13 Differences Between a Lead Musician and a Worship Pastor (Repost)

Five years ago around this time, this blog started with the goal of encouraging theological reflection, biblical depth, historical engagement, and cultural relevance in worship and worship leading. It has gained a steady readership, especially in the last two years, and I want to re-introduce new readers to important old content that has the ability to get lost unless you happen upon it via Google or search posts by topic. Throughout this year, I will offer reposts of what I believe are the more significant articles written in the last five years.

This post struck an immediate chord with its readers and traveled farther than most. I have conversation after conversation with the young, aspiring worship leader who wants something more than rock stardom out of their job. They want to engage their role pastorally. This is a 10,000 foot view of that reality.


A sister church of ours recently gave me the privilege of coming out and speaking to their Wednesday night group about the differences between a "lead musician" and a "worship pastor."  They are looking to formulate a job description and begin searching for a new person for this position, and they are wanting to shift models from the former to the latter.  Of course, I fleshed out the notes below in great detail with a lot of explanation and first-hand stories, but I still think the bullet-points are valuable, even if they are not quite complete.

Many churches have lead musicians.  They know how to rehearse a band or choir.  They know how to draw up music in Finale and Sibelius.  They know "music-speak."  They can confidently stand in front of people with a commanding presence, either with their voice or with an instrument.  He or she is a good musician and a coordinator of musicians.  He or she also usually believes in and loves Jesus.  In short, their assumption (which may be validated by their job description) is that they get paid to make sure things are artistically and musically satisfactory on Sundays and at other important events. 

A Worship Pastor should be all of the above and much, much more.  A Worship Pastor...

1) Is equipped in and engages in aspects of classical pastoral duties, either formally or informally—visitation, preaching/teaching, catechizing.

2) Views the worship service—music, preaching, prayer, sacraments, etc.—as an integral whole, and he or she therefore works with others in leading and facilitating all those elements.

3) Strikes a balance between comforting (a pastoral role) and challenging toward growth (a prophetic role).

4) Views their musicians as a form of a small group, and sees the musician-base as a potential mission field.

5) Is deeply committed to the church and its purity and peace.

6) Plans worship services like a "spiritual dietician."

7) Engages conflict pastorally (rather than in a defensive, reactionary manner).

8) Is sensitive to those who feel disenfranchised and alienated in worship.

9) Is strong enough in the Gospel to receive criticism and engage in honest, constructive dialogue.

10) Is open when it comes to authority and decision-making.  He or she is a team-player, is willing to submit himself or herself to their (sometimes fellow) pastors, elders, bishops, etc., and believes in the wisdom of the plurality.

11) Is not only a musician, but a theologian and a student of the Bible.

12) Thinks about how worship shapes people into the image and likeness of Christ.

13) Thinks theologically about worship, from song-selection to worship’s purpose(s).

These points aren't exhaustive, but they cover a lot.  I am convinced that the church needs more Worship Pastors.  It's not that there is no place for a lead musician to have a primary role in the musical leadership of the church, but I wonder whether there are too many lead musicians out there with little pastoral oversight and vision.  Do Worship Pastors need formal theological training?  Not necessarily.  But they need the heart of a pastor and a willingness to think and study up along the same lines as someone who is formally trained.

What else would you add to this list and discussion? 


What I Learned from Bill & Gloria Gaither

Two weeks ago, at the National Worship Leader Conference in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to interview music legends, Bill and Gloria Gaither, in front of a large group of worship leaders and songwriters. Among the Gaithers' many accolades, they've been named the ASCAP Songwriters of the Century (yes, the century), which is not insignificant. Besides their songwriting, they've been faithful "platformers" over the years, responsible for the birth of music careers of not a small amount of artists.

If you're like me, you're tempted to write off the names of folks like Bill and Gloria Gaither. They may have been influential at one time (and may still be now), but their music and ethos feel to us like fourth cousins twelve times removed, we think. Modern worship leaders may have faint recollections of who they are or what they've done, but they don't have any bearing on or connection to what we do now, we believe. How we feel might be exemplified in the typical comment I received on Facebook after posting some pictures of my interview: "Wow, my grandpa LOVES them!" The Gaithers are for our grannies and pappies. 

