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Album Roundup: Kristen Gilles, Sovereign Grace, Summit Worship

Spring is evidently the season for killer new worship projects...

Kristen Gilles, Parker's Mercy Brigade

Sometimes, in the circles I float in, we can do a lot of "musical theology" in the realm of abstraction. But Kristen's new album is far from abstract. Parker's Mercy Brigade is a psalmbook-like collection of tunes, largely dedicated to processing a very real period of suffering in Kristin and Bobby's life. This album is what it looks like when sufferers honestly and faithfully sing their suffering to God. One of my favorite songs is "Chase Away My Unbelief," because it is both desperate and hopeful. The songs are singable and congregation-friendly. Kristin has done a good job pairing these songs with the Church calendar year, for those more liturgically-minded folks. Parker's Mercy Brigade is a needed offering to the church, both as a model and as a provision of modern lamentation and deep worship! Check out a promo video and get all the resources you need for the album here.  The album is available on iTunes, Amazon, and on Kristen's site if you'd like to order a hard copy. Even cooler is that half the proceeds go to Nadus Films, which sheds light on issues of social justice and worldwide need.

Sovereign Grace Music, 30: Three Decades of Songs for the Church

This is an incredible project, both for what it is and what it represents. Sovereign Grace Music was pioneering the intersection of passionate modern worship with theological depth before most of us were a blip on the radar. They were plowing hard ground before anyone else was there. This collection of songs functions as a kind of "greatest hits" of Sovereign Grace (though they really have too many outstanding songs to boil down to one album). The influence of Sovereign Grace is shown on this album by the all star lineup of artists willing to re-imagine these songs on this record: Paul Baloche, Glenn Packiam, Kristyn Getty, Aaron Keyes, Matt Papa, Matt Boswell, to name a few. I hope and pray that this very fresh and beautiful project will re-give these songs to the Church and inspire more to sing them. Here it is on iTunes and Bandcamp. Get all kinds of free resources on their site, too.

Summit Worship, Our God is Unstoppable

Releasing today is Summit's newest offering. My friend and kindred spirit, Jonathan Welch, is the understated leader of this outfit, overseeing some very talented worship leaders, songwriters, and recording artists (e.g. Matt Papa), and this latest record from Summit is full of beautiful songs for the Church which are rich in Godward theology and gospel-saturated expression. Something remarkable, too, similar to my comments about Journey Church's Songs from the Book of Ephesians, is its diversity. "Praise to the Lord the Almighty" is a beautiful, groovy pop-gospel number, with great vocals and an infectious beat. The final song, "Dios, Ven" (God, Come), is a Spanish rock ballad with explicit Trinitarian theology and a high view of God's glory. Go get it on iTunes today!


One Worship Conference to Pay Attention To

When I get really feisty, I have to admit that an anti-establishment streak runs through my veins. In reference to the "worship industry" (I know, I know...the phrase is laden with problems), I'm not a complete naysayer. I hope you've seen that I try to encourage a reform-from-within stance rather than be a rock-hurler from the other side of the fence. But I am delighted to see, dancing around the inside and outside of the worship industry's borders, folks with enough theological moorings and influence to launch something as robust as the Austin Stone Worship Conference looks to be. It's happening in 12 days.

I can't speak from experience--this conference is the first of its kind. I can only speak based on my relationships with many of the folks participating in the conference's leadership--people like Aaron Ivey, Matt Boswell, Bobby Gilles, Mike Cosper, Michael Bleecker, and Matt Papa.  Here's what I like about what I do see and know: 

  • the conference is more holistic than many worship conferences I've been to or seen promoted--it is attempting a more organic weaving of the thought-worlds of church, worship, mission, culture, arts, and the like; this is very attractive to me
  • the artists and presenters are people with whom I share significantly overlapping philosophical visions for worship--I know what many of these guys and gals write and say, and I think they need to be said
  • the people that I know will attend this are the people that I desperately want to network with and continue to build relationships with as we forge ahead in this journey of helping shape a future for historically-aware, missionally-primed, biblically-saturated, gospel-driven, artistically-sensitive evangelical worship.
  • it's in Austin...come on--it's certainly the coolest city in Texas, and ranks at least in the top 10 in the US

