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Thursday, July 24, 2008
N.T. Wright offers a worship design challenge

Celebrated scholar and theologian, N.T. Wright, visited our seminary for a series of lectures last fall.  The lectures were on politics, theology and popular culture another on Scripture and popular culture and the final one a stunning one hour teaching on the Acts of the Apostles. All three were amazing. 

During that visit I had the opportunity to spend some time talking with him. In a conversation about worship we began discussing the proliferation of modern worship songs. While he affirmed a good deal about so many songs being written and sung, he lamented the downside of the short shelf life of the average song coming out today. He also talked about the prominence and priority we give to songs written in the last 10 years in most of our worship gatherings, noting especially our prejudice to favor the most recently written and most popular songs in our worship sets. Then he made this stunning challenge:

"We have 20 centuries of songs in the life of the Church, many of which have stood the test of time. In my judgement, we should sing no more than one song per century of the church's history in any given worship service."

Note he's not saying a song from Bill Gaither, Keith Green, Michael W. Smith, Twila Paris, Martin Smith, and Chris Tomlin. (that covers the waterfront of the last 50 years. According to Bishop Wright, we would have to choose one song from that list--- technically two given that Tomlin would mostly come from the 21st century. After that we would have to go back to the 18th century and then the 17th century and then the. . . you get my point.

By far, most of the worship services I have participated in over the last decade tend toward choosing songs from a quite narrow slice of history (i.e. 1990 to present day with an occasional remix of a 19th century hymn).

So is Wright wrong on this? What's he driving at with this challenge? Upsides? Downsides?
posted by John David Walt | at 7/24/2008 07:15:00 AM



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I almost completely agree with Bishop Wright here, there is a vast wealth of tried and tested worship material dating back centuries, with different songs reflecting changing cultures and perspectives yet still affirming the central truths of the Christian faith, albeit in quite different ways.

Though I would take his 'pick one' idea with a pinch of salt, simply because Bach sounds terrible on guitar and Matt Redman falls to pieces on the organ. A happy medium thats fits a congregation's particular milieu however, should not be hard to find.

7:45 AM EDT  
Blogger chad said...

I think that Wright is on to something-but their are questions to think about, mainly dealing with transitioning the songs to a 21st audience. Any good "modern" worship leader should be able to translate these older songs to their congregation. I remember Matt Maher doing a few older songs when he was at Asbury last year, and they were amazing.

This task should go to move the creativeness of writers/arrangers to learn this task of translation. Biblical scholars (and mdiv'ers) learn ancient languages to explain the texts-leaders should learn how important this is.

But I agree, there is a wealth of songs from 2000 years that are hidden to most. My favorite "discovery" has been Romanos the Melodist-a 6th century orthodox writer.

8:40 AM EDT  
Blogger Marcus G said...


Tom's opinions are always worth listening to, and (from my memories of his lectures on Romans when I was a theology student too many years ago) firmly expressed using any number of rhetorical devices: hyperbole included.

Very New Testament! Very rabbinic, of course.

So to enter into that spirit: you have heard it said that any given worship service should only contain one worship song from each of the Christian centuries. Far be it from me to attend a service with twenty-one songs in it.

I say, all the Christian centuries have been blessed with any number of song writers who, in addition to offering the thoughts and inspirations of their own hearts, have brought us the re-workings of those who have preceeded them, and chiefly translated the great songbook of Isreal, the Psalms, into words and music for their own times. These artists and artisans are gifts from God not to be ignored; and though neither must we forget those who have gone before, to treat lightly the men and women through whom the Spirit of God is working in our own day seems a little ungrateful to the Great Giver of Gifts.

I wonder if Tom, of whom I am a great admirer, would also insist that for every sermon one listened to from a contemporary preacher, one should then find another 20 from the past two thousand years? Those previous sermons would have great wisdom, and I would argue we ought to learn more from the wisdom of our forbears -

but all things in persepective, eh?

9:04 AM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

marcus-- you really are something else.

i think what wright drives at here (hyperbole granted) is that lyrical and musical style from a limited span of time can tend to overly inculturate us to the style and time. It might also limit our theological vision. Consider how modern worship songs tend to give all the verbs-- the action-- to the people. (i.e. i will worship. i will bow down. i will lift up, and so on. it's why worship can make us tired. ;-) )

Look back a few centuries and God gets a lot more verbs in the songs. (i.e. He speaks and listening to his voice new life the dead receive. / He breaks the power of cancelled sin. He sets the prisoner free. / The Lord has promised good to me. His word my hope secures. and that's just a sampling from one song from the greatest British songwriter of all time.

