Avoiding Convenience: A Word to Hymn Writers

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Every music minister knows the weekly anxiety of searching for the right songs for the upcoming Sunday service. The criteria may differ from church to church, but hopefully, the goal is to find songs that tie in thematically with the sermon or the weekly scripture reading. However, I know of a pastor on the west coast who directed his music minister to follow a grid when planning the music service—a large W—meaning that the service starts with upbeat songs that slowly give way to medium ballads, then go up again, then back down, before sending the congregation off with a happy bang. Never mind the content. The music becomes a space filler and provides the congregation with a reason to stand up and clap, or to settle down and get ready to dish out an offering, or listen to a sermon.

I used to serve in a church that followed a similar grid. It was always those dang happy songs that gave me the hardest time. Not that there wasn’t a plethora to choose from, but the upbeat songs were always so corny and forgettable. These days, no one sings the ones we used back then and I imagine the same fate will follow many of today’s happy slappy modern worship songs.

Now that I’m in an Anglican church the weekly song search is much more complicated than the W model. There’s the lectionary to deal with—scripture passages that are appointed for every week of the year: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (or one from Acts), and finally the Gospel reading. These readings are arranged according to the narrative of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the season after Pentecost). More often than not, there’s an obvious theme that ties all the readings together such as contrition, service, God’s faithfulness, baptism, etc. I’ve learned to love the challenge of discovering that theme and finding the perfect songs to underscore and enhance the various portions of the Anglican mass. This process in the last year and a half has opened the door for me to many rich and beautiful hymns that I’d never heard before. It’s how I stumbled upon the stunning hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine” (lyrics: Bianco De Siena; Music: Ralph Vaugh Williams) in the weeks before Pentecost Sunday last year. Here are the verses as we sing them at our church:

[audio:ComeDownOLoveDivine.mp3]

Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

I’m drawn to the specificity of this hymn. It’s about something. It’s about a specific event in the Christian narrative. The humble stance, the plaintive tone; it’s a perfect hymn about God pouring out his Holy Spirit on a contrite heart that’s found redemption through Jesus Christ.

Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to choose from that would make for beautiful songs: the transfiguration of Christ, the feeding of the five thousand, the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subjects, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.

It’s easy to write a chorus that says:

God, you are a Holy God
I need your grace to see me through
I need your mercy to make me new
Let me live each day for you.

I just made that up in two minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It might fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from. But compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

It took some real thought to craft those lines. They’re timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. I didn’t set out to write a didactic piece. I’m reminding myself, too. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.

————————————————————–

Fernando Ortega is a singer/songwriter and song leader at a church in Albequerque, New Mexico. He and I toured together about ten years ago and have been friends ever since. I’d rather hear him sing a hymn than anyone else on earth. His new album Come Down, O Love, Divine is available here and at iTunes.

–The Proprietor


75 Comments

  1. Brad Griffith

    Fernando, I can’t say enough how God uses your music to inspire worship in my heart. Thank you for “avoiding convenience” and offering the church something truly beautiful. May you inspire others to do the same.

  2. Ellen Jervis

    Do you have a choir to help introduce a new hymn to your congregation. A choir will know the song and carry the tune, which helps the congregation learn it. Just wandering if you have choir to do that, since so many churches don’t have choirs or much of a choir anymore. That area that was reserved for choirs is now occupied by drums, electric pianos and bass guitars and a song team of 3 or 4 people. Just curious if not having the support of that body of singers is missed when teaching a congregation new songs. I miss the choir.

  3. Ryan Newcomb

    Great post! I’m currently working on putting melodies to The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts, a compilation of hundreds of his hymns and his entire work from the book of Psalms. The lyrics have blown me away. As you note, they’re about something and they are intentional in their attempt to translate Scripture into prose that can be sung. O that the Church would strive for this in their worship music instead of something that’s only viewed through the lens of being commercially viable or culturally “relevant” (whatever that means).

  4. Eric

    As a composer and hymnwriter myself — and, full disclosure, a confirmed decades-long Fernando Ortega fan — I think this is spot-on, and puts a finger on why I’m continually drawn to hymns. It’s a discipline of “Look at what’s stood the test of time, then do that.” Certainly there are banal songs and quality songs in every age, but knowing what made the good songs of the past stand out helps us immensely when composing or choosing songs for the present.

    About the only thing that could improve on that text would be to pair it with a musical setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Well, what do you know?

  5. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Fernando Ortega, thank you for this article and the music. You’re one of my all-time favorites. I wrote a little number I think you’ll like, it goes like this: Oh Jesus you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind hey Jesus, hey Jesus.” Do you know how I can get my songs published and recorded by someone who will sell a million copies?

  6. An Encouragement to Modern Hymn Writers – Justin Taylor

    […] Fernando Ortega: Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to choose from that would make for beautiful songs: the transfiguration of Christ, the feeding of the five thousand, the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subjects, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished. […]

  7. MarieP

    Writing hymns about Biblical narratives is fun! I was an English and history major in college, so it makes lots of sense I’d like doing that…

    I wrote one about the woman at the well after hearing a series of messages on John 4. Sermons are often where I get the idea for a hymn. It was a sermon that inspired Anne Cousin to write “The sands of time are sinking.”