And then there's Austin Stone's new worship album, The King of Love, which will be released on October 22. I've had the opportunity to listen to it, and, frankly, there are just certain songs that I have on my life's soundtrack's repeat right now.  Like "Jesus is Better," whose Bridge sings:

In all my sorrows, Jesus is better
Make my heart believe
In every victory, Jesus is better
Make my heart believe

Than any comfort, Jesus is better
Make my heart believe
More than all riches, Jesus is better
Make my heart believe

Our souls declaring: Jesus is better
Make my heart believe
Our song eternal: Jesus is better
Make my heart believe 

It just cuts straight to the heart for me. I love, too, that the album has some sweet hymn re-tunes.

Truth be told, I'm not going, but I wish I were. I'm in a transition phase here in South Florida, my job's a little crazy right now, and my time away from family is at its quota. But I have no doubt that I'm missing out on something quite special. If you're in and around Texas in two weeks, you should go.  If you're an impulsive procrastinator, consider this post a wonderful nudge that it's not too late to book a plane ticket and get over there!


Defending the Musical Simplicity of Worship Songs

From several directions is sometimes heard the critique that "all modern worship songs sound the same"--the same four chords, the same trite melody, the same form, the same epic rise and fall.  Songwriters like me, when sitting down to put pen to paper on a musical staff, feel these critiques both consciously and subconsciously. We feel pressure to come up with something new, fresh, and different.  So we try to think outside of the conventional box of chords and progressions or come up with surprising melodies or out-of-the-ordinary song-forms.  Honestly, whenever I've succumbed to that pressure, I've crashed and burned in writing a good worship song.  But there's a reason why that has happened.

Elements of simplicity should characterize worship songs.  There should be aspects of a worship song that make it sound "the same."  

In worship songs, the music should always serve the text.

Unlike perhaps all other songwriting ventures, the worship song has a unique job description.  It is not first and foremost to be an art piece, though it could be. It is not first and foremost to be musically received with great reflection to mine the depths of its complexity and uncover new layers of truth and meaning, though it could be. The very genre of "worship song" or "hymn" in the songwriting field demands a pecking order: text above music. Have you ever noticed with certain paintings how a frame that's too ornate detracts from being able to engage with the piece of art itself?  Of course, there are times when the frame is part of the piece of art, but most times, the goal of a frame is to provide a level of simplicity to effectively surround, enhance, and amplify what is on the canvas.  So it is with the music of a worship song.  The music is to frame the text.  A good rule of thumb, when a worship songwriter is venturing into some uncharted or risky musical territory, is to simply ask the question, "Does this musical moment enhance or take away from the text?"  Worship songs are intended to be sung by masses of people who are attempting to corporately dialogue with God through faithful words. The conversation of worship can get easily interrupted when the music honks louder than the text. It becomes obnoxious, and it derails the train of the purposes of worship.  So, because music serves the text in worship songs, one should expect that such songs are more musically simple, just as one can expect the frames of paintings to be simple more often than not.

Simple is not the same as simplistic.

The frame metaphor is helpful in parsing the difference between simple and simplistic. There is a difference between a frame which is made simple through purpose, intent, wisdom, and a harnessed craftsmanship, and a frame which is cheap.  Sometimes, to the indiscriminate and undisciplined eye, a simple frame and a cheap frame look the same.  Likewise, the charge of a "musically cheap" worship song can be proffered too quickly and too easily. There is a difference between simple clarity and simplistic kitsch, and sometimes a quick, off-the-cuff, far off glance isn't good enough to determine the difference. (Some of the measures for how to determine the difference are below.)

Simple music serves the musically simple congregant.