Consider also how the overwhelming majority of songs written over the last 10 years extol the Kingly sovereignty of God. We need to reach back to another era-- or begin to reach forward for it-- to sing of the glories of His intimate Fatherhood. Another example: songs of the last 15 years (which dominate most orders of worship in evangelical churches) tend toward emphasizing the One'ness of God rather than the Threeness or Trinitarian nature of God.

What say you on these fronts? ;-) And are you ready for another guest blog entry? We are!

9:49 AM EDT  
Blogger Marcus G said...

Of course, of course, I'm just having fun with an old tutor's penchant for overstatement!

(I can only be glad that there's no way NTW would remember me after all this time so I am anonymously safe from his mightier intellect and a snappy retort.)

But sensible points here, which you always strive to make, is both the theological training of worship song-writers and song-leaders, and also the immersing in the worship history of the church that those who would wish to be such people should engage upon as if their lives depended upon it. I think in contemporary terms someone like Matt Redman often shows what such a person can achieve.

And now I have an appointment waiting - so everyone is spared "Guest Blog By Default"!

10:07 AM EDT  
Anonymous John D. Palmer said...

It is a silly and sentimental notion. No matter how ridiculous it would be to try and cover that stretch on a weekly basis, to try to do so would be counter to the intention and the focus of worship.

This is yet one more old crotchety guy who has been forced to try to lighten up his rhetoric so as not to alienate himself anymore than he already has from the generations that are coming. So he gives a nice "sensible" retort that seems on the surface to be a comprimise that we "all" can and should live with. No thanks.

I tire of hearing the lament of the older generations about modern worship songs. It is a silly and sentimental gripe that is grounded in nothing but self centered, self serving platitudes. AND this is what is killing the church and the rising faithful.

There is no such thing as songs that "stand the test of time" Name one song that Jesus and the Disciples put on their top 40 list of legitimate songs for worship. How bout Paul and the early church? Why? Because they hardly considered such things as worth noting when it comes to a deeper relationship with God.

All that said as a worship leader I have a deep and abiding love for music no matter what generation it comes from. When I have been able I weave it all together in our worship services.

11:17 AM EDT  
Anonymous guy m williams said...

NTW said: "We have 20 centuries of songs in the life of the Church, many of which have stood the test of time. In my judgement, we should sing no more than one song per century of the church's history in any given worship service."

I think this is a helpful point, but I would dispute any notion that everything written in past ages (particularly in the period from 250-500 years ago, which seems to be where most of the hymns we consider our best are from) has survived in common usage. Charles Wesley himself wrote gobs more hymns that have continued in use in the worship service. So, while I agree that the "shelf life" issue is for real, on the other hand, why should we be surprised that we are singing stuff that may not last for 100 years? I hope we produce some texts that do.

12:45 PM EDT  
Blogger JAy. said...

I have to say that, while I do not completely agree with NT Wright's recommendation, he raises a valid point.

I like modern worship music. It is about all I listen to anymore.

But when I really want to worship and connect with God, the two albums on my mp3 player that get the most time are Jars of Clay's "Redemption Songs" and Alan Jackson's "Precious Memories", both of which pull primarliy from Christian heritage.

Thanks for bringing this topic forward for us, JD!

3:12 PM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

There is no such thing as songs that "stand the test of time" Name one song that Jesus and the Disciples put on their top 40 list of legitimate songs for worship. How bout Paul and the early church? Why? Because they hardly considered such things as worth noting when it comes to a deeper relationship with God.

John D. Palmer-- see Philippians 2:5-11.

3:29 PM EDT  
Blogger Rob Mehner said...

It seems to me that the issues being raised or not so much about century, but theology. In other words, theological awareness and training for worship leaders is in order rather than disc jockeying the play list through the centuries.

Question: Is Psalm 26 legitimate or illigitimate? Old school or new school? How about Psalm 34? I hope that what you are saying is that TOO many of the current worship songs give TOO many of the "good" verbs to people and not God. Not that songs whose verbs tend that way are bad songs.

3:53 PM EDT  
Anonymous John D. Palmer said...

Could you send me the chord chart for the Christ Hymn please J.D. I seem to have lost mine:-) Do you sing it in D or G? How much importance is the musical tune of a song when it comes to worship. I mean could I make the Christ Hymn Country Western or Hip Hop and it still carry the same importance for being sung? As far as tune's go, witness the UMH for duplications of tune's on several of our tried and true hymns. If I put the words of the "Wonderful Cross" or "America" to the tune of "old Macdonald" would it have the same impact for those that are trying to sing it in worship?

5:19 PM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

good questions John. I like the angles you are turning-- but clarify your point for me.