    Here is the hymn I wrote:

    John 4:7- “A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give Me a drink.’”

    (to the tune of Ortonville- “The Spirit breathes upon the Word”)
    http://www.opc.org/books/TH/MIDI/Th1_143.mid

    The woman hurried to the well,
    Her water pot had dried.
    She went at noon so none could tell
    The sin she held inside,
    The sin she held inside.

    And there He stood, a foreign Man,
    Her heart began to sink.
    Yet He asked this Samaritan
    To please give Him a drink,
    To please give Him a drink.

    “But why ask me,” confused she cried,
    “For you’re a Jew, I see.”
    “If you had faith,” He then replied,
    “You’d ask for one from Me,
    You’d ask for one from Me.”

    “Believe in Me, and you shall live
    And never thirst again,
    For living water I will give,
    A fountain from within,
    A fountain from within.”

    He spoke with great authority,
    Her int’rest quickly grew.
    He was a Prophet, she could see,
    Her sin He even knew,
    Her sin He even knew.

    He taught her how to worship God
    For He does seek and save,
    “All those who would the Father laud
    In truth and Spirit praise,
    In truth and Spirit praise.”

    Her water pot she left behind,
    Her soul no longer seared,
    She asked of all that she could find.
    “Oh, has the Christ appeared?
    Oh, has the Christ appeared?”

    And they this Stranger did receive
    As He the truth unfurled:
    “And now we too believe that He
    Is Savior of the world,
    Is Savior of the world.”

    – Marie Peterson, ©2011

  8. Hannah Jackson

    Those who feel so small and lonely in their battles for depth, beauty and theology at every turn in the worship process, cannot help but deeply appreciate this article, this author and this artist who takes them straight into the presence of God as he weaves all emotion, beauty and doctrine into one masterpiece after another. I’m so grateful for the remnant who seek not just songs, but poetry, not just poetic songs, but theologically sound, poetically gorgeous and deeply moving songs that lead one into the heavenly throne room.

  9. Matthew

    Great post Fernando, I’ve always enjoyed your hymns, along with “Glad” (at least used to, I’ve lost track over the years). I’m a bit biased, even with being “the younger generation” I have always enjoyed hmnys in worship. One is that as you say, they are group of songs that have stood the test of time, and two, I can no longer sing unison songs well and I prefer the base part (which I had to learn to hear).

    The song you have posted is wonderful, I had never heard it before, but the lyrics are wonderful and the tune adds to its meaning. I must confess I have a hard time with some of the modern praise songs, at least the ones that come off as repetitive. I usually don’t find enough meat in the verse to justify singing the same line more than once or twice and I end up frustrated that I don’t really want to sing the song and that I’m frustrated in the first place. I suppose I’ve always resisted the emotional uplifting worship as well (which may be a fault), and have always fallen to my knees in heart when I’m convicted and only then found the uplifting I need, even crave, which carries me forward in life.

    Sorry, I’ve spoken more than I ought perhaps.

    Some of my favorites hymns:
    “We Have not Known Thee as We Ought”
    “The God of Abraham Praise”
    “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”
    “And Can it Be”
    “Ah, Holy Jesus” – This one makes me weep truly

  10. Brent

    Ron Block,

    I like what you’ve got so far but, in the spirit of Fernando’s post, I’d like offer the following suggestion:

    Hey Jesus, you’re divine
    You said so, John 10:29 (and 30)
    Hey Jesus, Hey Jesus

    Now *that* will be a chart topper!

    Best of luck Ron, I keep praying that you will finally experience some degree of success in your musical career…

  11. Stephen Clark

    Avoid convenience, cliche and the consumer? Unfortunately it seems to me that most churches and their Pastors have embraced these things first and foremost, forgetting that a Christian must embrace and proclaim the Gospel.

    Thank you Fernando. I have listened to your Hymns of Worship an innumerable amount of times. Whenever I am in the mood for hymns, I either listen to that cd or Michael Card’s Hymns cd or Chris Rice’s Living Room Sessions. I am just waiting for AP to get on board and work his magic with 12 of his favorites.

  12. Scott

    Oh, thank you so much for this. As I write this, I am sitting in my office at church, wrestling with the hymns and choir anthem we will be singing Sunday. I have been the music minister in the church I serve for eleven years. I was hired here fresh out of school and probably cared more about the music than the people I led in worship. I am thankful for my long employment with the church, though. I came to see the people in the choir as fellow travelers and our coming together through music as a time of worship, yes, but also as a time of talking our faifait

  13. Scott

    Sorry, I’m so spastic. I apologize. Choir became a time of talking through our faith together and sharing stories. That has been a real blessing in my life.

    The difficulty I face now, and that I’ve always faced, is the attitude that music is basically filler or a form of emotional manipulation. I’ve never seen the W grid, but I have been encouraged to “give us something really upbeat” to stir people’s emotions. I guess what I’m wondering is how to change people’s minds about music. How do you help people to really love and appreciate it? How can it be impressed upon people the beauty and care and creativity that went into crafting a wonderful hymn like “Come Down, O Love Divine” or “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty”? Where do you start? I hope I don’t come across as venting against the church;these are faithful people trying to follow Jesus. These are honest questions I face on a regular basis.

