Saturday, December 26, 2015

Adele and Contemporary Christian Worship Songs

Recently our contemporary worship team at Emmanuel Enid (e.g., Refuge Band) spent a creative planning time discussing the possibility of Emmanuel beginning to write its own music. We have a very talented team of musicians and writers, particularly when you consider the population of cattle outnumbers humans by 100 times in western Oklahoma.

I registered a concern to our worship leaders that though I enjoy the stylistic approach of contemporary Christian worship, I sometimes wonder about the words of the songs we sing. I enjoy contemporary worship because it is not vapid, meaning "missing life or energy" in its lyrical style, but sometimes the words of contemporary worship songs seem void of content and meaning.

In response to my concern, I was told that there is a 'beat' or 'style' of contemporary worship that seems to drive the train in writing new music. The phrase Golden Ratio was used, and I discovered that Christian song writers will often create a rhythmic style first, a musical formula that sounds good, and then will add words later. It's one of the reasons, I was told, that popular contemporary worship sounds similar. I responded that I don't necessarily object to songs sounding similar--classical music carries a distinct lyrical sound--as much as I object to the words of contemporary worship songs which sometimes lack meaning, depth or theological content. 

I suggested a solution to the dilemma might be to go to Google books and find some wonderful ancient hymns, songs rich in theological and Christological content, adapt them to modern English and begin writing contemporary worship songs around the meaning and content of words. I suggested that if we write music ourselves, we shift the way the songs are written: Words will always be primary, lyrical sound secondary. 

I even offered an illustration. There is a hymn written in Latin nearly two hundred years ago (1837) by Reverend John Chandler of Oxford, England. The song, now in public domain, is available on Google books, It is based on Psalm 59:12, "O look upon me and be merciful to me." The song's English translation (page 13) goes like this:

Lord, on the Cross Thine Arms
were stretched,
To draw Thy people nigh; 
O grant us then that cross to love,
And in those arms to die.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory to the Holy Ghost, to Thee, 
While endless ages run.

I suggested a new song be written using the same concepts of God's effectual love in drawing us to the cross, the importance of never abandoning faith and love for the cross, and the blessing of dying while resting in the love of the One who died for us. In the newer version I offered, I changed the "Thine" and "Thy" to "You" and "Your's," and I also changed the objects of God's love in the hymn from the third person plural to the second person singular. 

The Refuge team was quiet and respectful, but I could sense their mental wheels were turning. Mark Twain once said, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you do know that ain't so." Modern contemporary worship leaders might need to rethink (in my opinion) how songs are written. We have the good news. Let's be sure that we always sing about the Christ who made the news.

My digital copy of Time Magazine came on my phone today. The cover story is on Adele. In reading the article I came across four paragraphs that sought to explain the counter-cultural popularity of Adele (emphasis mine).
Much of what’s on the radio is cooked up by A-list producers and songwriters who churn out hooks, snippets of melody, lyrics and song concepts. Their work is then mined for precious No. 1 hits. It’s a sound rooted in the late ’90s, when artists like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys began recording tracks written by superproducers like Max Martin and his Stockholm team of songwriters, who expertly blended American R&B and European dance music. Nearly two decades later, Martin is still shaping hits for artists including Taylor Swift and Katy Perry.
Top songs are also often written to track, which means a producer makes a beat, then a songwriter listens to it and attempts to generate words that fit that beat, sometimes singing nonsense until the language begins to take shape. It’s more about how lyrics sound than what they mean. This has become a bedrock part of the industry, as laid out in John Seabrook’s recent book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. And it’s how you end up with something like Ariana Grande’s dance-pop confection “Break Free”: “I only wanna die alive … Now that I’ve become who I really am.”
"Break Free" is a popular contemporary secular song with stupid words which are void of meaning. Some popular contemporary worship songs seemingly follow the pattern of  "Break Free" -  amazing lyrical sound and emotion, but void in meaning and content. The next two paragraphs explain how Adele does it differently.
Adele writes the way music used to be written, decades ago, before that teen-pop boom of the late ’90s. “I’m not precious about writing credits—it’s whatever makes the best song,” she says. “But I can’t do that. I can’t write a song based on a track.” Her songs aren’t a Frankenstein’s monster of her best ideas, either. “I write a song from beginning to end,” she says. “I don’t go in sections. It’s a story.” Even though she, too, recorded songs for 25 with Martin, their cut—“Send My Love (To Your New Lover)”—doesn’t have the stitched-together feel of many radio hits.
Greg Kurstin, who co-wrote and produced “Hello,” says Adele’s process is increasingly rare. “She would start out with actual lyrics,” he says. “I don’t see that in the pop world.” Accordingly, Adele’s songs stand out against much of what’s popular now. “I’m not saying my album is incredible, but there’s conviction in it,” she says. “
My hope is that we can see a movement toward writing contemporary worship songs with an emphasis on the content of what is being sung. Maybe we can be a part of a new breed of contemporary Christian songwriters who begin with the the authentic gospel story of  the Person and work of Jesus Christ. 

