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What Technology's Democratization of Worship Songwriting Means for Us

Ones and Zeros

Chuck Fromm, publisher of Worship Leader magazine, recently summarized and explored the implications of the shift of the church’s song from paper to bits and bytes in the January/February article in that publication, “The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation.”  The transition from hard publishing to web publishing has much more de-centralized and democratized the enterprise of hymnody for both songwriters and publishers (“hymns” being used in the broadest sense of “the Church’s body of sung prayer”).

Fromm, both a tenacious student of and seasoned insider within the contemporary worship movement that arose in the 60s and 70s, does a marvelous job rehearsing the history of the emergence of contemporary worship.  For those who don’t know much about the history, the article is a great place to start for that.  But tracing contemporary worship’s origins is not his goal.  Rather, the article arrives at an open-ended vision for a way forward for the worship songwriter to regain his or her seat at the table of ecclesiastical theologizing (shaping the Church’s understanding of biblical doctrine). Fromm’s purpose appears to be to both impress upon local worship songwriters the gravity of their vocation and to encourage their contribution to the “open-sourced hymnal” that no longer exists locked down in publishers’ offices but floating rather formlessly in the cloud.

The New Hymnal

The article is a fascinating exercise in the intersection of sociology, technology, philosophy, and theology:

A new form of hymnal has emerged. In terms of appearance it hardly looks like its past predecessor. Print culture was symbolized by the book—several hundred pages of print between two pieces of cardboard. The book represented standardization, authorship, and authority. It was also a very costly form of storage…The new hymnal is stored in mp3s, PDFs, and on YouTube.

The new multimedia hymnal is networked with thousands of other hymnal content agencies (denominational and “non-denominational” producers and distributors). In modern vernacular, it is a “Hymnal Cloud” that is open for continuous contribution and enlargement, i.e., it is not limited by the pages of a book. At the creative core of the hymn cloud stands the worship leader and the rest of the congregational theological team.

We're All Back on the Hook

But the article is also a summons to worship songwriters to return to ancient paths:

In the midst of these communicational/cultural changes we have only partially described and hinted about above, it is critical that we again review the historic role of the songwriter/poet as a member of the theological team. It’s a shame that so few seminaries across the world understand or appreciate the vital role of the hymn composers and adapters as key transmitters and creators of theology.

This should be both empowering and frightening for us as local worship pastors, leaders, and songwriters.  We should not think of ourselves merely as song leaders or lead musicians but as people called by God to guide the church’s living, fiery doctrine toward biblical ends.  To use an old-school term, worship leaders and songwriters are some of the church’s most preeminent catechists. This should therefore give us pause about doing our job in a haphazard, willy-nilly fashion.  No longer can song selection be merely about keys, groove, flow, airplay, and popularity.  Too much deep shaping is going on for us to take such a superficial approach. 

It probably means, too, that it may be less helpful than we thought to wholesale import pre-fabricated worship sets from outside entities like (well, this is ironic) Worship Leader magazine or CCLI readouts.  We, as worship leaders in tune with the people of God in our local contexts, need to straddle well that interplay between those (great and not so great) data and the movement of the Spirit in our hometown ekklesia.  And perhaps, as Fromm suggests, if we are faithful to exegete and minister to our local contexts well, we can contribute our little offerings to the hymnal cloud above to see what cyber highways and byways the Spirit might carry our songs and ideas on to bless brothers and sisters in other contexts.  It’s an exciting time to be a worship leader and songwriter, folks. 

Chuck Fromm, "The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation," Worship Leader Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013 (Vol. 22, No. 1), 26-29.

A Rock & Roll Curriculum that Seminaries and Christian Colleges Should Pay Attention To

David Brooks, in a 2007 piece in the New York Times, discusses the movement from integration to fragmentation in American rock music.  The 1970s saw bands like the Rolling Stones and Springsteen drawing from country, soul, and blues to converge in fresh, integrative rock styles.  Groups such as these mark the era of “super-bands” that could sell out stadiums, some of which still do today.  But since that era, we’ve seen a splintering of music into thousands of ghettos.  The result is that music-making in the modern era, at least among rock musicians, is very disconnected with the past, lacking any sense of creative continuity and integration with the musical building-blocks that have come before.