    Thank you for your thoughts and for your beautiful music. The “Sanctus” from your current CD is one the most beautiful pieces of choral music I’ve heard in years. Thank you so much for including that.

  14. Jason Custer

    Yes and amen! Well said, Fernando!

    I wish more music ministers and song writers would heed this great advice. Having just recently lead two liturgical services at my school I ran into the same difficulty of finding songs to fit with the theme of the prayers and Scripture readings. I could find vague lines that corresponded, but nothing that captured the heart, language, and beauty of the liturgy. I found myself continually going back to older hymns time and time again. I would love to see more written like you have described.

    Thank you. I appreciate the post.

  15. Marshall

    I’m all for well written songs! But that includes contextualization… we don’t speak King James english anymore! While I appreciate the older hymns (as opposed to modern ones), I don’t believe they are the standard. Yes almost everything we do today is based on history (how else do we learn?). At the same time, God is doing a new thing and loves new songs in a new era with modern language. Don’t get me wrong – I love the old hymns. I was raised on them! I don’t they are more holy or stronger songs just because they are older. God’s Spirit is just as alive today as He was centuries ago – let’s act like it!

  16. Marshall

    oops, correction: the next to last sentence on my comment should read “I don’t think they are…” Communicate completely!

  17. Jenny

    I love old hymns and find many contemporary “praise choruses” bland. However, I’d be hardpressed to call the former “timeless.” Preachers like Moody commissioned new hymns because people wanted new songs. Really, we could just sing in union old chants in Greek off of parchment. Every generation has it’s own preferences regarding music. Why force one’s on another? Believe me, it’s difficult to concentrate on praising God when you’re pained by the experience.

  18. Joe Morse

    Gospel song writers are just as inspired as those that penned the scriptures in some cases. It is a tool God both enjoys and uses to tough the souls of others. Thanks for the post. Oh, the Ron Block guy. I don’t mean to insult you sir but that song really won’t get you anywhere. You know, as they say, keep your day job whatever that may be. Just leave the song writing to the professionals like Mr. Ortega. Aside from this Ron fellow, some of those other writings sounded good.

  19. Joe Morse

    Gospel song writers are just as inspired as those that penned the scriptures in some cases. It is a tool God both enjoys and uses to touch the souls of others. Thanks for the post. Oh, the Ron Block guy. I don’t mean to insult you sir but that song really won’t get you anywhere. You know, as they say, keep your day job whatever that may be. Just leave the song writing to the professionals like Mr. Ortega. Aside from this Ron fellow, some of those other writings sounded good.

  20. Avoiding Convenience « Crooked Pencils

    […] This post the other day by Fernando Ortega about modern hymnwriting scratched me where I itch. Money quote: It took some real thought to craft those lines. They’re timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church … Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you. […]

  21. Phernandeau

    To the Proprietor – many thanks for posting my piece. I am honored.

    To Ron Block – Once again, you have led us right to the throne, though I’m not sure which throne. I miss your face. Are you still eating raw foods?

    To Marshall – What, then, is the standard for modern hymn writers? I agree with you that “they [the old hymns] are not more holy, or stronger songs just because they are older.” But I do believe that they are stronger songs simply because they are stronger songs than the hymns being written today. I’m generalizing, of course. There are plenty of real hymn stinkers floating around out there in the punch bowl of the current canon. But the great ones are certainly not dismissible just because they are old, or just because they employ King James English. (I am talking about the classic western version of what we call a hymn.)

    I would argue that the best of these hymns were written around the time of Isaac Watts (many prior exceptions could be noted) up through part of the industrial revolution, at which point things began to take a nose dive as the church became obsessed with victorious living. That’s when we began to see phrases like “we’ll walk the streets of gold!” “Im going to get me a mansion in glory!”. The culture was drunk with notions of prosperity – hymns reflected that infatuation. There were some beautiful hymns written during the Welsh Revival which are an exception.

    The standard for a good hymn is a good hymn, whether it was written in 1307, or 2002. However, I don’t believe there are many great ones being written these days, or at least I have not run across them. Mind you, I’m not talking about worship songs – that’s a sub-topic, I think, and one I would love to discuss at another time. I suppose that’s what you meant when you said “God is doing a new thing and we need to act like it”.

  22. Tammy Raetz

    As a hymn writer and an Anglican, I very much agree with your post, but have to say that opportunities to publish are few and far between. From where would you like to obtain these new lyrics and/or hymn tunes? Traditional Anglicans use the 1940 hymnal, so I often write texts to existing tunes (and have also published two original hymns in concert with a composer), but the market is thin to non-existent, last time I looked.

  23. Micah

    Mr. Ortega,

    As a young director of music at my local church, I know I am not alone in hoping that you continue to write publicly and often for the benefit of the rest of us. Thank you for your words and music.

  24. Phernandeau

    Thanks to everyone for saying so many kind and encouraging things.

    Tammy – I agree. The demand isn’t great right now among the usual channels. Perhaps you could do a little research and find out colleges that are experiencing a hymn revival of sorts. I was at Wheaton College 2 years ago and the students there told me they were starved for anyone who could get up there and teach them a hymn they’d never before heard. They sang gloriously and it was a fantastic experience. I’ve gotten the same kind of response at Moody, Covenant, Westmont and others.

