timothy did not have a past like that of Paul and was always grounded. Timothy did not need a blockbuster testimony to be used by God. What he needed was the pastor’s heart of love and it showed, as he was someone who Paul trusted and respected and became a great pastor and instrument of God for the early Church.

There is something to be said for those who do come from dark pasts is that they can often see things from a different perspective having lived in the ways of the world and seeing the contrast of dark and light firsthand. I would read passages where Paul is talking to his audience, such as the Colossians about the worldly ways that they used to live in, (Colossians 3:7) and feel like I could not relate to it. I had not engaged in those specific sins and did not feel as delivered as I thought I should feel. I heard a John Piper sermon where he talked about sin in a way that spoke to me. He said two things, 1. sin is a preference for anything above God and 2. we have to continually kill it. He brought up the passage in Romans 1 where Paul is exhorting believers not to fall back into their former ways. He was saying essentially that we are not out of the woods yet in terms of sin’s influence. Although the price has been paid on the cross, we are not immune to the pleasures of sin and can fall into it if we are not living according to the Spirit. So what is my point here? My point is that sin is a serious thing and the ugly shadow of our former selves rears its head and when we experience temptation and thoughts that disturb our “clean” minds, we witness what we were saved from. When it comes down to it, all believers were guilty of an unforgivable crime apart from the atoning death of Christ. No amount of good morals or clean straight-edge lifestyle can atone for it. We were all once filthy, only redeemed through God’s work in us bringing us to the cross, not of our own strength or accord. So when it comes down to it, we all have the same testimony. And we are all still capable of falling into sin, so though we have experience positional sanctification, we are in need of progressive sanctification as well. This puts all believers in the same boat. Ultimately broken people do not need a hit movie script of a conversion story, they need the love of Jesus, whether it is through a former junkie or straight laced preacher’s kid, an extrovert or introvert, a notable or unknown person, etc. YOU, yes YOU can be used by God! You redeemed sinner, former hater of God, imperfect one can be used by God! If you find that you want people to ooh and ah over your story, you may want to reevaluate some things, because God should get the glory for every sinner that repents.

So whether you feel like your testimony is not powerful enough to be used by God mightily, or if you are on the other side and feel like your past sins somehow disqualify you, remember our testimony is the same, just as our need for Christ is the same. Nowhere in Scripture does it say that God uses more or gives greater rewards to those with better testimonies, or even to those who have converted more people. God is the converter of all believers. He is sovereign and will use people as He wishes. Be willing to be used and live by the Spirit, loving others with the light of Christ and He will guide your steps.



Behind the Song · Worship Music

Behind the Song: “Your Still Voice”

 

It’s been a while since I have posted, so it’s good to be back on the Brew! This is the first in a new “Behind the Song” series featuring songs that I have written or others that I admire. This song, “Your Still Voice” was the first worship song I ever wrote, yet it took over a year to refine it. It has a special place in my heart because it was reflective of where I was at the time, sensing the Lord shift my desires toward being in the ministry. Now I will not say that this song was the turning point or deciding factor by any means, but it shows what I was going through at the time. Despite the personal meaning for me, there is nothing in the song that is specifically referencing me, but rather, I based it off of I Kings 19:9-15, the story of Elijah’s encounter with God at Mt. Horeb, after being pursued for death by Jezebel. There God spoke in a “still small voice” as the KJV puts it. That story was one that I would read and study as I was seeking the Lord’s direction in my future. At the time, I was teaching music at a college, had a successful teaching studio, was in a progressive rock band that was doing well, and enjoyed leading worship part time at my church, but I started to sense my desires changing, wanting to go into ministry full time, something I had expressed in the past that I did not want to do. You can say you will or will not do something all you want, but when God has a plan, your own plan is pointless. This song in many ways is like a marker in my life where I earnestly sought the Lord and He answered me through where He has brought me today, being the worship pastor at Cary Alliance Church and finding such delight and fulfillment in following his leading.