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Check Out Chris Martin's EP, "Today"

In the worship music scene, one doesn't think of Denver as a hotspot.  Los Angeles, maybe.  Nashville, of course.  Atlanta, yes.  Texas towns, probably.  But Denver?  No. 

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A Documentary Every Modern Worship Leader Should See

In days of old, church music leaders studied in seminaries and colleges, receiving degrees like Master of Church Music (MCM) and Master of Sacred Music (MSM).  Part of their curriculum was a thorough study of music history, with particular attention to the history of the music which shaped their field of traditional church music.

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Pentecost Songs: The Way Forward Continues to be the Way Back

The rootlessness of contemporary Christianity is starved for remembrance, but the vacuum of historical connectivity has finally turned on.  And the sucking sound is getting louder and louder.

For years now, Cardiphonia has been on the leading edge of liturgical renewal in evangelicalism.  Before it was "cool" to talk about liturgy and historic practices in Christian worship, Cardiphonia was carving its path in this direction on the world wide web.  Its mastermind, Bruce Benedict, I have watched from afar in the past, and now I consider him a friend, liturgical mentor, and kindred spirit in worship-thought.  Bruce has many unique gifts, rarely packaged in a single person.  He is an artsy musician and an academician.  He listens widely and reads widely.  He plans and leads worship from the point of biblical values and ideals, not trends and polls.  But perhaps Bruce's most outstanding trait is his ability to network widely, inspire artists, and galvanize efforts for the sake of the broader Church. 

The latest masterpiece of Cardiphonia is the robust, twenty-three tracked compilation album, Pentecost Songs, gathering the efforts of twenty-one different artists (listed below) from across the country (and one in Singapore!).  The musical style straddles everything from folk, to ambient, to electronica, to rock, to pop-orchestral.  The importance of this project in the development of church music history is immense.  Contributor and Music Associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Greg Scheer, said it best in recent email correspondence:

It's really a monumental project. Who knows? Maybe 100 years from now, this will be in alongside the Foundling Hospital Collection or Southern Harmony! In the more immediate future, I hope the collection benefits the church.

In other words, this project is significant because it seeks to carry on the church music tradition of creating compilations of congregational music which pull from the past and push toward the future.  Pentecost Songs contains old hymns to new music, a re-harmonized chant, and brand new textual and musical creations.  Equally wonderful is the fact that the careful listener will hear, even amidst the clever and artsy production, that the songs have a simple integrity which makes them VERY suitable for congregational singing--simple, singable melodies, combined with accessible chord-structures and accompaniment options. 

Pentecost Songs is available for FREE on bandcamp, with an option to support the project financially.  The Pentecost Songs Songbook is also available for free!  The season of Pentecost begins this Sunday.  Don't miss this opportunity to listen and sing your way through the Spirit's season.  Read about the project in its entirety at Cardiphonia.

I've reproduced Cardiphonia's list of contributors here, so that you can see the diversity and breadth of expression represented.  I was blessed to be one of the songwriters on the project, but it's not at all pretense when I say that I am among the "least of these." 

Hiram Ring – Come, Holy Spirit, Come
Musician with Pageant Music and Doctoral Student in Linguistic in Singapore.

Nathan Partain – Come, Holy Spirit, God and Lord
Music Arts Director at Redeemer Presbyterian, Indianapolis

Wen Reagan – Almighty Comforter
Musician and Doctoral Student in American Studies at Duke.

