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Worship Songs – Have We Settled?

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As a marketplace artist and songwriter who came into the church and experienced worship music late in life, I began to notice something very curious that happens in the worship songwriting arena that. To put it gently, one would call it “overuse” of lyrics, but if we are to call it like it is, it is outright plagiarism. Being a worship leader, I am constantly pulling sets together for our services. In doing so what I have found is that out of the 70 or so songs that we keep in our repertoire, and especially the latest 20 that we keep in rotation, I can literally fill up a page with a list of lyrical phrases (Be lifted high, You set me free, We exalt your name, I give you control, my heart is on fire…you get the idea) and I can begin to see how the songwriter has taken these general themes and are simply “plugging and playing” them without any thought to being original and creative. Seriously, I challenge you to look at the top charting worship songs, or even just one worship album by your favorite band, and count how many times they use a line that is in fifty other worship songs already.

Now obviously there is going to be some overlap with lyrics, but the problem is getting out of hand to where not many true original songs are coming out of the church. This would never fly in the marketplace. If I played a gig, introducing a new song I just wrote whose lyrics contained “you’re my brown-eyed girl” or “you don’t know you’re beautiful”, I would get some puzzled looks from the audience and probably a lawsuit from Van Morrison and One Direction. Why is this not the case with worship music? Why can we keep rehashing the same lyrics and chord progressions over and over and over again and still call them original?

The simple answer…because its easy and we permit it to happen because working outside the box is not something the church is usually good at. Sunday morning has to go smoothly, no rocking the boat, we gotta keep things “church friendly”.  It is easy because when it comes down to it God is good, and He does amazing things. Really anything we say that falls into line with that concept is ok in a worship song. While that is true, we are missing the big picture, the bigger calling. The bible tells us to worship with all of our heart, mind, and soul. I truly believe we are worshiping with all of our hearts, and our spirits are leading us. It is the mind part that we leave out…essentially “singing with our understanding.” Our worship cannot just leave off at the point of pretty words we sing to God. We have to craft our songs in a way that we can tell when a cliche line is being used as a filler instead of staying on topic. If you are singing a song about grace, then don’t put a bridge in there about how you are “on fire” for God…that’s a different song.

A good example of this is the song “Waiting Here For You”. It is a beautiful song and I have worshiped with it many times. Its definitely speaks truth in a powerful way. But if you look into the lyrics you will find that all references to waiting on God stop at the title line. The rest of the song is simply describing great things about who God is. There is of course a principle of waiting on the Lord with an understanding that He is already present, but if I am new to knowing Jesus, I could think that you are telling me that we have to wait for God to show up and question what I have to do to make that happen. Unless you give me something lyrically to help me understand the concept, I could have a mindset that is not accurately representing God. The other half of the song is simply singing Hallelujah over and over again. Time and time again that word is used to fill up a bridge mostly because it is a beautiful word that works well with a lot of melodies. We need to start being intentional with that word, because “hallel” praise extols God in a particular way.

Our songs have purpose, our creativity has power, and our originality can bring heaven to earth, but we must have faith that the Holy Spirit is not lacking in vocabulary to help us express our worship. Which brings me to my next point. Why do we think we are limited in our vocabulary to ministry-friendly words. Yes, God is holy, faithful, full of grace, and He is all we want and all we need…its time we start showing that in new, exciting, and relevant ways. Last service we broke the box and I led a song about how God is “better than all the drugs put together”, and His joy “gets me moving and shaking like a gypsy” and ultimately that “His heart makes my heart move to the rhythm of an 80’s love song” (thank you Benjamin Dunn for writing this song and Paul Lee for introducing it to me). The words were real and raw…people were awakened in their worship and were so much more engaged then if they had just been singing the same Christian lyrics that are part of every worship song.

If we as worship leaders and songwriters aren’t crafting fresh, unique material that accurately portrays the Gospel and God’s character, then we are saying that someone else’s revelation is good enough for us. We are saying that the words and music birthed from another man’s testimony are more powerful than any well we can dig for ouselves. The last time I checked, I was under the impression that the facets of who God is were limitless. If songwriters outside of the church who have limited worldly resources to pull from have continued to present original ideas, then why have we, as Christians who operate in heaven’s unlimited kingdom, settled and stopped searching? We have a lot of songs about how “we want more of you God”, but first we need to start using fully what He has already given us.

I challenge you to carefully look into the worship songs you choose for your set. Let’s set a higher standard for what we give to God and how we use the creativity He has blessed us with. Don’t settle on old revelation and if you can’t find songs that are suitable, then go write one

If your church is ready to start diving in to these concepts of stronger, more purposeful original worship songs, please check out www.songsmithcreative.com and contact us about hosting a workshop at your church.

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7 Responses to “Worship Songs – Have We Settled?”

