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Entries in hymnody (13)


Retuning a Fabulous Forgotten Hymn

Over at LIBERATE, I talk about the 19th century hymn, "His Be the Victor's Name," and the process that led to its retuning. Go check it out! I hope it inspires others to join in this movement of now countless musicians re-gifting old hymns to new generations. Go read the post!


Do Lyric Statistics Indicate a Shift in Worship?

Bruce Springsteen's Lyrics, in a CloudWord Stats

Yesterday, Duke scholar Lester Ruth (someone whose work every worship leader should pay attention to) tweeted this interesting stat:

Continuing hymn/CCLI song comparison. Most frequent human verbs in hymns? "sin" and "see"; in CCLI songs? "sing" and "praise"

His sources for study involve, first, a look at the 70 most republished evangelical hymns up to 1860…so, material that many evangelical historians would classify as more “classic” hymns (as opposed to the “gospel hymn” era of post 1860 through the mid twentieth century). He is comparing these hymns to the lyrics of the 108 songs which ever appear on a CCLI top-25 list.

It is extremely hard to assess global data in a way that allows one to make accurate generalizations about shifts in the worship climate of evangelicalism, but I do believe that the kind of work Dr. Ruth is doing is getting closer toward something that allows for objectivity.

Let’s flesh this out. First, we’re talking about human verbs in worship songs, so this doesn’t include or observe divine action.  This is from the vantage point of our action. Secondly, we are talking about the top songs in general rather than the entire sung corpus of any local church.  Still, I think these stats give us some hooks to hang our thoughts on when it comes to what might appear to be some shifting theological emphases in evangelical worship.

God's Salvation & Human Triumph

It’s interesting that the most common human action-words of yesteryear were terms that are tied up more centrally in the narrative of the gospel. The gospel is predicated upon a realization and recognition of our sin, and many have said well that our recognition of the immensity of God’s grace is directly proportional to how deep and dark we see our sin. The second word, “see,” may not appear at first glance to be a gospel-narrative word, but it is. Looking and seeing, from the Pentateuch to Revelation, is one of the primary actions associated with salvation and reception of God’s grace. Think of Moses holding up the snake in the wilderness (Num 21) and Jesus’ exposition of that as a prefiguring type of Himself on the cross (John 3). Think of all the biblical language that invites people to “come and see what God has done, his awesome deeds for mankind!” (Psalm 66:5, NIV). Think of “beholding,” a synonym of “seeing,” and a host of scriptural quotations pertaining to salvation and God’s actions should start flooding the mind.

Note also that the most common human action-words of days gone by reveal an emphasis on the weakness and passivity of humanity. When I think of “sin,” I’m not usually tempted to think highly of myself. When I think of “see,” I’m inclined to ask, “What or Whom outside of me am I seeing?” I’ve talked on this blog many times about the prevalence of triumphalism in our worship (“God, this is what I’m doing for You”). The shift from “sin” and “see” to “sing” and “praise” I think at least hints toward the triumphalistic trajectory. “Sin” and “see,” though our action, really anticipate God’s action. “Sing” and “praise” are wonderful, biblical actions, as well (they're imperatives all over the Psalms). But the spotlight is definitely more on us.

Asking Fundamental Questions

Even if you think my analysis is reading in my own biases (which I admit could really be at play here…I’m going on words devoid of their lyrical context, and I’m hyper-sensitive when it comes to triumphalism vis-à-vis the gospel), just take a step back and ask some more fundamental questions.

If I’m reading through the scriptures and seeking to develop a full-orbed biblical theology of corporate, gathered worship, what human action-words should we expect to find? Perhaps it is “sing” and “praise,” especially if you’re just camping out in the Psalms. But once you move beyond the Psalms and listen to the full Scriptural voice about the core themes of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, an entirely different set of human actions comes to the fore, perhaps best summarized in themes of repentance and faith.

Finally, could we also be seeing how music, particularly singing, is starting to move to a more dominant position in the eyes of evangelicals with regards to what worship is? Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear people say, when referring to music, "wow, the worship time was great." Or, we often hear, "first we'll have a time of worship [i.e. singing], then the sermon." It's pretty fair to say, I think, that NO Christian, prior to the twentieth century, would have understood what those expressions mean. The equation of singing with the totality of worship (not as a part of worship, but what worship centrally is) would not compute for nearly two millennia of Christian doxology.