    Also – maybe you should consider launching your own website of your hymns – complete with titles, topics, metrical index etc. – just like a real hymnal. Then you have to find a way to make people want to see it.

  25. zachary

    Words cannot express how encouraged I am by this essay. I often feel quite aweful during worship services. Only recently have I started listening to hymns, satisfying to my soul. Hymns are songs about the Lord’s truths? worship songs are songs of adoration to the Lord? Is that the distinction between hymns and worships songs?

  26. Phernandeau

    Zachary – I’m really glad you were encouraged.

    “Worship songs”, in my mind, would be a broader category that encompasses hymns and other forms of worship music.

    When I talk about hymns in my posting above, I am referring to the songs that have been sung in the Western church since the Reformation – typically several verses set to a melody and sung with four-part harmony, though with the advent of slide projection and Power Point (no more hymnals), most churches no longer sing the harmonies.

    Modern worship songs are usually composed around a pop formula – verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus – or some variation thereof.

    Both hymns and worship songs can express the Lord’s truths, as you say, or be songs of adoration.

    Does that make sense, or help at all?

  27. Annette

    Really the fact is even the most beautifully crafted hymns will one day come rushing out of people’s mouths without thought or relevance. We all get comfortable when we do things the same way for too long. When song writers stopped writing songs that were too lofty and only made sense to those with dictionaries, hearts were ignited once again with a passion to worship. Now, that kind of music has become ritualistic. What was once heartfelt, genuine and meaningful, is now considered to elementary, theologically weak and musically insufficient. Once again, we are starting to long for something different so that our relationship with the creator will be refreshed. Every relationship gets boring if you do and say the same things all the time. We have a need to relate on a deeper level with our Lord. One way to accomplish it is through music.

    The bottom line is that we were commanded to sing all kinds of songs to the Lord. Hymns, spiritual songs, new songs, joyful noises, and musical instruments are a few of the ways that God’s people made much of His name. I feel like musical worship is something that pours out of us in different ways depending on where we are in life. Some days call for a hymn of declaration while others require a love song to the king of kings. I’m not sure any of us can mandate what is right or wrong on this subject. My guess is that when singing with a pure heart even the silly happy songs bring a smile to God’s face. Worship is about bringing glory to the only one who deserves it. It makes me nervous when I hear people criticize the way someone else worships the Lord.

  28. Dan

    Read the article last night, re-read it this morning and listened to the hymn. Here are a few unfiltered thoughts…

    Though I agree with how shallow much praise and worship music can be, essentially turning out to be pop songs, I don’t believe he has the best/only approach either. That particular hymn, as an example, is so difficult in its timing and phrasing, not to mention vocabulary, that it would be generally inaccessible to the average person in a contemporary setting with the average age being under forty. A congregation would also need to be helped by some familiarity with the history and tradition of the church in general, which many don’t have. The language is not common to us as it was for those in the time that song was written. That’s not to say that this type of hymn doesn’t work for him and where he is.

    However even with people who love hymns and the depth of their poetry and imagery; they are not likely to be found listening to hymns as their main source of worship music on a regular basis, though many of us can say we have been through seasons where we were more into hymns for a time and a lot of us are captivated when we come across a good one in the middle of our non-hymn day/week/month.

    I also disagree with the how he disregards the simple verse or chorus as a component of worship. You may recognize these simple lyrics, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” and “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honour, and glory, and blessing”. Pretty simple stuff. There’s a couple more between Revelation 5 and 8. Simplicity does not necessarily equal shallow or lack any depth of truth and revelation of God. In fact, the more wordy a song is, the better chance it has of becoming the focus in and of itself and making any particular focus it may have intended, hidden or hard to pin down.

    It’s not to say that a psalm or hymn or praise or worship song has to be simple, just saying it can be and that’s ok too.

    As for his thematic approach; not necessarily the way only way to go either; unless the theme is Jesus, the Christ, our King. Generally speaking, God’s attributes, who He is, is the theme of our worship and how He has acted on our behalf, is the theme of our praise. But even then, my approach takes that as a given and my goal in self-preparation, nearness to God in word and deed, in spirit and in truth, is to be able to lead people into His presence. The songs are chosen to be a vehicle that would hopefully facilitate that.

    If a group of people have connected with God during worship; their gaze is fixed on Him, their hearts stilled by His presence, their minds at peace in Him…. Isn’t that a wonderful place to be as His word is proclaimed and taught?

    I have a difficult time choosing songs overall but especially the faster ones. I don’t know if that’s from past experiences where I was asked/told to follow the W pattern, (didn’t know it had a name until now) or having witnessed so many meetings where the people where artificially whipped up both in song and preaching. I much prefer mid tempo songs to start and slower in worship simply for the reason that we don’t attempt to physically get our heart rate up and adrenaline flowing but start by moving closer to a place of rest in Him. I don’t find people in general need more hype! Life is busy and stressful enough.