 

There tends to be a romance or legend with hymnwriters/worship songwriters that they are almost divinely led by the Holy Spirit who imparts the perfect words to them that they write down and before their eyes, an anointed song is complete. Although the Holy Spirit can certainly place the desires and inspiration for something like that, as for books, sermons, or other mediums, songs take writing, rewriting, rewriting, refinement, rewriting again, finishing, rewriting, last adjustments, and then the finished product. I remember being holed up in my music room at my home in Sedalia, MO in the spring of 2016 spending time in prayer and Scripture while writing most of what became the song. The overall form came together quickly, but fine tuning it took a long time. I originally had a bridge that I was not happy with so I discarded it and planned to leave it in strophic form, or traditional hymn form. However, since much of the song is about listening and encountering God, I felt it was important to include something that emphasized that it was more than mere emotionalism, but that it required being rooted in truth, ironically during the most emotional, climactic part of the song. It referenced Christ’s proclamation that we will worship in spirit and in truth, from John 4:24. That was written a year after the initial draft during which many more worship songs were written. After that it was all done, except for one line I was iffy about and then in a service, my pastor, Mitchell Gregory quoted Matthew 24:35 where Jesus said ,” Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” A lightbulb went in my head immediately and I knew that was the right line and it even fit the rhythm and rhyme! Musically, I wanted it to combine what I love most about traditional hymns and modern contemporary while being easy to sing to, so that part of it presented its challenges alongside the lyrical aspects.

I played it at Cary Alliance with the worship team for the first time during the offering, unsure how people would respond, and unsure about even playing one of my own songs. After we played it, there was overwhelming encouragement from the congregation and my worship team toward it. People told me how they had been blessed by the song, and I took it as the Lord giving me peace about ministering to the church through my own songs. We have since been teaching it to the congregation to sing and after many asking if they could listen to the song somewhere, I finally was able to sit down and record it at my studio with my lovely wife, Heidi who played strings and piano and sang background vocals on it. I do not write any of this to boast in my own songwriting abilities or theological knowledge, but to show how God listens and speaks and provides perfect direction in spite of fear or uncertainty. It is also worth noting that writing worship songs became a new way of studying Scripture, whether by writing more expositionally or on a specific doctrine. It is certainly not the only way I study the Word, but one that challenges me and that I am thankful for. I hope that you are encouraged to trust in the Lord for His direction in your life and to listen to the Holy Spirit past the cacophony you hear in the world around.

Read the lyrics below:

Not the wind that crushes boulders
Nor the trembling of the whole earth
Not the flames that spread in number
But by Your still voice O Lord
Give me ears that I may hear You
When the world shouts at my name
You I long to hear
All else disappear I want Your still voice O Lord

Not the lofty boasts of great kings
Nor the merchant’s fated offerings
Wisdom born from earthly teachings
Cannot measure to Your truth
For Your voice, it has no equal
And Your voice no parallel
Heaven and earth will fade
Yet Your Word shall stay
Only Your true voice O Lord

Speak to me in my devotion
In my prayer and through Your Holy Word
Past the bounds of blind emotion
May I worship You truly Lord

Not my selfish vain desires
Nor the fear that draws like mire
Though my sinful heart conspires
It is Your true voice that saves
May Your words break through this sinner
And Your voice make me undone
Make my heart attuned
Just as stones are hewn
Lord, to Your still voice alone

Danny Brymer
© 2017 Bryme Tyme Music.

Worship Music

These Go to 11: My Top Contemporary Worship Songs

A few weeks ago, I shared my list of some of my favorite hymns The Top 10 Hymns…plus 1. I do love contemporary worship as well and while you may need to dig deeper to find some gems, once you find them, they keep coming. As with my favorite hymns, my favorite contemporary worship songs change depending on where I am at, but these are my top 11 currently. I am not only doing songs from the past ten years, but from the past thirty for a good variety, and by different songwriters.

11. Here I Am to Worship- Tim Hughes

This song has become a classic in its own right and for good reason. The lyrics while not extremely complex are theologically sound speaking of Christ’s humility as he served mankind and faced death for our sake and invites the congregation to worship Him. It is a very singable song that stays in your head and is very adaptable to different arrangements and styles. I always say the mark of a good hymn or song is its ability to be interpreted musically in different ways. This is one that is still relevant after about 17 years and will still be around.

10. Revelation Song- Jennie Lee Riddle

Sometimes it is refreshing to sing straight out of Scripture, and for the most part, this song does just that, though it is not exactly like a Psalm set to music. Jennie Lee Riddle takes passages out of Revelation 4, 5, and 14 along with some other prophetic passages in Scripture and arranges them nicely in this song. The song is slow, yet it has an energy to it of the most upbeat of songs and is tailor made for congregations. There are some rhythmic challenges to some of the verses, but nothing too difficult to get in the way of impassioned singing. This is one of those that congregations love to sing AND worship teams love to play, and that balance is not always easy to find, but I’m thankful to have this song in our worship repertoire.