Crazy chord progressions might pay hommage to the musical innovation of Beethoven or the Beatles, but they often become a stumbling block to the average congregant who doesn't have the musical compass to navigate those turbulent sonic waters. A songwriter who seeks to be a servant of their brothers and sisters knows they must err on the side of simplicity so as to not alienate or distract.  There is a measure of relativity to where this boundary between "challenging" and "too far" is. (Some congregations are centered in musically robust cities, where the culture generally "educates" people into greater capacities.) But the general principle still applies, and a songwriter seeking to faithfully love and shepherd God's flock probably knows when what they're writing will confuse the musically simple congregant.  And, again, when the congregant has to stumble over the music to get to the text, you've lost the battle. In this way, we can see how worship songwriting is a pastoral endeavor.

The genre of rock demands an element of simplicity.

I hear this argument less, but it should be articulated, especially to musicians who are irritated by "the same four chords" and "the same trite melodies."  Most folks writing worship songs in the West these days are consciously or unconsciously writing in the genre of rock.  Though it's an ever-evolving art form (and, yes, I believe it to be an art form), its evolution has carried with it certain "constants," which are precisely those building blocks that make it "rock."  

When I have conversations with classical music elitists (I used to be one, myself) who view rock as restricted and simple, I am quick to remind them of our beloved sonata form.  No serious classical musician would fault the sonata for having a predictable form--A, B, A, or "exposition," "development," "recapitulation." They wouldn't say "how trite," or "how boring," or "how uninspiring." They would properly recognize that working within its form is part of the artistic endeavor of that pursuit. They would see the "rules" of that form not as binding to the ability to artistically express.  They wouldn't say, "'s another trite return to the same thing they started with in the previous A-section."  No, they'd recognized that the art comes from how the composer expresses from within the rules of the form (and sometimes pushes the boundaries of those rules).

Similarly, rock has rules and a vocabulary that most people are now subconsciously attuned to.  Part of the reason "the same chords" are prevalent in worship songs is because they are the principle chordal building blocks of the rock genre.  The songwriter is not so much being trite as they are being faithful to the form. There is an element of truth to the fact that all rock "sounds the same," but it is no different than the way a sonata "moves the same." Suddenly, critics must work a lot harder and be a lot more nuanced in their criticism if they're going to fault the worship song for its "predictability."  (This, by the way, is some of the nuancing I see thinkers like T. David Gordon not doing.)

Much of rock is built on:

  • strong attention to rhythm
  • primary chords: I, IV, V, and vi
  • secondary chords: ii, iii
  • verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus form
  • a folk-style aesthetic of less chords over longer melodic lines as opposed to a traditional/classical aesthetic of chord changes on nearly every move of the melody (i.e. "block-chord" formation, which most old hymns employ)
  • short instrumental melodic motifs, often called "hooks" or "riffs"
  • simple, repetitive vocal melodies which vacillate between being melismatic and "leapy"

These are arguably the general boundaries within which most modern worship songwriters engage their craft. Any honest musician would not think of these as "limitations" as much as the components of the genre, and their exploration of these components is not necessarily evidence of lack of musical prowess.  Just as the sonata structure is "simple," so the components of rock are "simple." Critics are making category-mistakes when they indiscriminately throw the "trite" and "kitschy" labels out there.  Just as the sonata is "predictable," so in many ways rock is "predictable," and one shouldn't necessarily fault them for being so.  My friend Jered McKenna made this same point well in a post a few weeks back.

The Heart of the Matter

The truth is, for worship songwriters who know what they're doing, it takes more discipline and humility to write simply and avoid the temptation to more overtly display one's artistic prowess.  At least for me, the times when I've crossed the boundary into being too complex and too ornate are the times where I can admit that my sinful heart was engaging in a self-salvation project, desperately trying to prove to other songwriters and art buffs that I was worthy.  In a great post on this very subject, Bobby Gilles outlines how the greatest hymn writers (e.g. Watts, Wesley, Cowper) understood and cherished the dynamic of harnessed simplicity.  No one would accuse that crowd of being trite, surface-level, fluffy theologians and songwriters. So in the end, my encouragement to critics is not to cease criticism but to go about their criticism from a more informed, generous, and nuanced approach. 


