Hymns for Good Friday

Last year, our family joined a church that observes the church calendar and uses traditional liturgy in its worship. During Advent, I was able to contribute a new hymn to the church’s worship, and tonight, during our Tenebrae service, we’ll be singing two of the Good Friday hymns I wrote for my master’s thesis. You can download the full set here.

Early in the service, the congregation will sing “The Second Word: The Song of the Thief.” The hymns follow the story of the crucifixion, and several of them are written from the perspective of one or more of the participants. In this case, it is the thief on the cross next to Jesus, who is struggling to understand how Jesus can promise him Paradise while dying on the cross. Continue reading

What Churches Can Learn from Grammy Awards Speeches

Awards show speeches aren’t usually masterpieces of rhetoric. Most, in fact, are simply lists of people whom the winner wants to thank. While their list may include celebrities or important people in the industry, it’s also likely to include their parents, their family and friends, and members of the team that helped create the film, song, album, etc., that is being honored. Occasionally, the winner will give thanks to an artist of an earlier generation who influenced their work. Unlike the credits at the end of a film, there are no contractual obligations to name certain people in an awards speech, but leaving out someone who should have been thanked can lead to major embarrassment.

What does this have to do with churches? In my experience, most churches do a great job of listing the writers and composers of worship songs when they are legally required to do so by copyright law. For songs in the public domain, however, it’s fairly common to omit any information about the source. I’ve even seen churches credit “© Public Domain”, as if we had Mr. Domain to thank for the song.

Why does this bother me? In part, I’m sure, it’s because I’ve written a few hymns and vainly hope that a church in the 23rd century will include my name in their holo-bulletin. Beyond this selfishness, I have a few reasons.

Naming others is essential to community. Our church services ought to be full of names. The Bible is, after all. Those long genealogies and the greetings at the ends of Paul’s letters aren’t just filler. Those names represent real people and real relationships, and they remind us that the people of God is made up of, well, people.

Crediting the sources gives us a sense of history, rich worship, and communion of the saints. When we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” we’re singing a song that, in one form or another, has been used in worship for over a thousand years. There’s something remarkable in the ability of a hymn written centuries ago to capture our emotions and shape our worship today.

Learning the origins of our favorite hymns can help us discover new music. It’s easy to lump all the songs in a hymnal together as a generic genre called “hymns,” but hymns come in a great variety of styles, both musically and lyrically.

  • Love the simple majesty of the doxology “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”? The tune, called “Old Hundredth,” originated in the Genevan Psalter of the 1500s and likely written by Loys Bourgeois. Consider other hymns from the Genevan Psalter for your worship.
  • Prefer the mystical harmony and imagery of “What Wondrous Love Is This?” You might want to explore other songs from Southern Harmony (edited by William Walker) and The Sacred Harp (ed. B.F. White and Elisha King), two influential song collections from early 19th century America.

You get the idea. There’s no legal requirement, of course, to include these credits. I hope, though, more churches will take the time to thank and recognize those who have enriched our worship.

Worship: Stand Out By Being Traditional

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Stand Out by Being Traditional

My friend Jeff Gissing recently wrote about why contemporary worship is not the answer for churches trying to revitalize their congregations. In fact, I would say that, if your church wants to stand out, try offering traditional worship. A church that takes its tradition seriously, that seeks creativity and freshness within its tradition rather than breaking from it, is going to stand out as different from all of the churches that are trying to look, sound, and worship in conformity with the latest trends.

Contemporary Worship Is Nothing New

There was a time — 10 years ago? 20? — when offering a “contemporary” worship service would make a church stand out from all the others. This simply isn’t the case any more. In the broader evangelical context, contemporary worship has won the worship wars. If you want contemporary worship, there are a dozen churches in your community that already offer it.

If your church is thinking about changing to a contemporary worship style or adding a contemporary service, what will you offer that’s different from the dozen churches already doing the same thing? If someone is searching for a church based on its contemporary worship, why would they choose your service over the one down the street? If they’re choosing a church based on contemporary music, can you compete with the megachurch that meets in the old mall, with the worship team of professional musicians and the best sound equipment that money can buy?

Living Tradition

When my wife and I were looking for a new church, we had a few things we were looking for:

  • Solid evangelical theology
  • A healthy community where we could serve and our kids could find friends
  • Traditional liturgy

It was extremely difficult to find churches near us that worshipped using a traditional liturgy. We love our new church — which is good, because it was the only church we could find that offered all three items!

Too often, “traditional” worship is a synonym for “old and tired” worship. I know a church that has been singing the same rotation of hymns for over 30 years, using the same pianist, who plays every hymn at the exact same tempo in the exact same style. (I think it would be called “Southern camp meeting.”) This is not “traditional” worship — this is dead worship!