9. Everlasting God- Brenton Brown

This is another song that is primarily quoting Scripture, and even more so in this case. Brenton Brown uses Isaiah 40:28-31 as the basis for the song which makes up near the entirety of it. It is simple, yet catchy and with a driving energy. Plus it has a cool riff to go along with it! It can be taken as a song of praise or as a song of comfort and reflection as reflected in the original Biblical text. This is one of those songs where you need a kicking band to rock it out, but it is a great song and you cannot go wrong singing straight out of the Word of God.

8. Man of Sorrows- Hillsong (written by Brooke Ligertwood and Matt Crocker)

Now I am admittedly not the biggest fan of Hillsong. In my opinion they have a lot of okay songs and some pretty bad songs, but occasionally, I will stumble upon a gem. This is one of those and I was shocked to discover that it came from Hillsong! Hillsong songs are not all written by the same person, so it makes sense that there are some good songs that come from them. Much of their material tends to shy away from sin and the darker Biblical doctrines, but in telling of Christ’s death and resurrection,  this one tackles betrayal, Christ’s suffering, the doctrine of propitiation, and guilt of mankind, and does it well! You can easily tell the passages of Scripture referenced by the lyrics as opposed to the fluffy ambiguous fodder that they have become known for. Even the melody is very singable and rather hymnlike, building to an effective climax mirroring the lyrics. Hillsong, please write more songs like this!

7. Shine, Jesus Shine- Graham Kendrick

This one is the oldest on this list, written back in my birth year of 1987, and is one of those songs I grew up with and loved as a kid. While other 80’s choruses can take you back to worshiping in your Aqua Net, mullets, and leg warmers, there is a lot of depth to this one. Kendrick has a gift for singable poetry and it shows in this song. It is a cry for revival to fill the land and for the Church to become more like Christ. How we need more songs like that! The chorus is one that congregations can really get into. I rediscovered the song after many years and realized what a great song it is and started including it in our worship services. My team does a refreshing arrangement that takes it out of the 80’s and into today. This is one that churches should bring back!

6. The Heart of Worship- Matt Redman

This is another song I grew up with, though not as old as the previous one, but I never really appreciated it until recently. It is not so much that the song is intensely poetic or that the melody and music is outstanding, but that the message is in many ways, more relevant today than when it was written. In many ways, the song was almost prophetic in how commercialized and married to music worship has become to many in these times. This song admonishes the Church to get to the heart of worship and not be distracted by the other things that can rob worship of its true meaning. “I’ll bring you more than a song, for a song in itself is not what you have required.” Those are poignant words that we need to be reminded of as we sing hymns and worship songs.

5. How Great is Our God- Chris Tomlin

Chris Tomlin, while I think more highly of his worship music output than that of Hillsong, he tends to be hit and miss with me. Though he is a gifted, yet humble worship leader with a fantastic voice, and his songs are always theologically sound, I always feel as though he could do better. I’d like to see him branch past the anthem praise song, which he has done on occasion with songs like “I Will Rise.” However, this song is a great (no pun intended) anthem of praise and worship to God. It references Scripture heavily and elicits good congregational singing. I particularly like it when sung with the chorus of “How Great Thou Art,” but it stands alone wonderfully on its own merits. It has become a classic much like “Here I Am to Worship” and the Lord uses it to open my eyes further to His greatness every time I sing it.

4. Indescribable- Laura Story

This one was made popular by Chris Tomlin, but was actually written by Laura Story. Ironically, the song is very descriptive of the awe and wonder of God, admitting in the chorus that no attempt to describe Him is sufficient. She pens the lyrics in such a poetic way that is often not seen in mainstream worship music. The music has a driving energy to is and the melody has a strong hook to it. I first heard the Chris Tomlin version and he sings it so well, but also check out the Laura Story version which is a bit different, but equally as good. I always love leading this song.

3. Sovereign Over Us- Aaron Keyes

This is probably the least known song and artist of this list, but I was recently introduced to Aaron Keyes through a book he helped write called Doxology and Theology. It is a fantastic book and it led me to discover his music and along the way, I found this song. Musically, it is akin to modern indie pop music, so a refreshing break from the wall of sound production that is common in modern worship. Lyrically, this song is brilliant and saturated in Scripture. It calls for those who are broken and wounded to take comfort in the perfect love and sovereignty of God. I would love to see this one take off and be sung in more churches. Aaron Keyes is a very gifted songwriter and I look forward to exploring more of his catalog.

