Good, Bad and Ugly Songs

8 comments Written on February 14th, 2009     
Filed under: Core Values, Liturgy, Music, Songwriting

John Stackhouse took Chris Tomlin to task. This week, Stackhouse posted a detailed critique of Tomlin’s Praise the Father, Praise the Son underscored by a general concern about the quality of the sounds and lyrics we foist upon people in church. Read Chris Tomlin’s Worship Songs: We Have Got to Do Better.

This reminds me: Covenant pastor, Andrew Thompson, sent us an open letter on the same topic. Thompson is wondering: 1.) What can we do to encourage the craft of songwriting among ourselves and 2.) How can we share the good stuff that’s written and sung in our churches. (i.e. We used to publish hymnals. Now what’s the plan?)

I offer you their respective messages for review, and I hope you’ll offer your responses/s to either leader and each other via the comment tool. (Note: Thompson references a Covenant Quarterly article by Phil Anderson. I don’t have that article in electronic format, but I’ve asked for it, and I’ll post it soon, so this community can respond to Phil’s thesis as well.) 

Now, here’s Andrew’s letter:

May 30, 2008

Dear Covenant Leaders:

Phil Anderson recently reminded us of our rich history of hymn singing and songwriting in his excellent article in the Covenant Quarterly. His article urged us to remember this important aspect of our churches’ worship life. To take it seriously; to give it thought and make it a point of reflection. I couldn’t agree more.

This letter is written in the hopes that we heed Anderson’s reminders and proactively consider how we might deepen and enrich this important aspect of our weekly worship, theological reflection and catechism. In many of our churches’ worship life, singing has nearly as central a place as preaching. For many parishioners, the lyrics of the songs we sing are committed to memory as much or more than Scripture. We know that our songs are important. They shape how we engage faith. They shape our doctrinal focus and our devotional lives. They shape our praxis. They shape us. But it seems that as a denomination we are doing little to shape our songs.

The Covenant has all but abdicated its role in publishing new music for its churches. With few exceptions (CHIC and a few other specialized events) there is little effort to develop, promote and distribute music that flows out of our core affirmations. In most cases, local churches have instead allowed the secular market forces of contemporary music publishing to determine the pool of new music considered for adoption into their regular song repertoire. Many feel that’s all they have to work with. We have provided them no other option. While it needs to be admitted that not all the songs to come out of the contemporary music publishing “machine” are bad, it is interesting to note that a high percentage of the songs coming out of the machine flows from a narrow stream of theological and denominational roots. The denominations and doctrinal movements that support and promote their own songs are being heard, and in time, we end up singing their songs.

Perhaps you doubt what I’m saying? Next time you are in worship in a “contemporary” format setting, pay close attention to the publishing information that’s listed on the projection screen or handout. There’s a good chance you’ll see content from Mercy/Vineyard publishing or Hillsong music. Mercy/Vineyard controls publishing for more than 10% of the top new songs being introduced in most evangelical churches (according to CCLI licensing). The Vineyard church is similar in size to the Covenant, but through its popular music its influence and impact is much wider. The Vineyard’s theological emphasis on intimate relationship is expressed well musically. The language tends to be first person singular. Often the relationship with God is expressed in erotic language. (Touch me, hold me, I want to feel you, etc.) This is not necessarily bad. This is just a church movement expressing who they are and what they believe. And their songs are so catchy, sing-able, distributed and supported that, as they hoped for, many other churches are singing them too – in time, shaping their thinking to be more like the Vineyard’s. Hillsong is similar in both doctrinal focus and marketing. And it is working. Are we and other denominations becoming more Vineyard-like and Hillsong-like in our theology? Yes. Why? The songs.

Our problem is revealed when we discover that we are no longer singing about who we are, and how God has shaped and is shaping our movement. Would you like more Covenanters to be excited about the priesthood of believers, holistic mission and freedom in Christ – three values that flow out of our theology? Write and distribute good songs that flow out of our affirmations. It is good that we write articles on the Covenant affirmations. It is good that we produce videos about them. It is good that we develop Confirmation curriculum around them and that we preach about them. But it we don’t sing them – regularly and wholeheartedly  they will not fully embed in either our worship or our practice.