Cycles of Sameness

The author of Ecclesiastes is instructive here: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9). What I quickly realized as I prepared for and interviewed Bill & Gloria was that the same issues in every generation of worship leading end up recycling themselves, and it is only we who are young and rather arrogantly naive who think that we've stumbled upon THE answer in response to the previous generation's worship errors. The Gaithers have been able to witness several cycles of reaction and counter-reaction, and they were, for me, a treasure trove of wisdom and insight. 

One of the first questions I asked them was, "When you began your songwriting, what were YOU reacting against?" They said they were responding to a de-personalized faith. They wanted the church to be able to sing songs that hit them on the ground, where they were, in their experience. They were aiming at a more concerted authenticity (sound familiar?). And then the Jesus Movement came around, reacted to Gaither-ized worship, looking for something, well, authentic...something that matched their experience. Then the Jesus Movement music transformed (and, in the words of Worship Leader founder, Chuck Fromm, became "routinized") into an industry just in time for another generation to rise up and respond with cries for more authenticity. Enter "modern worship." And we're seeing the tide turn again, and more reactions occur. This historical observation, perhaps best articulated by folks like the Gaithers who have lived through these cycles, is important for us to ponder.

A Few Surprising Insights

One of the songwriting nuggets from Gloria came in the context of her admonishment of some of the anemic songwriting that inevitably accompanies every generation. She encouraged songwriters to, among other things, study mythology. She spoke of how mythology has a way of opening the mind and imagination to think in layers of meaning and communication, expanding what our songs can do. Mythology encourages thinking in pictures, symbols, and metaphors, and it is in the realm of such word-imagery where great lyrics (for worship songs or any song) are born. This rang true with my own experience, recalling that after reading Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I found words flowing from my mind and hand that were workable, imaginative, poetic, and profound. Reading mythology can be like weightlifting for songwriters.

Gloria also challenged our individuals and institutions to value songwriting as an art and craft worth studying, honing, and shaping. Songwriters should be masters of their language, and more Christian colleges should have songwriting degree programs, she said. This sentiment flies in the face of at least one popular philosophy of songwriting that basically says, "Jesus gave me this song; it's from my heart; therefore, it's good." Hmm...

The Sum

All this (not to mention the entire conference) was a good reminder to me of how we need to hear each other out across traditions, generations, and persuasions. There's a temptation, in the midst of our tribalism (and I'm one who believes that lines and distinctions have their place), to believe that our tribes are all that there really are, or all that God really cares about. What can result is a kind of blind patriotism to our tribe that fails to see and savor the rich ways the Spirit is moving and shaking beyond us. Events like the National Worship Leader Conference always cause me to lift my head from micro-inspecting the tree that I'm in to see the forest that's all around me. And this year, the Gaithers were a big part of that. Thank you, Bill & Gloria!


Worship Leading, Ageism, and the Fear of Getting Old (Repost)

Five years ago around this time, this blog started with the goal of encouraging theological reflection, biblical depth, historical engagement, and cultural relevance in worship and worship leading. It has gained a steady readership, especially in the last two years, and I want to re-introduce new readers to important old content that has the ability to get lost unless you happen upon it via Google or search posts by topic. Throughout this year, I will offer reposts of what I believe are the more significant articles written in the last five years.

This article was one of the first to grow some legs and elicit important responses and comments. It touched a nerve that a lot of worship leaders feel but few talk about.


Talk show host Dennis Prager is well-known for saying that his generation—the boomer generation—is the stupidest generation in American history. This comment, perhaps extreme, summarizes the multitudinous errors of that generation of young people that grew up and ushered in the large cultural changes in the United States in the 1960s.  One of those errors is the worship of youth.  The phrase “youth culture” would have been unintelligible prior to the 60s, but now it is common speak.  The glamorization of youthfulness affects everything from marketing and entertainment to presidential elections and local church ministry.  And obsession with youth culture has affected the ministry of worship, as well.

I had a recent phone conversation with a worship leader friend of mine who leads music on the other side of the country.  In a candid moment, we were both expressing concerns about the longevity of our jobs as local church music leaders.  We wondered whether, in ten to fifteen years, we would be viewed as out-of-date, irrelevant, washed up, and cheesy—one of those old guys trying to look and act young.  Ultimately, we questioned whether we would be as effective in doing our task once we started “looking old.”