2. All I Have is Christ- Sovereign Grace Music (written by Jordan Kauflin)

This is an incredible song by the son of respected songwriter, Bob Kauflin, about God’s sovereign grace on depraved man with obvious references to Romans 8. It has the perfect balance of theologically weighty verses and a simple yet profound chorus. Despite the advanced theology in the song, the emotion runs deep, never stale or cold, and I cannot sing it without getting emotional about Christ’s redemptive work and sovereign grace. This one can be done in a contemporary or traditional style, but when I do it with out team, we give it a Peter Gabriel- “In Your Eyes” type feel. It is a great example of a poetically, theologically, emotionally, and musically well balanced song that congregations love to sing and worship teams love to play.

1. In Christ Alone- Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

This might be an obvious one, but for good reason. Few songs sum up the gospel in a self contained fashion as this one. Stuart Townend penned the lyrics while Keith Getty came up with the memorable tune. Trivia: the lyrics originally began as “my hope is found in Christ Alone,” but Keith Getty convinced Stuart Townend to reverse the line which “ruined” the rhyme scheme that Townend already had, but he relented and the rest is history. From propitiation to omnipotence to atonement to election, this song has it all, and in a logical and cohesive format. Now it did take me a long time to memorize the lyrics as they are wordy and advanced, but it is one that I get excited about. Congregations get into it as well as long as they have the words in front of them. There are many versions of this song, but I love the version that Keith and Kristyn Getty do at The Gospel Coalition.

 

So that is it for now. Any songs you thought should have made the list? Let me know in the comments below!

Worship Music

6 Good Things that Contemporary Worship Music did for the Church

My previous post, Worship Leaders: Sing Unto the Lord a Better Song garnered the most reaction of all the posts I have written so far. I had reactions from Amens to defensive responses and everything in between, and if I learned something, it is that this subject of worship strikes a chord with many. That post was very critical of much of the trends of modern worship. Repetitiveness, shallow theology, weak poetry, and overproduced music were my basic criticisms. While I still stand by them, they were not meant to be blanket statements that apply to all modern worship. I am definitely not a hymns only guy and I recognize that there are some weaknesses in traditional hymnody. I don’t believe all the old hymns were deep and solid nor that all modern worship is shallow and flawed. I mentioned that today’s songwriters could learn from the hymns. I also think the hymns can be influenced by our sounds and styles today. I just can’t write a blog encouraging old hymn writers to step up their game in a few areas hoping Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts will share it to their followers on Facebook, so I would like to point out the positives that have come from contemporary worship music.

1. It brought relief and space

This is something that might not be as obvious unless you’ve been to a traditional and contemporary service back to back, but traditional services can be fatiguing to sing through. Verses are sung back to back, one right after another, with no instrumental interludes or breaks in between in many traditional services. With no breaks or vocal reprieves, it can be taxing on the voice, especially for untrained singers. The contemporary style has added intros, outros, interludes, and solos (not always in the same song) that the congregant could use to rest their voice and think on what they have sung. The time can also be used to pray or recall Scripture relating to the song. With the old style, that was not as easy to do as the verses would be cranked out with no time for any of that.

2. It brought variety

The old style mainly uses piano and organ with a song leader and sometimes a choir. The contemporary style has brought guitars, drums, synths, and even folk and orchestral instruments. The rhythms of the melodies have more of a lively, bouncy quality to them often. As long as they do not get too complicated, they add rhythmic interest in contrast to most hymns that only stress the strong beats. From the Celtic stylings of the Gettys to the folk sounds of Rend Collective to the pop/rock drive of Chris Tomlin, there is a wealth of styles and sounds to be found. Also, in the traditional style, all verses are usually done the exact same way. With modern worship, you can get dynamic and textural contrasts and more expressiveness in the ensemble.

3. It brought conciseness and cohesion

Many of the old hymns contained ten or more verses, which can be a lot to sing to the same tune. So song leaders will often select an amount of verses to sing and it can create a disjointed flow depending on the hymn. That is why I appreciate hymns like “Be Thou My Vision” and “My Jesus I Love Thee” which state their points and come to smooth conclusions, unlike many which seem to say the same thing over and over or try to pack too much into one text. Contemporary lyrics are self contained and have (usually) logical beginnings, middles, and conclusions. They are designed to tell a message without being excessive. Now, not all contemporary lyrics are deep, but they do get their points across without being long winded. Songs like “Man of Sorrows” from Hillsong do this nicely.