Gospel power is not so much about the way we feel as it is about the way we think. 


  1. This is one of the best thought out and most meaningful of your blogs (and I have been reading them for nearly ten years). I hope the ideas you express here will be taken up by your church music team and by other writers and instead of having contemporary music that repeats one basic "hook" (if that is the right word) it will convey the central theme of the gospel. Thanks for writing such relevant and needed blogs.

  2. Thanks, Byron, for your compliment. I sometimes unintentionally make things sound easier than they really are, but I'm hopeful.

  3. Hi WADE,
    Good luck with your idea. With all of the musical talent at Emmanuel, something really good should come forth.

    That hymn translation you mentioned by the Rev. John Chandler is beautiful:
    "As now the sun’s declining rays
    At eventide descend,
    So life’s brief day is sinking down
    To its appointed end.

    Lord, on the cross Thine arms were stretched,
    To draw Thy people nigh;
    O grant us then that cross to love,
    And in those arms to die.

    All glory to the Father be,
    All glory to the Son,
    All glory, Holy Ghost, to Thee,
    While endless ages run."

    This hymn reminds me of the 'Phos Hilaron', a very ancient hymn, in that it is timed at the setting of the sun, and speaks of Christ (the Giver of Life), and ends with the three-fold praises to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    It is very possible that Dr. Chandler's translation may come from a hymn that was inspired by the very ancient and very famous 'Phos Hilaron', which is still sung at vespers (sunset) traditionally:

  4. I have often thought of the music in church and have been fortunate to have been a member at Emmanuel as well as other churches with what I saw as an appropriate focus on what music is to a church. In the end I came to agree with my Pastoral team at each church that it can be either a great reflection of Christ in the heart and minds of those present or a distraction in the form of entertainment.

    It’s a bit unfair to paint all of contemporary Christian performing artists this way as I do believe there is an appropriate place for the kind of music that makes me want to dance as David (the original Jesus Freak though he did not know that name) did. However, like David we have to take the example that God gives us in David’s worship in that it was precisely focused on God in every way possible yet brought a joy to the point of dancing. Some Baptists would call that a rebel! I love it as it embraces the joy Jesus does, in fact, bring to a heart. Tim Tebow was asked to tone down his outward Christian actions. His response was perfect when he said;

    “If you’re married, and you have a wife, and you really love your wife, is it good enough to only say to your wife, I love her, the day you get married? Or should you tell her every single day when you wake up and have the opportunity? And that’s how I feel about my relationship with Jesus Christ,” Tebow said. “It is the most important thing in my life, so every opportunity I have to tell him I love him, or I’m given an opportunity to shout him out on national TV, I’m going to take that opportunity.”

    Tim’s perspective in this instance is wholly applicable to our music as well. What I think we are all speaking to here is what is and what is not appropriate. I spoke tongue-in-cheek about David being the original “Jesus Freak” on purpose. His reactions to God and his worship had him doing what many would, even today, think is out of kilter. Well, I would agree that I think the song “Jesus Freak” by DC Talk would be an inappropriate worship song for a congregation to sing in corporate session, but I can tell you I have danced to that song several times as if no one was watching (I mean it…no one was watching, thankfully!)

