Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Secular Lyrics Lead to Worship

Recently my digital copy of Paul Simon's album “Graceland” purchased from iTunes became corrupted, so I was online downloading replacement files, and listening to them at the same time. And I was struck by just how much spiritual content he had packed into his lyrics. And Paul Simon is a fairly secular Jew, not a Christian. The title song “Graceland” on the surface seems to be about taking his son on a road trip to see Elvis' mansion in Memphis. But buried within is a remarkable look at the brokenness of human beings – all of us:

        And my traveling companions
        Are ghosts and empty sockets

        She comes back to tell me she's gone
        As if I didn't know that
        As if I didn't know my own bed
        As if I'd never noticed
        The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
        And she said losing love
        Is like a window in your heart
        Everybody sees you're blown apart
        Everybody sees the wind blow

...and also that, somewhere on our journey there is a destination for us all, and redemption is there:
        But I've reason to believe
        We all will be received
        In Graceland

Another Paul Simon lyric (not on Graceland) that has always moved me is from the song “America”:
        “Kathy, I'm lost” I said,
        though I knew she was sleeping
        “I'm empty and aching
        and I don't know why.”
Confession is a little easier if you know there won't be judgement on the other side, isn't it? I guess that's why the Catholic priests have that little screen between them and the confessor.

Here's another one: “Say Something” by A Great Big World. Where “Graceland” was spurred by the aftermath of a marriage that had fallen apart, “Say Something” is the pain of love being offered but not accepted. While the song is quite obviously about romantic love, parts of it made me think of how God must feel when his offer of love is rejected. In Romans 1, Paul writes of how God, in the face of people who willfully reject him, “gives them over” to the sinful states that they so eagerly pursue. Paul speaks of this as being God's wrath against the godlessness and wickedness. But I am convinced that, while God is justifiably angry at people's rebellion, he is also deeply saddened – enough to make the hugest sacrifice that we could ever comprehend in order to save some.

        Say something, I'm giving up on you
        I'll be the one, if you want me to
        Anywhere, I would've followed you
        Say something, I'm giving up on you
        Say something

Lastly, Paul McCartney, accused of writing vacuous, lightweight songs, might well point to “Eleanor Rigby” in his defense.

        Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
        Lives in a dream
        Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
        Who is it for?

If you actually read the words to this song and are not moved by McCartney's perceptive look at the forgotten and unnoticed people in the world, well maybe you have no soul. I'm just sayin'.

So why is this in a blog about worship music? Well, real worship doesn't only happen when you're in a church service. It also happens when you hear a song on the radio as you're driving to work and are moved to think about God and just maybe have some appreciation for what he's done for you through Jesus.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Is Leading Worship a Performance, or Is It Song Leading?

This question comes up quite frequently among Worship leaders, and here's my take on the issue:
The answer is “Yes”.

“Don't be such a smart-aleck,” you say, “Pick one.”

Well, here's the difference: some songs the congregation is not expected to sing along with (e.g the one during offering, and often the first one of the service). They are designed to be listened to, kind of like a mini musical sermon. For songs like this, the “performance” aspect is more emphasized, because things like loud versus soft, solo voice versus harmonies, emotional content, etc. help convey the intent of the writer, and/or the interpretation of the performer(s). Because these songs are meant to have some kind of spiritual message, being able to hear the words is also important, so I try very hard to make sure they are not obscured by an off singing style, weird pronunciations, too much instrumentation, as you very often hear in secular pop and rock music.

Other songs are designed to be primarily sung along with. We often call these “worship songs”. We used to call them “hymns”, but that's reserved for the older songs now ;). Note that the "performance" type of song can be worship, too (listening and absorbing the message of it), just as a worship song or hymn can be made into a performance piece. 

For worship songs, the “performance” aspect is diminished, although you can hear worship leaders all over the spectrum. An audience (congregation) that is almost all young teens or adults is willing to let the performer(s) take great liberties with the melody, improvise a lot, and sing in a key that is geared to young voices and tastes. A typical church, though has people of all ages and types, so my personal feeling is that the worship team should stick to the song's melody with hardly any departures. The key should be one that the most people can sing in, even if that means a bit of discomfort for the team. The lyrics should be very easy to pick out, not being obscured by instrumentation. I believe there is room for some “performance”, though. Dynamics of volume can help convey the intent of the song. Adding harmonies can help make the song enjoyable (and some people in the audience might actually prefer singing the harmony instead of the melody!) A little improvisation by an instrumentalist or the lead singer can also help convey meaning and emotion.