Distinguishing Between Songs that are Theologically Incomplete and Songs that are Theologically Wrong

From XKCD.comMy last (provocatively titled) post sparked a brief but helpful comment-dialogue between me and my friend, Bobby Gilles, over at My Song in the Night.  It got me thinking about an important point of distinguishing when appraising songs for use in corporate worship.  There's a necessary distinction that worship pastors, planners, and leaders must make between songs that we can describe as "theologically incomplete" as compared to songs that are just wrong.  Sometimes in our zeal for truth, we blur that line and dismiss songs with a prophetic kibosh, branding them with the scarlet letter of "bad theology" when the truth is that they are not wrong, just incomplete.

Think of songs that do not preach the whole (or any) gospel.  For instance, one could look at the wonderful, well-known hymn by Frances Ridley Havergal, "Take My Life and Let it Be," and argue that it's encouraging works-based righteousness.

Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee
Take my hands and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love

You walk through the whole hymn, and it's all take, take, take.  The hymn doesn't supply the grounding for such consecration.  Where's Jesus?  Where's the gospel?  We're probably cocking our heads funny because we all recognize that songs have both authorial and doxological contexts.  In other words, we know that the song is gospel-driven because we know a bit about the author and (more importantly) we understand how it is used in the flow of worship.  Good worship planners put a song like this after we've sung, read, or rehearsed the gospel narrative of God's saving grace in our lives.  It is not that this hymn is theologically wrong.  It is that it is incomplete and needs a context for its completion.  And in saying it is "incomplete," we're not saying it's a bad song at all.  We recognize that not every song can do everything.  We recognize that worship services move along a path and that, while most songs can't embody the whole path, they can be waymarks for various points of the journey.  "Take My Life and Let it Be" is a marker on the offering/consecration part of the path.

This all makes me wonder whether we have dismissed some helpful, beautiful, and edifying songs because we fail to apply the incomplete-wrong distinction more liberally or because we have some knee-jerk biases against certain expressions.  Let me illustrate with a confession of one of my own biases.

I sometimes struggle with the Hillsong corpus.  Time and again, I've identified in album reviews and other posts their penchant toward what some call "triumphalism"--this idea that "I can do it," "I'm running after You," "I'm chasing after God," "I will get there," "I'm giving it all to you," etc.  This emphasis certainly has a theological explanation.  Church history teaches us that Pentecostalism (Hillsong's tradition) is rooted in the Wesleyan holiness movement, which holds up sanctification as a strenuous effort toward greater and greater perfection until we reach triumph.  It's a very "can-do" theological orientation.  When I am hearing or singing songs of triumph, something deep inside my (Reformed) bones shudders.  I squirm and bristle when I feel like TULIP's "T" has gone underserved and when Christ's finished work of righteousness for us gets eclipsed...and rightfully so.  It is an affront to the gospel and to Christ Himself when we minimize His work and maximize ours.  

But the incomplete-wrong distinction helps me to temper my analysis of such songs for use in my context because I know that, in the context of our worship service, such songs of our triumph will be adequately wrapped in a context of Christ's triumph.  We can do these things, as we are united with Christ, and brought along by the Spirit.  We can put forth effort and chase after God, as we fix our eyes on the author and perfector of our faith.  And, my most important task is to be faithful to Christ as pastor in my context, and perhaps work harder at suspending judgment on the contexts of my brothers and sisters when I have only partial knowledge (i.e. I've got their album).*  

The incomplete-wrong distinction opens up new possibilities for engaging songs that seemed to be ruled out before.  It becomes more about weight and balance within a whole service (or within a whole series of services).  This distinction also allows us to assume a more humble posture with our brothers and sisters from traditions which differ from ours (and God knows we could use more humility!) without compromising on what we feel is solid, biblical truth.  It seizes on 1 Corinthians 13's encouragement that, within the body of Christ, "love hopes all things."  So before you dismiss a song outright because you believe it's "wrong" (which it still might be), stop and ask yourself if this song wouldn't be more "right" when given its full doxological context.  

Check your heart, worship planners.  Where might this distinction be helpful to you?