4. It allowed for spontaneity

In the old style, there is a lot of note reading going on and not much deviation from what is on the hymnal. The contemporary style allows for more freedom with the arrangements and more creativity on the part of the musicians. With more space and stuff, there is room for the worship leader to speak to the congregation, pray, or read Scripture, or sing spontaneously, unless the band is trying to replicate the album versions of the songs, which is akin to playing the same arrangements out of the hymnal. The Holy Spirit does not depend on spontaneity friendly worship teams to work, but the style can make it easier for worship teams to break from the format if there is something they feel the Lord has laid on their heart. It also allows worship teams to develop their own sounds rather than playing the same parts that every other traditional church is playing.

5. It emphasized the intimate fellowship with God

This one has been taken too far into syrupy, shallow territory, but contemporary worship has reminded us that we can have a personal relationship with God and we can be passionate and joyful about it. Reformed theologian Sam Storms said, “I love traditional hymns. But many of them, for lack of a better way of putting it, enable the soul to ‘keep God at arm’s length.'” There are definitely exceptions to that such as “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” “I Surrender All,” and “I Need Thee Every Hour” among others, but there is some truth to what he says. Contemporary songs such as “The Heart of Worship,” “All I Have Is Christ,” “Blessed Be Your Name,” “Stronger,” and more have stressed that relationship and encourages the worshiper to be vulnerable and allow their affections to pour out to their Lord and Savior. As mentioned before, this can be overdone, but with the right balance, is a great thing.

6. It remembers the past

This one can be a bit controversial. Many modern worship artists have done their own take on the hymns, often adding their own chorus to it. Sometimes I like it, like Michael Neale’s “Take My Life,” but sometimes not, like with Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone),” since it is such a popular widespread hymn and melody. Others such as Casting Crowns, Indelible Grace, and Hillsong have taken old texts and set them to new tunes. (I know I kinda picked on Hillsong in my last post, but they do write some good stuff from time to time) Some love it, some hate it, but it does acknowledge the past and it is better than completely doing away with the old hymns. I love what Casting Crowns did with the hymn, “One Day,” which they set to new music and renamed “Glorious Day (Living He Loved Me),” and I did not even know it was originally a hymn when I first heard it. So, it can make people aware of the past that they would not have been aware of otherwise.

So there you have it. If you think I’m picking on the hymns and have not read my previous post, please read it, as you will find I had a lot of bones to pick with contemporary worship. Both have their positives and negatives and can influence each other in a good way. Of course anything can be overdone or taken too far, but these are just some things I found from contemporary worship that benefited the church. Am I missing anything else? Let me know in the comments below.

Theology · Worship Music

Worship Leaders: Sing Unto the Lord a Better Song

We worship leaders have a demanding job on our hands. We are responsible for singing and leading the music each Sunday morning, but much goes into it that people may not always consider, and understandably so. We are pressured with being current and relevant, playing songs that the young people like, playing hymns for the elderly people, keeping the sound vibrant, keeping the sound from getting TOO vibrant, engaging with the congregation, not crossing over into performance territory, etc, etc. I could go on, but you get the point. As a product of the pressure and stress that worship leaders face, many have resorted to trying to keep up with the latest trends in contemporary worship music. Music is being churned out more than ever before in the worship world and it is good that more songs are being written for the Lord than ever before.

Unfortunately, a byproduct of that is that the quality has gone way down in terms of theological depth and in reverence for the Lord. Now before you think that this is another one of those “we need to go back to hymns” posts, hear me out. A lot of posts have been written on how we need to go back to the hymns or what we lost whenever we moved away from hymns and other related topics. What I don’t see are posts encouraging worship leaders and songwriters to write better songs. By all means, keep the guitars, synths, and drums (I do love them!), keep the loud decibel levels (within reason), keep the ripped jeans and flannel, keep the organic fair trade coffee (something I also love!), but if your heart is right, use what tools you have at your disposal and write well crafted, deep, poetry that drips of Biblical truth with music that brings the songs out of congregations. Ultimately, we don’t write songs and sing them as if we are doing a rain dance that ushers the Holy Spirit in and drown the congregants the cloud of passion. We should be writing songs to teach the Scriptures to the church and explain them through our roles as church leaders. We can do that with songs that fulfill that need. That is what I want to encourage with this post. Don’t go back to the old style and don’t try to fit in with the new style, write music with excellence as an offering unto the Lord.

