Guest Worship Artist Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace

On September 13 and 14 Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace will be at Covenant Life Church leading us in worship.

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith

Here is his bio from his website:

Matthew Smith is a Nashville-based singer-songwriter who writes brand new music to centuries-old hymn texts.  He is a founding member of the Indelible Grace community, whose work has drawn acclaim across denominational lines and is used in churches around the world.  Born out of a college ministry, the reimagined hymns have found wide acceptance both among college students and the church at large, joining people who desire to honor tradition with those who want a modern musical approach.  His latest album is Hiding Place.

On Saturday, September 13 Matthew will lead a free, one-hour worship seminar from 5-6 pm, and then Indelible Grace will join Matthew for a Night of Reimagined hymns from 7-8:30 pm.  A love offering will be taken during the concert, but admission is free.  Sunday, September 14, Matthew Smith and Indelible Grace will participate in the Worship services at 9 and 11:15.

His music has a bluesy, earthy feel, matching his rich baritone voice well.  I particularly enjoy the Hammond B-3 strains and tube-y hollow-body guitar on his Communion Hymn: Lord Jesus, Comfort Me.

At the seminar Matthew will share his vision for re-imagining old hymn texts.  Worship leaders, songwriters, and musicians are welcome to attend, as well as any who want to learn more about what Matthew is doing.

For more information, go to the event Facebook page.  For more information on Indelible Grace, visit their website igracemusic.com.  I hope to see you there!

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Holier Than Thou: Repetitive Songs Versus Wordy Hymns

Churches often fight over music styles. Which is best: experiential worship focused on personalized and often repetitive songs, or cognitively centered worship centered on content rich new and time-tested hymns? Who wins? Who is right and who is wrong?

I have dealt with this struggle first hand. From growing up in a Mennonite church that struggled to accept instruments in worship, to leading worship in multi-stylistic churches, the arguments remain generally the same.

Here are the common objections I have heard to simpler, shorter, more personal and experiential worship songs (Breathe; Everlasting God; Come, Now Is the Time to Worship; etc.):

  • They are light on theology and heavy on feelings.
  • They are repetitious (7-11 songs, meaning 7 words repeated 11 times).
  • They have not “stood the test of time.”
  • They are heavy on clichés and devoid of literary excellence.

Here are the common objections I hear to more cognitive and content rich hymns (Great Is Thy Faithfulness; Immortal, Invisible; Praise to the Lord, the Almighty; etc.):

  • They stay in the head and never reach the heart.
  • They are too “wordy.”
  • The language is outdated and inaccessible.
  • The style of music is outdated.

When talking about these subjects I find it helpful to step back and take in the larger view.

What kind of music is mentioned in the Bible, and does God give us any directions about what to sing? What songs have actually stood the test of time, and are the worship arguments of today mirrored anywhere in history?

God, the Bible, and Music

The Bible mentions all types of instruments and voices, short and long songs, theological and personal songs, songs for every mood and event in life, and repetitive and content rich songs.

The first music mentioned in the Bible is instrumental. Jubal was a maker of flutes and stringed instruments, Genesis says.

David and other leaders wrote the largest book in the Bible, the Psalms. This book has both the shortest (Psalm 117) and the longest chapter in the Bible (Psalm 119) and both are profound. The tone of the music ranges from wildly celebrative to subdued, depressed, and raging. Some of the language is lofty and theological, even prophetic. Other psalms are intensely personal prayers. Some psalms contain regular refrains every other line or so.

In the New Testament Paul encourages us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in our hearts to the Lord. The word for “hymn” actually denotes music accompanied by stringed instruments. Psalms obviously came from the book of the Bible of the same name, and spiritual songs probably were Scripture songs.

Revelation is full of worship, but most of it is extremely repetitive. The elders and the flying beasts around the throne say one or two phrases over and over throughout eternity without stopping. The great multitude sings a song with a very short text.

Music and the Litmus Test of Time

The mass texts and A Mighty Fortress are great examples of ancient, time-tested music. These pieces of music are heavy in content and theology and have strong, crafted shapes and melodies.

The Hallelujah Chorus is a classic, yet it has very few words repeated many, many times. The theology is simple, ad the text is based on the worship scenes in Revelation.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Great Thou Art have been around less than two centuries, but they are staples of worship because of the beauty and transcendence of their language.

Many more hymns, however, have been lost to time. Isaac Watts wrote 750 hymns; comparatively very few of them are in use today. Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck set every Psalm to music in elegant, complex choral settings hundreds of years ago.

New music has always been suspect. Many renounced the revivalist music that came out in the late 1800s because it was too experiential and light on theology. Yet these hymns brought us many of the testimony hymns we know today, such as Higher Ground and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.

Making Sense of It All

Perhaps you know where I am heading with this conversation. My feelings on the matter can be summed up in this sentence:

Just as the wide diversity of the people whom God has called to be his own demonstrates the rich and varied love of the Savior, so the span of musical styles from pre-Classical to the newest pop song reveals his profound message.