I hope my words do not come across as overly critical or harsh, for I am very aware that there are many others also working in similar ways to support and build up our tradition of hymnody. Faithful song writers like Bryan Jeffery Leech, Jim Black, Richard Carlson, Bob Stromberg and others, song leaders and pastors who are working very hard to deepen the worship lives of their congregations; many people who are careful, thoughtful and often very concerned about where things seem to be going. They need support from their denomination, not criticism.

Please allow me to make some suggestions. It is my primary hope that these ideas would get the process started. I trust that as others consider these ideas, and modify or adapt them with similar ideas, that together the Holy Spirit will lead us to greater faithfulness in this area.

Introducing Indigenous Music at Most Covenant Events.

We could invite song submissions from Covenant churches prior to Midwinter/Annual Meeting/Feast planning. With our existing technological infrastructure it would be relatively easy to have churches submit original songs in electronic format, perhaps a lead sheet as an Adobe Acrobat file and as an electronic format audio recording. The planning committee could, even from a distance, listen to the music and judge it on 1) sing-ability, 2) theological content, and 3) relevance to the Midwinter or Annual meeting theme. The best songs for the event could be selected.

At the event, the one or two top selected songs could be highlighted in worship, and the music could be made available to participants. It could also include basic info about the author and her or his home church, the story behind the song and information on appropriate permissions to use and distribute the music. Perhaps a recording of the event worship team singing the song in a worship service could be made available afterwards. Just as we sell and distribute speakers’ CDs and Mp3s, we could distribute these new songs to those interested in hearing them.

Helping Pastors Grow in their Theology of Songwriting

We could offer a “Theology of Songwriting” course, perhaps as part of North Park Theological Seminary’s M.Div program, as a Midwinter elective, or perhaps even as part of the orientation track training. In the class, pastors would be asked to theologically assess several popular worship songs, then would be asked to write song lyrics around a particular passage or biblical theme. (Original tune optional.) The process of wrestling through writing songs and growing in appreciation of what is involved in writing a good song can help pastors gain awareness of both the importance and the challenge of the arts in their local churches. Perhaps for some it would unlock a new gift. In every case it would enhance a pastor’s ability to shepherd musicians and songwriters in their own context. If there is interest in pursuing this idea, I would very much enjoy being part of the teaching team.

Songs are central to how we worship. Worship is central to life. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. I submit both them and myself to you as together we seek to build and strengthen our Lord’s church.



Pastor Andrew Thompson
Church Planter/ Lead Pastor
Columbia Grove Covenant Church
Wenatchee WA

Okay. So what do you think about 1.) Tomlin’s songwriting ability? 2.) the quality of music/lyrics we use in church? 3.) Andrew’s critique of Vineyard and Hillsong music as it relates to Covenant Affirmations 4.) Andrew’s sense that we need more Covenant native music and should make more effort to that end? or 5.) Other?

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8 comments “Good, Bad and Ugly Songs”