    Music is a powerful carrier of information and or message. It is why we need to be careful. Both in presentation and performance it can either be that bad distraction or that moment the Holy Spirit uses for God’s holy purposes. Don’t think it is impactful to the degree I claim, well, I bet everyone can remember things they did not know were committed to memory because of music and yet could recite them. “Come into my shop…let me cut your mop…daintily.” (Sung to “Barber of Seville”) This may very well be one of the only classical pieces some people know, but they remember the imagery and the humor of Buggs Bunny torturing poor Elmer Fudd. Same can be said of many commercials we have seen on TV or jingles we have heard on the radio. The point of this absurd example is this…its powerful, and our God is no cartoon or commercial. This makes it all the more important to submit every bit of this before God and not just fall to the temptation of injecting ourselves for performance sake or some other selfish motive lurking just below the surface.

  5. I am glad, you as a pastor, gets this!!! I have often asked why can't a church playing 'contemporary worship' add hymnal lyrics to the music. I actually sent an email to a Baptist church my wife and I had visited for 6 weeks. I asked them what goes into the making of the songs because they sounded weak. They assured me that careful planning goes on. I didn't and I don't believe that is true. I was at a point where I was counting to see how long before I heard the name of Jesus in the songs as well as how much of the lyrical content was Gospel rather than shallow and broad stuff. ALOT of it was. I received one other email from this church asking if I were a member because they have no record of me there. I thought, what does that have to do with my question? It is a mega church. We are no longer going to that church.

    I applaud you for talking to the worship team on this. Keep pursuing this because too many churches are being seduced to sleep but shallow theology to the extent that the Gospel becomes veiled to even those who call themselves Christians

    Lakeland, Florida

  6. Gospel power is not so much about the way we feel as it is about the way we think.

    This last sentence snagged my upside down thinking. I am not versed with songs and lyrics. My limited thinking on that most of poetry vs prose is in symbols and metaphors and less to do with logical and linear thinking. Words in songs that snag us are more of a certain phrase or wording that evokes imagery that persists or reverberates in the mind, though mostly in the subconscious that is hidden from logic and rational thought.

    My thinking is not so much of lyrics but of Christian messages or preaching in general. All the emphasis is in logic, rational thought of the gospel and its significance. Here I am talking about serious preachers who stick to the Word.

    But how was this done in early Christianity? My suspicion is simple narratives and little of logic that Paul beats us with.

    Does the Spirit become more active with less rational thought and more simple narratives that evokes good feelings. Is that now how many are turned to Christ?

    I heard one very deceptively simple message of Yacouba Seydou titled John 3:16 delivered around July 2014. I am unable to locate this message on Emmanuel Enid sermon archive. In that message there is very little thinking but lot more experience, feeling.

    My gut feeling is a LOT of early Christianity was that way with Spirit leading the way.

    Now we are bound by rational thinking and logic and less of the Spirit.

    My 2c.

    1. I found the mp3 of Yacouba Seydou message of July 2014 on podcast:

      John 3:16 (Yacouba Seydou) - Released Jul 06, 2014

    2. The Wartburg Watch had an echurch of Yacouba Seydou in July 2014 that carried his message in video :

      echurch Wartburg July 13 2014

  7. Thanks a lot, Wade, for presenting this position.

    It would be interesting to know how those great contemporary artists like "3rd Day", "Casting Crowns", "Jars of Clay", and yes, "DC Talk" come up with lyrics that are obviously inspired by God and packaged with music that engages our very souls. I would guess that it most often comes from their having an event with God; some moment of revelation that we term "inspiration" when they are "given" the music that coincides with a spiritual message originating from God. I could be totally wrong but can't imagine it coming from their simply choosing vocabulary because it fits with the musical measures and scores.

    I guess that even the great artists sometimes take old hymns and set them to new music and that is effective, but I don't believe it would be called "creating" the song.

  8. You've touched a nerve here, son.......

    I used to be all up in the modern praise chorus movement, until I noticed a lot of it was about us. "I'm coming back to the heart of worship", "We bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord", stuff like that. And then I thought back to the old hymns ... "Great is Thy faithfulness" ... "At Calvary..". I LOVE the message of those hymns, and think it would be smashing to set some of that to the modern method of choruses.

