From old correspondence, on “new” songs (2)

Referring to the request for feedback published here, I share now the bulk of my response, with only a couple of omissions for sake of relevancy.

I greatly empathize with your goals, having led and worshipped in Delaware, Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, and Colorado.  I’m fairly well in touch with “contemporary” music and also hold dear the richness of true hymns (those that address Deity with reverence, not just the “old songs”).

Like my father, I also would encourage you to define some terms such as “old songs” and “contemporary,” if and where you use the terms.  A new song to our church may not be new to the E-Free church 3 miles away; the same song will be “old” to our church in 5 years, though another church may not hear it for 20 more years.  Is “Jesus Is Lord” a contemporary song?  “Here I Am To Worship”?  “Holy, Holy, Holy” — which may have a new lyric line or chorus that’s made it popular since Matt Redman or Michael W. Smith recorded it?  I find that the term “old song” means something slightly different, in terms of chronology, to just about every person who uses it.

Also, the words “worship” and “praise” delineate in one way for some, almost in the opposite for others, and are synonymous for yet others.  Some seem to have very little idea that not everything we do in the assembly is worship (nor should it be), or that worship can and should be an activity of believers outside of the assembly.

So on to your questions (and I will basically deal with only one), realizing that the time for your data collection has probably passed by now:

> What is that one thing?  (ie. heaven, forgiveness, creation, etc.)

Since you mentioned it, I don’t think we’ve had very many creation-oriented praise songs written recently.  A wonderful song by Chris Rice comes to mind — I think it was just called “Hallelujahs.”  It describes nature scenes and concludes each thought with “and my soul wells up with hallelujahs.”  Moving.  But it’s not really singable a cappella.  “How Great Thou Art” fits the bill and continues to be sung by most churches periodically, but we need more of these types.

Speaking in terms of songs that have been written in the last, say, 10 or 15 years, we might need fewer songs that use cliché expressions — “lift our voice(s),” “lift up the name of Jesus,” and “here in Your presence,” for example, and anything that rhymes with the word “free” (a pet peeve of mine, though I think I’ve even used that rhyme in my own writing a time or two).  🙂  Then again, there are phrases that bear repeating over and over again, such as “holy, holy, holy” and “we bow down.”

Something that strikes me as fairly unique is expressing to God that we “believe in Him.”  An Amy Grant song did that 10-12 years ago, and there’s the gospel-song chorus “But we believe Thy footsteps trod its streets and plains, Thou Son of God….”  But to say to God, “We believe in You.  We accept that You created the world.  We worship You” is a great thing, and perhaps especially in this age.

I’m not currently leading musically, except, for instance, in the group we hosted in our home for worship last month.  But I am a constant observer (as well as participant!), and I’d like to observe this, while I’m expressing thoughts:  In a cappella churches that use “contemporary” music, it seems that there must be a concerted effort to teach harmony.  (And Ken Young’s arrangements should definitely not be the standard.  He’s got a great heart, but he doesn’t know how to arrange.)  The level of musical literacy is clearly decreasing.  Not that music is the end; it’s only one means of worshipping.  But in a fellowship that emphasizes singing so much, churches that don’t offer printed or projected music will soon not hear harmony from the pews.  They either need to make harmony available, or give up and use instruments.  Melody-only music will not hold people’s interest very long, no matter how “hip” the songs are.

Another pitfall is what I’ll call the “agitated style” of worship leading.  Typically, this problem exists in a cappella churches that have suffered in the past from funereal tempos that pervaded all songs and styles.  You know the type:  “O Happy Day” and “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today” were sung at the same tempo as “Abide with Me” and “When My Love To Christ Grows Weak” — all at about 60 beats per minute.  These churches live in comatose states for years, and then some fresh blood comes in to try to save the day.  Now many songs are not only too fast, but beats are skipped at the end of each phrase in an effort to breathe some life into things.  No one can catch a breath, and there is little feeling of congregational unity.  What results is often an annoying lack of rhythm — all in the name of enthusiasm and excitement that are well intended but out of balance.

It’s ironic that if this generation’s music is anything, it’s rhythmically oriented, but when contemporary songs are imported into an a cappella setting, the rhythm suffers so that no one can feel the beat anymore.  Part of the problem is the longer notes that are, in the original versions, supported by non-vocal musical material.  In a non-instrumental setting, it feels like forever to hold a whole note tied to a half note in the next measure.  Add to this the apparent shyness of some modern worship leaders about using their hands to help keep the beat and keep the congregation together — I know, it feels “old-school” to beat time — but the problem is made worse when beats are skipped and no one can predict when the leader is going to sing the next note because there are no visual cues, either.

I feel very strong about quality and depth in lyrics.  For 10 years or more I have been a proponent of newer songs, but I have tried to be careful about injecting a repertoire with a syringe full of all-new songs gathered simply because of their newness.  Yes, I agree:  God wants new songs!  Newness is good.  But not all songs that are written are worthwhile just because they’re new.  Neither does association with a performing artist, a movement, or a denomination guarantee quality.  I particularly get tired of Vineyard songs.  After one or two, they all sound the same.  It would help if they weren’t all in the keys of D and G—keys particularly friendly to the average or below-average guitar player.  🙂

What do we need more of?  I think you’re on the right track just by asking the question.  We need to give thought to such facets as the uniqueness of the thoughts in the given song.  We need more worshipful communion songs, for instance, but the thoughts need to add something to what we already have.  I surveyed 5 or 6 CofC hymnals 10 years ago and tabulated the topical themes of songs (e.g., <Songs of Faith and Praise> might have had 26% songs addressed worshipfully to the Father, while <Songs of the Church> only had 4% of the same category), but I doubt those results would be of interest to you now.

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