Bruce Benedict – Come, Holy Ghost & Come, Thou Everlasting Spirit
Music Director at Christ the King, Raleigh

Jered McKenna – Almighty Comforter
Musician and Worship Leader for Mitchell Road Presbyterian Church

Matt Boswell – God the Spirit
Worship Pastor at Fellowship of the Parks, Fort Worth, TX

Zac Hicks – Away With Our Fears
Associate Pastor of Worship & Liturgy at Cherry Creek Pres, CO

Brian T Murphy – Did I Not Plead Above
Red Mountain Music and New York Hymns

Melanie Penn & Steve Elliot – Holy Ghost, By Him Bestowed
Brooklyn, NC – /
Musicians at Park Slope Pres

Clint Wells – No Longer Visible
Nashville, TN –
Musician and Red Mountain Music

Karl Digerness – Spirit of God
San Francisco, CA –
Music Director at City Church, SF

Michael Van Patter – Breathe on Me & Great Comforter, Descend
Greensboro, NC –
Director of worship-arts at Hope Chapel

Anne-Marie Strohman – Holy Spirit, Light Divine
Musician – Palo Alto, Ca

Luke Brodine – Come Down O Love Divine
Palo Alto, CA –
Pastor and musician at Grace Pres.

Cameron Gray – Breathe on Me
San Diego, CA –
Chad Gray works as a designer and musics at Harbor Pres.

Greg Scheer – Glossolalia & O Holy Spirit, Come!
Grand Rapids, MI –
Minister of Worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids and Music Associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship

Rick Jensen – Spirit I Wish I Knew Your Name
St. Louis, MO –
Musician and Liturgy Fellowship Dir.

Gina Tuck – Hymn to the Holy Spirit
St. Louis –
Director of Liturgical Arts at Central Pres

Luke Morton – Come, Holy Spirit, Come
Issaquah, WA – No More Fear
Assistant Pastor at Cov. Pres. Church.

Wendell Kimbrough – Holy Spirit, Come
Washington, DC –
Musician at Church of the Advent (DC)


The Opiate Mass: Innovations in Church Music

Vol. 1: Make a SoundThis blog, in case you didn’t know, is especially interested in cataloguing trends among young Christians who are seeking creatively to wed the historic Christian faith with modern expression in worship and music.  The Opiate Mass is a fantastic example of this, and yet they are doing more than providing a packaged expression of ancient-future worship.  They are pursuing innovation in church music.

The Opiate Mass isn’t quite a band.  It isn’t quite a concert-experience.  It isn’t quite a liturgy or worship service.  It’s something in between all those things.  The Opiate Mass is a collection of musicians and artists out of Seattle, led by director Zadok Wartes.   In an interview, Wartes relates its origin:

A group of dear friends and I were all experiencing a rather bothersome dissonance between our rock/club/band experience on Friday nights, and our Sunday morning music direction/performance. We dreamed up our ideal of both worlds — composing and performing epic music in large holy spaces all in the name of the sacred and beautiful. It was an awkwardly indulgent and desperate desire to experience God.

Vol. 2: AlbatrossThe Opiate Mass performs (leads worship experiences) in a host of venues across denominational lines.  They draw inspiration from the broad Christian tradition—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Their albums are elongated and contemplative.  They create spacey, ambient music, rich in texture and layering, with a mixture of old and new instruments, from horns and pipe organ to synths and electric guitars.  If you had to boil down their expression to one band, they most resemble the indie-eclecticism of Radiohead.  Yet their choice concert hall is an old, classic sanctuary (high ceilings, stained glass, ornate woodwork), not a rock arena.  The textual content for their music is historic and eclectic, from hymnody (e.g. “What Wondrous Love is This,” on Albatross, and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” on From the Belly of a Woman), to service music (e.g. “Sanctus,” on Make a Sound), to Orthodox liturgy (e.g. “Paschal Troparion,” on Albatross) to Scripture (e.g. “Isaiah 35,” on From the Belly), to original material.

Vol. 3: From the Belly of a WomanTheir three recordings (to date) are mixdowns of live performances, which, in the words of Wartes, “have their warts and abrasions.”  Still, they’re beautiful.  And, amidst the worship biz’s heaps of hyper-polished “live” recordings with more post-event overdubbing than preserved original tracks, The Opiate Mass’s material is refreshingly human and boldly experimental.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about The Opiate Mass is their insistence on not bifurcating the sacred and the secular when it comes to artistic musical expression in ecclesiastical contexts.  In the language of my own Reformed tradition, they observe God’s “common grace” in places like clubs and rock concert halls.  They don’t disavow the genuine experiences they have and feelings they feel when they hear a great band in a “secular” venue.  But, taking the approach that all truth is God’s truth, that all beauty is God’s beauty, they seek to sanctify musical expressions that isn’t readily associated with Christian worship.  I wholeheartedly applaud this endeavor.