  9. Wade,

    One of my all time favorite singer/psalm writer was King David.
    JOHN MICHAEL TALBOT is a believing monk who took the psalms and placed the to music. Mostly acoustic guitar. His later works have many more instruments. You Tube, spotify and some pandora has some of the songs. My favorite album is " Come to the Quiet."

    I really enjoy some of the newer versions of old hymns. I agree the words should be the first part of a song. Lyrics are poetry, alas we have very few word smith's writing our songs.

    WORDS MEAN THINGS. That is why some of the old hymns are so dear to my soul and spirit. They speak to me. To my soul because of the WORDS...and the God who inspired the writings through healing brokenness, suffering or joy.
    "For all that you have done, I will Thank you, for all you are going to do. For all that you promised and all that you are, you are all that has carried me through.Jesus I Thank YOU!!!"

    I want pregnant words from a heart filled with love and gratitude.I want words written from a passionate heart yearning for comfort in a trial..." Be still my soul the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of guilt and pain. Cling to thy God.....
    It is well with my soul.

    The hymns brought comfort and compassion that the writer understood something about God they just had to get out, put into words and on paper.

    I gone into nursing homes and sang randomly from the hymnal. Folks who are suffering find comfort in the words. Folks struggling with Alzheimer's and dementia will sing along. I see tears rolling down faces. These songs mean something to folks.

    There is "meat" and strength in them. I would rather not have a plethora of songs. I would rather have one song that spoke to my heart and sing it the rest of my life...


    Is the music for entertainment and performing or is it to minister to the soul in depth, like a inspired sermon.
    What would it be like if you took a topic and found random scriptures to fit in to your preaching?
    Giving counseling to some one and just picked out a few random thoughts because it sounded good at the time.
    Seems in the case the cart is going before the horse...the horse...I said the horse.. oh yes the horse.

    One of my favorite poems...these words would inspire music . The depth of the meaning. The nuances and shadows. You can really touch the pain and frustration.

    Caged Bird

    A free bird leaps
    on the back of the wind
    and floats downstream
    till the current ends
    and dips his wing
    in the orange sun rays
    and dares to claim the sky.

    But a bird that stalks
    down his narrow cage
    can seldom see through
    his bars of rage
    his wings are clipped and
    his feet are tied
    so he opens his throat to sing.

    The caged bird sings
    with a fearful trill
    of things unknown
    but longed for still
    and his tune is heard
    on the distant hill
    for the caged bird
    sings of freedom.

    The free bird thinks of another breeze
    and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
    and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
    and he names the sky his own

    But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
    his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
    his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
    so he opens his throat to sing.

    The caged bird sings
    with a fearful trill
    of things unknown
    but longed for still
    and his tune is heard
    on the distant hill
    for the caged bird
    sings of freedom.

    1. Pege', I loved John Michael Talbot's Hiding Place CD that came out around 1989. Good for people hurting!

  10. if the angels can endlessly sing 'Aleluia', may we also find better songs to sing if we try . . . there are some songs that come inspired from the Spirit and we know them when we hear them

  11. RRR,

    Good point about "creating" a song. I agree. It's hard, though, to improve on the gospel itself (the cross, the resurrection power of Christ, etc....) - which many of the ancient hymns emphasized. I think what I meant was "creating a lyrical rhythm" around words.

  12. Dave, JW, Bob, Pege, Christiane, and Ramesh

    As always, great thoughts and fascinating comments (and links, Ramesh).

  13. PEGE, your comment was beautiful . . . God bless!

  14. Thanks for the helpful article for someone not "versed" in the process of producing modern music. If anything it is an articulation of what I have observed.

  15. It's important to remember songs can fall anywhere on ones scale of "depth". Personally I prefer singing songs with truths expressed in a simpler messaging/lyrics. When a hymn is sung I feel as if I need to decipher 1800 English to understand what is being said and try to determine the authors point of view and I agree completely and totally miss out on the worship experience. However, with simpler lyrics it is easier to comprehend and then reflect on those truths and praise God. Plus I will not remember 4 verses of a hymn during the week, but a more modern song with a hook is more likely to become an earworm and provide me the opportunity to think back on the meaning.

