Digging Deeper for Friendlier Songs

Posted by Mark Tubbs
Tagged Sovereign Grace Music
January 20, 2012 @ 12:38 AM

As a reader, I often draw reading material from publishers' back catalogs (a post for another day). As a worship leader, I often draw new music from the late 1990s. Why is that?

By way of brief background (scroll down to the bold print if you wish), I spent most of my childhood and adolescence in the same local Baptist church. At age two I was conducting from the pew (isn't that cute?) and by my pre-teens accompanying the choir on piano. At age 18 I became the interim Director of Worship - the latest in a revolving door of music ministers. I was sent packing just over a year later, and I'm still not sure if the door hit me on the way out. I certainly bore the scars - some of my own cultivation via grudges - for many years after.

Then I had the opportunity to apprentice under Pat Sczebel at the first then-PDI/now Sovereign Grace Ministries church in Canada. Both he, and Bob Kauflin by distance, taught me 95% of what I know about biblical worship. I am greatly indebted to both of them and spent a happy and profitable seven years there.

Against our wishes (initially) at the end of seven years, we were called back to my childhood church. It had made some significant strides forward, with two gospel-centered pastors now at the helm. Nevertheless, the worship ministry was in shambles. I pledged not to get involved, but within months was leading worship, which involves occasionally choosing new songs, of course.

I recall when Brian Doerksen's "Faithful One" debuted in 1989, and because it had climbed the Praise & Worship charts so quickly, one or another worship leader at my church decided the congregation should learn it. And learn it they did - over the course of many, many painful months. For a congregation I refer to as 60 over 60 (60% over 60 years of age) to learn a somewhat rambling song with an A-B-C-D format and nebulous melodic/rhythmic features was very difficult.

Fast-forward to a few months ago, when another worship leader attempted to introduce "Made to Worship" by Chris Tomlin. If you have seen the piano score, you'll know that dotted notes and sixteenth notes are rife, and some of its phrases are quite long. It's a nice song, and our congregation could certainly learn it, but it would take many, many months of repetitive drilling. Is this the best we can do?

A congregation comprising so many older people ought to be able to trust that a worship leader will select songs that feature at least two main attributes. The attributes that I have in mind are found in some PDI/Sovereign Grace Music hymns and songs of the late 1990s, and also among many of those written by British worship leaders such as Graham Kendrick, Stuart Townend, and the Gettys.

Singability: In a singable song, intervals larger than a fifth are used sparingly, the rhythm of the melody is complimentary to the lyrics, and there is a discernible "hook." Once in awhile I will also introduce a song with a bit of an echo (all you hipsters are cringing, aren't you?) because the congregation immediately feels like they are participating in the song. "I Will Always Love the Lord (Honour the Lord)" by Graham Kendrick is an example, and it was written just a few years ago.

Melodiousness: This feature isn't just reserved for slow, beautiful songs. "I Want to Know You" by Steve & Vikki Cook comes to mind, and it is a moderate-speed song. You know you've hit on a good, melodious song when a congregation takes to it like a duck to water because it seems the song ought to have always existed. "In My Heart" by Eric Grover is one, and a faster example would be Mark Altrogge's "Every Good Thing" (the unexpected perfect fifth interval in the verse is gold, and the chorus contains just enough repetition to acclimatize the congregation to the song within a short period of time).

These qualities together in a song create a kind of timelessness that I refer to as the Phil Collins phenomenon. So many of Collins' songs appeal to young and old alike. Other songs that fit this bill include "All I Have is Christ" by Jordan Kauflin, "You Made Us Your Own" by Steve & Vikki Cook, "You Prepared a Place for Me" by Doug Plank, "Lord, You Are Gracious" by Pat Sczebel, "He Is Jesus" by Stephen Altrogge, and Bob Kauflin's version of "How Firm a Foundation."

It's not only Sovereign Grace Music that has produced these songs I call timeless. I am well aware of my bias! In my travels I have found Vineyard songs, Hosanna! Integrity songs, Maranatha! songs, and Hillsongs songs that are hidden treasures. But my research has turned up more Sovereign Grace songs that exude these qualities than any other songwriting source.

Bias notwithstanding, I adjure worship leaders to dig a little deeper - especially if you lead worship in a 60 over 60 (or higher/older) church. There's gold in them old songbooks.