Five great songs I’m looking forward to singing this year

Approaching my 4th year in ministry at TCC it’s nice to look back and realize that I’ve established a good diet of songs for the singing church. We sing well here at TCC, and I think the biggest reason is simply familiarity. We have ~50 songs we sing on a regular basis, and every week they are sung they take deeper roots in our hearts as these 50 songs become “our songs”.

That being said, I’m always on the lookout for excellent sturdily constructed songs for congregational singing, or just excellent songs that tell the Gospel story in fresh and exciting ways. Here are a handful I’m excited about:

1. I know it’s a few years old at this point, but Chris Tomlin’s “This is our God” will be a great addition to our regular repertoire this year. The simple melody of the verses, and the repetitive chorus bolsters the voice of the yearning congregation to sing of our expectant hope. Perfect for Advent!

A refuge for the poor, a shelter from the storm. This is our God.
And He will wipe away your tears and return your wasted years. This is our God

This is the one we have waited for
This is the one we have waited for
This is the one we have waited for
Jesus, Lord and Savior, This is our God.

Since apparently we’re starting with an Advent theme, Come to Us O Lord by Young Oceans is another great heart-beat song that is simple but powerful.

O living Word; please come dwell in us, Lord wipe away, these tears
O Ancient Son; so long foretold, we’re desperate souls, draw near

And we will stand, securely in the strength of the Lord
Every heart will surely come and adore The Great I AM.

Something about the fifth in the melody above the IV chord at the top of the chorus really lifts you up. Some might mock it’s rather monotone melody, but I think it really pulses with energy on top of the simple chord progression. It fits the text too.

3. No list would be complete without a little Hillsong (p.s. they have a concert at BU tomorrow!). Their version of Psalm 65, “You Crown the Year” from the Glorious Ruins album is packed with verses from the psalm. I’m blown away by how they can take the ancient language of the psalms and make it sound like it was written just yesterday. It’s clear that the songwriters are saturated in the word, and it seeps out into their songwriting seemingly effortlessly. Don’t believe me? Check out the psalm as you listen to the song:

[Psalm 65] [You Crown the Year (Hillsong)]

There’s an epic building bridge to boot, if that’s what your into…


On to the non-congregational songs – songs that I like but would never make a congregation try to sing along with them. Unfortunately there are many of these!

4. Songwriter from Indianapolis Nathan Partain is writing some great lyrics and good music to boot. I particularly liked “For His Own Sake” – it has a definite Simon and Garfunkel feel to it so insta-connection to my childhood. Thanks mom!
[For His Own Sake – Nathan Partian]

5. Audrey Assad is one of my favorite Christian songwriters out there today. Most of her songs are perfect for congregational songs (we’ve done “I Shall Not Want” and “Restless” here at TCC), but her recent Christmas song “Winter Snow” with Chris Tomlin has a wonderful jazzy Norah Jones feel to it. [Winter Snow – Youtube]

When a hymn retune is needed

wow three posts in one week Adam! Good job kid!
A print from the Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church (1917), p. 406  Courtesy of

I’m all for the current resurgence of setting old texts to new music. It’s fantastic for us young evangelicals who seek and crave lyrical depth and historical grounding. It’s great for churches that have ‘worn out’ the top 40 CCLI songs and looking for new songs by reaching backward. A bit of ‘retrovation’ if I may implement my new favorite neologism.

Many times these hymn re-tunes are successful, and bring back an otherwise forgotten text to 21st century congregations. Other times they miss the mark. Lackluster texts with unimaginative melodies simply add to an overwhelming corpus of contemporary hymnody that confuses and alienates worshippers. It’s great for the hymn (re)writers, to gain experience composing new tunes, trying out new arrangements, and sometimes failing, but is it really effective? With new CCM songs written every day, and 90% of them won’t last more than a year.  The last thing we need is to revive an extant mediocre text.

What are the things needed for a hymn re-tune to succeed? I’ll explain them using an excellent example, Greg Thompson of High Street Hymns’ 2004 setting of “Jesus Lord of life and glory” by James Cummins (1839).  Incidentally, we’re singing it this Sunday at TCC.  Here is my litmus test

1) The text must be good. Like, real good.

