MWM: Standards in church music (3)

This is an installment in the periodic Monday Worship Music series which looks at hymns and other topics related to worship music of the church.  Other, related posts may be found here.

No longer feeling that I should “hold forth” personally on the status quo in Christian music, because I’m not spending as much time with it anymore, I’ll offer instead this last installment in a brief series from someone else’s critiques of music standards—particularly those that pertain to a past generation’s “pop” church music.  This author, Erik Routley, was a musicologist and English minister with whose many published works I am not acquainted.  I recently pulled his book Twentieth-Century Church Music off my shelves, though, and decided not to discard it just yet.

There is no need to insist on dignity, solemnity, or any other secondary quality as being inseparable from the church’s musical speech.

. . .

The composer will bore his listener if he is irrational (as any rational talker does), and if he has no repertory except vocabulary and ideas of others.

. . .

Good music, whatever its texture, its associations, or its purpose, is not music that is morally uplifting—for there is no such thing.  It is music which can catch and hold the attention of a cultivated musician.  It may have all the qualities that enable it to catch and hold the attention of the uncultivated—attractive melody, rhythm, harmony, ease in singing, effectiveness in performance.  It need not frown at anybody.  It need not be taciturn.  But that goodness that is musical is that which the musician can recognize.  (emph. mine  -bc)

I affirm with Routley that musical quality is not primarily a matter of taste but is, rather, perceptible by those trained in a musical discipline (or, perhaps, a related discipline such as art or literature).  I also agree with him that an austere mood of solemnity, while more appropriate than some contemporary, happy go-lucky idealists would admit, is not inextricably related to quality or even to dignity or reverence.

Some contemporary musical styles are nicely low-key and reserved, by the way . . . while some older styles are ridiculously mismatched to the topics they purport to support.  (Have you ever sung “He Bore It All“?  Check out the linked video, if you dare.  What an embarrassment to the faith.  Can anyone imagine Peter or John grinning along with that song, given what they had witnessed in Gethsemane and at the cross?)

Next:  commentary on musical style (I guess I’ll “hold forth” a little on the state of things, after all)


Sensibilities and sensitivities (pt. 3)

Sensibilities and Sensitivities 

(Or . . . Elements and Labels Pertaining to Congregational Song)

(continued . . .)

I am somewhat concerned with the definition of hymnoi (for the ancient Greek-speaker) and with the definition of hymns (for the modern English-speaker).  I am far more concerned about the actual activity (as opposed to the word) in our times.  And, beyond the “person” of God-oriented texts — i.e., whether they are addressed to God in the 2nd person or are stated in the 3rd person, I would say that the topical content of scripture as a whole might guide us today, to some degree — along with current-day concerns seen in the light of God.

What do you think:  is it incumbent on modern-day believers to mirror ancient concerns seen in poetic scriptural texts found?

For example, if we see a great deal of emphasis on the identity of Jesus in the so-called hymnic or poetic texts in Pauline and Petrine literature, should we reflect that interest in our own era?  Or are certain topics somewhat time-bound?


I’d also like to receive some suggestions from you, naming one or more topics you would like to see appear more in Christian song today.

When it comes down to it, I don’t care much what it’s called when Christians a) sing to one another or b) sing to God, but we need to be able to differentiate between the two.  If we’re singing, “Fight the good fight with all your might; Christ is your strength, and Christ, your right,” that is directed to other believers, not to God, and therefore not worshipful per se.  I would therefore say those words are not hymnic.  If on the other hand we’re singing, “Lord of all being, throne afar, Thy glory flames,” it absolutely is addressed to God in worship.  The use of a particular descriptor such as “hymnic” is merely ancillary.  Discerning the nature of these things, on the other hand, can intensify each activity, making it more meaningful.

(to be continued . . . opening a can of worms in dealing with assonance, rhyme, and the “sound of words”)


Referents (hymns, etc. — pt. 2)

Friday’s post on the identification and nature of old Christian hymns drew questions from a NC Textual scholar and friend.  I’m following up here with a presumably clarifying post or two.


  1. How did Paul, and how can we, identify the hymn, the psalm, and the spiritual song?  [And what in the world is a “gospel song”?]  What are the referents of these words?  (See here for the Pauline letter references.)
  2. Do such identifications matter?  If so, why and to what end?

Pursuant to good teaching as well as instinct, I would not assert that any words are (necessarily) static in their ranges of meaning, although some words may certainly mean roughly the same thing for centuries.  Attempts to identify, e.g., the “hymn” are problematic.

