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Hymns as Songwriting

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as a hymn. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Drew Wilmesherr

“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” – Richard Wright, “American Hunger”

Songwriting is as much a passion/calling as it is a craft. Sometimes the lyrics are a jazzed up kangaroo, ready to burst out of the writer’s head and into the listener’s ear. Sometimes the lyric is a sedated panda, heavy, unyielding, and difficult to move forward. But catching rainwater of lyrics, when you have the right tools available, can be refreshing and life-giving without drowning in a blunt force flood of clichéd metaphors.

I love a fresh metaphor in worship music. John Mark McMillan writes in his song, “Baby Son,”

The inn is full, the out is dark
Have you no room inside your heart?

What a beautiful line to communicate so much! There’s clever wordplay of “in” and “out” and the space to fill in who we’re allowing in and who we’re locking out.

Or William Matthews’ gracious articulation of a faith journey through grey areas of life and faith, “In the Grey”:

The place, the place, where I love you in the mystery
and you rewrite my history in the grey

There’s honesty and encouragement to sing this as a community of faith, like Jeremiah or Lamentations, to say I have no clear black and white answers, but I still love you.

“Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” – Orson Scott Card

Pat Pattison (lyric and poet professor at Berklee College of Music) defines metaphor as “… a collision between ideas, one crunched into another…” (Songwriting without Boundaries). Basically, all of corporate worship songs are a metaphor. We’re singing about the Indescribable Divine using the limited language of our even more limited experiences. Having just finished the Christmas season, we probably sang songs about inn keepers without any room for parents with a newborn baby. Even though there are no surly innkeepers in the Gospels, it’s still a great metaphor for the way we treat people even today at our borders, or even the way we allow the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to take up residence in our head and heart. It’s a relatable metaphor, because we can imagine a full hotel on a long journey, or even simply being turned away from a full room.

I love co-writing metaphors for songs, especially with people who have lived through experiences different from my own. They bring fresh language for common experiences, and sometimes they relate uncommon experiences through very relatable images. I once co-wrote a worship song with a hip-hop artist who was using a lot of club and party imagery as a prophetic vision of the Isaiah mountain in Isaiah 2. Peace and abundance in the language of thumping beats and full dance floors. In the book How to Rap by Paul Edwards, hip-hop artist Immortal Technique explains, “Hip-hop was born in an era of social turmoil and real economically miserable conditions for the black and Latino people living in the hood of America, so in the same way that slaves used to sing songs on a plantation about being somewhere else – that’s the party songs that used to have.”

When we engage in worship songs beyond our hymnals (as extensive and deep and wide as they are), we hear the experiences of our common God through the uncommon and current languages of our brothers and sisters who might not occupy our pews with us on Sunday mornings. When we sing the songs of others, we breath and speak as they do, and find ourselves connected in our art. And I usually find a dialogue taking place between groups of people where bridges might not have been before.

“Sing to the LORD a new song, because God has done wonderful things!” Psalm 98:1 (CEB)

Singing a new song, as Psalm 98 instructs, gives us a glimpse into the way God works in the world, the way God addresses our fears (like desiring an escape from poverty). Let’s write our songs, let’s sing the songs of others, and let’s find God in the lives of those living beyond our walls.

For more resources on lyric writing, see Pat Pattison’s Writing Better Lyrics: The Essential Guide to Powerful Songwriting.


Drew Wilmesherr is a Top 40 Mashup of West Virginia and Mississippi. He was designed and made in Atlanta, Georgia. He’s made of collard greens, guitar strings, 808 drums and stories about Jesus. He went to Middle-Tennessee State University (go Blue Raiders!), where he studied English and Recording Industry Management. In between classes and projects, he attended the Presbyterian Student Fellowship at MTSU, making lifelong friends, leading worship (the guitars and synthesizers kind), and discovering a passion for ministry and the person of Jesus. He recently graduated from Columbia Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity. And if you get him started on what the future might look and feel like, you have to let the jukebox play the whole song out (he won’t stop talking about it).

A Community Knit Through Song

This month, our blog series is actually a vlog series – a video blog, that is! We’re calling it “The NEXT Few Minutes.” Over the next several weeks, we’ll share with you short, 2-3 minute videos from a variety of folks around the country with the hopes they spark your own imagination. We hope you’ll learn about some trends, ask questions, and think deeply about the practice of ministry in your own setting.

Eric Wall, assistant professor of sacred music and dean of chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, reflects on the role of music in church. What do you believe God is doing through song? Join the conversation by commenting on this blog post or on our Facebook/Twitter pages!

