Church Worship Music: What’s lacking?

A pastor friend of mine wrote me this letter:

We’re always on the lookout for worship music that reflects theological themes that are infrequently reflected in modern worship music.  Sometimes we rearrange older hymns in order to capture ideas that modern music seems to miss.  For example we’ve really struggled to find songs that reference the new creation.

So here’s the idea/question – would you and your bloggers be willing to put together a list of songs, could be ancient or modern, that you think reflect some of the most important and yet unsung theological themes?

In some ways we’re particularly interested in older songs because it gives us a chance to breathe fresh life into them while emphasizing the historical continuity of the church.  Honestly I think your blog readers could help with this.

I think it could inspire a lot new music and bring some fresh theological balance to modern worship

Now the questions: What themes do you think are missing?

My suggestions: Great themes in Israel’s Story: covenant, election, Abraham, Moses, David, Exile, Return. Great themes not often seen: Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Lord, the church as embodying the Story of Jesus, resurrection, ascension, reign/rule of Christ now, exaltation.

What hymns/music do you recommend be brought into “play”?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Alan K

    Missing? Easy — Christology, Christology, Christology. And also Christology and Christology. And let us not forget Christology. Oh, and did I forget to mention Christology?

  • T

    I will say that one of my favorite aspects of the Christmas season is the frequent airing of “O Holy Night.” I feel like it mentions and weaves together several themes that feel both central and “rare” every time Christmas rolls around. The bold declaration that Christ is the Lord, the call to fall on our knees and worship, but also the reaction not just of ‘our hearts’ but the whole ‘weary world’ that rejoices, the announcement “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother” is priceless, global and rarely sung. All these tie together for the idea that his arrival and lordship are the basis and impetus to change everything here in gorgeously just and merciful and concrete ways. It also identifies all this as a “new and glorious morn.” The song, in a nutshell, rocks.

  • Kel

    “All Hail the Pow’r of Jesus’ Name.” Great hymn about the kingship/sovereignty of Jesus.

  • T

    I’d love to see some songs that incorporate several pieces of the magnificat.

  • William Tarbush

    Among newer songs, I think the best is Revelation Song by Phillips, Craig and Dean. it weaves in the song from the book of Revelation into a form that is singable in the present.

  • Bob Smith

    Our God, our Help in Ages Past. Written by Watts in an age of political uncertainty, it is a prayer in old fashioned collect form that calls upon God, based upon His love, faithfulness and eternity in the face of our mortality, to be our Help while troubles last. I love a stanza from the original that no one sings these days:

    The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
    With all their lives and cares,
    Are carried downwards by Thy Flood,
    And lost in following years.

  • http://www.reformworship.com Ryan Flanigan

    Here’s a Christological song I wrote a few years back: “Christ Is Exalted” http://db.tt/EC3qZyNJ

    Here’s a great Kingship of Christ song by a friend: “A Hymn for All the World” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JNsjqVKi2Wc

  • Joe Canner

    Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone” can compete with most traditional hymns when it comes to Christology. It encompasses His character (vs. 1), incarnation (vs. 2), substitutionary atonement (vs. 2), victory over death (vs. 3), and victory over fear (vs. 4), among others.

    Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” is also very rich, focusing particularly on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • Andrew Watson

    Try music by Aaron Strumpel, The Welcome Wagon, Rich Mullins, and the Restoration Project. All seem to do a good job at bringing in untouched on themes.

  • dopderbeck

    Repentance and lament. Hard to do with a rock band.

  • Matt Edwards

    I would prefer worship songs to be about attributes of God, with biblical themes used to highlight those attributes of God (and not to have worship songs about the themes themselves).

    I don’t know that a song about covenant, election, Abraham, Moses, etc. would be a worship song per se. Instead, we should have worship songs about “God’s faithfulness as demonstrated in the covenant,” “God’s grace as demonstrated in election,” “God’s power over other so-called gods as demonstrated through the ministry of Moses,” etc.

    This is what we already do. There aren’t a lot of worship songs about Moses, but you can read the biblical text about Moses before you do a song about God’s power and ask people to reflect on the Exodus story as they sing.

  • http://elizabethgregorybrown.blogspot.com Elizabeth

    “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
    I second the “In Christ Alone” song!
    “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

    Yes! Songs that encompass the fullness of Christ. Songs that embrace the suffering of the Cross. Songs that recognize our need for a savior.