When I say, for example, that a hymn is a specific thing, and a gospel song isn’t that thing, it’s not that I care about the specific labels as much as that to which the label refers — the referent.  This distinction begs the question of which language we’re dealing in — Paul’s Greek or my English.  Should we care about what Paul’s hymnoi are, or what my hymns are, or both, or neither?  (The words in both languages have ranges of meaning.)

At this point I want to clarify what is behind all this for me:

I am concerned with Christian intentionality in worship, i.e., that believers know what they’re doing when they’re doing it — resulting in more meaning and thrust behind each activity.

Aside:  although I am a professional, academically trained musician, it is decidedly not my interest that we get too deep in the musical aspects here.  Little may be gleaned or replicated (in terms of musical style) from any era prior to the early Baroque or Renaissance, and, in any event, I’m relatively unconcerned that musical considerations enter into substantive discussions on believers’ worship.  Now, having relegated musical considerations to the sidelines, I’ll admit that, when a non-musician attempts to refer with any specificity to supposed, ancient “musical genres” (as a couple of otherwise knowledgeable theologians¹ in Worship Leader magazine have, for instance), I may react!   A musical genre, e.g., psalms, hymns, might or might not have existed.  What’s clear is that we will not be able to determine anything about such a genre’s musical praxis in this lifetime.  For example, no musical notation for a Davidic psalm, if discovered, would be musically replicable by us in this millennium.

The three iconic Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 expressions — which communicate something along the lines of “psalming, hymning, and spiritually singing” — seem to depict some degree of textual variety, although perhaps the three terms overlapped in meaning at some point.   In other words, it seems clear that Paul was describing a plurality or plenteousness in some respect, if not categories per se.

I don’t know that Paul was concerned that his “psalms” be thought of as a category limited to the Hebrew Psalms.  It could very well be that a contemporary psalm was composed in the year 44 in Antioch, and another one in 52 in Corinth, and that both of these circulated in small regions, taking their respective places among the Hebrew Psalms — and effectively blurring the lines of the “psalms” category.  Or, a spiritual ode such as Philippians 2:6-11 could have been lyrically morphed into a more God-directed, “hymnic” song — i.e., starting with “. . . Who existed in the form of God” and ending up with something along the lines of “You, O Lord Christ, have always existed as God.”  All this assumes Paul had categories in mind, to some extent.

I see no indication that Paul prioritized one over the other, and I don’t want to prioritize, either.  In using the designation “hymn” to refer to a specific type of text and a first-person, God-directed vantage point, I do not intend to downplay interest in other poetic texts that seems to have served some poetic, aesthetically charged function for/with ancient believers.  All of these poetic texts are of interest, whether God-directed or not.

The point is not that we sing “psalms” more or less than “hymns,” or that we always draw from each category, but that believers become more intentional, whether singing/speaking to oneself, to one another, or to deity.

So, should we care about what hymnoi are, or what hymns are, or both, or neither?  I’d say both, but that we should care more about the actual activity (as opposed to the word).  Coming to understand what hymnoi were, or could have been, in the first century will of course inform what our actual activities are today.

May each Christian activity — whether singing this type text or that, or encouraging, or mowing, or cleaning — be intentional and impassioned.

P.S.  And what is a “gospel song”?  That label carries quite the range of meanings, too.  Ask a mainstream media reporter, a Christian bookstore employee under the age of 30, a Baptist in the southern U.S., and a CofCer from a Stamps-Baxter-loving heritage, and you’ll get four different understandings, the last three of which will be based largely on limited experiences with musical styles.  If we asked Paul what a “gospel song” might be, he might say, “a song that speaks of the good news of the death and rising of Jesus.”  The label “gospel song” is not used in scripture, and it’s not advisable that it be equated to the “spiritual song” of Eph. 5 and Col. 3.  I daresay a lot of psalms and hymns are more “spiritual” than most of the “gospel songs” I’ve experienced.

To be continued . . . coming up:  a poll on the referents of psalm, hymn, and spiritual song, plus inquiries into rhyme and assonance


¹ The reference I have in front of me is Ron Allen, who asserted in some connection with Psalm 68 that “Paul spoke of three genres of music in [Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16].”  Even if that statement could somehow be proven, the conclusion would be less than helpful, since no one could remotely begin to replicate or approximate said genres.  I would suggest that Dr. Allen revisit this notion and then illuminate any echoes of the Hebrew text that are not apparent to English readers when comparing Psalm 68 with Paul’s letters.