    That being said… a song of celebration, a shout for joy, praise at the top of our lungs… cannot be dismissed, it just shouldn’t be forced. Encourage ourselves to say to our souls, we will praise Him… good place to go, but that must be communicated and encouraged and not overlooked over a mere physical/soulish engament of the audience into the songs we’ve chosen. There are dynamics that take place within our spirit, soul and body existence that one way or another, slowly or quickly, must take us from body to soul to spirit in order to fully connect with God.

    I’m reminded as I write this that there are many approaches to leading a group using music and many are valid. Taking the integrity of the leader as a given, much of how it all works out is dependant on how God chooses to express Himself through that particular person. There will never be enough people on this planet to fully express who God is or enough voices to sing all the praises He is worthy of.

    So, overall, I don’t disagree with what he says or does but that he limits others to his choice of expression and method.

    Gotta go. I have to figure out what songs to do on Sunday morning! 🙂

    Bless you guys. God is good.

    Dan

  29. matt burnett

    Dear Fernando,

    As an Anglican pastor just north of you in Colorado Springs, I’d like to put in a plug for content-rich music that intentionally supports liturgy. It is not a planned W (never heard of that until this post), but may have some affinity with it.

    As you know, liturgy does indeed have a rhythm, a progression – twin peaks of Word and Sacrament. So to plan to purposefully come into God’s presence in liturgical worship via music that intentionally supports the liturgy’s rhythm and progression seems good to me.

    So, for example, to enter the worship service by music that is indeed upbeat, energetic, whatever, by way of echoing a Biblical desire to “Come into His gates with praise and His courts with thanksgiving,” seems totally legitimate to me.

    Of course, of course, of course, a strong lyric is critical (though what qualifies as “strong,” and in what context, could easily spawn a whole other thread), but the principle of “worship theology affecting music choice,” even as regards tempo or mood, is a sound principle(?).

  30. JoAnna

    Thank you for the word of encouragement to hymn writers. I agree and resonate. There is a need to write songs of substance for God’s people. And what better words than the words of Scripture themselves? God’s words to us, and for us.

    This is something I am trying to do more intentionally when writing music. I appreciated your example in leading us before the throne in worship, and taking us with you…when you came for Founder’s Week last February here at the Moody Bible Institute. Thank you for directing the focus upward. 🙂

  31. Marsha Panola

    Thank you, Fernando, for this piece. Hymns have been for me a tool that has engraved so many spiritual truths on my heart. (A little boy in my church once called a hymnal the “singing Bible”.) I’m really thankful that I was exposed to so many great ones when I was first learning to walk with the Lord. And I’m thankful for the way God just keeps putting songs in our hearts so that we can “sing a new song” and treasure and keep singing the old as well.

    The hymn you sing here is beautiful, and beautifully done. I love the last two lines, especially. (And your simple statement that “It’s about something” says a lot.)

    Your own music has been a blessing to me for many years! Thank you.

  32. Phernandeau

    Annette – I like the idea in your first sentence about how in heaven, we’ll be so filled with awe and wonder that perfect praise songs will flow out of mouths and hearts. (I’m paraphrasing and if I got it wrong, please let me know.) You state that you know this as fact. And also that there will be no need of thought or relevance when It comes to the creation of these praise songs (again, paraphrasing).

    Like I said, I like the idea, and I’m with you in half of it, but I part ways with you about thought and relevance. I imagine that in heaven, our new minds and hearts will function with a much more heightened, enlivened, and acute sense of what worship means. Out thoughts will be infinitely more alive. And the songs we sing will be the very definition of relevance. We’ll be joining in (even as we do now on earth) with the heavenly hosts – the communion of saints. We’ll sing the songs mentioned in Revelation –

    “Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord God almighty who was,
    and is and it to come.”

    “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain and has
    redeemed us to God by His blood”

    “Blessing, and honor, glory and power be unto Him
    who sits upon the throne.”

    In the rest of your first paragraph, you make some fairly bold generalizations. I wonder what you mean when you say, for example “ When song writers stopped writing songs that were too lofty and only made sense to those with dictionaries, hearts were ignited once again with a passion to worship.” Which song writers are you referring to here? St. Francis of Assisi? Isaac Watts? the Wesleys? Fanny Crosby? Was it after these guys died that true, heartfelt and passionate worship finally began? Was the church stuck in hopeless bondage to ritualistic traditionalism right up until the early 1970s when the Jesus Movement began? I think you’re dismissing a mighty huge chunk of some of the richest Christian music ever created in favor of what you’ve experienced personally since becoming a Christian.

    I agree with much of what you said in your second paragraph, though I certainly was not attempting to “mandate” how people should approach worship. I was merely trying to encourage modern hymn writers, (and also all church-song writers) to think deeply about what they do – even if they write simple praise songs. The simplest songs, in my experience require careful and skillful crafting if they’re going to be any good.

  33. Phernandeau

    Dan – Let me start by defending the hymn I posted. My recorded version is a little more complex than what we normally sing on Sundays at my church. I took some liberties with phrasing and interludes between some of the lines which make the song a little less singable. However, I have used the song in many of my concerts as a congregational worship song and have had good success with it in a variety of denominations and settings. I would venture to say you would be surprised if you tried it out yourself.

