Tom Waits vs Your Worship Team
Tom Waits has described his music as “Beautiful melodies telling you terrible things” (if you want to put some flesh on those descriptive bones check out Poor Edward, No One Knows I’m Gone or Dead and Lovely). It occurred to me the other day that this description of his music is the antithesis of a lot of Christian Praise & Worship – which often amounts to terrible melodies telling you beautiful things.
I have always known this. At various stages of my Christian pilgrimage I have attacked it, criticised it, repented of criticising it, enjoyed it, defended it, excused it, ignored it and endured it. Sometimes I’ve done all of these on a single sunday morning.
But ever since I started blogging through all 211 Beatles songs at Beatles Songwriting Academy I’ve come to the fairly settled conclusion that much (most?) of the songs churches sing represent the lowest standards of songwriting around outside of the top 30 singles chart (and yes, Mr. Stickinthemud, I would include many revered hymns in that too).
Here’s a few things that might help
1 – We need to develop a robust methodology (rooted in theology) of dealing with a divinely inspired source text. Christian songwriters don’t really know how to handle the Bible. Not in the theological sense of “dude I don’t think he did say ‘I am the Lord of Dance‘ and I’m pretty sure ‘his feet did NOT in ancient times walk upon England’s mountain green‘”, but in the sense of how you take inspired prose and poetry, both of which were written in another language, and set them to music in a form that is effective for people a few thousand miles and few thousand years away from the text.
No song we ever write will be inspired in the way the Bible is inspired. We need to do some hard thinking about how we take something holy (the Bible) and make an average every day item out of it that people can use (a song), without confusing or contradicting the original message.
Christians need to develop this methodology because secular musicians generally think words don’t matter. What they appear to mean to the listener is just as important as what they mean to the writer. We obviously can’t take that on board. But ramming a passage unchanged into a musical structure is not the answer either.
2 – We need to study songwriting. From ANY writer that writes memorable songs that people sing along to. The Beatles are a great place to start but you could look at Abba, Billy Joel, Broadway writers, Motown, Bob Marley. Writers who know how to make a memorable melody that lifts the lyrics, who can distill an idea down to it’s essence and who can make a melody seem fresh and familiar at the same time.
3 – We need to write more songs about nothing. Worship is one of the hardest genres to write for. You have to balance objective truth in the lyrics with simplicity, knowing that your songs will be sung and played by amateurs with little or no time to rehearse. It’s really hard to learn your craft and juggle those balls. So don’t. Learn your craft by writing songs about your cat/girlfriend/football team. I’m not saying give up trying to write for a congregation. Just that it’s easier to learn by tinkering around with structures, how words ‘sing’ and melodic shape on something that doesn’t really matter. Then bring all that skill to bear on weightier matters.
4 – We need to sing more bad songs. But not other people’s. Any writer will get better if they write more songs. And if your church is going to sing bad songs they might as well sing yours. Help them by writing exactly what will fit your church’s journey. A sermon series on Leviticus? If you write a song on wave offerings I guarantee it will be one of the top ten ever written. Are the kids in sunday school learning about the good samaritan? Write a fun action song. Can’t find a suitable song for communion, funerals, that quiet bit during the offering? Write one.
What else can we do to improve the level of songwriting in our Churches?
Who are the Christian songwriters that you think really excel at their craft?