MWM: special songs

[This is an installment in the Monday Worship Music series.  Find other, related posts through this link.]

A couple nights ago, we sang a few special songs with a group of friends:

  • Jesus, Wonderful Thou Art (in which we worshipped the eternal Son)
  • Into My Heart (in which we invited Him within)
  • Be Still, My Soul (in which we expressed our trust)
  • It May Be at Morn (in which we longed for the parousia)
  • Lord, Speak To Me (in which we prayed for the Lord Jesus to fill us until we overflow, so that we tell his love)

And I ask you:  aren’t these all special songs?  In a real sense, every song in a Christian gathering should be special music.  Why sing a song unless it is special?

Many churches have developed a lingo that separates the solo song from the rest of the musical worship material.  Bulletins may list “Special Music” during or just after the offering.   “Who’s singing the special today?” is heard by many involved officially in musical leadership/offering.  If one isn’t careful, she could begin to think that “special music” should be more attended to than congregational music.

The “special music” lingo does indicate a good thing — congregationally oriented music as the norm.  Even as musical literacy in churches declines rapidly, it is good for churches small and large to continue to “major” in the large-group mode of worship.  It is engaging, fulfilling, and God-intended.

And wherever professional musicians call the shots, it would be good for a greater number of believers to show how energized they can be in lifting up voices from the pews (or theater seats, or whatever), as we did again yesterday morning:

This the pow’r of the cross
Christ became sin for us
Took the blame bore the wrath
We stand forgiven at the cross

W&M by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
© 2005 ThankYou Music

Long live the singing of Christians.  Whenever two or three are gathered. . . .

Categorizing music (2)

Following yesterday’s initiatory look at music categories, here are some ways of categorizing church songs:

  1. Whether it’s a book or non-book song.  (“Hymnal” is sort of a misnomer, so I’ll just say “book.”)  We leaders tend to carry around an unspoken list of how many of our songs on a given Sunday were “hymns” (meaning “found in the book”), and how many were “contemporary” or “worship songs” (ignoring the fact that two of the book songs were worship songs, too!).   Almost subconsciously, as we plan and communicate plans and carry out plans, we are too conscious of how many songs are in the “old” and “newer” categories.  Of course, as “contemporary” songs come to be included in revisions of song books, this whole analysis becomes more complicated.
  2. Musical style considerations such as harmonic rhythm and presence or absence of a chorus/refrain.  These days, there seems to be less interest in a strict musical classification or even in anything musical whatsoever (summer singing schools and singing Sunday nights are just about extinct).  Folks often bend over backwards to avoid any appearance of giving too much emphasis to music or things musical, despite the pervasiveness of music — and the continued, albeit different, musical literacy in our culture.
  3. A third way of categorizing is in terms of textual content.  The content of a song is more important than its musical style, or whether the song is found in a book or not.  Lyrical/textual content merits primary consideration.

For what it’s worth, below, I offer an attempt at categorization of my church’s 2011 “top 25” based on content.  I feel that someone needs to challenge the status quo that worries too much about whether a song is in a song book or not.


Hymns/Direct Worship

Ancient of Days
As The Deer (Nystrom)
Here I Am To Worship
More Precious Than Silver
My Jesus, I Love Thee
On Bended Knee
Step By Step

Praise, Thanks, and Indirect Worship/Call To Worship
A Mighty Fortress
Blessed Be the Lord God Almighty
Come Let Us Worship and Bow Down
Give Thanks
How Great Is Our God
I Will Call Upon the Lord
The Steadfast Love of the Lord
We Will Glorify

Create in Me a Clean Heart
Light the Fire
Lord, Reign in Me
Unto Thee, O Lord

The Battle Belongs to the Lord (also, contains elements of praise)
The Greatest Command

Difficult to categorize (“crossover” or partially unknown to me)
God Himself Is With Us
He Still Came
Lamb of God
Yes, Lord, Yes

Categorizing music (1)

Not being all that hip to popular music (90% of it bores me, turns me off, or disgusts me), I have often been enlightened by pop¹ enthusiasts’ categorizations of music.

“They’re my favorite band.  They’re sort of post-punk, psychedelic folk, with elements of surf pop and electro-funk.

“Yeah, our influences were Led Zeppelin and Journey and Bob Marley, and our sound is totally unique.  We end up with sort of an alternative-zydeco, bluesy-acid, bubblegum blend of folk and country.”

