The Songs That Write Us
Years ago some friends and I hiked up a mountain called Cerro de Chipinque that flanks the south side of the city of Monterrey, Mexico. When we reached the top, we suddenly emerged out of trees into a glorious view of the entire city spreading northward for miles. As the moment of genuine wonder and awe took us by surprise, my friend Xavier suggested we sing praise to our Creator. The whole group heartily agreed. After a few awkward moments of trying to think of a song to which we all knew the lyrics, we settled on the refrain to “How Great Thou Art,” and we sang it over the city.
More recently, with a group gathered in a hospital chapel to pray for a friend badly injured in a car accident, we were glad to have "The Doxology” as well as a couple of musical settings of the Lord’s Prayer that we sing regularly.
The songs that come to mind in these moments give voice to the emotional contours of our life with God. At the same time, they shape and define that life with God.
That is, our songs both express our prayers and form new prayers in us.
All wise worship leaders know that there is a limit to the number of songs our congregations can learn and know. So as we curate our congregation's repertoire, we have to give attention both the expressive and formative aspects of our songs.
Here are three categories to help you as you audit your current repertoire and evaluate what kinds of new songs to add:
We need songs that tell the whole truth about the Christian life.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, death has been defeated, and by faith we are fully reconciled to the Father. God is for us, and therefore nothing can ultimately win against us. We truly have reason to rejoice. But that’s not the whole story of the Christian life; this side of heaven we still experience perplexity, sorrow, weakness. Sometimes God feels far from us, and sometimes we have to deal with anger in our hearts towards him.
We need songs that will give voice to this whole range of life’s experiences (as do the Psalms). We need songs that will speak words of comfort to us, and we need songs that will speak prophetic words of challenge and rebuke. We also need songs that give us language for a relationship with God: songs that say, “I’m sorry,” “Why?” and “I love you," as well as, "You're beautiful."
We need songs that stretch us.
We need songs that are true to our own experience and consistent with how God has worked in our lives and in our churches. Those songs will give us biblical language to interpret our experiences through a theological framework, and they will help us to see the eternal in the immediate (and vice versa).
But we also need songs that will push us beyond the ways in which we are accustomed to thinking about God and relating to God, past blind spots and out of ruts and further into the mystery of intimacy with the God who is a consuming fire. Sometimes that can be in the form of a pointed, prophetic word; sometimes that can come in the form of a challenging idea or a prayer we're not used to praying.
We need songs that will be there for us when we’re not in a worship service.
In the hospital room, at the summit of Chipinque, in moments of temptation, at dinner after the graduation ceremony—our songs can connect head and heart, and they can provide a beautiful way to pray and praise together with others.
But do the songs we pull off in epic fashion in our worship spaces on Sunday mornings translate to these everyday contexts? Are the melodies memorable and coherent enough that they can be sung without instrumental accompaniment? Does the musical composition make sense without the soaring guitar lines, the synth pad, and the booming subs of your sound system? I dare to ask, are the lyrics simple enough to stick in our memory, so that anyone besides the worship leader might be able to recall them in moments of need?
"The Doxology" (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” which originally was one stanza of a much longer hymn) is a great example of a song that is portable: a group of people can easily remember and sing it together.
It’s worth seeking out other compact anthems that can be recalled and sung in everyday situations. Better yet, compose them yourself: Ask the Spirit what kind of work he is doing in your congregation right now, and write a simple song that could become a prayer your people pray continually. Don’t be afraid to do a song every single Sunday (at least for a season) so that it gets into your congregation’s hearts. That way the songs will be ready to give voice to our prayers, and those prayers will in turn shape us.
Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.
—from "Psalm 34" in Tate & Brady, A New Version of the Psalms of David, 1696
Wes Crawford (@wescrawford) serves as Worship Pastor of Christ Church of Austin. He previously helped plant a church in Kansas City, Missouri, and before that served as a missionary in Monterrey, Mexico. He has been married to Melissa for 19 years, and they have four beautiful daughters. Find more articles, playlists, and music made by Wes at his website: wescrawfordmusic.com.