*As a little sidenote, I was immensely blessed at a Hillsong Live concert in Denver a few weeks ago, when it appeared that many of their songs of triumph came after a healthy dose of Christ's work and atonement.  It was a glorious evening and gave me a renewed appreciation for the movement and their influence.

New Albums Worth Checking Out - Spring / Summer 2012

The number of quality albums from independent artists continues to be on the rise.  These latest few continue to show that a growing number of young church musicians are embracing different values as compared to the industry (speaking both musically and theologically, and perhaps even financially) for the songs they write and produce.  Many of these albums expand the sonic and geographic reach of the rehymn movement.

Todd Hoover, The Whole Spirit: Redemption Songs
Tasteful, musical, liturgically-oriented, congregation-friendly songs, thoughtfully wedding old worship forms and songs with new settings.  Folk-indie, while more classically-oriented in singing and some instrumentation.


The Sing Team, Oh! Great Is Our God! 
Mars Hill music gives us a singable, happy, uppity, and communal EP.  Small on our effort, big on the gospel.  Explicitly and implicitly connected to the Psalms in themes and content.  Folk-indie with a smattering of Motown and "Brady Bunch era" goodness.


Citizens, Already / Not Yet 
Another Mars Hill music band puts out a musically fresh EP of reimagined hymns and new songs.  Great production and original musical flare.  Indie rock.



Edbrooke Collective, Rewritten
A young downtown Denver church does some hymn rewrites and new songs, all through the grid of the objectivity of God and Christ as opposed to the subjectivity of our experience.  (Read my review.)  Indie/ambient/rock.


Cardiphonia, Hymns for the Ascension
A compilation of old ascension hymns set to new music by songwriting worship leaders across the US (and now UK!).  With each successive album, Cardiphonia's production- and song-quality improves. (Read my review.) Indie/folk/electronica. 


Kristen Gilles, The Whole Big Story
Sojourn music continues to expand its reach with side projects from its artists.  This one from Kristen Gilles is an EP focusing on the “big story” of Christ from the beginning to the end of Scripture.  (Read my review.)  Bluesy alternative rock.


Rain for Roots, Big Stories for Little Ones
Kids' songs put together by artists connected with the Indelible Grace brand of the rehymn movement (Sandra McCracken, Ellie Holcomb, Flo Paris, Katy Bowser).  Perfect for families, but loaded with great, accessible theology!  Folk.


Daniel Zott, Hymns
Great experiment in wedding hymns with original music.  Very fun listening.  Indie/electronica.


A Free EP that Summarizes the Bible

One of the most compelling aspects of the Reformed tradition for me is its emphasis on the Bible as one story from beginning to end.  This stream of Christianity just seems bent on finding and exposing every last bit of connective tissue between the first Adam and the Second.  And I can't get enough of it.

This must be why I'm loving Kristen Gilles' new EP, The Whole Big Story.  Each song seeks to stretch its wingspan from the bombastic beginning of Genesis 1 to the eternal ending of Revelation 22.

"Bold Before God's Throne," a Hebrews-esque exploration, connects the Old Testament cult with the New Testament Christ.

In "Rising Tide," Bobby & Kristen explore the Beginning and the End with solid, hymn-like juxtapositions.  Here's verse 2:

What Satan thought was victory 
Became the means of his defeat 
The Lord, on cruel Calvary 
Crushed Satan’s head beneath His feet

But my favorite song explores what I think it one of the under-appreciated metaphoric symbols of Scripture.  "You Grew the Tree" explores the tie between the Genesis-tree and the Passion-tree.  A hefty portion:

You spoke into the void, 
Created every star. 
You made the earth and everything 
That sin would one day mar 

And then, Lord, by Your Word 
Appeared each form of life; 
And in Your image Adam came 
And from him came a wife. 

But even then You knew 
The curse our pride would bring. 
The only way to save mankind— 
You’d die ... 
You grew the tree. You grew the tree. 
You knew what we’d do, 
but still You grew the tree. 