No worship leader really voices it.  No congregation overtly acknowledges it.  But many of us think there is something lacking in a worship leader who has gray hair or smile lines.  He or she must not be truly “with it” and up on trends (another value exposed which needs to be challenged).  He or she wouldn’t be capable of authentically crafting and leading a musical style that is current and fresh.  They might be just fine in a traditional or blended worship environment, but if we want to “reach young people,” a forty-something at the helm is no good.

This is lamentable.  And (to make up a word) repentable.  That we were even having such a discussion tells us that culture’s obsession with youth has invaded the heart of the church.  What does the Bible have to say about being old?

Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding? (Job 12:12)

I thought, “Age should speak; advanced years should teach wisdom.” (Job 32:7)

At the window of my house I looked down through the lattice. I saw among the simple, I noticed among the young men, a youth who had no sense. He was going down the street near her corner, walking along in the direction of her house. (Proverbs 7:6-8)

The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old. (Proverbs 20:29)

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.  Treat…older women as mothers. (1 Timothy 5:1, 2)

Prior to the 60s, the elderly were much more celebrated in culture.  Most native cultures—from Native Americans to native Hawaiians to native Africans—favor the aged as the source of knowledge and wisdom.  Such cultures actually look to the elderly for guidance for the future (imagine that!).  Nowadays in the West, the elderly are irrelevant cultural cast-offs.  They are the Dalit caste of modern America.  We quarantine them in homes.  In church meetings, we roll our eyes when old Mr. Jones stands up and wags his finger in the air.  And we worship leaders brush off their comments like dust on our feet.  And we move “forward.”

Though I’ve never heard it from a single one of them, I’d bet that every twenty-something who’s been a worship leader for more than a year has had the thought, “What happens when I get older?”  (Implication: I have to do something different, because this can’t work.)  I know a few forty- and fifty-something worship leaders who are currently looking for positions in churches, and I know that the market is tougher for them. 

This ageism is more than just bias and prejudice.  It’s sinful idolatry.  And I’m guilty myself of playing into the hands of these gods every time I entertain a fear of getting older or judge an “older” worship leader as irrelevant or out of touch.

The truth is: the more I’ve gotten to know the generations of worship leaders above me, the more I realize that the Bible is true.  With age comes wisdom.  Churches should desire older worship leaders.  Though youth should not be despised (1 Timothy 4:12), biblical wisdom reminds us that being young carries liabilities against which we need to be on guard.  I long for my generation of worship leaders to have open and honest conversation about this evil bubbling under the surface.  I long for us to confess it, to repent of it, and to seek its change.


Review of No Other Name, by Hillsong Worship

Hillsong Worship, 
No Other Name (Live)
(Hillsong Music)
Released: July 1, 2014 

As Hillsong continues to put out Western-worship-influencing album after album at an amazingly rapid rate, I am reminded of what seems to have been Charles Wesley's (intentional or unintentional) principle of influence: put out a lot of material, and the handful of songs that are supposed to stand the test of time will. I admire this about the vision of Hillsong's now quite diversified worship offerings. As with most of my reviews, I try to funnel my ideas down two evaluative tracks: musicality and theological content.

Review Summary

Musically, No Other Name is beautiful, though "safe" and middle-of-the-road. The production is exquisite, and the musical vibe is largely the trademark, now classic, Hillsong sound: backing choir, lots of pad layers, simple but captivating electric guitar melodies, and lots of diverse drum work. The songs are singable (though high as always), with a few surprising melodic twists. Theologically, I'm moved and incredibly encouraged by an embracing and contextualizing of tradition (the Creed, and the Lord's Prayer), by a relative absence of triumphalism present on most, if not all, preceding Hillsong records, and by an intense focus on the person and the work of Jesus.

Songs I would most likely incorporate in my context:
"This I Believe (The Creed)"
"Our Father"


I said above that the sound is "classic Hillsong," but there are tinges of 80s "synthology" on several tracks, a sound that is hot on current worship records. You notice it in the opening of "My Story" and the musical hook of "Heaven and Earth." 