God is no respecter of persons or styles. If a style bothers you, I challenge you to find something positive about that style. If God is able to use you and me, he can definitely use any style of music he chooses.

What style of music is most challenging for you, and why? What positive aspect can you discover in that style?

Choosing Songs for Worship

Music selection is one of the worship leader’s most visible jobs. Worship leaders are also vilified more for music selection than for anything else.

  • That song has weak theology.
  • The melody is unsingable.
  • That song has way too many words; I can’t get them all out in time at that tempo.
  • The music had absolutely nothing to do with the message.
  • Why don’t they sing more hymns?
  • Why don’t they sing more new music?

You don’t have to be a worship leader to recognize those questions. Perhaps you have even asked one of them.

I know I have.

So how do you choose music for the service?

  1. Remember that you can’t please everyone. If you pursue the path of pleasing people you will run into lots of problems. You are accountable to God, yourself, and the senior pastor; no one else.
  2. Find out the information for the service ahead of time. If the pastor does not have a practice of planning in advance, work with him to facilitate his planning, explaining the value of knowing those things ahead of time.
  3. Pray. Always pray. God is the ultimate creative, and he knows what he wants to do through you.
  4. Know your church’s tastes. If you are leading worship at a country cowboy church, don’t begin with a Prelude from Bach’s 1st suite for solo cello. Pick music that they can identify with.
  5. Begin with God. Almost always you should begin a service with a song that points us directly to the attributes and greatness of God. We have spent the week fighting the noise of life; worship is our opportunity to reset our perspectives on God.
  6. Begin up-tempo. I almost always begin with a faster song. I just like that. People arrive at church groggy and half awake; they need musical caffeine.
  7. Work towards songs that are more personal, intimate prayers.
  8. Guide the themes of the songs towards the theme of the service so that when the pastor gets up to speak the people are ready to hear what he has to say.
  9. Break rules 4 through 8. Never be afraid to try something different.

How do you select songs for a worship service?

Two Great Sources for Music You’ve Never Heard

Are you like me?  How many times have you been accused of being stuck in the same style, hooked on the same songs, tied to that one band?  “All he plays in Tomlin songs!”  “Hillsong United is not the second coming of the Messiah.  Don’t they ever play music by any other bands?”  “I can’t stand that Lincoln Brewster bubblegum rock music.”  “Do we HAVE to play Shout to the Lord again?”  “Ugh, it’s another one of his original songs.  I definitely don’t know what is original about them.”  And on . . and on . . and on.

I want to share some great resources with you, but before I do that you have to decide several things.  Without these decisions my suggestions will be useless to you.

You will never satisfy everyone, so give up.  You (and everyone who has to deal/live/work with you) will be much happier.  Those few malcontents will continue to spew poisonous comments in the guise of “helping” you.  Cull what instructive notes you can from their comments and then carefully dispose the rest in your hazardous waste containers under the church stage.  (You do have those, don’t you?)

Objectively take stock of your repertoire.  You may need help from a trusted friend who is in your corner for this.  Find the weaknesses and strengths in your list.  “We have lots of songs about the greatness of God, but we have absolutely nothing reflecting on communion.”  “We have 95 thrash rock songs and 1 ballad.  Maybe we should introduce some slower songs.”

Whittle down your repertoire.  300 songs is too much.  Period.  Even if you use a hymnal you should not be trying to use all 600 hymns in a given year.  Keep the songs which you think will best help the church move forward, then remove the others to make room for newer songs.

Identify one type of song to add to your repertoire.  Baby steps.  Do not get overwhelmed with the options.  Just decide to add one or two ballads, one or two intimate worship songs, whatever.

Don’t yell at the “helpful” people in your congregation.  You need to quit drinking hat-er-ade.  Thank them for sharing their thoughts with you and tell them you will think and pray over their ideas.  Then think and pray over them!

OK, so once you have made it through those stages you will be ready to look for new music.  Here are two sources I am currently finding useful for keeping my ears fresh.

Pandora.  This is a “duh” moment for some of you, since you are probably already using this great tool.  Enter in a song like ones you need to find and see what Pandora comes up with.  Do the same with artists and styles.  I just got back to using Pandora, and I am loving it.

NPR’s All Songs Considered Podcast.  I just discovered this resource and I loved the first podcast I listened to with snippets of Norah Jones’ upcoming album and Sigur Ros’s new music, along with a crazy wide collection of other styles.

No, these are not necessarily Christian sources.  You will not go to hell for listening to secular music.  You have sung Happy Birthday a million times; it is a secular song and you are apparently still a Christian.

All snarkiness aside, the point is that you need to stretch your ears constantly if you want to keep from getting stuck in a rut.  Do it, and you can tell all of the nay-say-ers that you are actively pursuing new music.  That response is probably better than telling them to put a cork in it.

What resources do you use to refresh your ears and your repertoire?