Is it that "songs" don't matter when it comes to deepening one's relationship with God or is it about melody. With your last post you seem to imply that melody is the important issue.

IN your former post you seem pretty clear in your assertion that WRight is wrong. Right?

Do you think it should matter to present day congregations the vast shape of the song catalog through the centuries? Should that have any impact on their worship?

If not, does this not smack of ecclesial arrogance?

What does "I believe in the Communion of Saints" have to offer this conversation?

just some further thought. i didn't think this post had anything to do with musical style or genre at the time of its writing. But it does seem to have hit on that nerve, as though I were eschewing modern music in worship. That's not it at all. And per your inquiry Rob-- it is about theology, not some kind of liturgical correctness or ecclesiological inclusiveness that is driving my thinking for sure.

As much as I like David Crowder, Charlie Hall, Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin and consider them all friends, I think that a steady diet of nothing but their original songs is not the optimal diet for the Church. Their songs have made a tremendous contribution to the Church for sure-- deeply enriching. Strategically used, they will enhance our vision of God. Exclusively used they will limit our vision.

E I E I O! ;-)

6:26 PM EDT  
Blogger Marcus G said...

There's a Quack Quack here.

What's being served in the canteen at Asbury today? Or are you all on beaches in the Bahamas somewhere with (non-alcoholic) cocktails in hand? Time to apply a little Son-screen, gents.

But if you haven't seen it, then for more of Tom at his best, do try this. Surreal. Bishop meets comedian. Not sure who wins.

6:50 PM EDT  
Blogger chad said...

I have read about someone setting Phil 2 to the tune of "A Mighty Fortress." I thought about it, and it didn't seem to work.

I agree that NTW wasn't thinking about worship styles, and I don't think it is fair to assume he is a dodgy old man that is opposed to contemporary music, remember it is his generation that brought forth the Jesus Movement and the first forms of contemporary christian music.

I think any investigation into this would be to check out the verbage of modern songs, I know Lester Ruth has been looking into this in the last few years.

8:58 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! Marcus imagines that anyone who's taught him has forgotten him.

As for the rest of the debate? What Markio said.

10:24 PM EDT  
Blogger Jamey said...

I think hymns with perhaps a modern chorus added as a great expression of worship for people of all ages. Check Crowder's new rendition for 1000 tongues - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWekq9bHtKU

We do a mix of hymnal songs and recently popular songs each week, sometimes leaning more on one more than the other. . .

12:13 AM EDT  
Blogger drew said...

wow, this post's commments are more snarky than usual...

i don't have a whole lot of time, but here are two of my thoughts real quick-like...

NTW's challenge is interesting, and while yes, it would be stylistically difficult to transfer some of the ancient songs of the early life of the church into our services, it's possible--but to do so simply for the sake of doing that is also a weird idea. i mean, anything that plugs us back into the story is worth doing, and should it matter when it was written? as long as it's richly biblical and God-ward, i'm fine with songs from any era.

i like your point about songs about the Fatherness and the Trinity being missing (or largely absent) from the songscape of today's church. Part of that, I think, is a lack of theological exploration of these ideas in the church. Some of it is due to the cultural battles we fight, and these songs being responses (about His oneness or his sovereignty) to what we're anchoring to practically (doesn't make it right, but i see it that way.)

i'll be at ATS next week some--let's do coffee or lunch--

8:10 AM EDT  
Anonymous John D. Palmer said...

I don’t think you can separate the music from the words and both matter deeply to me as I am given spiritual direction. To that end you seem to place a heavy emphasis on the words of songs with no consideration for the music that places those words in time on the lips of those singing. Neither does your post or Wright’s suggestion give acknowledgement to instrumental specials, Introit’s, Call’s to Worship, Entrance or Sending Forth’s. I’m one of those people that drink deeply in the rich tapestry of Organ introits that draw me into focus of the divine. You say you didn’t think that the post had anything to do with musical style or genre . I would suggest that if our intention is to sing song’s representative of 20 centuries of music that you are inherently going to be caught in dealing with the style’s and genre’s of those centuries. And if you don’t, then that will definitely be “ecclesial arrogance” So it is not an either/or for me, it is a both/and.

Who am I to say Wright is wrong? If that spices up the conversation for folks then ok I’ll be “that guy”. You’re the provacateer here in the way you posed the question. I’m only giving you an honest two dimensional discernment of a small snippet of a conversation that you had with the guy. I know I’m supposed to be respectful of Brother Wright just because he is who he is and in all likelihood would be if I were gifted with an opportunity to have his ear. However in this medium(blogosphere) I’m not inclined to be all that accomadating. Especially when everyone else is having a lovefest with the guy.