Now I don’t deny for a second that there is great music being written today. Sovereign Grace Music, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend, and Sojourn Music come to mind. Even among the huge commercial worship giants like Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, and Kari Jobe, there are some gems. Unfortunately, there is a lot of repetitive, emotional yet lacking in substance music that permeates the church these days. Sadly modern worship has at times been a parody of itself with terms like “7-11 songs” coming into popular use. An example of one of those songs is “I Surrender” from Hillsong. A friend of mine showed it to me one time just raving about it, telling me what an amazing song it was. He played it for me and the music was very moving and fit the topic of the song. The vocalist sang very emotively with conviction. Unfortunately the lyrics fell very flat, as it was pedestrian writing at best. The main chorus was repeated many times and overstayed it’s welcome soon.

I surrender
I surrender
I wanna know You more
I wanna know You more

Then this “epic” bridge section, the climax of the song was repeated incessantly:

Like a rushing wind
Jesus breathe within
Lord have Your way
Lord have Your way in me

Like a mighty storm
Stir within my soul
Lord have Your way
Lord have Your way in me

Now I am not trying to pick on Hillsong. I do not know the heart condition of the writer of the song, and he/she could have written it with the best of intentions. Be as it may, we can do better as songwriters as we teach the Holy Scriptures to congregation through our songs. Take the hymn, “Take My Life and Let it Be” which explores a similar subject. Here are some select verses:

Take my life and let it be

Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
*Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.

Take my hands and let them move

At the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
Every pow’r as Thou shalt choose.

Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself and I will be
Ever, only, all for Thee.

What a text! Contrast it with “I Surrender.” The former has repetitive and vague imagery, which suggest a sensual (not sexual) experience or some unclear notion of some kind of euphoria. The latter while still very emotional and intimate declare action on the part of the subject. The subject is surrendering their will, body, gifts, and treasures and is consecrating themselves for the glory of the Lord. That is clearer picture of what it means to surrender to Christ than the former. Now Danny, I thought this wasn’t going to be about returning to hymns. It is not. However, we can learn something from a profound hymn such as that one. The subject matter is not even all that advanced, yet it takes the subject of submission and consecration and presents it beautifully to the congregation, augmented with a beautiful tune. Take something like this, but don’t make a carbon copy. Don’t make every note straight and don’t force the form to be hymnlike. Rather use it as an influence and model whenever you are writing your own worship songs. Hymns are not the only place you can look to for inspiration, but they are a great place to start. You can go back even further and look at the Psalms and the other songs scattered throughout Scripture. If I can recall specific passages of Scripture in a song, it has achieved a good amount of lyrical success if the poetry is well written. Now I do not subscribe to the stereotype that hymns are always deep and rich and contemporary songs are always shallow and monotonous. There are plenty of hymns that belong with “I Surrender” in my opinion, and maybe that will be another post one day. And as I mentioned before there are good songs even in the trendy worship music sources.

Something worth mentioning as that I have observed a sort of decline in worship songwriters output whose songs I once really liked. When Chris Tomlin first came on the scene, he was writing strong songs like “Forever,” “Kindness,” and “This Is Our God” among others. Matt Redman was similar in strong early songs like “The Heart of Worship,” “I Will Offer Up My Life,” and “Let Your Glory Fall.” Those songs explored deeper theology and were truly worshipful. Their later output has sounded more slick and trendy, but in my opinion, lacking in authenticity and conviction. Of course, I will not judge the state of their hearts, as that is another matter and is only for the Lord to do. I’m sure they are great men of God who are really trying to serve the Church, but maybe are in creative slumps or record label pressures. In any case, there is a staleness of bland, sensual, trite emotional music in an overproduced package.

So do all songs need to be super deep theologically and cover advanced doctrines? No. Should they lack emotion? Absolutely not. In fact, I think it is important to have some simple songs for those young in the faith and those advanced in the faith that need to be reminded about the simple truths of Scripture. Even some hymns are very simple lyrically and quite emotional such as “Jesus Paid it All” and “I Need Thee Every Hour.” However, we need solid food as we grow in our faith (Heb. 5:14) and need those songs that reinforce the Word of God in our hearts richly (Col. 3:16). Having a good balance for our diverse congregations is a great thing and will best serve them.