    Songs that recognize that death was necessary for life.

  • chad miller

    I think a dicussion on what are worship songs are saying and not saying in a crucial one for any worshipping committee. We sing our theology (or a least we should). What often happens is that some 19 year old guitar player that can sing is writting worship songs with woefully simplistic theology, a lot of me and Jesus. It is important to be able to see what theological schools the worship songs are coming from, ie Hillsongs, vineyard, ect…
    One of my favorite modern worship songs is It’s Time for the Riegn of God (song by Brian Doerksen) – it has great theoloy of the current and coming reign of Christ. Another great resource person in Dan Wilt- who is at Worshiptraining.com, Dan has exstensive experince in leading worship and training worship leaders and is a student of NT Wright.
    Anyways – good dicussion – we need a lot of work in this area(encourage your song writers and worship leaders to be theolgical engaged).

  • DaveAlan

    Again, I too love Christmas music because of the Christology. “O Come O Come Emmanuel”–there’s a song of covenant love.

  • Joe Canner

    Looking at Scot’s list again reminded me of another song I encountered while overseas that is not commonly done here in the US: “Jesus Is Lord! Creation’s Voice Proclaims It” by David Mansell. It is a relatively new song (1982) written in hymn style (a la Stuart Townend). In addition to the creation theme it covers Jesus’ death and resurrection.

  • Kristin

    One song I’d suggest for new creation is “Glory Will Cover the Earth” by Justin Rizzo from IHOP. Beautiful song, very singable. Lyrics include:

    And your Glory will cover the earth
    Like the waters cover the seas
    And the earth will sing your praises
    Forevermore, your kingdom shall be

    I believe Heaven’s coming down
    Jesus will reign on the earth
    The two shall become one
    Forever united in the Son

    I know IHOP tends to get some bad rap because their contemplative stuff (a la Misty Edwards). However, some of their lesser known leaders like Rizzo are worth a listen. Even if not for Sunday mornings I appreciate the depth of lyrics.

  • T

    dopderbeck,

    Totally agree that repentance and lament need more space. But I’ve seen that done very well with ‘rock bands.’ In fact, I never really saw it in hymns growing up that I recall.

    Whom Have I But You (Ruis) comes to mind immediately as a lament (at least that’s how I’ve seen it done), and I just checked, it’s on youtube.

  • Liz K.

    As far as new creation songs go, “Isaiah the Prophet has Written of Old” is a good one. The Wallflowers have one of my favorite new creation songs called “All Things New Again” by Jakob Dylan (Bob Dylan’s son). “Jesus Lives and So Shall I” is a lost gem, partly because the original music sounds a bit dirge-like, but my church has re-written the tune and it’s worked well with the congregation.

  • AHH

    I would add to Scot’s list of missing themes “community”. Especially in contemporary worship music, where the “me and Jesus” vibe is strong. We need more music that portrays the worshipping community following Jesus, not just the individual. More “we” and less “I” in the lyrics.

  • Luke Allison

    I’d say the only thing that’s NOT missing would be the soterian gospel, and personal mystical experience/relational faithfulness (there are more “you are always there for me” songs than I can count).

    I for one would like to hear more about the Resurrection and everything it entails.

  • http://rivervalleycommunity.org Eli Suddarth

    Great post; definitely a needed discussion. There are in fact many good worship songs out there that communicate some of these more theological concerns; the problem is that worship leaders tend to get too much material from what gets radio play. Christian radio, like any music industry, is about making money on recorded music, not necessarily playing new, vibrant worship music. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find some great stuff. As a worship leader, right now I’m particularly into what the Vineyard label is doing, as well as Kingsway in UK. Artists like Jeremy Riddle (plenty of songs about the Spirit and atonement) as well as Aaron Keyes (whose new album has “Song of Moses” all about Israel and God’s power taken right from Exodus, as well as “I am not the same” all about our new creation in Jesus) are great places to start. My call would be for worship leaders to stop listening to Christian radio (or at least listen less) and do some more digging into artists that are about making worship music. The internet makes this easy as you can pretty much find any recording label, their artists, and albums online. Also a tip for selecting music for corporate singing: read the lyrics before listening to the song. Melodies have a way of capturing us (which is what they’re supposed to do), but a number of songs popular in churches these days have a catchy tune but no lyrical substance.