"Heaven and Earth" has an unusual approach to the Chorus which is worth songwriters giving a listen. There's a push and pull of the downbeat of the Chorus. Though it starts on the word "heaven," the tonic chord and the overall "drop" into the Chorus doesn't happen until "-lide" of "collide." It creates an interesting musical moment of collision, painting the text in a helpful way. It gives you the sensation of singing over a mixed meter when you're not.

I always admire (envy? :) ) the imaginative simplicity of the electric guitar parts. They are always tasteful and fitting, yet melodic and colorful. They're not overblown, but they add interest and movement to the music that I find satisfying and beautifying. Listen to what the electrics do, for instance, in "No Other Name."

Finally, noteworthy is an unconventional (for Hillsong) melodic turn in "Depths." In the second half of each verse (e.g. on the syllable "-va-" of "salvation's song"), the melody jumps unexpectedly. It gives the song a folk-Celtic quality that is unusual for the pop melodies we've come to expect.

Theological Content

Overall, the album is quite focused on Christ's atonement...not a bad center-point at all! The Bridge of "Heaven and Earth," for instance, grounds the reconciling love foretold by the prophets in the sacrifice of Christ:

By His stripes we are healed
By His death we can live
In Jesus' name
All oppression will cease
Every captive released
In Jesus' name

There are a few fresh, imaginative turns of phrase, like, "Salvation's robe" and "freedom in His scars" in the same song. The second verse of "No Other Name" grounds the general praise of Christ in His work on the cross. And "Calvary" is all about the freedom and "covering" (a biblical word laden, especially in Hebrew, with atonement-overtones).

As I mentioned above, for the first time to my detection, Hillsong has minimized triumphalist lyrics and expressions like "Jesus, I'm living for You," "I give it all away for You," "I'm standing up for You," etc. I'm really encouraged by this, and I pray it is a sign of their theological editors (my understanding is that they have a group of people who edit their lyrical content) taking this dynamic that I've pointed out over the years seriously. Even in moments on this record when we are declaring our love for and commitment to God, it is couched in the context of God's prior love for us. "Depths" captures this beautifully:

Verse 1
In Your presence I quiet my soul
And I hear Your voice
In my spirit I hear the sound
Of salvation's song
Jesus, Jesus

Verse 2
I will wait in Your Word, O Lord
There Your Spirit speaks
Bringing life to the weary soul
To the depths of me
Jesus, Jesus

I love You with all my heart
I love You with all my soul, Lord
I love You with alll my strength
With all that is within me

Notice several things. First, the Spirit is mentioned as speaking through God's Word. That's not a small thing, given the strong emphasis in Pentecostalism on the Spirit speaking directly to individuals. I appreciate, too, how, throughout the album, we're noticing a better definition/distinction of the persons and work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in places like these. Second, the Chorus, based on the shema, is a simple but beautiful response to the psalm-like verses. It may be that this song, without the proper context, could be a bit too individualized ("me and God") to be regularly utilized in corporate worship, but I don't think it should be written off.

One aspect of No Other Name's content is VERY encouraging. There is an embracing of and interaction with the Church's Great Tradition like I've never seen before. The opening song parts from the standard fare of an upbeat song focused inward. Instead, "This I Believe (The Creed)" looks out and up, ground the album in nothing short of a sung version of the Apostles' Creed. Amazing! Several songs later, "Our Father" begins with these lines that are quite uncommon in the songs of the Pentecostal tradition:

The words of Christ
Passed down through generations
The Son of God
Teaching us to pray
Echoed words
Father, have Your will, Your way in me

The Chorus then recites the first section of the Lord's Prayer. It's simply beautiful, and it appears to be yet another indicator that evangelicals are continuing to explore and embrace the Church's tradition in increasing measure.  This is extremely encouraging. 

I might finally mention "Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)." I love the song's idea of wedding a beatuiful re-tune of "Amazing Grace" with the 2 Corinthians 4 language of broken pottery and jars of clay. Perhaps this song could have been more powerful if it had lingered longer in confession before singing of amazing grace. As with many gospel- and salvation-oriented songs, we evangelicals make short shrift of our Confession of Sin. I was hoping that this song would stay there a while longer. We need more confession songs. Hillsong, please write some!

