Songwriting, curating, collecting…

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I’ve tried my best to accurately transcribe the following quote from an episode of the new For The Church podcast. There’s some really good inspiration here for church songwriters. You should definitely go and listen to the whole episode and others here.

In this episode, Jared Wilson asks Matt Boswell, “What is your personal songwriting process like, whether with a collaborator or by yourself?” Here’s a chunk of Matt’s answer:

“My process of writing songs is, I’m a curator and a collector first. So in every theological book that I’m reading, I’m collecting words…just specific words. I remember reading Jim Hamilton’s biblical theology, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgement, and in it he just uses the word “unassailable” six, seven times; and so I just thought that was a beautiful word to write in a hymn. So I just kind of put it in my back pocket, and then when it seems appropriate, throw it in a hymn. And so in all reading I’m collecting words.

“And then, even through sermon outlines, seeing how a preacher is moving systematically through a text or through a subject, and allowing some of those things to help shape how I would write a hymn in response to that. 

“And so I’m always on the lookout for what would be good kindling for a hymn to be written.”

Again, the above quote is from Matt Boswell, in an interview on the For The Church podcast. Subscribe to this one for sure. It’s new, and already super helpful. You can also check out more resources from Matt Boswell and pick up books he has contributed to, at his website Doxology and Theology. If you’re a worship leader or worship musician, you should check there often.

On Creativity: An Interview with Chris Thile on Minnesota Public Radio

Thile.jpgThis past week we were given a great interview from MPR (Minnesota Public Radio), with Chris Thile about his transition with Garrison Keillor for the job of full-time host of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. If you’re not sure who Thile is, he is one-third of the progressive folk band Nickel Creek, one-fifth  of the band Punch Brothers, and an accomplished composer and songwriter on his own and in other small collaborative projects. Thile is one of my personal heroes – has been for quite some time now – and it’s super exciting to know he’ll take over creative control and hosting duties on PHC this coming October.

You can read more elsewhere about Garrison Keillor handing the show off to Thile, but please listen to this interview. There’s lots of good stuff here about music, and about creativity in general. I connected with a lot specifically because I’m a worship pastor in a church, and a few things Thile says here are very helpful if you’re involved in the week-to-week corporate worship and music planning aspects of ministry.

Listen A conversation with Chris Thile Apr 9, 2016 8min 44sec 

Again, give the interview a listen; but here are a few of those extra helpful points I mentioned, for musicians and for church worship leaders in particular.

  1. The joy of creating something new for people every week. Thile talks in the beginning of the interview about the joy and excitement he has, as an artist, to get to create every week for the joy of others. A responsibility like this can be either a privilege or a burden; for a vocational artist, especially one who is saved and serving a local church, this should be exciting as we plan services and liturgies, arrange, even write, and lead in the song and prayer of our churches. As Thile said in another interview published only yesterday, “The prospect of getting to make things for people on a weekly basis … is beyond compare. It’s what I love to do.”
  2. Practice your craft. A lot. Thile says he practices between three and five hours of mandolin every day. It’s that important to his life and work, and he does it because he wants to. Those hours aren’t wasted, but a necessary and good part of his vocation and “calling” (can I say calling here?) as an artist. And we wonder how someone like Thile gets so good at what he does… He puts the time in. Quality takes time and discipline, and it’s worth the effort.
  3. Don’t let your instrument “go to sleep.” Thile answers some questions about bringing his mandolins out of a “sleep,” which happens to the wood of a mandolin, or a guitar, or a violin too, the longer it sits without being played. Especially when a newer wood instrument sits, and the wood dries, if you don’t play good sound into it the wood won’t open up to the sound waves. Not many people know about this aspect of stringed instruments, but it’s super intriguing. Play your guitar, or whatever you play, often so that it stays responsive and produces all the tone that it can. Listen to the interview, because Chris Thile can talk more eloquently about this point than I can.

So there you have it! And there’s lots more in the eight minutes of that interview that’s worth your time. And check out A Prairie Home Companion if you’ve never listened.