    I have a friend who has always thought that some of the songs I use congregationally are too inaccessible, musically and lyrically, for the average church-goer. He literally said to me once “The masses are asses.” I’ve proved him wrong many times by introducing obscure hymns to various audiences with great success. Sometimes, it requires a little bit of explanation at the out-set, but it’s well worth the effort in the long run when our congregations are joining in with the generations that have gone before us – singing the same songs that encouraged and emboldened the historical church.

    Regarding archaic language – on rare occasion, I will change a word here and there, but I prefer not to if the poetry is really good. Once again, I find that a little explanation goes a long way, and people are generally appreciative if you can broaden their worship experience beyond the bubble of the current experience.

    Regarding your statement:

    “I also disagree with the how he disregards the simple verse
    or chorus as a component of worship.”

    I absolutely do not disregard simple verses and choruses. I have written and recorded plenty in my career. I use them frequently when I lead worship. I’m an Anglican, for crying out loud! Simple chants and responses are a mainstay. Once again – the brief essay I wrote above was directed specifically to the writers of modern hymns, though the principals apply to anyone who writes music at all.

    Lastly, you said:

    “As for his thematic approach; not necessarily the way only way to go either; unless the theme is Jesus, the Christ, our King. Generally speaking, God’s attributes, who He is, is the theme of our worship and how He has acted on our behalf, is the theme of our praise.”

    I was not suggesting that my approach was the only way to go – but that there is such a plethora of songs that are very general in their thematic approach, filled with cliches and bad rhymes, and mostly concerned with a high CCLI rankings. That’s why it’s so difficult to find decent songs for Sunday morning (as you yourself concede). I was encouraging songwriters to expand their horizons a bit and look to the narrative scripture passages for song ideas. There’s a wealth of inspiration to be found there.

  34. Hymns Waiting to be Written « Kilcup: a blog

    […] This post by Fernando Ortega is both challenging and encouraging. It resonates with several things going on in my head, several discussions my wife and I have had over the last few years, and a recent exchange with some friends who are church musicians. The author’s responses in the comment section (posted under Phernandeau) are also well worth your time. LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "333333"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "772124"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "eeeeee"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "58181b"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "religion"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. from → Uncategorized ← In Praise of Loud Music No comments yet […]

  35. James Witmer

    Fernando,

    Thank you for this excellent article. Thanks even more for persisting in the dialog, helping us to understand both what you are saying and what you are not saying.

    Now that I am sure you are not joining the chorus of voices who deride simple verses as substance-less based on simplicity alone, I can agree whole-heartedly.

    I feel that I will refer back to this, if only mentally, for a long time to come.

  36. Africa Schaumann

    I have been tasked with writing worship songs for my church, and a lot of those roadblocks that I face are addressed here, it’s very helpful!

    However a particular challenge that I face in my writing, especially for the lyrical composition- is that I attend a church in a very impoverished area where many of the members of the church don’t read past a 6th grade level. It makes me recall how the Bible used to (and still in some places is) taught through oratory presentation. The Word was/is communicated through the telling of it to others who many not have the resources to own a Bible, or lacks the education to be able to read it.

    I believe that same communication takes place in the songs that are written, and in my case and that of those who have a similar situation, it can be difficult to write the more intricate hymns if it means causing confusion to the people who have to sing it.

    Of course I believe the reception of the more intricate songs can go two ways, either a person can be really confused and not entirely understand or enjoy the tune because they have a hard time comprehending the words, or it could open the door for conversation and further study of the meaning of the song. However people can get turned off when they feel like they aren’t good enough because they can’t understand it. And in the end, I’m not looking for a record deal, more just adequately communicating the message the people.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know how to write beautiful songs without them falling into either the “What does that even mean?” or the “painfully simple and almost cliche” category. At the root, I do think it is important to communicate God’s Word to as many people as possible, in a way that is easy to understand for them, but also to create something that is more than “Hey Jesus you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind.”

    Here’s an example of what I usually produce. It’s one of the first songs I wrote, and it was well received, but I look back on it now and then and kick myself at it’s simplicity.

    My days were dark and cloudy
    I was lost and lonely too
    I had no one to guide me, no one to see me through
    Sadness and pain was all that I could feel
    Still I put my trust in the Lord, my soul to heal.

    *and I said*

    I give my life to You oh Lord, please take me by the hand.
    Be my guiding light down the dark and troubled path
    I pray that you shine through me, so others may see
    A testimony to the peace that your love brings.

    The rainy days are over
    Through the clouds I see the sun
    I look within myself and find The One
    He lives inside me and He leads me along the way
    to share His love with you in hopes that you will say

    *you say*

    Chorus

    A new life is begins
    When person first believes
    Resting in His spirit, no more living by what we see
    Spreading his Word around to all that can hear
    Christ residing in our hearts, we have nothing to fear.

    *and we sing*

    We give our lives to You oh Lord, please take us by the hand.
    Be our guiding light down the dark and troubled paths
    We pray that You will shine through us so that everyone will see
    Our testimonies to the peace that your love brings

    Just an example. Any and all help or suggestions or possible strategies that could be used to find a good medium between the two extremes would be greatly appreciated.