I can’t emphasize this one enough. The text has to be SO GOOD, that we can’t not sing it. It has to make you look at the gospel with a new pair of glasses. Though the perspective and cultural context of hymn writers of centuries past is different from our own 21st century hermeneutic, people are always people, sin is always sin, and God is always God.

Besides the aim for gospel centric lyrics, they must also be valuable poetically, both sense and sound. The words must not only pack a theological punch, but must be pleasant to say and pleasing to the ear.

Take our example, “Jesus Lord of Life and Glory.” The alliteration of phrases such as “Lord of life,” “while our waiting souls,” and “when the world around …” roll off the tongue with ease; they’re a joy to say and sing!

Consider also the structure of the text, which lends itself nicely to our contemporary verse/chorus idiom. Each verse concludes with this final line: “By thy mercy, O Deliver us, Good Lord,” rendering all the preceding text as submission to God.  It’s especially poignant in his fourth verse:

When the world around is smiling,
in the time of wealth and ease,
earthly joys our hearts beguiling,
in the day of health and peace
By thy mercy, O deliver us, good Lord.

2) The original genesis of tune use must be fragmented

(see pie chart)

Exhibit B – Who’s ever sung ST. RAFAEL anyway?

The OLD hymn must use a tune (or tunes) that are relatively unfamiliar to the typical worshipper. If a tune is too readily recalled it will be near impossible to remove the conventional wisdom of the past. Especially if the old hymn exists in the existing pew hymnals. “Why can’t we just sing it the old way! I knew that one!”

Check out this pie chart – Exhibit B.  “Jesus Lord of life and glory” shows itself to be a promising candidate for a hymn retune. Not only are the most commonly used tunes unknown (ST RAFAEL and ST AUSTIN…wut?), the “other” category is just as big as the other two. This essentially indicates this text is not tethered to a certain tune, and can be freely re-set to new music.

3) Original tune (or tunes) must be unfamiliar

(see bar graph)

HymnUse graph
the hymnal stock market…

This is perhaps more like #2a, as it is similar to point #2. Not only must the current usage be fragmented, the usage must be low. The graph on the right shows a very low occurrence in hymnals from the hymns original publication, no large spikes or even any increase in use. It also hasn’t died away, but seems to be hanging on in one or two hymnals. Today it is listed in the Trinity Hymnal, #569, and no others. Perfect.

When these three factors align, the new setting might just ave a shot at succeeding. We haven’t begun to discuss the compositional decisions that need to be made – we’ll save that for another blog post.

All this to say, I’m loving the re-tune by High Street Hymns.  Check it out online here:

Buy the track here:

Or come to TCC this Sunday and sing it with us!

John Wesley’s “Directions on Singing” (1761) – and some annotations

I learned these from a hymnology class back in my days at BU, but find myself returning to them again and again.  They’re excellent advice for communities seeking to enhance and invigorate congregational singing – and they can apply to any context of Christian worship. Here they are in annotated form:

1. Learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.

It is critical that the congregation have an agreed upon canon of songs. To make the songs our songs. Unfortunately for the worship leader, it means repeating songs much more often than I’d like. It is identity forming, and singing together creates a shared experience which builds relationships and (here comes the christian buzzword) community.

2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

I can attest to this. Contemporary American hymnody (read: all songs American christians sing – CCM and trad. alike) is fragmented. I absolutely LOVE the re-tune hymn movement, and see more and more great texts being sung by congregations that might otherwise be lost. But I often wonder if it will last. The melodies are most often much less sturdy, much less memorable. Harmonies are indie-rock influenced, which (sorry to say) is a current fashion that might not last. On the other hand, AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and CWM RHONDDA have made it this far – they’re probably are here to stay.

3. Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.

I want to get better at encouraging all people to sing – even if sometimes they don’t feel like it. Our emphasis on authenticity tells us that we should only sing when our heart is behind it. While this is a great sentiment, we must realize that it places the needs and feelings of the individual above the needs and feelings of the community – sound familiar, oh 21st century westerner?  An encouragement: it is certainly true that sometimes our actions can precede our emotions. Take kneeling for example. Sometimes I don’t want to kneel and don’t feel like repentance. Yet time and again, when I do, my heart begins to kneel with my body.

4. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.

The best one for sure. I think we should reclaim the adverb lustily. My friend Caleb translates “the songs of satan” to “karaoke with the girls” or “Sweet Caroline at Fenway Park”.  I’m fully aware that 80% of the men in my congregation (and I’m sure a fair share of women) believe their voices are not good enough to lift up. This is infectious. If you don’t sing, the visiting family next to you might not want to sing either. Psh! Sing it out!

5. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

Not unintentionally placed after #4. When we do sing out, let’s make sure that it is harmonious with the rest of the congregation. How do we get better at this? Just do it. Take a crack at singing a harmony. It will not come automatically for most, but it is something we can work on together as a congregation.

6. Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing to slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

A warning for young and old alike. Working with choirs of all ages, the natural tendency when singing with others is always to slow down. We wait a fraction of a second to hear someone else’s voice before adding our own. By simply acknowledging this we can nip slow singing in the bud. We don’t just follow, we sing with one voice by singing to one beat.  I teach this to the choir time and time again.

7. Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

This is a lifelong pursuit and I’ll be the first to admit that we can sing amazing words without thinking twice about what they mean. Worship requires our attention and focus, our minds as well as our hearts. Wesley was aware of our temptation to be ‘swept away’ in a flurry of emotion based on the sounds alone and not the content of the songs.

-From John Wesley’s Select Hymns, 1761

Applicable or Archaic? Let me know in the comments.

postscript: how could I not include this link? Someone set these texts to music for Baritone and piano, incorporating hymn tunes AZMON, HYFRYDOL, and BEATA TERRA.  lol. 

Joining with the angels: some reflections after one year of music ministry

The sentiment I expressed in my opening letter to the congregation rings just as true today. In that letter I articulated that my primary goal has and will remain this: to empower all people who come through our doors to worship God fully.  Though the job of a worship leader is often viewed as a position rife with disagreement, in many ways it is the easiest job in the world.  Recalling the words of the Westminster Catechism, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”  With this in mind, my position is not one of conflict and disagreement, but of harmony and joy – one that is less concerned with pleasing people, and more concerned with pleasing God through His people.  What ceaseless hope and consistent joy it has been to work and serve in the ministry of our Lord!

I am forever grateful for the work laid out by Beth and Jim Pocock, who tirelessly and selflessly gave of themselves and stretched this congregation in new and at times very difficult ways.  One idea that they championed in their ministry is that we ought to sing each others songs – i.e. have open hearts and minds to the songs of other generations.  This gracious act of charity and love towards our brothers and sisters in Christ can be salt and light in our consumer-driven individualistic society.  It’s not just about us.  Going forward from here, let’s remember not only that learning unfamiliar music is an act of charity towards our friends, but that these songs have inherent value that we ought to pay attention to.  We are drawn to hymns because they have stood the test of time and have spoken to the hearts of Christians despite changing fads and fashions.  For that we celebrate and sing.  We are drawn to modern music because it encourages us to engage our whole body and speaks in the language of the culture we live in today.  For that we celebrate and sing just as heartily.  Can we get away from the bi-partisan attitudes that instantly dismiss music because it includes the organ, or the electric guitar?  Uses antiquated or overly modern language?  Can we move past the sectarian notion that because we are a certain age we must enjoy a certain kind of music?  Yes, with humble spirits and God’s help.  I promise to pick only the most excellent music of these (and other undiscovered) categories of music styles leading us into worship for years to come.

In this short letter I would like to share with you my vision for music at TCC for the years to come.  This does not represent a gut reaction to the climate at this particular moment, but from what I have come to stand for after years of thinking about worship, leading worship in all sorts of styles (from hip-hop to Taizé and everything in between), and studying in the classroom.  Here are a few concepts I have come to understand, and hope and pray that I will come to a fuller understanding in the months and years to come.

1.     Music is more than we give it credit for.  Too often we relegate music into a specific function.  For some music can be a means to draw unbelievers into the church, for others music can be a reminder of God’s trustworthiness and provision.  Further still music can be a means of experiencing God’s mighty power, or his relentless love.  Music can be something we make together; music can be something we rally around.  The truth is music is all of these things and more, but we must never assume that music is purely functional.  The minute we do is the minute we erect a wall that prevents the Holy Spirit from working through music to communicate truth in our church both individually and corporately. 