  • AndrewH

    The latest albums by Gungor (Ghosts Upon the Earth) and the David Crowder Band (Give Us Rest) explore themes rarely found in [popular] community worship. Themes such as death, restoration, and lament are prevelant.

    Speaking of Israel’s story, Matt Maher’s original version of “Your Grace is Enough” acknowledged the “God of Jacob”. Yet when Tomlin released the song (and made it popular), that small OT reference was scrubbed. There’s just not much room for Israel in our current worship preferences.

  • http://www.eric-michael.com EricMichaelSay

    Does anyone else want to just eliminate the singing altogether?

  • Steve Turley

    Sandra McCracken has done wonders with old hymns on her last few CDs.

  • Evelyn

    Days of Elijah? (not old though)
    Crown Him with Many Crowns?
    Oh Church Arise by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend is great too, since we’re on a Townend roll . . .

  • Tom R

    Bob Smith,

    OGod, our help in ages past, is one of my favorites also but I was used to seeing only 6 verses. I looked it up in wikipedia and found there were 9 but most hymnals use 6. Besides the words by Watts based on Ps90 I also love the tune by Croft, St Anne. I listened to it on utube a very good version from Cambridge but some of the others made me feel a bit sick. Maybe 18th century hymns should not be attempted in a modern worship style

  • ft

    Glorious by Paul Baloche… it’s about the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection… implications of the Kingdom.

  • DanS

    Keith and Kristen Getty. Brook Fraser. Check out Dan Adler and the Heart of the City Worship band in the Twin Cities

    http://www.heartofthecity.org/index.htm

    - lyrical depth in all.

  • scotmcknight

    I once heard Agnus Dei at the hand of Russ Ware and thought it was the most worshipful song I’ve ever heard in my life.

    Russ, you out there?

  • DanS

    Another plug for an old friend Dan Adler and his ministry to bring reconciliation across racial and denominational lines.

    For Your Church – A repentance oriented song about division
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xLjZFlYeAc

    Great Creator – written with a heart for Native Americans.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JUfHHHfQHU

    Resurrection Chant – an Easter Song with a bit of an African feel
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPfMKX6tjfE

  • Don in Phoenix

    Christological hymns: Sing Ye Faithful, Sing with Gladness; Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; At the Name of Jesus

    Just darn good poetry: All My Hope on God Is Founded

    The ultimate Christological hymn: O Come, All Ye Faithful (but must include all six stanzas, as in
    http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/o/o070.html

  • Ruth Thompson Carver

    My senior pastor just took us through a preaching series called “Resolved”, in which he helped us see God’s perspective on what we should be doing with our relationship with Jesus Christ, our children, our self-image, our finances and our lifestyles. The topic that was hardest to find worship songs about was finances. Jesus talked a lot about money, but we don’t sing about it, even though giving money willingly and cheerfully is an important part of our worship! Aside from “Take My Life and Let It Be” and “We Give Thee But Thine Own”, there isn’t much – and next to nothing on the contemporary scene, as far as I can see.

  • Timothy

    Sojourn Church in Louisville, KY has some great modern versions of hymns (with lead sheets available online!): http://www.sojournmusic.com/category/digital-hymnal

    I second Sandra McCracken, Gungor, Townsend, and Welcome Wagon, and would add Bifrost Arts and JJ Heller to the group.

    “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher is a great song on the Resurrection.

    “O Love of God, How Strong and True” (Horatius Bonar, 1861) is a beautiful hymn that I have not heard a modern version of. And John M. Neale provided some good Victorian era English translations of truly ancient Christian hymns.

  • Glenn Lashway

    How about “Joy to the world” all four stanzas, but I especially like stanza 3.

    Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
    Let earth receive her King;
    Let every heart prepare Him room,
    And Heaven and nature sing,
    And Heaven and nature sing,
    And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

    Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
    Let men their songs employ;
    While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
    Repeat the sounding joy,
    Repeat the sounding joy,
    Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

    No more let sins and sorrows grow,
    Nor thorns infest the ground;
    He comes to make His blessings flow
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as the curse is found,
    Far as, far as, the curse is found.

    He rules the world with truth and grace,
    And makes the nations prove
    The glories of His righteousness,
    And wonders of His love,
    And wonders of His love,
    And wonders, wonders, of His love.