  37. yankeegospelgirl

    I remember hearing one new worship song that was particularly awful—it’s called “Come Away,” and I THINK the idea is supposed to be that it’s a Song of Solomon type thingy… but it literally has God saying in the chorus, “It’s gonna be wild. It’s gonna be great.”

    ??

  38. theresa

    Wondering if I’m too late to this dance and well out of my league and also hoping someone(s) will comment on this piece for me. Does it make sense to anyone but me? Is it hymn-ish? Please don’t rat me out to the punctuation police though. I’d be grateful for input. Thanks for considering.

    Untitled

    Bereft of light, imprisoned pining
    The bane of darkness’ cruel desire
    Eclipsed by my own undermining
    ’til the Jewel of heaven shown

    Hopeless, enslaved in vain transgressions
    The sunless/Sonless day, the evening crimson (?)
    Our freedom price, the Christ arisen
    Made all indebtedness His own

    (And) In the crucible, remember
    The sacrifice, the blood and timbers
    The Lamb of Love, who wholly rendered
    The err of all mankind

    A Savior’s pure, selfless surrender
    And by His grace, not my endeavor
    Sin and offense redeemed forever
    Oh glorious gift Divine

    Yielding my all, this simple vessel
    Unto your course, my bidding Master
    And rapt in peace, your loyal servant
    That I may grow in grace

    Fullness of joy within your presence
    My every breath by your sustaining
    Mercies anew and never ending
    Stay with me all my days

    ©theresa wagner 2011

  39. Becca

    Africa,

    I loved your post because it brought up something I heard at Hutchmoot this past week. In our songwriting session, Jason Gray talked a little about loving your audience. It was beautiful to hear his heart for people I often overlook.

    Since I’m free from the bounds of a professional writing career, I tend to create in a style that’s sort of “whatever-the-heck-interests-me-at-the-moment.” There’s no record label, publisher, or marketing person pushing me toward what sells. I’ve spent years rolling around in different genres, just playing with Jesus and words. It is a profound luxury to be a nobody, I think.

    However, Jason’s comments introduced me to a creative perspective that my deliciously unseen self rarely considers– the needs of those who might hear — IF I ever spoke aloud. Ever since that conversation, I’ve been thinking more about what a dialogue between me and a listener might look like.

    I don’t want that to transform into people-pleasing (bleh). However, Jesus manifests His love to me by using imagery that connects with my world. Might I ever be called to do the same?

    I am not ready to throw out my private creative haven. However, there might be a situation, like what you described, where love puts its thumb on the simpler of two images. Something as childlike as a vine, or a field, or bread, or a fish. The Creator of all has shown us that mastery can reside in something as singular as, “Let there be light.”

  40. Phernandeau

    Africa – What you’re doing with music in your church sounds wonderful. I agree that some of the old classic hymns would not serve you well (though there are some that could work really well) and I love the fact that you are writing thoughtful songs such as the one you posted. I hope others among the talented Rabbit Room bunch will chime in with some ideas for you.

    A few hymn titles that come to mind…
    Give Me Jesus
    I Will Sing of My Redeemer
    Softly and Tenderly
    I Need Thee Every Hour

    I’ll try to think of more.

    Since you’re a writer – I think you have a great opportunity to write some call and response songs based on simple scripture passages. You (or whoever is a good singer) would lead with a line or verse and the congregation would respond, such as (making this up on the spot, so it’s just for example)

    PSALM 23
    Leader and The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    Congregation: The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    There is nothing in this world that I need

    Leader: You have made me lie down in green meadows
    You have led me beside the still waters
    You have given me time to catch my breath
    And you lead me in the way of righteousness

    Congregation: The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    There is nothing in this world that I need

    Etc. – you would need to come up with more verses to the rest of the song. You’d also need to come up with a decent melody and adjust the meter accordingly. But all in all, it would be a great way to sing that Psalm, or any other passage of scripture.

    There are also wonderful things you can do with just one-line, a-cappella songs. We sing hundreds of them in the Anglican church. You could make up your own melodies.

    I appreciate your post, and am grateful for the work you’re doing in your church. God bless you and keep you.

  41. Phernandeau

    Africa… Oops – the format didn’t come out as I intended. The first line of Psalm 23 should read as follows…

    LEADER AND CONGREGATION:
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need
    There is nothing in the world that I need

    etc.

  42. Phernandeau

    Theresa… There are several good things in your song. I like your use of slant rhymes and the overall rhyme scheme is interesting. I also like your theological bent. I resonate with it because of my background.

    To be critical – I would make a total shift away from the formal, archaic rhetoric and take a more direct and modern approach. Words and phrases such as “Bereft”, “Bane of darkness”, “vain transgressions” – etc., make an automatic distance between you and the listener. The rhetoric of your song speaks louder than the message you’re trying to relay.

    Try taking each line and re-wording it into plain (yet poetic) modern English. For example, the first line might read:

    I can’t see any light in this prison where I’m (pining, longing, waiting)

    And you would go on from there.

    That’s my quick two cents. Maybe others have some good ideas….

  43. theresa

    PHERNANDEAU –

    I’m so appreciative of the reply and the correction/suggestions/encouragement/homework assignment.

    The majority of that piece spilled out one morning earlier this year.