1) While I don’t like Stackhouse’s tone–he obviously has an axe to grind–I think he makes some good points. Partial rhymes don’t really bother me, but general carelessness in artistry and theology do. I probably am not as vigilant in noticing these things as I should be in my role as a worship pastor. But I have noticed particularly in Chris Tomlin’s music a tendancy towards commercialism and theological shallowness. That’s not true of all his songs, but still I was especially struck by this on his last album. Why put out another album if you’re not going to go deeper in worship than you did in your previous one–or at least try to go deeper? It’s likely the pressure of the record company that causes a worship artist to feel like they have to release a CD that doesn’t have anything new to say, and this is “Christian” commercialism at its worst. (Or almost its worst–have you looked that the average church choir octavo that’s being published today?!)
2) I generally bristle at comments that modern worship songs lack theological depth, because I try to choose ones that really do say something–and there are many that do. Likewise, traditional worship songs–particularly in the evangelical tradition–are not exempt from shallowness, narcissim, or one-sidedness. But I think I do put up with some things lyrically I should proabably not put up with, either because I like the music or because I think my congregation will like it. I can hardly stand the song “Breathe” because it seems excessively narcissistic, and yet I found myself singing it with passion at the Connection a couple weeks ago! And I really like David Crowder’s “Here Is Our King”, but even those of us who like the song have to admit that some of the lyrics are really obtuse–even when we know the story behind the song!
I think part of what we live with here is the tension of the “now and not yet”–of the inherent inadequacy of language this side of heaven. Even the best of song texts will not be perfect while we reside on earth. (Just consider the gender and language issues we’ve struggled with in our blue hymnal!) But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try harder for the heavenly ideal.
3) I think Andrew has given us a fair critique of Vineyard and Hillsongs. He hasn’t said we shouldn’t use these songs–indeed to avoid them would be depriving our congregations of some wonderful expressions. But I think he’s made some good points in saying that these songs have a pretty narrow focus in their lyrics, and that our focus will be similarly narrow if we sing only these types of songs. I appreciate Andrew’s acknowledgement–coming no doubt from his pastor’s heart–that our congregations’ theology will be largely formed by the songs they sing. And so I agree that our worship diet should not consist predominantly of these types of songs any more than our physical diets should consist mostly of desserts. The move towards reintroducing hymnody in modern worship has been very encouraging in this regard. Writing new songs that reflect our denomination’s core values would be a new step in that direction.
4) Andrew has been advocating for indigenous Covenant worship music for years, and has made real efforts in that direction that have largely been met with frustration. As he has pointed out, the Vineyard and Hillsongs are relatively small parts of the body of Christ that have made the creation and promotion of their own worship music a priority–and for that reason their work has had a profound influence. Why could we not do the same, or at least ask the Lord if that is part of what we could offer the larger body of Christ? As a member of our denomination’s Worship Commission I know we need to start the conversation soon about whether we will do another hymnal or whether we should try to resource churches in new ways. Whatever we decide, I think it needs to include a more systematic, more supported promotion of indigenous Covenant music. True, we should not put up with second-rate songs just because they’re written by people within our denomination. But I don’t think we’ve done enough legwork to truly know what our potential is. At one point Vineyard was the newest, hottest thing in worship music. More recently it has been Hillsongs. Maybe at some point in the future it will be us! But it will never be if we don’t have the vision to put our efforts and resources into discovering what the Lord could do in us and through us.
Looking forward to continuing the discussion! God bless you all!

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Thank you Randall for putting so much of what I was thinking into the words I was having a hard time coming up with! (maybe this is why I am not a good song writer)
The one thing that I have been thinking about in reading Andrew’s article was how blessed I was to listen to the Array CD that was put together by many of the worship leaders in the Southwest Conference. I have used a couple of those songs in our worship over the last year. It has made me wonder if there would be away to do something like this on a national level. And if there might be a way to give grants to song writers for this purpose.

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Randall, thanks for the comments. I agree strongly. I think Stackhouse is just being a cheap critic on this matter – even though he makes valid points. It’s easy for a non-practitioner to presume that good songwriting is just a matter of hard work and careful analysis… that is until to try writing songs. I’m happy that Chris Tomlin is drawing from broader theological themes than simply personal emotive response… again not a bad part of theology (especially pietistic theology) but not the whole story we need to proclaim each Sunday.

Tim, I’d love to hear that CD… where can people get it? Any chance we could develop an online sharing tool for original music?

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I picked up the CD at the Worship Connection in 2008. Maybe Katie knows where to get more copies.