  • Matthew

    Some realy good songs here. I led worship for several years during a transition period (extremely traditional to partially contemporary).
    In my opinion, the purpose of praise/worship music is just that praise and worship. I think that sometimes the “Jesus and me” stuff is really ok. We don’t necessarily need to give a homily in the text of every song, sometimes we just need to cry out “Holy is the Lamb”. That being said, all of the themes mentioned above can be found easily on CCLI.com, and there are plenty of contemporary and traditional songs to match. Also the type of music, and how in depth of it should be based upon the musical taste and spiritual maturity of the congregation. It’s important not to throw up stumbling blocks for the congregation by choosing songs that don’t fit.

  • http://wccjburnett.blogspot.com/ Josh Burnett

    I agree most with the missing theme of Christology. Aaron Shust is doing some things on his album What We Believe, that most Christian artists shy away from doing: He uses Scripture more than His own words! While he has remade some classic hymns, his music in general exudes the Supremacy of Christ and our own inability to please God without Him in us!
    Here’s Aaron Shust’s website http://aaronshust.com/music.html

  • http://www.acparis.org Scott

    Check out Indelible Grace, a worship band who translate the often rich theological content of traditional hymn lyrics into more contemporary music: http://www.igracemusic.com/

  • Paul W

    I’m particularly fond the vespers setting (music for evening prayer) which Marty Haugen originally wrote for Holden Village. It has a rendition of the magnificat “T”.

  • Ana Mullan

    I think the album New Irish Hymns is a fantastic piece of music and good theology. Keith Getty and Stuart Townend have managed to write hymns that are appealing and profound. Like In Christ Alone, Jesus is Lord, Oh to see the dawn, May this Journey, God of Grace. I find them theologically ground and not full of I, I, and I.

  • Jan

    Here’s a piece that talks nicely about this very topic. Chuck Colson linked to this article a few years ago when addressing the subject of worship.

    http://worship.com/2006/01/guest-author-kevin-twit-my-grandmother-saved-it-my-mother-threw-it-away-and-now-i%E2%80%99m-buying-it-back-why-young-people-are-returning-to-old-hymn-texts/

  • http://thepoustiniks.wordpress.com Susan
  • Jerry

    Where are the modern worship songs on the elements of the gospel story beyond the crucifixion? Where is the Baptism of the Lord? BTW, I don’t think I ever heard an Evangelical preach on this. What about the Transfiguration? Let’s have someone set Brian Wren’s text to something besides the unsingable Shillingford (liebsterJesu isn’t really contemporary). where are the songs about Samson besides Regina Spector. The patriarchs? The Exodus? Healing of the lepers,the blind,the lame? Eucharist?

  • Jerry

    Graham Kendrick may be out of vogue these days but he wrote anointed songs with rich theology. He wrote one of the greatest lines in modern hymnody:
    Come see his hands and his feet
    The scars that speak of sacrifice
    Hands that flung stars into space
    To cruel nails surrendered.
    From the song The Servant King

    Also, Shine, Jesus, Shine is an excellent Transfiguration song.

  • Jerry

    One more and I’ll stop. Check out the hymn suggestions For the lectionary at Oremus: http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/yearb.html

  • everlastingman

    I’m not sure if someone else mentioned this (I didn’t read all the comments), but the Psalms cover all of themes that you’ll want to cover as they are the bridge between the “Christ” event which the New Testament reveals, and the Old Covenant Scriptures. Christ prayed them during the Temple Liturgy and they are the prayer of the Suffering Servant (Is. 53); as he IS the New Temple, our liturgy should cover these. The Early Church considered these the prayer of the Church, and the New Testament often mentions the “hours” of prayer where these were prayed and “understood” in light of Jesus. We should not be ignoring these. They have been the principle worship text for most of Church History. They are most effectively elevated to music by being chanted and are extremely potent when experienced that way. Centuries of music before modern rock have done this. God bless.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate

    The most pressing need in worship is honesty. Every single worship song is happy, positive, sure, and hopeful. We desperately need worship songs that meet real people in the midst of suffering and affirm the reality of pain and doubt and turmoil. We don’t need to have every struggle white washed by “it will all be ok in the end” promises. Real healing doesn’t come in being convinced that everything is going to turn out for the best, it comes in co experience of suffering and realizing that doubting an struggling is normal and common to all who follow in the way of Christ.


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