 

Thoughts from our 2015 WORSHIP WORKSHOP

Worship Workshop 2015

Last weekend about forty of us gathered for a worship workshop for our church team. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and it’s been one of the best things we do together, in my opinion. It’s the non-negotiable thing we have to do as a team each year, at least once.

I took a chunk of the time (which I haven’t done each year) to teach and discuss something pressing for us as a worship team. This year we talked through ways to fight our culture of distraction, and pour effort, time, and resources into serving our church family with our gifts. Here’s a list of what we discussed, and what we’re striving for in our church family, and specifically as part of the corporate worship and music leadership.

  1. Obedience to do what Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 AND Hebrews talk about what we’re to do when we gather. These are some of the significant places that talk about our corporate worship gatherings. Ultimately, these passages restate what Hebrews 12:1-2 says to do when we gather as Christians – look to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith!
  2. Faithfulness to be at church every week and keep doing it week-in and week-out. Show up. Whether you sing or not, or run PowerPoint or lights or not, whether it’s difficult or not, show up and be with the church, with the family of God.
  3. Orient your life around church, in a healthy way. What I mean by this is, don’t overbook your time, but consider the church in your decisions, and in how you use your time and resources. Ask yourself, will this build and encourage the rest of the church? Will this help me be a part of this church, for the good of my own relationship with God, for my family, etc?
  4. Don’t necessarily look for someone else to come along, some professional, to make things better. YOU do it. We’re the ones. One of my pet peeves is when I hear things like, “if only a pro sound engineer came, our band would finally sound halfway decent…” That may definitely be true. But If God hasn’t provided a professional sound tech, guitarist, or French horn player, or whatever, then that’s who God has ordained to have (or not to have) at your church at that particular time. He might be calling one of you (us) to step up and lean into that responsibility more, and to learn more, so we become that person.
  5. Improve. Commit and sacrifice to spend time getting better, to serve the church with your gifts. Take lessons, study songs, practice your instrument, start following helpful blogs or twitter accounts (churchsoundguy, etc). Spend time alone to do these things, if it helps make the time that you’re with the church better. Forgo distracting (fun) things for this.
  6. Be with God. Pursue your relationship with Him, and fight for your personal holiness and sanctification. Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” This is absolutely true of anyone on the worship team, serving at some level of leadership in your church. If the busyness and the “fun” stuff we’re all pursuing is not giving holiness to one another, it’s worthless and unhelpful.

Basically, the driving factor in all of this is, let your identity in Christ free you to give things up for the sake of His church, for His kingdom. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” Obedience and servanthood that is like Christ’s will take us to the cross, to lowliness, to sacrifice, for the sake of the most glorious things. We’re fighting at our church to sacrifice much effort and expend much energy to building up the body, and refining our various gifts to do this better and more.

 

A small tribute

I’ve been really sad about James Horner’s death. I’ll miss having him in the world with us. I’ve told a lot of folks that he’s my favorite modern composer. Out of his whole canon of work this might seem a little funny, but for me, one of the most iconic scores he wrote was for The Rocketeer. This music is my childhood. I think I love certain kinds of adventure stories because my dad took me to our MANN 6 theater to see The Rocketeer when I was 8 years old; and that film wouldn’t have been the same at all without Horner’s music coloring the whole thing.

“James’s music affected the heart because his heart was so big, it infused every cue with deep emotional resonance.”

James Cameron and Jon Landau, from a joint statement about the composer’s death

Art and Beauty: Folk Music Fridays

Folk Music FridaysHere’s an American folk staple, that’s been done countless times by an array of musicians. “Hard Times Come Again No More” was written in 1859, by Stephen Foster. Foster wrote some songs you might also know – “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Swanee River” among others.

“Hard Times” has a tone of lament that some of Foster’s other songs don’t have. It also has an enduring, universal quality in the lyrics, in the call to “pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”

This is a fun tune to search for, and listen to a mix of covers. It has also lived up to a certain mark of true “folk” music, in that it’s been passed around as a cultural possession, in a sense. But here’s one of my favorites by Iron and Wine. Enjoy!