In sum, No Other Name doesn't really break new ground for Hillsong musically, but it certainly does theologically and lyrically...for Hillsong. More of their songs are avoiding looking down and in, but instead look out and up to Jesus, and there is a refreshing picture of how they're attempting to contextualize the Great Tradition in their music. It's an important marker in the evolution of this very influential worship resource provider.


A friend pointed to me to the interaction of John Dickson with Hillsong over the song based on the Apostles' Creed. Fascinating to hear what Ben Fielding had to say. Check out this video, but first, a quote from Fielding:

We [songwriters] are writing the liturgies of the church today...recognizing that in a lot of contemporary churches these liturgies aren't read. And so, the songs of today literally become the confession of the church.

Yes, and amen. Thank you, Hillsong, for your open ears and your passion for the church universal! 


Worship as the Means to Overcoming Pride

Good worship is formative. Good worship actually makes disciples in the moment of worship. It reflects what 2 Corinthians 3:18 teaches: we grow by beholding (see my post about that).

I meet many earnest young worship leaders who describe themselves as having huge pride-problems. “I really struggle with pride,” or “My pride so often gets in the way of me being a worship leader,” they say. I get it. I remember those same deep struggles when I was in high school and college (not that I’ve somehow licked my pride…I just look at it differently). I remember agonizing over my inability to get over my pride. I remember hating my hubris. I remember being so frustrated with how often I thought of myself in the moment of worship or worship leading. (I hope people think my voice sounds as awesome as I do right now! Man, my arrangement is really spectacular! Are my armpits sweaty?)

It’s quite natural. We’re all curved in on ourselves. I used to think that the solution was an earnest pursuit of humility—to study its virtues and to imitate its champion, Jesus Christ. In other words, I thought that attaining humility was a work of doing. I’ve come to believe, now, that overcoming pride is actually the un-work of beholding. And no one has said it better than C. FitzSimons Allison, so I leave you with him:

We are rarely exhorted in scripture to be humble, because the Christian religion comprehends the tricky quicksand present in the relationship of pride to humility. Humility is a fruit of the Christian life. We cannot become humble simply by giving up our pride. Humility is not something we can seize. To approach it directly with the intention of attaining humility will only lead one into more subtle avenues of pride. It is a by-product of leading a Christian life. People regarded as saints in the history of Christianity are a diverse and dissimilar lot, but they seem to have one thing in common, something of that humility we see in Christ. And yet none seemed self-conscious or aware of being humble. They did not seek to be humble but to follow the humble Lord.

This is done in the life of worship, not just in a service but in an entire life that does continually “behold the humble Lord.” How then is the fear of being humble overcome in worship? There is an important rule of thumb in worship: we become like that which we worship. This can in part be understood when we notice how people tend to copy or unconsciously mimic those whom they respect. In one law school there was a widely respected visiting lecturer who, when he spoke, had a habit of grasping his lapels and rocking upon the balls of his feet. It is said that a whole generation of lawyers adopted this practice of grasping their coat lapels and rocking back and forth as they addressed the court. Who has not observed how young boys at summer camp will pick up the mannerisms of some respected counselor? One high school teacher insists that his students walk with a decided wager on Wednesday mornings after watching the Wyatt Earp show on television the night before. If it is true that we tend to copy or emulate that which we respect, it is much more so that we tend to become like that which we worship. Of course, this is in part what the Incarnation is all about. As St. Athanasius pointed out in the fourth century, “He became aw we are in order that we might become as he is.” We see in Christ not only what God is like but what we are to be [a]s our intention and destiny. Our worship, our life of beholding the humble Lord, is the means whereby we may become as he is.*

Worship leaders, do you want to lick your pride? Stop trying so hard to be humble and orient the worship services you plan and the very worship of your life outward and upward to Jesus Christ. Look on Him, ponder Him, adore Him. Then repeat.

*C. FitzSimons Allison, Fear, Love, and Worship (Greenwich: Seabury, 1962), 76-77. 

How Worship Leaders Can Better Minister to Artists, & Help Them Minister to Us

Dayton Castleman, "Tilting at Giants"There is a marvelous set of posts over at Q Ideas answering the question, "What Can Artists Teach the Church?" The answers to those questions consist of five responses--three posts and two videos--all brief, but powerful. The landscape of the discussion is broad, but I want to funnel it down to something very specific and apply the discussions to worship leaders/pastors.

