A Songwriting Rant

The fault lies partly with the worship leaders who choose drivel

“Many modern songs are scatty, cloying, fluffy, incoherent, repetitive, flighty, bumbling, empty, careless, shallow, heretical, repetitive, nauseating, anaemic or repetitive. The fact that they nevertheless make their way into our times of corporate worship is not primarily the fault of the songwriters.”

 

I’m a huge fan of contemporary worship music. I don’t even apologise for it, despite the scorn respectable middle-aged men are supposed to pour on it. No, most of it isn’t Bach, but then neither was most church music. No, most of the lyrics aren’t When I Survey, but then neither were most of Isaac Watts’s hymns, let alone everyone else’s. And the sheer power of music to move us, lift us, and catch us up in dancing, singing, joy-filled praise, when combined with thoughtful and God-exalting content, is such a gift that it would be churlish to sneer at it. So I’m not the guy who sits tutting with his arms folded when the Newday Big Top is bouncing to That’s Why We Move Like This; I’m right at the front, bouncing with them.

But.

It is also true that many modern songs are scatty, cloying, fluffy, incoherent, repetitive, flighty, bumbling, empty, careless, shallow, heretical, repetitive, nauseating, anaemic or repetitive. The fact that they nevertheless make their way into our times of corporate worship is not primarily the fault of the songwriters (although some of them should know better), since they are simply writing songs which express their praise to God, and if the rest of us want to moan about that, we should simply write better ones. No: the fault lies partly with the worship leaders who choose drivel and, by force of personality and microphone, force the congregation to sing it; and, even more culpably, with the elders who say and do nothing about it, preferring a smorgasbord of new and catchy melodies to the weighty and substantial songs which will actually teach sound doctrine to those who love Jesus, and preach the gospel to those who don’t. (At two of the festivals I attended this summer there was a moment of madness from someone on the stage during the sung worship time; at neither of them did anyone resembling an elder get up, correct, shape or even make a joke about what had happened.) So when I rant about songwriting, I’m not really ranting about songwriters, but about the pastoral carelessness, verging on negligence, shown by a fair few guardians of the church simply because someone is holding a guitar. For most modern charismatics and evangelicals, our hymnody is our liturgy – a problem which is the subject of a whole other post – and that makes thinking it through carefully extremely important.

That all sounds a bit nebulous, so let me highlight six particular bugbears, in the hope that nobody will apply all I have just said to any individual songwriter, worship leader or elder, but rather recognise a twinkle in the eye amidst the pokes in the eye. In no particular order:

1. Jesus is my boyfriend songs. This catchy phrase has become something of a blunderbuss recently, having been applied generically to anything which expresses love to God (which I would imagine was a good thing), and as such has come to mean everything and nothing. What I mean by it is what Preston Sprinkle means by it: ‘Something is wrong when I can sing a worship song to God and then turn to my wife with the same lyrics. Because, when I look at you, babe, “my heart turns violently inside of my chest,” and I feel like “I’m madly in love with you”, “you are more beautiful than anyone ever”, “there has never ever been anyone like you”, “I want to hear your voice, I want to know you more”, “I want to touch you, I want to see your face”, “I’m desperate for you; I’m lost without you.” Is our love for God an amped up version of the romantic love we have for our significant others? Despite the sense we get from some of our worship songs, the answer is: No.’ Preston’s article, which argues that the idea of “falling in love with Jesus” is actually a very unhelpful one, resulting from nineteenth century Romanticism being read back into first century Jesus-devotion, is well worth a look if you want more on this.

2. Random lists of superlatives. Yeah God, you are so amazing, beautiful, glorious, wonderful, powerful, astonishing, astounding, incredible, indescribable, loving, great, wise, sovereign, kind … Obviously, God is all of those things. But listing them like that brings about a slightly flat sense of diminishing returns in those of us who are singing, as if each attribute in the list becomes smaller with the addition of each extra one. Partly that’s a question of focus; great hymns usually meditate on a particular aspect of who God is, and make it live poetically, rather than piling up largely unrelated adjectives which can otherwise get lost in the noise. But partly it’s also proof of the maxim I first heard from Joel Virgo, which he used to apply to preaching, but I think applies equally to songwriting: “Don’t say things are amazing. Say amazing things.”

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