The Makings of a Great Worship Hymn or Song
What constitutes a great worship song? As conservative Lutherans, we often turn to the lyrics. It’s not a bad place to start, but it doesn’t or should not end there. I’ll give you an example. There have been times in worship when we were trying to sing a hymn that was so choppy and musically so foreign, dissonant or outdated that no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t trudge my way through it – praying didn’t even help. I stopped the struggle mid way through and decided to just read the words to myself as some of those around me kept struggling. Just reading the lyrics is still good worship, but it could have been better and it would have been better if those powerful, poetic, theologically sound and rich lyrics were matched with a better melody. Likewise, I’ve experienced the opposite extreme. In my house, while practicing a new contemporary piece. Completely wrapped up in the music. Affected and impressed with the melody and the chord progression. Then it dawns on me that I’m singing something so lyrically shallow that it doesn’t even mention “God” let alone Jesus, nor does it contain any biblical language. It’s just not fitting for worship. I should also state that I’ve tried to sing other contemporary pieces that had beautiful biblical lyrics but the music was so syncopated, complex, jumpy and “rangey” that I couldn’t sing it.
So I come back to my opening question. What constitutes a great worship song? You know where I’m going; it’s a combination of great words and great music. We need both because that’s the way that God designed music to be. In his wonderful grace, He has designed it to be a moving, inspirational, powerful, heartfelt expression for us to use towards and about him, but it does blossom with both beautiful words, matched with beautiful music.
How does one match song lyrics to music? Perhaps a few examples would help. A mournful, sorrow-filled song like “Were You There?” needs to be sung in a reflective, slow dirge-like tempo. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” incredibly contains only 5 notes in its simple, yet powerfully introspective story. There’s a contemporary song called “Grace Flows Down” by Chris Tomlin and the music gracefully flows down a major musical scale as we sing these incredible words:
What a powerful combination of music and words, both flowing down to us worshippers from God above. I get shivers just thinking about it.
Have you ever thought about the melody line that goes with Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone”, especially where it starts to soar in the line that goes: “What heights of love, what depths of peace?” I’ll bet you can sing it to yourself right now. Even if you’ve only heard the song once or twice, because good music has that affect. As I sing this song I feel like I’m soaring with the angels on that “heights of love and depths of peace” ride! Singing this song takes the singer on a memorable journey with Christ. This is simply modern hymnody at its best. It is a matched lyrical story coupled with supportive, beautiful memorable music.
How About “God be with You Till We Meet Again”? I defy anyone to sing this at your Pastor’s going away service or at a funeral and not be entirely consumed by it. It is an incredible combination of words and music rolled together into a meaningful worship experience. And the most amazing thing is that the music really doesn’t have the power to do any of this, it’s actually the Holy Spirit working in you and He’s using the music to reach your heart. How neat is that?
This is one of the things that our church’s need more of today; and I’m referring to all Christian denominations. Worship leaders and Pastors need to pay attention to more than just the lyrics. That’s old school; that’s a given and quite frankly, churches are dying that have this mindset.. We need the best that worship music has to offer. We need to avoid songs with great lyrics but are unsingable on one end and songs that are hip and catchy but have shallow lyrics on the other end and any undesirable combination therein. We need the best lyrics, the best poetry, the best rhythms, the best harmonies, the best melodies, the best chord structures, the best pairing of lyrics and music and the best musical dynamics because God deserves our best.
Please note that it is not about style. It is not about hymns vs contemporary music. It is not about guitars vs organs. It’s not about using a particular song or hymn on a given Sunday because we’ve done it that way for centuries. It’s not about my quirky preferences or your peculiar likes and dislikes. It’s not about being a Lutheran hymn or an African American Spiritual. It’s not about wondering if a Lutheran can sing a biblically rich song written by a Presbyterian musician. It’s not about making sure that the Gospel is in every song that we sing. It’s not about stringing songs together into a perfectly transitioned set. It’s not about denominations. If we are not careful, these types of things can become worldly, filthy rag-like entrapments that only serve to take our focus off God.
In the end, it is about God; our creator, our savior, our friend, our redeemer, our rock and our fortress. And it’s about us giving him our very best and being choosy in the songs we use.
Now go and make beautiful music with your congregations and may the Holy Spirit bless and guide your efforts.