2.     Music is sacramental.  I apologize for the fancy theology word, but sometimes we can say in one big fancy word what would take many smaller words.  In short, a sacrament is a tangible sign of an intangible reality.  The best example of this is Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper.  Whether you view communion as the transformation of simple elements of bread and cup into body and blood, or see our Lord’s supper as a deep act of grateful remembrance that Jesus paid the ultimate price, in this meal we find that something mysterious yet real is happening.  Though it involves physical elements, our five senses cannot adequately describe what is going on.   The same applies for music.  On the surface, music is simply pitches and rhythms – vibrations, but we all know there is a greater reality underneath the physical hearing.  Anne Lamott gets at this when she asks, “How come you can hear a chord, and then another chord, and then your heart breaks open?.”  God, the creator of music has given us this gift.  How should we use it to give back to him glory?  We must never reduce music to simply a means to a greater end.  We can easily assume that as long as we agree with the sentiment of the words, the form (style) is neutral; simply a carrier of text.  The sacramentality of music reminds us that form is not neutral.  Form says something, and we must consider what we are saying through the style of our music as much as what we are saying with the lyrics.  As the saying goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s you how you say it.”  This is a potent criticism of contemporary and traditional music alike, and we need to be aware of the successes and shortcomings of both styles.

 3.     Music is congregational.  This may sound like an obvious concept, but we want to offer worship services where participation is not forced on a visitor, but essential for the regular congregant.  When our congregation is feels that participating in the worship services (and this is much more than singing loudly) is not only important but necessary, the newcomer will feel welcome and encouraged to participate, not forced or manipulated into false participation.  In addition, leadership should not be by a homogenous group, but one that accurately represents the congregation as a whole.  Let’s allow our young children and teenagers to lead us in worship for their benefit and for ours – all pleasing to the Lord.

I can help but share with you some of the conflicting reactions I’ve received for leading music in a church with multiple styles of music.  Sometimes people mention to me that the music is “too catholic sounding”, and that same week I’ll receive an email saying that they want to hear music more like the catholic music they grew up with.  Some people have come to associate me with smells-and-bells high-church worship, but others associate my song selection with the churches slow and steady movement away from hymns of the 19th and 20th centuries.  It seems I can’t win.  Believe it or not, this is actually a good sign.  We need each other in this season at TCC, and to go forward we need to seriously consider the other.  We need the budding energy of Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” just as much the steady assurance of the old Irish hymn, “Be Thou My Vision.”  I think back to the Kyrie we sang during lent.  I received a lot of mixed comments, both negative and positive for this from both young and old people alike.  But singing this song was good for a number of reasons.  For one, this song didn’t belong to any one particular group- young or old.  Instead it belonged to all of us: the church universal.  For another, it disrupted notions that ‘classical’ sounding songs are complicated and ‘contemporary’ songs are repetitive.  Here we had a super-traditional (4th century) song that was in fact very simple and repetitive.  Just 3 lines of music and 3 words!  Finally, it helped us not only to connect us with Christian worshippers across time, but across the globe.  As American Protestants, we need to remember our origins in the Catholic church, but also the Orthodox church in the east.  The Kyrie is one of the songs that all three churches still sing today – despite all the schisms and conflicts over the centuries we all still need to say “Lord have mercy!”  I am always on the lookout for these barrier-breaking songs for us to sing (Trisagion, the thrice holy hymn we have sung several times since Lou’s last Sunday is another example, as is Charlie Hall’s “Mystery”, which quotes directly the memorial acclimation as the chorus).  They are often the most simple but the most powerful.  We don’t need fancy words or loud guitars – those things are nice – all we need is a humble spirit to do what we were created to do.

I titled this letter “joining with the angels” because it is one simple concept I want us to remember this coming year.  It is a simple concept that radically re-orients our perspective: A call to humility in expressions of praise.  When we worship the triune God, it is not by our power or strength alone, but it is with the choirs of angels and archangels and the company of hosts in heaven – so raise your voice and praise God – for heavens sake!

[repost] How Communal Singing Disappeared from American Life

Apparently I am too busy (or too on-vacation) to publish my own thoughts anymore; this blog has become a nonetheless very interesting portal to other articles on church worship, hymns, sacred music, and the like.

Here’s one from a secular source – the atlantic monthly:
What I find the most interesting is that the article condemns American culture for loosing the idea of “communal singing”, without even mentioning the fact that every Sunday, millions of Americans gather at church for exactly that purpose. My favorite part is the comments, where practically every other person mentions this glaring omission from the original article.