New pop music categories seem to emerge monthly.  I think new categories are birthed for marketing’s sake, and in order to give new garage bands a raison d’etre.  Personally, I have a short handle on “southern rock” and “progressive rock” and “disco,” but I seriously question who determines what is “alternative” and what alternative subcategories exist.  I really have no interest in distinguishing among the dozens of recognized varieties of hip-hop and rap, between “doom metal” and “thrash metal,” or between “power pop” and “pop rock.”  And who knew there could even be a category called “acid blues”?  🙂

I’ve known of two churches, I think, that take time — or, more accurately, that have one person who takes the time on behalf of the church — to keep an active database of songs sung in gatherings.  Categorizings result — based on, for example, 1) who leads the song, 2) which month/week it is used, 3) whether it is “new” or not, and 4) what type of song it is.  Such databases, in my view, are mildly interesting, but they take more time and effort than they’re worth, and I’ve never been quite sure that their purposes and effects warrant the time taken.  My dad used to keep informal records of different song leaders’ choices, but I don’t believe he ever shared his lists with anyone, and I think he was merely documenting, for his own planning purposes, whether certain favorites were being sung too frequently.

An interesting study would be to match song content with Bible texts and sermon topics and special events that played key roles in a given church’s assemblies, during a given time period.  Was there conceptual tie-in?  For instance, in our church, a familiar song that has to do with Christian unity made the top-25 list in 2010 but not in 2011.  I wonder whether its falling out of favor might have paralleled a trend of less “one-another” focus.

Tomorrow, I’ll share some ways of categorizing church songs.


¹ Here, I use “pop” as an umbrella term to refer, essentially, to all the music played on non-art-music radio stations.

MM: O Thou in Whose Presence

When Fernando Ortega sings a spiritual song, it’s usually worth listening to.  Besides the generally well-above-average song writing, there’s a genuineness in the text-delivery, and a clarity of sonority.

Through the years of following many of Fernando’s recordings and attending a couple of concerts, I’ve developed a trust in his insightful choices and skillful workings-out.  One of his gifts to Jesus-honoring music is the ability to sing spiritually of earthly things such as mountains and coffee; it’s because of this theme in his works that I have labelled Fernando “the Max Lucado of contemporary Christian music.”  Moreover, when Fernando chooses a traditional “church song” or hymn to arrange or “update,” I tend to notice, because it’s either an especially rich set of lyrics, or a once-well-known gospel song that deserves to be brought back into the church’s diet, or a timeless hymn.  His settings of the praise exhortation “All Creatures of Our God and King” and of the traditional spiritual “Give Me Jesus” are beautiful.

Today’s “Monday Music” spotlight is on the hymn “O Thou in Whose Presence,” an Englishman’s poem penned in 1791.  Fernando recorded this song in an austere setting on his “This Bright Hour” CD (which is still my favorite, although the six or seven others have some great material on them, too).  This unique hymn text (“hymn” is defined primarily by text type and music type) comes from the deep language of love in the Song of Songs.  Hymnals that include this hymn typically opt to delete some of the stanzas that are less readily applicable to the adoring relationship of creature to Creator.  I’ll opt for such deletion here, too:

O Thou in whose presence my soul takes delight,
On whom in affliction I call,
My comfort by day, and my song in the night,
My hope, my salvation, my all.

Where dost Thou at noontide resort with Thy sheep,
To feed on the pastures of love?
Say, why in the valley of death should I weep,
Or alone in the wilderness rove?

O, why should I wander an alien from Thee,
And cry in the desert for bread?
Thy foes will rejoice when my sorrows they see,
And smile at the tears I have shed.

He looks, and ten thousands of angels rejoice,
And myriads wait for His word;
He speaks, and eternity, filled with His voice,
Re-echoes the praise of her Lord.

Dear Shepherd, I hear and will follow Thy call;
I know the sweet sound of Thy voice.
Restore and defend me, for Thou art my All,
And in Thee I will ever rejoice.

The song is easily sung, even if a church has never heard the tune (tune name:  “Davis,” 1813, attributed to Freeman Lewis).  It’s not that the tune or harmonies are captivating in themselves.  It’s that this music allows for the depth of the words!

P.S.  Fernando, if you or your agent happens to click onto this post, I still have an envelope ready with a few other “contemporary hymn” settings of my own.  I’d prepared this packet to give you at a concert you had scheduled in Colorado in 2007, but you were sick, and had to cancel.  Would love to send this your way for consideration, having “heard” your voice on one or two of these in my mind….