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Thanks for your note, Andrew, and your contributions, Tim. The Array 2007 CD was a great accomplishment, and a great example of what we could be doing on a larger scale. The five Covenant worship leaders featured on the CD were Lowell Edward (Generations Covenant – Torrance, CA), David Greco (Marin Covenant – San Rafael, CA), Mike Loretto (Hillside Covenant – Walnut Creek, CA), Matt Nightingale (Access Church – Houston, TX), and Krystofer James VanSlyke (Genesis Covenant – Phoenix, AZ). There is a little more information on the CD website: and you can listen to the songs at I’m not sure if there are still hard copies of the CD available. Because it was produced by someone at Marin Covenant Church I think the best bet would be to contact David Greco there. Hope this helps! God bless!

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I’m a new entry to this thread, but if I may I’d like to share some thoughts from a layperson perspective. I have the honor of leading the praise team at Trinity in Greensboro, NC. While leading praise and worship is very satisfying at times the responsibility weighs heavy. I found the insights from Andrew, Randall and Tim fascinating. And as I read this over (and over) a few points came to mind regarding song selection, song inspiration and collaboration & sharing.

Regarding song selection, Andrew’s point is very true – by Tuesday we may have forgotten the sermon message, but we continue to remember melodies from Sunday worship. Personally though I struggle with selecting praise songs that reinforce the sermon message – particularly as God often refines the Sunday message right up to Saturday evening. Still, we often select songs connected to key touchstones such as Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. But to be frank I’ve never considered a song based on its denominational theology. Please know that I’m not making a point for or against this criterion – it’s just that theology has never entered into our thought process. Likewise, I’ve not been concerned that ‘over selecting’ songs from one source would somehow influence our thinking towards a particular theology. What I can say is when picking songs for worship we look first to ensure God is glorified (obvious but needs to be noted). We also seek to ensure the message in the song has sound biblical backing. (I would advocate that songwriters note the scripture verses that ground the song.) And finally we look for songs that the congregation can sing. One challenge worships face is that many contemporary Christian artist have high vocal ranges requiring songs be transposed into lower keys – sometimes making it difficult for the majority of the congregation to sing.

Song inspiration – Over the past several years God has inspired several original praise songs within Trinity. These songs are often born from trials, triumphs or by a specific revelation from God’s word. When we sing these original songs I wonder what observations a songwriter like King David would offer. I also wonder how a new praise song is born. Does a new song originate in heaven with the saints and then is breathed into an open servant on earth. Or is a new song crafted here on earth by an obedient witness, and then loosed in heaven to be sung. Most likely it’s both – but the point I make is this: God has gifted some in the body with the ability to craft wonderful praise music. But everyone in the church can be inspired to sing an new song to the Lord, and its in this inspiration I offer my last thought.

Collaboration – The ideas offered in this thread for colleting and sharing songs are terrific and I could envision a wealth of vibrant songs coming from the churches. Let me encourage the leadership to be responsive to a moving God is clearly placing on your hearts in this area. Gathering up the songs that are currently embedded within the Covenant would infuse the body of Christ (Covenant and others) with some wonderful music. In addition, there is also the opportunity for greater collaboration in crafting new songs. Pastors and songwriters should get together and intentionally craft new songs that have both sound biblical teaching and are singable. In additional to reviewing songs coming from the churches and selecting a few to highlight, it is feasible with the technology available to develop a repository where every songwriter within the Covenant could upload songs God’s has inspired and make them openly available to others to use. The songs selected more often might eventually make its way into a more formal songbook. Finally, we might encourage on-going critique and refinement of songs presented. For example, several of the songs God has given me have been greatly enhanced both from soundness of the words and musically by input from other church member. Just think of the power of inspiration that would come from harnessing the collaboration within the entire Covenant,

One next step we might consider is a Covenant-wide webcast (webex) to discuss this topic further. A webcast would allow anyone to join in the conversation and we might be able to set a vision and create direction for others to join in.

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Hey all. Keep these comments and ideas coming. We’re working on a web repository for uploading and downloading music– as well as an overall strategy for cultivating and sharing stuff that comes out of our churches. I love the webcast idea.

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l like any good content

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