At any given moment in history, it’s hard for people to lift their heads above the fray and take inventory of the water they’re swimming in. At least we can say, in the face of these stats, that we need to pause and reflect on shifts like these and what they mean. Even if our conclusions are dreadfully off (which mine could be), the exercise keeps our evaluative and critical antennae up, which can’t hurt as we seek to faithfully shepherd and pastor God’s flock in worship.


What Worship Leaders Can Learn from a Fourth Century Songwriter

Worship leaders would do well to learn at least a little bit about the life and work of Ambrose (c. 340-397), a pastor and church leader in Milan, Italy. He became an important figure in the early church because of his strong opposition to Arianism, a heresy which argued against the full deity of Christ and therefore challenged Trinitarian theology. Ambrose was also an early mentor to Augustine.

What is less known about Ambrose is that he was an early songwriter in the church. Let’s just say that he was the fourth century’s Chris Tomlin. In fact, I set one Ambrosian hymn, “O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright,” to new music and added the Gloria Patri as a chorus—a true experiment in ancient-future doxology.

D. H. Williams, a respected evangelical patristics scholar, helped elucidate one of the principle reasons Ambrose wrote hymns. Ambrose gave songs to the church as a means of imparting good theology and warding off bad theology. He knew the power of song. Ambrose recognized that when people sing, they learn truth more by drinking it than by thinking it. Read this description of Ambrose:

Just before Easter in A.D. 386, Ambrose…found himself and his congregation besieged by imperial soldiers. The emperor Valentinian II, who sponsored an “Arian” form of the faith, demanded that the bishop hand over one of the basilicas in the city. Ambrose refused. Tensions rose throughout the city, and the threat of riot became real. During Holy Week, armed men were sent to take by force the church where Ambrose was presiding. While soldiers surrounded the building, packed with the faithful, Ambrose decided to teach the congregation hymns. Augustine was an eyewitness of the event, being a catechumen at the time, and he tells us that the church at Milan had only recently begun the custom of singing together for mutual comfort and exhortation.

The impact these hymns had on the minds of the congregants was made clear by Ambrose himself, who reported in a sermon that “Arian” detractors had accused him of leading the people astray by his hymns. He writes, “I certainly do not deny it. That is a lofty strain and there is nothing more powerful than it. For what has more powerful than the confession of the Trinity…All eagerly view with another in confessing the faith, and know how to praise in verse the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

These Milanese hymns and chants provided believers with more than inspiration and pious sound bites about their faith. Ambrose’s intent was to reinforce key features of Nicene theology. But as dramatic as these circumstances were, the creative inculcation of Christian truths through recitation and song was not an unfamiliar practice. Since the days of the apostles, the worship of the church served as a critical vehicle for imparting doctrina, that is, ordered teaching about the Christian faith. Christian leaders of the early centuries found that worship was a good opportunity to supply believers with the concrete foundations of how to think and live Christianly.*

Herein lies both an encouragement and a warning to worship leaders. The encouragement is that we have a very important job with some wonderful, powerful opportunities. Before us lies the task of the education and formation of the people of God. The questions become: What theology will we give them? What views of God are they singing? And there we have the warning. We mustn’t squander or abuse this opportunity. We must find creative ways, within our cultural musical idioms, to clothe in an accessible way the theology we’ve been handed by our forefathers and mothers, as it has been discerned from the Scriptures. What an opportunity!

*D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 164-165.




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.

Cardiphonia's Songs for Liturgy and Our Contributions

As I grow deeper in kinship with Bruce Benedict of Cardiphonia, one of the preeminent gifts I recognize in him is hospitality.  Over a year ago, I enjoyed room and board in his home and an inordinate amount of time out of a busy week in the life of a worship pastor in a growing young church.  His hospitality extends to the way he administrates Cardiphonia, an outfit dedicated resourcing the Church's hymn revitalization and liturgical renewal. Benedict draws artists, songwriters, and liturgical misfits into a holy heap, and Cardiphonia continues to resource the Church with faithful words to sing to our Maker.

Why the Album Exists

Songs for Liturgy, out last week, is an exciting move forward for Cardiphonia, and it probably represents a pivot-point for those of us on the path of theological depth, historical connectivity, biblical fidelity, and gospel centrality in worship.  Our journey on this path led us to fall in love with the rich, forgotten treasure chest of historic hymnody.  But, unbeknownst to many of us, heading down this road took us into the theological contexts which shaped these hymns, and the theologians who shaped these contexts.  We discovered that the Reformation--from whence many of our Protestant heroes came--was equally a reformation of worship as it was of doctrine...but this reformation wasn't a doxological overhaul as much as an attempt at refining by getting back to the sources of the early church and her fathers (this was most notably the quest of John Calvin).  As soon as the mystique of pre-Reformational worship practices was brought to more clarity, we found much value in understanding how the Church worshiped between the time of Christ and the time of the Reformation.  And we, in turn, fell in love with liturgy.