    It hadn’t really occurred to me at that point that it would be “share worthy” so I didn’t bother to contemplate whether it was listener friendly. I’d mostly considered it to be a sweet something my Father had arranged for me to play with during a ridiculously rotten run of “life stuff” my child and I had been experiencing – and I was, and still am, thankful for it, big old words and all. I hope it’s pleased Him somehow.

    That being said, I completely understand the necessity of a re-work to make it more approachable. If it has legs, that is. I’m grateful for the fresh set of eyes, your honesty and wisdom. I’d walked away from this one and back to a few times without making any progress on or alterations to it.

    Sometimes the most obvious things are those I’m oblivious to. Case in point….. that it took me a while to put together the fact that PHERNANDEAU = Fernando (insert duuuuh here) I just saw the PH and then way too many letters after it, so I didn’t bother to sound it out. But I did think it was quite nice of that PH guy to respond so thoughtfully to all those posts.

    Thank you again for replying to mine.

    Grateful and humbled once more,
    theresa

  44. Africa S

    Thank you Mr. Ortega for your kind words and suggestions- they are very helpful! I made sure to write down your ideas and will utilize them when the time comes around to pick/write songs for worship. I recognize a few of the hymns, and they certainly would work well in my church.

    I just think it’s so important that people- no matter what their education level or economic standing is- still hears the word of God, and definitely not in a way that will make them feel if they are not good enough because they can’t understand the scripture or hymn. Every person deserves to know God’s amazing love, and it’d be awful if the very thing that is meant to inspire such interest worked adversely. However, God knows these obstacles before we do and as Becca said, sometimes He speaks to us in the simplest of terms, and it’s as important to heed those words as it is a beautifully intricate passage.

    Above all, I pray that God uses me to communicate his Word to my congregation in whatever way best suits them, whether in the form of a soft melody or a clapping cheer, a simplified rhyme, or a challenging piece that encourages them to dive deeper into the Word. And may it just be one of many ways that they experience God’s everlasting presence in the world around them, and within their own hearts.

    For now I will put into practice some of the ideas you have offered. I am greatly appreciative of the time you took to respond. Blessings.

  45. Ginger

    How I love the hymns… there is something so deep in my heart that allows to worship when singing familiar words, full of spirit AND truth.

    I remember a story told by Dr. Jim Whitmire, when he first began the lifelong partnership of leading worship for the ministry of Dr. Adrian Rogers’ preaching. He asked Dr. Rogers what he was preaching on in the coming weeks, so he’d match his content with Dr. Roger’s sermons. Dr. Rogers replied, “Jim, just sing songs about Jesus. Then we’ll always sing about what I preach about.”

    I love that. Blessings to you as you continue to write modern songs that draw our hearts closer to Jesus, instead of focusing on the “consumer.”

  46. Yaosuh

    “Mine outward vesture be” to say most people don’t know what that means anymore. It is not accessible to people today. It’s fine to sing an ancient, inscrutable hymn but you have to recognize you might as well be singing in Latin. Your description of contemporary worship does not apply to most American contemporary worship. Many mainline denominations are doing beautiful contemporary worship directly tied to the lectionary readings as opposed to the filler that you believe it is. And by the way, your favorite hymn has a distinctive “Me and Jesus” feel to it that is rarely appropriate for corporate worship. It is easy to denigrate the kind of worship we don’t practice. It is far better to appreciate all forms for the diversity of our faith and peoples.

  47. yankeegospelgirl

    Yaosuh, what’s so hard about that line?

    I think we embark on a slippery slope when we start trying to cater to people’s complete lack of education.

  48. Phernandeau

    Yaosuh – I’m not sure where I “described” what contemporary worship is in my blog. Please quote it for me so that I can know what you’re talking about. Please know that I make my living as a composer of contemporary worship songs, so in no way did I intend to denigrate contemporary worship. Once again – my intent was to encourage specifically the WRITERS of CONTEMPORARY HYMNS.

    At my own church, we embrace all kinds of songs from the earliest Christian songs to those being written today – but we do so critically and you should as well if you are in any position of leadership. You should also not be afraid to educate your congregation as you do so. To compare King James English, or Shakespearean English to Latin is completely inaccurate. What do you imagine is being taught in high school and college literature classes all over the country?

    I’m sorry you feel that way about the hymn I used as an example (nowhere did I say it was my favorite, but I certainly love it). My 3 year old daughter likes it quite a bit as well. She may not understand much of it yet, but she certainly will in a few years, and I firmly believe she will love it and appreciate its message.

    The masses are not asses, as you seem to feel, along with my friend mentioned in a post above.

  49. Becca

    Yao,

    1. God’s Word often references images and phrases that the masses don’t understand.

    2. The central question is not, “What would the masses understand?” That mindset implies a self-ability to create spiritual growth.

    The question is, “What is God working through me as I abide in Him?”

    Sometimes He will make His imagery very clear. Sometimes He will have a prophet lie on his side and baffle the world for a while.

    We are not pilots. We are vessels.

  50. Cheryl

    Thank you for this post, and for your music. Rich new hymns are being written. Titles I love: His Robes for Mine, Your Beauty Fills Our Eyes, My Jesus Fair, I Run to Christ. See texts at churchworksmedia.com.

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