I've discovered in my own journey that we church leaders often narrow the scope of artists' vocations in relation to churches. I'm thinking mostly, but not exclusively, of artists who are Christians. Thoughtful worship leaders recognize that their unique role--as artists themselves--is to be a bridge-builder for other artists who often feel alienated from the center of a church's body life and puzzled as to how their gifts contribute to the body. It may be that some of our best personal ministry will be to artists, because we in some measure understand and empathize with the unique gifting and makeup of artists.

That said, I want to share five gleanings from these Q posts about how we can minister to artists:

1. Worship leaders can encourage artists to participate in church life outside of the center of their vocation. Alissa Wilkinson says, "I tend to think that artists, especially working artists, ought to think about ways to support their churches that don't have as much to do with their vocation. I've heard from professional musician friends that working in the nursery, where nobody cares who they are or how great their last album was, is a rich and humbling experience."

2. Worship leaders can help artists deal with a very real part of their existence: failure. Perhaps more than most, artists live under the weight of "you don't measure up" and "you're not good enough." Their very work, by necessity, is constantly critiqued and evaluated by others, and their own self-imposed standards bear down on their shoulders every day. Offering artists (not to mention everyone else!) room to confess their sins in worship acts as a great pressure-release valve to the weight of the voice of "law" in the life of the artist. Artists, like everyone else, need to confess their failure and inability. When we offer artists room in our worship services to confess, we allow for a big part of their existence--failure--to be acknowledged in the context of the gospel. Wilkinson observed that confession helped her be honest with herself.

3. Worship leaders can encourage artists that they have something to teach the church. Wilkinson observed three things that artists can teach the church:

  • That formation happens through practicing (and failing)
  • That sometimes our bodies lead our souls
  • That we can be comfortable with mystery

4. Worship leaders can encourage artists that their wisdom about empathy can be a great gift when imparted to the church. Nate Ridson's post emphasizes how "art is one of the best teachers of emotional intelligence--which, at its foundation, is empathy." Art often asks (even demands) that its receiver step outside of himself or herself to think about or experience something from another person's perspective. Artists often think deeply about being in other people's shoes, because the reception of their art often dictates that these things be thought through. In short, artists are good at shoe-swapping, and they can help teach the Church the art of empathy, which is at the center of the biblical idea of love (think of the Incarnation).

5. Worship leaders can encourage artists that their wisdom about listening can be a great gift to the church. Justin McRoberts commented that "nothing is more essential to the practice of art than listening. Before anything is made, before materials are chosen, even before inspiration can take hold, listening must come first." We modern American Christians do a really poor job of listening. Because the gospel is essentially something proclaimed, we've let that idea go too far, and we've become anemic listeners. Artists are often expert listeners; they've earned honorary doctorates in hearing and exegetic people and culture. They deserve our ear so that we can learn better how to listen to our world.


Exegeting Sound: Hearing the Reverberations of the Gospel in EDM

A post of mine just went live this morning over at Liberate entitled, "Why EDM Sounds So Liberating." Consider it an attempt at what some call "cultural exegesis"--an exercise in understanding culture by teasing out meanings and subtexts.

Worship leaders like me theologize far less about music than lyrics. When we're talking about "theological depth" in worship music, we're often talking about the propositional content of the words of worship songs. But this isn't the only theological work happening. Music says a lot. In fact, it may be that our culture's music theologizes even more than its lyrics. 

Some folks feel like this is dangerous territory because once you start dabbling in the "messages" of music and art that are textless, you may be venturing into the quicksand of relative truth, subjectivity, and listener-based meaning. Here's the difficult part about those fears. When we obsess over those debates (that I admit are not unimportant), we lose sight of the fact that the art of culture is shaping culture and part of our job is to dissect and inspect, rather than simply argue about how or whether we should do it.

So, consider my post about Electronic Dance Music (EDM) an attempt at taking the art form for what it is and truly trying to hear it--to listen for the deep human heart beneath this genre. Some people write off EDM because of its roots in the debauchery of the clubbing lifestyle pioneered decades ago in places like Chicago, New York, and London. Others write it off simply because they think it's "bad music." For better or worse (I think, for me, it's for better), I am unable to write it off, because I serve in a metropolitan culture (Miami / Ft. Lauderdale) where this music "speaks." And so when I began listening, I found some very wonderful things to appreciate, enjoy, and, yes, exegete. I heard the "reverberations" of truth, echoes of the gospel there. EDM is great music.