Philip Majorins, Co-Director of Liturgical Arts at Christ Church in Davis, CA, describes this journey in much the same way in his great introduction to the album's accompanying songbook:

This album is evidence that many Protestant church musicians have been reawakening to the deep and simple truths of the gospel that have been a part of Christian worship (in the East and the West) for centuries. It may sound odd for some of us to admit, but the shape of the gospel is tied up in the form of the historic Mass. Even more puzzling is that many of us steeped in the charisms of the Reformed tradition are “re” discovering that the historic mass was shaped by Scripture. The truth is, the Reformed tradition has never really rejected the shape of historic Christian worship. It has just been neglected. Consider these tunes a basic primer for those of us interested in going back to the sources from which faithful worship is apt to spring. The earlier rediscovery of hymnary, by these same musicians, has naturally lead to an uncovering of church music with even deeper roots in Holy Scripture and historic catholic faith.

Okay, so some of you are wincing right now.  The Zac of five years ago probably would have done the same.  But before your five-sola-vaccination starts preventing the invasion of the "catholic" virus, consider reading a book like Bryan Chapell's Christ-Centered Worship.  For me, it gave me a new appreciation for my (small "c") catholic (which means "universal") Christian faith when it came to the gospel-shaped worship practices that characterized the Church for centuries.

How Can Non-Liturgical Modern Worship Contexts Use this Resource?

The Doxology & Theology conference a few weeks ago has convinced me that a rising generation of young worship leaders is hungry for the gospel to be embedded more deeply into the life of the worship service.  The irony is that the historic Christian liturgy from which many of us modern worship leaders have departed is deeply Trinitarian and (therefore) gospel-saturated, and I'm convinced that many of these short songs could be quite effortlessly woven into a block-of-songs-style worship set, amplifying the gospel-story:   

  • McKenna's "The Brightness of God's Glory" (one of my favorite songs) works great as both a soft opening to worship, focusing us on the majesty of Christ or as a set-ending, helping us revel in the gospel
  • The several versions of the Kyrie, which is in its essence a confession, work well in the middle of a worship set to provide people, after encountering the greatness and holiness of God, some space to say with Isaiah, "woe is me."
  • The "Glorias" and Doxologies work to round off a time of singing about the gospel of Christ
  • Many of the songs, like versions of the Sanctus, work well during communion and actually put ancient worship words into the mouths of modern worshipers.
  • Many of the benedictions can be used at the end of a service (especially if the sermon went long and you need a short song :))

Our Contributions to the Project

For those of us on the journey, Songs for Liturgy is evidence of our attempts to give voice to the broad, historic Christian liturgy in our local contexts.  I was blessed to contribute two songs.  The first is a version of the Lord's Prayer, which contains echoes of Malotte's famous version, sans the huge operatic vocal range.  The melodic line is comparatively flattened out for ease of singing, but I preserved the values of held notes and phrasing, because I find them prayerful and meditative.  You can grab my lead sheet for it here.

The second contribution is what I call a "Benedixie."  It represents a bit of a journey in worship pastoring for me.  Every worship leader feels the pressure to squeeze their church's musical style into whatever the majority like best.  For many evangelical churches, this means a pretty set rock sound.  I love that sound, personally, but I find God always pushing my boundaries wider with the musicians He brings my way.  How am I supposed to fit a trombone and clarinet into an arena-worship rock ensemble?  Well, I can't.  But I can respond to God's providence by connecting what we do to styles that are both gripping for congregational music and fitting for the instruments provided.  Hence, New Orleans Dixie.  We'll see if it takes off in Denver.  :)  So here's our clap-happy benediction, "Lord Dismiss Us With Your Blessing," by John Fawcett.  Here's the lead sheet, and here's the clarinet and trombone score.  

And, I must give credit where credit is due.  This was very fun to record.

Austin Hogan - clarinet
Dave Strunk - trombone
Connor DeFehr - tuba
Cathie Detwiler, Paige Wilson, & Strunk - vocals 



Great New Denver Worship Artist - John Gooch

The tide continues to turn in modern worship.  Faux-hawks are increasingly being covered with thinking caps.  I met John Gooch a few years ago when he moved to Denver from out of the state.  He’s finishing up a degree at Denver Seminary, and one of the primary goals of his studies is to be the best worship leader he can be.  I praise God that we’re seeing more up-and-coming worship leaders hungering for deep theology and wide biblical reflection.  Would to God that more aspiring worship leaders believe that the best thing for their craft is a deep love for God honed in the woodshed of thoughtful, intentional Bible-training.  Because John is one of these kinds of worship leaders, I value him, even enough to ask him to sub for me at Cherry Creek when I’ve been out of town.