Just think how uninspiring it would be if every song was sung a capella, with no harmony and no expression applied. I strongly believe that there is an appropriate balance between “performance” and group singing that leads to the message contained in these songs becoming incorporated into our souls.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Love Songs

Some worship songs published in recent years are focussed on striving for greater intimacy with Jesus. Here are a few, with samples of the lyrics:

Hungry I come to you for I know you satisfy / I am empty, but I know Your love does not run dry / So I wait for you
I'm falling on my knees / offering all of me / Jesus, You're all this heart is living for

This is the air I breathe / Your holy presence living in me
And I'm desperate for You / And I, I'm lost without You

"Where You Are"
In this quiet place again, / I can hear You on the wind / whispering to me
In this quiet place again, / I have found a friend / who understand me
Where You are / Is where I want to be / In your arms / You will comfort me
Far away from everything I used to be / You know I have come so far to be where you are

"Draw Me Close"
Draw me close to You / Never let me go
I lay it all down again / to hear You say that I'm Your friend
You are my desire / No one else will do
'Cause no one else could take your place / To feel the warmth of Your embrace
Help me find the way / Bring me back to You

One of these just got bumped off our regular rotation. Can you guess which one, and why? (answer at the end)

Some people complain that songs like these just sound like top-40 love songs, and that they don't convey the sense that the object of the affection is God Himself. They call them "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs. And in a lot of cases they're right. Generally speaking, at VCC we've tried to not use songs if a casual reader could not easily tell that the lyrics are directed to God or Jesus.

The argument FOR songs like this is that many of the Psalms sound like love songs, too.

Two of these songs - "Hungry" and "Breathe", express a desire to be closer to God, though they use human terms of love that don't even come close to describing God fully.  But they mention Jesus by name or describe a Godly attribute (holy presence).

"Where You Are" does not name Jesus, but the expressed desire to be "where" Jesus "is" fits with John 12:26 " If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also."

The one that got bumped is "Draw Me Close". It's been in our repertoire (I really like the melody), but hardly ever sung. While a Christian might identify with some of the sentiment expressed in this song, the casual reader could just as easily see it as a song to a boyfriend or girlfriend. Also, the line "I lay it all down again" gives the erroneous theology that it is we who sacrifice in order to have a relationship with God, and that we can make this sacrifice repeatedly, when the truth is that it is Jesus who sacrificed everything, and it only needed to be done once. So, pretty song, but bye-bye.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


The sermon today was about John 12:27-50, which deals with the unbelief of the people. Something that stuck out to me was the quotation from Isaiah that is included in the passage:
"He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them."

It is one of many places in the Bible that talks about how God "hardens the heart" of someone as part of His plan of redemption. God hardens the heart of Pharaoh in Exodus as part of the plan to rescue Israel and move them to the Promised Land, and here God is hardening the collective heart of (most  of) the Jewish people, it seems in order to make sure that Jesus gets crucified.

This makes it seem like God is kind of cruel to decide at a certain point in the person's life (or the nation's life in this case) to make it impossible for that person or people to ever believe and thereby be saved.

But as it turns out, all God is doing is solidifying what is just waiting in their hearts to be solidified.

Imagine two cups filled with what appears to identical amounts of white mineral powder. You pour some water into both cups and stir it up. When they are both dry, one is as hard as rock, one stays soft. What's the difference? One was plaster, one was talc! The plaster is made of crystals, that bond together in the presence of water - the talc does not.

It is in the nature of plaster to harden; it is in the nature of talc not to. We can use the plaster to accomplish a task we have in mind; make a smooth wall, for example. That does not mean we are being cruel to the plaster - we're just choosing a time to harden the plaster.

Opening Remarks

May 18, 2014

I've been talking about doing this for a long time, and finally I'm going to plunge in with this blog, and from time to time post some thoughts that come to mind related to leading worship at Victoria Community Church.

Big disclaimer: This blog reflects my thoughts only and is not an official statement of Victoria Community Church.

The plan is to give a little insight into what goes into some of the decisions - for instance, why some songs are added to our repertoire, or why some do not.