If none of the above thoughts are convincing enough to check out the post, consider this additional thought. EDM is everywhere. It has taken over pop radio. It has taken over the media and advertising world. It has even gained prominence in worship music (think Hillsong United, Hillsong Young & Free, Bethel Music, and Jesus Culture) and worship services (think of the growth of the use of loops and live software platforms like Ableton).

Here's a little teaser, but please go read the whole post here:

EDM, unlike other musical forms, which have a more pronounced storyline from beginning to end (think of a sonata or a country song), places the listener-dancer into the playing field of the infinite. Put another way, EDM paints on a canvas without edges. It transports us into an eternal storyline. This is why EDM sounds so repetitive. It is an art form expressed in the context of eternity, catching us up in a never-ending loop of joy. The Bible similarly describes eternity as a euphoric repetition of heavenly beings whonever cease crying, “Holy, holy, holy” (Revelation 4:8). Perhaps EDM is better equipped than any other art form to help human beings grasp, even for just a second, what eternal rapture feels like.


Helpful Grids for Writing Great Gospel-Centered Songs

If there is one biblical idea that should be the source of fresh and endless songwriting inspiration, it is the gospel. But if you’re a songwriter who operates like I do, when you’re writing songs about the gospel, you tend to gravitate to the same phrases, clichés, metaphors and realms of thought.

When you have a passion for gospel-centrality, and when your pastorally-oriented heart desires for the ancient gospel to be preached and sung in fresh, inspiring ways, you long for imagery, words, phrases, and music which give new voice to the old Story. You want a song that embodies “mercies new every morning.”

I was recently reading Tim Keller’s magnificent book, Center Church, and he offers some helpful “grammars”* for thinking through the gospel of Christ’s atonement. I’d like to take two of his ideas and add a third to perhaps give a roughly comprehensive snapshot of salvation in its full-orbed sense, narrowing in on the gospel in its most specific sense. The purpose of this isn’t for us to open up yet another debate. Rather, I want to provide a toolbox for songwriters’ imaginations to think about (and give song to) the atonement from different angles.

Five Atonement “Grammars”

This comes from Keller’s way of summarizing what theologians call different “theories” of the atonement. I prefer Keller’s language of “grammar,” because there’s something in every “theory” that rings true for how we talk about the atonement.

1. The language of the battlefield. Christ fought against the powers of sin and death for us. He defeated the powers of evil for us. This is sometimes called Christus Victor. (Colossians 2:15)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as King, General, Warrior, Hero, Champion, Victor, Strong, Courageous, Mighty, Unstoppable, Unparalleled; struggle, warfare

2. The language of the marketplace.  Christ paid the ransom price, the purchase price, to buy us out of our indebtedness. He frees us from enslavement. (Colossians 1:14)

  • Metaphors: redemption, purchasing, buying back, debt, moving from "object sold" to person, new identity

3. The language of exile. Christ was exiled and cast out of the community so we who deserve to be banished could be brought in. He brings us home.

  • Metaphors: Jesus' 40-day wandering for us; Jesus being crucified "outside the camp; Jesus as New Moses, Leader, Fire and Cloud; from slavery, prison, jail, wandering, casting out, chains, shackles, bonds, addiction, desert, alien, sojourner, exodus, rootlessness, homelessness, freedom, unshackling, home, restoration, rest, promised land, anchor, permanence, welcoming, feasting, abundance

4. The language of the temple. Christ is the sacrifice that purifies us and makes us acceptable to draw near to the holy God. He makes us clean and beautiful. (Hebrews 9:14)

  • Metaphors: Jesus as High Priest, Sacrifice / Lamb of God / Lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world, Servant / Minister; sacrifice, purification, substitution, atonement, death for life, blood, offering, washing, cleansing, renewal 

5. The language of the law court. Christ stands before the judge and takes the punishment we deserve. He removes our guilt and makes us righteous. (1 Peter 3:18) 

