Worship Songwriting Part 2 - The Curse of The Rhyme

No, its not the title of the latest Harry Potter book, but simply a few of my thoughts on "creating" rhymes and cliché lyric that do no one any good at all.

Why does worship music suck? Rather, why does the lyrical content and the method in which it is conveyed suck? After giving this some thought and searching my own journal entries of potential songs, I think we can point the finger in several directions. But most of the guilt should lie with our lack of taking the call to educate through music seriously. Worship leading has gone the way of the buffet-style caterer and not the sober-minded educator. But in reality this is nothing new. The poorly-written song has been a legacy in Christian music. Don’t get me wrong, we could spend a great deal of time poking holes in the "poetry" of pop culture as well, but their job as writers is to simply emote and sell a record. Our job is a bit more difficult. We are entrusted with the task of making the song accessible in both composition and lyric while remaining theologically accurate as we walk on the tightrope of creativity, which, by the way, is stretched over the abyss of cheese and cliché. And we all know what happens when we fall.

So, you have a wonderful idea inspired by scripture and you have studied and researched and meditated upon it for days on end and you know within the depth of our “knower” that this is a message that MUST be sung by the congregation, but how?! The first thing I will suggest is to get rid of the grand idea of rhyming everything. Rhyming is a great advantage in helping the average congregant remember a song, but it is not a requirement. Sure Bono is great at it, but you are not Bono. If things can naturally rhyme without sounding contrived or forced then go with it. But I have seen too many writers hung up on a song or a line simply because they were plagued with the curse of trying rhyme. In a Cutting Edge article on corporate songwriting John Mortensen nsaid that we should issue a moratorium on rhyming "adore you" with “before you". I would like to add a few of my own pet peeves to the list. In the end, what makes a corporate worship song memorable is what people can take with them. Focus on the theology and message first and rhyming second.

The second recommendation I would make is to not use the word ‘awesome’ to describe the Lord. Verbiage is another crucial element in articulating a message. We should all stop trying to sound deep and overly poetic. If there is any depth to the music we write let it come from truth and theology. Let us shy away from the ‘thees’, ‘thous’ and ‘thines’ of the King James translation. And let us also do away with the “church-esque” lingo that has no bearing on the unchurched or non-believer. Instead, let us draw from life. The most powerful and potent poetry comes from writers who draw from the language of daily life. Now I love a hymn as much as the next guy, but we should try to not take our queues from poetry written in another time and another language.

Maybe one day I will post some of the “songs” I have written that have never nor will ever see the light of day. Oh, the cheese in my journals.

So, when it comes to writing a corporate worship song remember that we are not caterers, but educators.


Jeff Luce said…
I like the perspective of educator vs. caterer. There's something about contemporary worship that just doesn't feel right. I think you're hitting this something well.
Great thoughts, Marty -- and good writing, too. This is really helpful.

I wonder why we can't seem to match that balance the hymn writers of old struck between poetry, theology and clarity. I know I find it really difficult.

As we've seen in our own church, the congregation responds very well to songs like "Come Thou Fount." The first verse alone is pretty heavy on the poetry:

"Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love."

Tune my heart to sing thy grace? A melodious sonnet? Flaming tongues?? This isn't the language of every day stuff, unless there was a lot more talk in those days of tongues of fire and such. Yet, we still understand this song today and find it worshipful in a powerful way. And the lines we don't understand immediately cause us to ponder or search out God's Word -- like a good poem would do.

I understand what you're saying, and I agree with you. No more 'thees,' 'thous' or choosing words we don't use anymore. And worship songwriters need to stop trying so hard to be profound. But I'd hate to see us stop trying all together for that beautiful combination of poetry, theology and clarity in today's language. It seems to me that to lose any one of those is to throw a song off balance.

So maybe as we pour ourselves into theology, to become better educators, we need also to become more literary -- reading poetry, prayers, fiction or whatever else. Thoughts?
Martin Reardon said…
Cameron, I hear your thoughts on 'Come Thou Fount'. And you are right that that was not everyday language (save within the walls of the church). But, I think the reason hymns work well these days is not because they were such great literary works of their day, but because they take us back to a time when theology was actually an important part of song-writing. We long for those days again.

Overall, we lack powerful biblical truth in modern day worship music. I feel our fault lies in trying to replicate or recreate those words of sentiment rather than focusing on the theology while using "our" everyday language. At least, that is what I think.
Yeah, I hear you completely. I was just trying to articulate that we can write poetically in today's language, within certain bounds. Poetry at the expense of clarity is bad. And the other way around, clarity instead of poetry, isn't bad per say. But it leaves something to be desired.

I think you're right that it's the theology we love so much about the old hymns, but it's the poetry that gets us to it.
To add one last thought, I guess I don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we can strike that balance between poetry and clarity and have a richer experience for it. It's just harder to do and takes more work.
Jason Campbell said…
I do think a healthy dose of poetry wouldn't hurt. I would suggest a regular purusal of T.S. Elliot and GM Hopkins ... both theological, as well as poetical.

jason campbell
Martin Reardon said…
Jason and Cameron, if I could think of two people who need no pointers on writing and poetry its you.
marlster said…
Great post! Thanks for sharing this and writing the songs you do.

I also had the same feeling as the other comments: crossing off all poetry is probably best for most people that start, but I am still often moved by words that are saying things in a real new way and where the words open up a new reality. It might the gift of the Few though.

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