“Traditional” does not mean “old.” It means that you are part of a tradition, which includes a history of styles, conventions, and content, but which should also make room for new works of art and new variations within the tradition. If a tradition does not make room for creativity, it’s an archive, not a tradition.

Ideas for Traditional Worship

If you are seeking revitalization in your church, what does your existing worship tradition offer? If it feels tired, try asking yourself a few simple questions:

  • Are we doing justice to the music? Is the music being played with a high level of skill and preparation? With the appropriate style and energy? If we’re just going through the motions, should we take a step back and examine our motivation?
  • Can we return to the tradition’s roots? For example, if the song was a Southern camp meeting song, what if we returned to traditional instruments and harmony for the song? What gave the tradition energy and life when it was new? Are there great songs that we have forgotten about that haven’t been sung in our church for decades?
  • What can we contribute to the tradition? Could we write a new verse to a traditional hymn? Write a new arrangement? Play the song on contemporary instruments? It might be as simple as discovering a new combination of songs that complement each other.

You might discover that the “old” tradition can still offer new life.

Photo credit: Laurelville Mennonite Church, via Flickr

We Wait and Watch: A New Hymn for Advent

Advent Candles

Advent Candles

As part of my master’s thesis at Regent College, I wrote a Good Friday hymn cycle based on the Seven Last Words of Christ. In the years since, I’ve written a song or two for Easter musicals, but I’ve not written any more congregational hymns. This year, my family and I began attending a new church with a strong hymn tradition, and the idea for a new hymn formed.

As with several of my Good Friday hymns, the tune inspired the lyrics. My friend Tom Trevethan introduced me to the hymn “We Rest of Thee” several years ago, and his love for the hymn and its history became my own. I later learned that the hymn had a strong connection to InterVarsity, in addition to being the hymn sung by the missionary Jim Eliot and his companions shortly before their deaths. Even though I previously had little knowledge of the hymn, after I heard Tom speak so movingly about it, I often found myself tearing up whenever I had the opportunity to sing it.

The tune is “Finlandia,” adapted from Jean Sibelius’s symphonic poem. The melody is beautiful, though one with its own challenges for lyrics. Each line is relatively long by hymn standards (10 or 11 syllables), and the 1st, 3rd, and 5th lines end with a rising motif that doesn’t fit all words. In the words, I tried to bring together several different images and themes from traditional Advent readings and things that Jesus said about his Second Coming. Many thanks to Anthony Palm for arranging and conducting the hymn for the church, as well as making some good suggestions about word choice, to the Hebron Lutheran Church Choir for singing it this morning, and to Pastor Dave Shockey for giving me this opportunity.

I hope this hymn will be a blessing to you this Advent.

We Wait and Watch

We wait and watch for our Lord Christ’s returning;
  We stand alert, like watchmen on the wall. 
We feel him near, our hearts within us burning,
  At any hour, prepared to give our all. 
We wait and watch; our hope is in his hand. 
Soon we will see, and all will understand. 

We wait and watch, like virgins did by twilight. 
  Five filled their lamps, the others left theirs dry.
Their drowsiness laid claim to all their might;
  Their eyes fell closed, until they heard the cry.  
The wisest five also rose at once to follow;
Those unprepared were left behind in woe. 

None know the hour the Father has appointed.
  Christ will appear as sudden as a thief,
Riding on clouds, revealed as God’s anointed:
  Soon he will come, confirming our belief. 
None know the hour; no one will know the day. 
We wait and watch, and in our hope we pray. 

Come quickly, Lord; your reign endures forever.
  Our Father’s will, be done upon the earth, 
The lion and lamb lay down in peace together,
  And New Jerusalem be given birth. 
We wait and watch for the whole world restored,
When every heart proclaims you as the Lord.

Noll and Enns on Theological Diversity and Christian Unity


This quote expresses some of my recent thinking to an eery extent:

So if we find ethical, theological, and historical diversity in Scripture, we begin with the assumption that what the Bible intends for us to learn is not primarily concerned with textual unity or precise moral consistency as construed by modern ethicists, theologians, and historians. Rather, “The unity of the Bible is more subtle but at the same time deeper. It is a unity that should ultimately be sought in Christ himself, the living Word…”

Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, p. 139, quoting Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

Of course, this leads to several important questions: How much theological or historical disharmony can be tolerated? How much unity should we require for fellowship or organizational structures? What do we do with ethics or theologies that oppose each other? Nonetheless, I think Noll and Enns are on to something important here.