  • Metaphors: Jesus as Judge, Prosecutor, Defendant, Advocate; ruling, declaration, pardon, guilt, innocence, justified, acquittal, pleading, advocating, defense, clean record, absolution, law, binding verdict, case against, case for, Luther's "simul justus et peccator" (simultaneously just and sinner)

The Ordo Salutis

Keller does not mention this (it’s beyond the scope of his chapter), but what has classically been called the ordo salutis, the much-debated “order of salvation,” I think often serves to help excite the imagination of what the start-to-finish journey of God’s salvation of us through Jesus looks like. Researching and learning more about any one of these themes in the “golden chain” of salvation (Romans 8:30). I offer here the Reformed ordo, well, because I believe in it. In my understanding, the elements of the below ordo step out of the realm of the gospel proper (the gospel is not all of these things), but this is the journey of salvation that may offer songwriting fodder for gospel-oriented songs.

  • Election – God’s free, unmerited, predestined choice (Eph 1:3-10)
  • Effectual Calling – a summons so powerful that it gives the very response it calls for (Acts 16:14)
  • Regeneration – new birth, moving from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, being born again (Eph 2:4-7)
  • Faith/Repentance – God’s gift to us of our trust in Christ; changing our minds about ourselves and about Jesus (Eph 2:8-9)
  • Justification – God’s declaration that we, sinners, are righteous by virtue of the Sinless One, Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26)
  • Adoption – We are named and brought in as sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with Christ (Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15)
  • Sanctification – God’s work of conforming us to the image and likeness of His Son (1 Thess 5:23)
  • Perseverance – God’s work of keeping us from falling away unto the end (Phil 1:6)
  • Glorification – the completion of God’s salvation where we, in body and soul, are transformed into the fullness of Christ-likeness (1 Cor 15:42-59)

The Center of the Gospel

As Keller says of the above atonement grammars, there is “one, irreducible theme that runs through every single one of these models—the idea of substitution” (p. 131). Think about it with me. Whenever you’re singing a song about the gospel, what’s the point at which the truth overflows from head to heart? When is the moment when you’re gushing with emotion, thanksgiving, adoration? At what point does the gospel overwhelm us? At the point of substitution. It’s at the point where we recognize that Christ was crucified in our place—the Just for the unjust. It’s at the point where we sing of the great exchange—His righteousness for our unrighteousness. For instance, doesn’t your heart completely melt when you sing, “Before the Throne of God Above” and you get to the lines:

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me

So to tie all this up, I’d like to remind us of the words of Martin Luther, when he said that justification by faith alone is “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.” If we bore down to the most basic, fundamental need of every human being, it is the need to be justified. All our pursuits, longings, dreams, hopes, and ambitions really do stem from the question, “How can I be justified?” The more we understand this, the more we realize why substitution is such a powerful summary of the center of the Gospel. Substitution answers the most fundamental question of every human being, and it shows God to be a God who justifies solely by gracious, unmerited love.

Therefore, in all the above metaphors and grammars, the way we construct a truly gospel-saturated song out of them is to somehow eventually drive home justification and substitution. Those words might not be used (they are somewhat sterile), but their concepts should be exposited. In songwriting, justification and substitution are the “sweet spot” on the gospel-bat that ensures the ball will get over the fence.

I often find that, when I’m writing songs about the gospel, it makes sense to place justification and substitution in to the chorus or bridge of a song. For instance, our song “His Be the Victor’s Name” is a hymn loaded with wonderful, paradoxical battlefield imagery:

By weakness and defeat,
He won the glorious crown.
Trod all His foes beneath His feet
By being trodden down.

But my question is, when does the emotional home run occur in the song?  It occurs in the chorus, and maybe even more so in the bridge.  Notice what is being sung there: 

What though the vile accuser roar
Of sins that I have done
I know them well and thousands more
My God, He knoweth none

My sin is cast into the sea
Of God’s forgotten memory
No more to haunt accusingly
For Christ has lived and died for me

There you have it. Justification by substitution. Forgiveness because of the merit of Another. These are the emotional climaxes of the song precisely because they bore down to the center of where the gospel meets the most fundamental human need. 

Hopefully this gives a decent picture of how writing a gospel-centered song can happen.  

*Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 130-131.

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