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Forming the Life of the Congregation Through Music


A. The place to start is with the songs we choose. As often as possible, we should select those with vivid, descriptive language or interesting story lines (or both). Naturally, not every song is consistently good or bad in this regard, but most will show whether or not the lyricist has truly crafted the words. In Christ Alone is an example of a text finely done:

There in the ground His body lay,

Light of the world by darkness slain;

Then bursting forth in glorious day,

Up from the grave He rose again!


In Christ Alone, Keith Getty

Not only does Getty’s text avoid setting off the cliché alarm, but it demonstrates an attention to consistent metaphor: the idea of light runs through the verse. Light of the world refers to Christ, and its opposite darkness stands for the forces of evil. Finally he draws the Easter morning sunrise into the picture as he pens bursting forth by glorious day. He also creates an implied simple narrative: as the song proceeds, Christ goes from the grave to the resurrection. The text holds together nicely, each part complementing the others, with no lines sticking out as thoughtless filler.

It is only fair to offer a few of my own lyrics for scrutiny and critique (let the reader fire at will):

See in verdant growing things, and hear in sweetest singing

This lavishly created world, in beauty ever ringing!

See in withered dying things, and hear in loud war-making,

This tragic’ly distorted world, in sin and sorrow breaking!

No matter how good the band is, the sound of the people is more beautiful still.

In this verse the text describes both the beauty and brokenness of the world. For imagery I chose greenery, music, dying plants, and violent sounds. The greenery is matched and opposed by the withered dying things, while the music’s sad counterpart is the noise of war. These parallels are intended to heighten the tension between the goodness of Creation and the ravages of sin.

The following is an example of carelessness which I wrote for my students to demonstrate cliché. I made them sing it in class but I pretended that it was serious. It was wonderful to watch them repress laughter at the last line:

Sunset on the sea

Breezes in the tree

Jesus always be

Super close to me

B. Non-musicians may write additional lyrics to existing songs as a way of developing their lyrical abilities, extending the narrative and imagery of a favorite song, and blessing their congregations. This practice limits the difficulty of writing because the meter and rhyme scheme are already in place. That is, the number of syllables and the points at which they must rhyme need simply to be imitated from the song. This first example fits Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners and extends that hymn’s idea of God helping those who depend on him:

Gracious Father, You have taught us

In the Gospel: ask, be bold!

Yet some worldly snares have caught us;

Now our faith seems weary and old.

In our earthly imagination

We have doubted Your Fatherly grace.

Hear our humble supplication:

All our sins of doubt erase.

The next example fits the chorus As the Deer, and like the original text, also derives from Psalm 42. Working Scripture text into songs is challenging and enjoyable, because the writer must preserve the meaning and tone of the original while making its syllables and rhyme fit the confines of the song. Readers who know the song may easily imagine these words to its tune:

O, my soul, so disturbed within me,

Why are you downcast and sad?

Put your hope in the faithful Savior;

I’ll yet praise Him and be glad.


You alone are my God and King;

To you alone shall my spirit sing.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship you.


Send your light and your truth to guide me;

Let them lead me to where you dwell.

Bring me up to your holy mountain,

And in you, my soul is well.

C. The more ambitious worship leader may wish to delve more deeply into the craft of lyrics.8 In addition to gaining a command of rhyme and meter, the aspiring lyricist should learn to think in terms of guiding or controlling ideas for each song. There should be an overarching story or picture upon which he can draw to fill in smaller details and events in each line. For example, if a song is about communion, references to bread, wine, hunger, eating, and serving all resonate with the overall idea. A sudden line about soaring like the eagle or standing on the battle line would be laughably out of place.

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Category: Fall 2009, Ministry

About the Author: John Mortensen, D.M.A. (University of Maryland), is Professor of Music at Cedarville University in Cedarville, Ohio. A teacher of classical and jazz piano, he frequently appears as a concert artist and masterclass teacher at colleges and universities across the USA. Dr. Mortensen also performs and teaches Irish and American roots music, playing mandolin, octave mandolin, Irish flute, Irish button accordion, five-string banjo, Uilleann pipes, and Irish whistle. He created America’s only college-level traditional Irish music session class.

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