  1. Eric Schlange March 5, 2014 at 9:32 am Reply

    Great thoughts, Rob. I especially liked this line “If you are singing a song about grace, then don’t put a bridge in there about how you are “on fire” for God…that’s a different song.”

    I like songs with focus!

  2. I’m a huge Dustin Kensrue fan. His song writing is spot on to me.
    The statement, “Don’t settle on old revelation and if you can’t find songs that are suitable, then go write one”, is great.

    Thanks for this. Great stuff.

  3. For several years now I have thought that many worship songs sound like magnetic poetry: the same lyrics over and over again. jumbled together in different arrangements, as though someone had taken various phrases from the book of Psalms and tossed them into worship songs at random.

    Sometimes, I find it difficult not to laugh at how incongruous certain lyrics sound when they are placed in songs that they don’t fit in, or at how cheesy certain songs sound in general. It’s unfortunate, because I love God, but I am far from impressed with much contemporary Christian music.

    I find much of it very difficult to relate to, especially because it often sounds very subjective and emotional; it focuses on how someone feels rather than on who God is and what he has done. How can I sing about an emotion that I don’t necessarily feel at the moment? I often don’t feel on fire, in love, helpless, et cetera, and I am not going to sing words that are simply not true. I am not going to pretend that I share a particular emotional state at that moment (or in general) merely to sing a song with everyone else.

    I love music like the early work of Kevin Max, but I also understand that not everyone can relate to that kind of music and that it is not particularly singable in a congregational setting. I still wish for something more original, imaginative, and poetic than what I have been seeing recently.

    • Amen and Amen. That’s all. Thanks guys for letting me know I am not alone in my desire for us to sing more meaningful and original songs to the Creator.

  4. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Rob. There is a lyrical sameness in many of our newer worship songs. Sometimes (but too seldom) I’ll sit down with a hymnal, pick a hymn, and simply read the words. That hymn will, as you rightly suggest as one measure of a good worship song, “stay on topic.” And it will have three or four non-repetitive verses of incredible depth. While some of our newer worship songs have some depth, they are few and far between. However, I must respectfully take issue with all three of your examples of “new, exciting, and relevant ways.” “Better than all the drugs put together?” “Moving and shaking like a gypsy?” “Makes my heart move to the rhythm of an 80’s love song?” What do these three lines have in common? I’ll answer my own question: they are all about ME and the way I feel. Worship is NOT about the way I feel; it is about recognizing and marveling in the almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing, gracious, loving (beyond our capacity to fully comprehend) – and hundreds of other adjectives that we could use – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s the way we should approach our song writing.

  5. I’m confused as to how there could ever be any truly “creative” songs in the contemporary Christian music genre. This genre of “music” takes the worst elements of pop music (watered down, trite chord progressions, second-to-third rate instrumental performances, mindless repetition, and elementary simplicity of lyrics) and superimposes the same Christian themes over it. Doesn’t sound like there’s much room for creativity there.

    To answer your question, “Why can we keep rehashing the same lyrics and chord progressions over and over and over again and still call them original?” This type of music is occasional. By that I mean it is used for an occasion, it has a purpose in addition to being something nice (or painful) to listen to. Why can churches keep playing the same hymns that have been played since the 1700s? Same reason, it’s not about the music, it’s about the purpose. These are tunes that have stood the test of time and are easily accessible for the congregation to sing. Modern-day CCM has become a sludge-podge of wannabe rock stars who know they have an audience if they use all these overused and cliched phrases you are rallying against. If used in a worship setting, nobody really cares about the music; they are engaged, singing, or enjoying the fellowship the song creates.

    I suggest realizing what this music truly is–a vehicle designed to connect people with God–not a way to play pretend rock star with a built-in audience if you write “God is good” and people will think, “Wow, what a creative songwriter.” That’s not the point.

    I bet your workshops are chock full of creative, “look at me, I’m so good” ideas!

  6. I’ve often wondered about the plagiarism issue too, but decided most artists are frequently quoting or paraphrasing scripture, so I let it go. Phrases in the Psalms frequently repeat or paraphrase other Psalms or scripture. We could get into Hebrew poetry structure (repetition) here too. I do agree that sometimes people could have stretched their creativity a little more as I’ve found myself driving and hitting a secular radio music station preset when the lyrics sound too cliched and its was the same story on my other christian preset buttons. As a songwriter, I’ve been guilty of it too, but I try to let my new songs “slow cook”, reflect and meditate on relevant scripture and what I’m trying to say for awhile, while keeping paper and pencil or small recorder nearby. It can be a long process, with a few sheets of paper going, even in different directions, but finally it comes together or you find a cowriter that you work well with and you create something wonderful and satisfying to your ears and Gods.

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