The song also teases out something I've never thought of before--that God, in His meticulous providence, called forth the tree from the ground that would grow up to be fashioned into the wood of the cross.  Imagine God, in his exhaustive knowledge, observing that cursed plant, and year after year allowing it to grow.  What a thought!

You gave the sun and rain 
To grow the fated wood. 
You could have ripped it from the ground; 
Year after year it stood. 

And then rebellious men 
Made of it a cross, 
Planning bloody wickedness 
In place of nature’s loss.  

The Gilleses model what they preach on their fantastic blog, My Song in the Night.  They exemplify good songwriting, stretching imaginative boundaries, and looking at Scripture from fresh angles.  Best yet, the album is free.  And here it is.


Recent Discussions on the State of Christian Music in the West

As of late, there have been some very important reflections on the state of Christian music (whatever you think of the phrase, I'm using it as shorthand).  Two weeks ago, I had a face-to-face discussion with a man who's been in the industry for quite some time, working for some pretty influential major labels.  For an industry-insider, he was surprisingly blunt about the industry, sharing a lot of critique centering around basically two realities (which many people have pointed out): (1) for much of the industry, the bottom line is the dollar; (2) the industry is unfortunately interested in celebrity-making and therefore have certain criteria for how they select artists.

Several industry insiders and outsiders have been talking in the last few months with some very important observations.  I'll highlight three.

Bobby Gilles - My Song in the Night
"Can We Trust the Contemporary Worship Industry"
Thorough and balanced reflections on the state of the industry, ultimately concluding that it is neither completely guilty nor totally innocent. 

Michael Gungor
"Zombies, Wine, and Christian Music"
A successful artist from within the industry (signed with Integrity) prophetically rails against the industry in a post laced with cynicism.    

Bruce Benedict - Cardiphonia
"Observations on the New Hymns Movement"
 ( Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 )
In preparation for a discussion at the Calvin Symposium, Benedict put together some thoughts about the emergence of the rediscovery of hymns and the retuning of them among emerging adult generations.  Among other things, his reflections emphasize how the movement emerged as a reaction to the mainstream industry.  Part 3 is the most intriguing in this respect, because he highlights, ultimately, that this reaction cannot, in and of itself, solve the problem, because the retuned hymns movement needs to be complemented with other aspects of church music.  


If You're Trying to Think More Pastorally About Worship...

If you’re trying to think more pastorally about worship, then you should read this interview.  It is both a model of what pastoral thinking looks like and a display of some application of thinking pastorally in the local church context.  Bobby Gilles, over at My Song in the Night has a great set of Q & A with Bruce Benedict of Cardiphonia.  My favorite two parts of this interview:

Bobby Gilles: What do you say to a pastor or worship leader who says “Hymns won’t work in my context. People here want new music”?

Bruce Benedict: I’ve been reading through Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom getting ready for the Calvin Worship Symposium coming up.  In the book he talks a good deal about how our world does a better job of recognizing and forming our desires than we often realize.  And how the church needs to begin to treat people as more than heads on sticks.  Our worship/music ministries really reveal this.  People want new music in church constantly because that is largely what we are used to being fed by the world.  Even my work-week is typically filled with the latest album and records coming out…

Bobby Gilles: What do you think is the relative importance or balance in the relationship between singable tunes and interesting tunes? 

Bruce Benedict: Great question! This is something I’ve been wrestling with a lot lately. Especially as I’ve realized that what will sound great on a recording isn’t always what will work well for corporate singing…and I think we have to be honest about how each approach requires a different mindset when we sit down to song write.

Because so much of what we are writing is also what we are thinking about, in terms of recording, we can get ourselves into trouble. I think this often provides much of the rub, too, between what we like to sing and what we want to write to record.  This is a tension we need to talk and think about a lot more…especially in terms of being intentional about how we write.

So much of our life is spent listening to music and we are often hard wired to think about what kind of music sounds interesting to us.  Thinking about what is singable is a lot harder.  I often chart out songs I’m working on in a notation software as part of helping me to think through ‘singability’.  I also preview a lot of new songs in monthly potlucks with my musicians where we talk through new songs.

Read the whole interview.