I likewise appreciate the unashamed merging of musical and liturgical worlds which are often kept apart in Christian worship.  They are unafraid of blending classical instruments with modern ones.  They do not flinch at the juxtaposition of ancient texts with futuristic sounds.  They newly arrange tried-and-true musical works (check out their redressing of Handel’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” on From the Belly of a Woman). 

I don’t know how reflective their recordings are of the actual experiences they lead in churches, but at least what is recorded is meant more to be listened to and reflected on than sung with.  In other words, they’re not creating original congregational music.  Still, they’re contributing something powerful to the ever-evolving corpus of church music. 

From the Belly of a Woman is their latest album, released this past Tuesday.  It is the fruit of their work during Advent/Christmas 2010.  They recognize that May is an odd time to release a Christmas album, but they nevertheless press on, and they’ve given the Church a beautiful gift.  You can download all their music directly from their website, under “Catalog.”


Bifrost Arts from a Mainstream Worship Perspective

Check out how one blogger described their experience of joining with Bifrost Arts in worship at the David Crowder Fantastical Church Music Conference.  It's reveals how far people like us have to go in the quest to bridge the worlds of historicity and liturgy with mainstream evangelical worship:

Bitfrost Arts, a hymn-sing group from…well, I can’t remember if it was from Virginia or Missouri, but regardless, their sound was at the same time familiar and mysterious.  Instead of relying on the large square projection screens to prompt singing, Bitfrost Arts had printed out hymn-sing sheets, which really served more as an order of worship, complete with responsive readings and liturgical leadings.

I say that the sound was familiar in that most of what we sang were (somewhat) familiar hymns of the historical church.  The 2500 attendees were accompanied by a 15-person choir (comprised of randomly selected Baylor students on the quad), a drummer, guitar and bassist, as well as a full-sized harp.

I say the sound was mysterious in that the act of singing the old hymns with 2500 voices created a passionate sound which echoed off the walls with the same effect as if we had been standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Archaic yet relevant, to sing these songs was to take a fully engaged step back into the historical church.  And the harp just added the appropriate eerie/surreal layer to blanket it all.

Words or phrases that intrigue me are:

  • how they spell "Bifrost" :)
  • "a hymn-sing group" (?)
  • "archaic yet relevant" (I know what they mean...not sure "archaic" is the right word, though)
  • "a fully engaged step back into the historical church" (true...there are many instances of disengaged steps back into the historical church)

"We Throw One Hymn into the Mix Every Sunday"

I try to stay connected to several online worship leader forums.  On one of them, under a discussion of "Contemporized Hymns," I found this insightful comment left by Robert Cottrill:

H-m-m... It seems to me the wording speaks volumes--"this church throws one hymn into the mix every Sunday." Sounds rather like a bone tossed to a barking dog to keep him quiet! This approach is all too familiar. A church committed to contemporary music, that tries to keep the old folks from complaining by "throwing in" the occasional hymn--often with a mangled arrangement that does nothing to improve on the original. This is not a "blended" approach; it is more like playing politics with the musical heritage of the church. How would you feel about a service of hymn singing that "throws one praise chorus into the mix every Sunday"?

Some 40 years of studying English hymnody, and writing extensively on the subject, has convinced me that any local church that abandons the hymn book leaves its congregation seriously impoverished. I know, "different strokes for different folks." I'm just offering another point of view for your consideration.

We can't ultimately know people's motives, but my hunch is that not a small amount of people who say "we throw one hymn into the mix every Sunday" do so to placate a certain population in their congregation.  If that's the case, then "playing politics with the musical heritage of the church" is not far off the mark. 

Even so, the hymns movement continues to quietly advocate a third way--old hymns to new music--which was a common practice in church music history from the time of the Reformation.