Art and Beauty: Folk Music Fridays

Folk Music FridaysHey guys,

In complicity with my last post, on metaphors and what-not, this may be my favorite John Mark McMillan song. Gloriously heavy on metaphor, this song, as far as my experience goes, does the very best job I’ve heard of understanding what’s meant when God speaks of the Church as the “bride of Christ.” How does the redeemed family of God relate, somehow, to Christ as a bride does to her husband? Give this tune a few listens and you might get a sense of it. The themes in McMillan’s poetry here of redemption, longing, and resurrection, are powerful.

An added note (inspired by my “Oceans” post) on the poetic nature of these lyrics – we HAVE taken the chorus of this song and tagged it in corporate worship at our church, because it lends itself so well to that type of a setting. The verses, however, I wouldn’t use for corporate singing. I think the misunderstanding that happens in church music sometimes, is that because a songwriter produces some songs that are written more for corporate church worship than others, we superimpose one song’s nature over onto others that aren’t as well-suited for the same things, and think we can do them all in church. But some songs may just always be more well-suited than others, for certain contexts. Worship leaders, choose wisely. Gray areas abound here, so that’s all the self-conscious, self-explaining I’ll do for now.

All that to say, I think this song may be the under-appreciated masterpiece from McMillan thus far.

To play, or not to play (“Oceans”)?

Oceans

I’ve had a few good conversations this past week, with friends who plan and lead corporate worship, about evaluating the songs we choose to sing together in our churches. I think these conversations ultimately edified all parties involved, though not everyone ended up in mutual agreement. It all serves as a good reminder to me of some of the dividing lines right now in corporate worship, as well as a reminder of the reasons we pick the songs we do at our church. It might not be surprising that my conversations centered around the merits of Hillsong’s “Oceans” and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves,” and whether or not these (and songs like them) are good choices for gathered, corporate singing.

First of all, “Oceans” has proven much more popular than “How He Loves,” though both have been pretty huge the past few years. “Oceans” has really been the “silver bullet,” “hip new thing” of the past year, placing as one of the top 10 most-searched-for, and most-downloaded songs of 2014 from the CCLI database; and judging from what I read on The Worship Community and what I see and hear about from other local worship leaders and churches, this song has been played quite a bit the past year. It really resonates with lots of folks, and I’ve gotten quite a few suggestions for it too. But we don’t play it at our church for corporate worship. Here’s why. Please don’t write me off as a curmudgeon.

Just know at the outset that I really do love both “Oceans” and “How He Loves.” My heart has been drawn to worship Christ through listening to, and being led to sing along to these songs. I think they’re beautifully written, and pretty well-crafted in melody and in lyric. But these are two very current examples of a “type” of song that I find unhelpful to include too often in the gathered worship repertoire of a local church.

The problem I do have with these songs, is that they’re so heavy on metaphor and figurative language, that meaning is obscured. This is a problem in corporate worship. As a worship leader, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable leading songs  that don’t speak clearly enough for themselves, at face value, through their lyrics. The category lines are a little fuzzy here; but certain songs make me feel the need, if I’m the one leading the singing, to explain the meaning of the lyrics every time we include the song in a worship set. I think songs like this are potentially dangerous for Christians, in a corporate singing context, because the time will inevitably come when the worship leader decides not to, or forgets, to explain the lyrics. And I’ve learned that poetic metaphors are not, I repeat NOT always clear to everyone present. When the metaphors aren’t clear, our fallible human intellects and emotions are “prone to wander” and take our thoughts places the songwriter didn’t intend. Or, in a more worst-case scenario, we can erroneously fill a self-centered and/or heretical meaning into lyrics where the meaning is fuzzy or veiled to begin with.

Again, “Oceans” and “How He Loves” are two popular songs that aren’t wrong to sing and worship with. But I think there are definitely better songs to build into our churches’ regular rotations – songs that are clear, and where the Gospel truths are rock-solid and gloriously expressed. Like I said to a friend (who thankfully agreed with me!), I think “Oceans” is a song that might be best worshiped-with on an individual basis, at home or in your car, when you know exactly what you mean when you sing along – not in a corporate setting with a couple hundred people gathered and singing together. If you’re interested, Thabiti Anyabwile’s book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church has a super helpful chapter on evaluating the lyrical style and content of church music.

I don’t think that was too curmudgeonly. I hope not.