    Again I believe it all comes down to personal opinion, taste, and God using whatever styles of music He wants to accomplish His will. I personally don't have a problem with music first then lyrics if it works and has meaning. In my opinion music lyrics don't have to be a dissertation, just reflect the simple truths of Gods goodness.

  16. Wade,

    Right; that's what I understood and I agree.

  17. Indelible Grace music, if I recall correctly, takes old/older hymn lyrics and sets them to modernized 'tunes' and rhythmic settings. I think their origins are in University Reformed fellowships. Tim

  18. Yesterday (Sunday) a strange thing happened that I’ve never experienced in a church song service. .

    It was a simple thing…the electricity went off.

    Usually nothing can be heard but microphones. Since the song leader enjoys leading with his eyes shut he probably thinks everyone is happily singing the ‘new’ songs.

    When the printed songs on the screen went blank, things changed: The song leader played the piano and a young boy led in several ‘new’ songs.

    So…FOR THE FIRST TIME, it could be HEARD…the congregation was silent.

    Our Constitution was written to protect the people from their government.

    I believe the way things are going; the congregation needs a Constitution to protect them from their song leaders.

    Your last statement on your post (Hymns Called Whims…) states: “I’ve concluded that worship wars are mostly wars of the flesh and not of the Spirit.”

    You made no comment to the replies on that post. The replies stomped the ‘new’ songs in the ground. I guess you judged we were not in the Spirit.

    So your “contemporary worship team” is getting tired of contemporary songs and plans to write their own.

    Better hope the electricity doesn’t go off.

    Have you ever taken a poll of what the congregation wants to sing?

    “Why don’t you do a study of songs people like to hear such as “I’ll Fly Away”…written 1932 (year I was born). It’s been recorded over 43 times.'ll_Fly_Away

  19. All of the above comments display a real truth. Art is a subjective thing. Sometimes people can confuse what is good with what they prefer. The sad part is that we (Christ-followers)try to make our preferences a spiritual thing. That is a dangerous path that leads to judgement. No matter who we are, at one time or another, someone will hate our generation's music.

    I love reading this blog. So much insightful content. Thank you, Wade.

    Bt McKinley

  20. Rex,

    Two things I admire about you entering your 84th year of living:

    (1). You know how to comprehensively read a blog and type salient comments on a computer!
    (2). You haven't lost your sense of humor!!

    However, I'll fly away is a song that if sung at our church would cause a number of people to do exactly that.


  21. Another sad aspect and victim of our current band-worship trend is that our Southern Baptist Seminaries are abandoning degrees in music and music schools. Soon there will be no worship leaders with music degrees from our seminaries. Choirs, orchestras, singing in parts all "Gone With The Wind". Glad I'm old enough to have experienced that era.

  22. Wade,


    Is it “A soft answer turns away wrath” or is it ‘smooth funny words triumphs over sincerity’?

    Take care…my friend.

  23. after years of thinking about the scope of the role of a 'worship leader', and being somewhat confused by that title;
    it occurred to me that it must be similar to the role of a 'cantor' in Judaism. Of course, it's not 'the same', but it may also involve the idea of inviting the congregation to 'respond' or participate in the service


  24. Culture certainly affects us all. Anonymous above doesn't like deciphering 1800 English. I detest repeating a hook mindlessly endlessly.

    Who is right? Both, and neither.

    There is nothing wrong with preferring one style of music over another. Some would fly out of Emmanuel Enid if "I'll Fly Away" was included. Me, I've already flown away from churches that WON'T do it.

    God made us of endless variety, so why cannot churches be the same? You want new contemporary, do it at your church. Mine prefers hymns and a touch of southern gospel. Don't join with the express idea of changing our music.

    AKA known as stealing a building.

    I can visit churches, find one that teaches what I believe the Bible teaches, in a worship format and music style that lifts me to the throne room. But that may be different than what lifts you.

    God return us to the idea a bigger church isn't necessarily better, and to the idea of churches being good cultural fits for EVERYONE rather than what sells.


  25. Wade, this is the address to a blog I follow and I think you might like his insight.


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