To see all of our videos in our “The NEXT Few Minutes” series, check out our playlist on Youtube.

A Whisper of Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lori Raible

What is saving my ministry right now? Under the veneer of the rosy-cheeked, puffed-up, perfect show? Under the wide blanket of collective anxiety and fear? Just under the surface of baby-joy? Under the frenetic pace of life as we plead with the dusty donkey to pick it a bit?

The donkey seems so slow.

I would by lying if I said it is the innocence of my children’s faces. I would be faking it if I said it is the anticipation of joy, or the expression of community as we prepare to celebrate. It would be dishonest to say it is giving and receiving.

star ornamentsOf course the collective measure of such blessings express a truth that otherwise may not be evident. But right now, in this moment, it is a desperate hope that saves my ministry. A hope that the promise of the incarnation is not only true, but also conjoined to the promise of the cross: Already, and not yet.

I will not leave you, ever.

The promise itself is strong enough, but sometimes my hope feels flimsy.

If we make it to the manger, will we find Job there? What about poor Jeremiah sinking in the mud? King David in his grief over the death of his son? Hannah weeping in despair for a child she cannot conceive? Guilt-ridden Peter? Lost Judas? Doubting Thomas?

I wish Herod would change his mind. Can you imagine?

Already and not yet.

This year I have no words. Trust me, this is a miracle in and of itself. Call me Zacharias, but this is the type of yearning that is better sung than spoken.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a singing voice either. What sustains me is that other people do. That’s the thing about church. When I can’t gather the courage to ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,’ I hear choirs singing on my behalf.  Three year olds sing off-key: ‘clop, clop, clop, little grey donkey.’ Willa May Young, Ellen Harris, Joanne Cole, Ed Thomas, and Ed’s dad, Herman who is 88 at least, they make magic with Comfort, Comfort You my People.

I have no words to match the truth one hears between the notes. Between the words of those advent hymns, I hear a whisper of hope that is so deep and so profound that I am left speechless. Shamelessly I rely on a host of angels, to sing the words so I can listen for the promise of delivery in the face of what seems to be an unimaginable labor.

Still. Still. Still,

Wouldn’t that be something?

O Come. O Come Emmanuel,

My heart aches with that hope.


LRaibleLori Archer Raible is an associate pastor at Selwyn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. A graduate from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, Lori is passionate about connecting people to one another through faith and community. Most of her free time is spent running both literally as a spiritual discipline and metaphorically to and from carpool lines. Deep within her is a writer vying for those precious minutes. 

In Christ Alone, but Not in the Hymnal: A Theological Reflection Case Study

“Fans of a beloved contemporary Christian hymn won’t get any satisfaction” in the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hymnal, Glory to God, according to USA Today. When the hymn’s authors refused to change their lyrics the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song voted to drop it. Some say it’s about the “wrath of God.” Others that it’s the word “satisfied” and the theology that goes along with it. When Stuart Townend and Keith Getty wrote their 2001 hymn one stanza went like this:

In Christ alone, who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe! This gift of love and righteousness, Scorned by the ones He came to save: Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied – For every sin on Him was laid; Here in the death of Christ I live.

The new hymnal committee, though, had found the song in a recently printed hymnal by a group of Baptists where the words were different: “Till on that cross as Jesus died The love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights the committee discovered that the authors had not approved and would not approve the change. The altered words went too far. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history. This was the view of Anselm of Canterbury and John Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim.

While this might not be one’s personal view it is nonetheless a view held by some members of the Presbyterian family of faith. In addition, the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body. Others pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations. They said it would be a disservice to this educational mission to perpetuate by way of a new text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need (via Jesus’ death) to assuage God’s anger. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross is the supreme example of God’s suffering love and that love changes our lives entirely.

As you reflect on the “work of Jesus on the cross” remember that the “Confession of 1967” says that “God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.” (Book of Confessions, 9.09) Questions for Discussion What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Is the cross necessary because of God’s wrath toward human beings because of our sin? Does “satisfied” mean that Jesus paid the whole price for sins, the price necessary to overcome God’s wrath? Or is the focus on the love of God thus “magnified”? What do you think? And why?

Sources: a USA Today article printed in the Charlotte Observer (August 10, 2013, p. 2E); an article by Mary Louise Bringle in the Christian Century (May 2013); Donald K. McKim, Presbyterian Questions, Presbyterian Answers; a blog by Adam Coleman.