Yes I think the music catalog through the centuries should matter to present day congregations. I don’t think we should commit musical and liturgical resources to a fanciful and sentimental notion that would end up accosting our congregations rather than edifying them. I think we can address the vast catalogue in many different ways. Teaching Retreats, Liturgical Training events, Concerts with that expressed purpose. In regular weekly worship we can and should take pages out of the catalogue, just not 20 centuries worth each time or. . . .anytime.

What does "I believe in the Communion of Saints" have to offer this conversation? I believe that the communion of Saints is happening all the time for the faithful. It doesn’t occur in a Worship bubble. It happens when I greet my Father, it happens when I visit with a congregant. The Communion of saints is a dynamic perpetual happening. Do you believe otherwise? Out side of that I’m not sure what relevance it has to this post.

Let me salve some of those who have felt the snarkiness or the notion that there were a nerve being touched. My first instinct most of the time, especially in the blogosphere but also in real life, is to say what I think right off the bat. Not always a great characteristic. but it is who I am and I’m not really compelled to apologize for that. I am compelled to apologize if I’ve hurt somone’s feelings. However if I just made you uncomfortable or if I get rattled with responses I like that very much. It makes me think, laugh, get mad, sometimes even cry. So if I come off a little punchy, what can I say liked trading licks as a kid.

Long live Tomlinson, Crowder, Redman, Giglio, Walt and the vast host of witness to the faith in this time and all times.


1:17 PM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

thanks john-- a good response. it's been fun. i appreciate your voice out here a lot.

6:18 PM EDT  
Blogger Rob Mehner said...

hypothetical question:
If Crowder wrote an original work taken from one of the Psalms, and it said the equivalent thing theologically as a hymn from the seventeenth century, would it be more beneficial to the congregation to use the hymn, or the Crowder original, or does it matter at that point?

Oh, and can God create a rock so big that...oh, nevermind.

6:31 PM EDT  
Blogger J.D. Walt said...

rob mehner-- how big a boy are you? don't make me come down there! ;-)

nice question. really-- i think questions like these really flesh out the issues.

i'll be thinking on it this morning and get back with something later today.

8:13 AM EDT  
Blogger ode2immortality said...

you can come down here! In fact, you can even crash on our couch!

1:01 PM EDT  
Blogger Joshua Toepper said...

thats an interesting point JD, i guess i think about the timing of the songs written. It seems to me that when the great church fathers, Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, guys like horatio Spafford, and SOME modern day musicians wrote their music it was what the church needed at the moment they were writing it. time fails me to further lay out my thoughts, but they seem to me that they had a very "prophetic" edge to them. Maybe what the church needs more than ever is a prophetic edge to their worship. where a worship leader can hear the voice of God as to what the congregation or global church needs. Maybe they could bring the sound of heaven down to earth. that seems to be the ticket as opposed to other motivations for picking songs, whether it be relevancy or respect to the past.

4:21 PM EDT  
Anonymous Richard H said...

My habit as I choose songs for worship is not so much to look at the century, but to look at the style and substance. Does the song HAVE substance? Does the mix represent variety? (Not all subjective, objective, or Gospel Song, etc.) Some songs I don't choose not because they're not good (or because I don't like them), but because the people in my congregation won't/can't sing them.

Another angle: I think a sign of a healthy worshiping community is regular (whatever that means) inspiration for new hymns. Some of OUR hymns will be ours by adoption. But I also believe that in a truly healthy spiritual environment the Spirit will lead people to write new songs that are specifically OURS. Sure, the "we" in view may be rather short lived, leading to a shorter "shelf life," but so what?

7:53 PM EDT  
Anonymous john page said...

How can we know if these "modern" worship songs have stood the test of time or not, unless we're around 60-100 years from now and we're still singing them? It seems some of them are standing up quite well.
Does it really matter? Seems like an irrelevant argument. Use whatever song, regardless of when it was written, or by whom, and use it to help folks encounter God, and use whatever instrument, or not, needed to help aid that encounter.

10:41 AM EDT  
Anonymous matt r said...

it seems that most of the discussion so far has ignored context and culture. from a missiological point of view, shouldn't we be asking "what is the musical heart language of the congregation?"

this may seem to be a music/melody issue only, but i think it also involves lyrics and verbage. meaning that Bach would seem musically very foreign to some people, as would the German it was originally written in. and ask any musician and they will tell you that translations of texts usually are terrible and don't work. (kind of like when you go on a mission trip to mexico and they are singing "open the eyes of my heart lord' in spanish. but usually people in such contexts are pretty happy worshipping Jesus no matter what the style. :)

anyways, for me the issue is that music and preaching are servants to the overall worship of God.

7:48 PM EDT  

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