Subject matter is another big issue that should be addressed. You hear lots of songs about the love, grace, mercy, and holiness of God, and our expressions of love to Him, and rightly so. What you don’t hear a lot about is about the sovereignty of God, conviction, repentance, depravity of man, and missions. Also the Holy Spirit tends to get left out except for those songs that use the Spirit as a source of emotional, passionate encounter or mystical experience. I don’t hear many songs asking the Spirit to convict our hearts of sin in our lives and to bring forth fruit. This should not be. We NEED to be reminded of not only the pleasant and victorious truths, but also the darker and more complex ones. The Trinity should be well represented in our songs and the Holy Spirit should be seen as more than some kind of abstract, mystical presence, but as the Person sent by the Son to work in our lives and sanctify us. Also mission songs. We are called to the Great Commission, yet we hardly ever sing songs about reaching the lost and being the city on a hill. And we need to explore doctrines like the priesthood of all believers, the hypostatic union, salvation by faith/justification by works, and more. We don’t need to be John Piper or R.C. Sproul level theologians to understand and sing about these important doctrines of our faith. We need to delight in the Word of God and seek to grow in our understanding in it.

I haven’t really talked about the musical aspect of it yet, but that is definitely something to consider, as Scripture commands us to praise him with singing, instruments and melody. Let’s talk about vocal melodies first. I am certainly not the first to notice that modern worship songs tend to be over syncopated resulting in crammed in, disjointed rhythms that make it difficult for a congregation to follow. Occasionally those types of rhythms can work as in “Revelation Song,” but they tend to confuse congregations. The melodies are also all over the place with wide ranges that sound more like vocal showcases for the worship leader than congregational songs. The verses for “How He Loves” are quite difficult with it’s  jagged and sloppy melody. We can write better melodies that can be easily caught on to and encourage participation, even using syncopation in moderation as our ears are more accustomed to it than 60 years ago. Try mimicing some hymn melodies (some are just as melodically disjointed as contemporary songs), symphonic melodies, or even memorable themes from movies, as they are good examples of melodies that stand on their own merits and draw in the listener. As for the instrumental part, Scripturally rich and sound music does not need to sound tame or behind the times, but it also does not need to sound current and contain every bell and whistle that is in all the hit worship albums. Why not search for new sounds? This is my own opinion, not Biblical counsel, but the U2/Coldplay thing in worship music has really overstayed its welcome. I’d like to hear more of a variety of music outside the reverb drenched guitars, trance synths, and massive wall of sound. If every modern church is all going for that sound, it will be like all the traditional churches doing the same basic arrangements from the hymnals, a uniform sound. God gave us different gifts, backgrounds, and personalities, so why not let those come out and search for new sounds and styles. The ever so quoted “sing unto the Lord a new song” could be applied in the genres we use. Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 3:19 call for “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The exact application of those three genres is debated, but most scholars agree that the apostle Paul is advocating for variety in the music that is used in the church. Of course the congregation is to be taken into consideration first and foremost on a practical level. They need to be able to sing the songs and navigate through them. Your progressive, experimental noise rock, dubstep folk ideas most likely would not work in a congregational setting, but there are plenty more sounds that I believe would be refreshing and invited within the walls of the church.

Please know that I do not write this to complain about the state of music or long for the good ‘ol days as I hope was made clear. I do not want to knock down those worship leaders who are truly trying to serve the best they can, nor do I want to pretend that I know it all and that all my preferences are the best ones. I want this to be an encouragement to all of us who lead and write songs, because we have a great responsibility to teach the Word to those whom we serve and encourage them to hide the Word in their hearts. Gordon D. Fee once said,” Show me a church’s songs, and I’ll tell you your theology.” Do we want our theology to be rooted in baseless emotion that does not tell the whole story or do we want it to be anchored in rich truth? I also do not want to give the impression that I write the best songs. I have written a lot of songs for the church, but I know I have much room to grow in it. However, it does not take a skilled songwriter to see that things could be significantly improved in how we worship through music. We are not commanded to pat each other on the back and give empty praise for everything even done with the best of intentions. Rather, we are called to build one another up and sharpen one another, even if it means having to say things that are less than compliments and glowing reviews. If you are going beyond what is popular and are focusing on Scriptural truth above all else, great! Keep it up and as the apostle Paul told the Thessalonians in 4:10, “excel still more.” As a worship pastor, I want to know how I can grow in my craft and especially in my service to those under my care. So be encouraged and lets hear those new songs!