John has just released a stellar EP entitled The Waiting Room.  It’s a clean and clever pop-rock album, some of the songs on which have great congregational potential.  My favorite track is “Home,” a powerful ballad which internalizes and personalizes the story of the Prodigal Son.  You get the sense that John is writing from the perspective and voice of the Prodigal himself and yet sharing something deeply personal about his own story.  There’s a lot in this song for everyone to identify with, as the first verse and chorus illustrate:

I’ve been a liar
And I’ve been a thief
I’ve killed another’s hope
And I’ve stolen their dreams

How could You ever love such a broken man like me?
Still You say, “I love you, son. Come home.”

All my fear, all my shame
On the cross You took my blame
In Your grace I’m not alone
God, you say, “Come home.”

Ahh…the good news just never gets old.

There are a lot of emerging singer-songwriters out there making records.  What makes John stand out?  Well, for one, not every singer-songwriter has a great voice, and even fewer have that natural, knock-you-out vocal sound (I think I fall short of this, myself).  John does; his voice is pro.  Secondly, if The Waiting Room is the beginning of John’s official songwriting journey, then we’re in for a treat as we see him develop in his craft, because these songs are both solid and deep.  John has a clear passion to inhale theology and exhale praise through song.  The Waiting Room typifies this and prophesies of greater depths to come.  Part of my hope and prayer for John is to figure out how to wed the passion and heart of modern worship with the church's rich history of hymnody.  I don't know that we've fully seen the potential of that explosive combination, and I think John's the type of songwriter that will have the chops to do it.

The album was recorded in a fine studio (Epicenter) out here in Boulder, CO, and its mix is fresh and clean.  I love some of the electric guitar choices and colors, especially on “Beautiful Savior” and “You Are.”

Go give The Waiting Room a listen, and pick up a copy while you’re at it!


CCM Artist Challenges Modern Worship to Write Better Songs and Embrace Liturgy  

Fernando Ortega has always behaved as one cut from a different swatch of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) cloth.  His instrumentation has almost always been a bit more folky and “classical.”  His melodies have always been a bit more lyrical.  His albums have always shown an awareness and embracing of the Church’s hymn tradition. 

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All About Our New Album, Without Our Aid

Without Our Aid is the second full-length release of Zac Hicks + Cherry Creek Worship, out of Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church in Denver, CO.  Their debut album, The Glad Sound, was their first hymns project, released in 2009, and between that time and the present, Zac has contributed to three other compilation projects with Cardiphonia: The Psalms of Ascents (March 2010) , Hymns of Faith: Songs for the Apostles’ Creed(October 2010), and Pentecost Songs (June 2011).


Without Our Aid is an experiment in songwriting for the sake of building bridges between two current camps in modern church music—the so-called “hymns/rehymn movement” and mainstream modern evangelical worship.  The album’s aim is to combine the energy and vitality of the modern worship sound (made most popular by groups like Passion and Hillsong), with the depth, theology, and historical connectedness of Christian hymnody across time.  From a songwriting perspective, the two do not easily go together: hymns are usually written in through-composed verses, while modern worship songs tend to have three and sometimes even four unique sections (verses, choruses, bridges, and “surprise” refrains or endings).  Though hymn purists might decry the liberties taken in bending and arranging the original hymn-texts, and though modern worship connoisseurs may consider the texts too verbose and archaic, our passion for greater growth and unity convinces us that Without Our Aid is a unique and worthwhile project.


The goal of Without Our Aid was to create an album which sounded live in order to capture that more tangible “moment” of corporate worship.  It is not a live album in the true sense, mostly because our current setting does not have the bandwidth to be able to pull off a live recording.  However, the recording was pieced together in the “live” setting of our reverberant, 900-seat, traditional sanctuary, employing ambient mic techniques for all the major instruments.  A backing choir of approximately 20-30 voices sang through the album multiple times; those sessions ended up being powerful times of worship themselves.‚Ä®Stylistically, Without Our Aid is best characterized as a “modern arena-worship” record—big drums, driving electric guitars, layered synths, crowd noise, and a live “congregational” sound.

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