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A Challenge from Fernando Ortega

Fernando Ortega offers a challenge to worship leaders: write and choose music that says something. He bases his critique on the fact that some pastors tend to instruct worship leaders as if the point of worship is to set the pace, rather than to relate to the theme of the message and scriptures for the morning. He recalls a powerful song he happened across while looking for music for the celebration of Pentecost at the Anglican Church in which he is the worship leader. Here are the lyrics and his thoughts about them:

Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

I’m drawn to the specificity of this hymn. It’s about something. It’s about a specific event in the Christian narrative. The humble stance, the plaintive tone; it’s a perfect hymn about God pouring out his Holy Spirit on a contrite heart that’s found redemption through Jesus Christ.

Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers—a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to choose from that would make for beautiful songs: the transfiguration of Christ, the feeding of the five thousand, the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subjects, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.

It’s easy to write a chorus that says:

God, you are a Holy God
I need your grace to see me through
I need your mercy to make me new
Let me live each day for you.

I just made that up in two minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It might fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to choose from. But compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

It took some real thought to craft those lines. They’re timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. I didn’t set out to write a didactic piece. I’m reminding myself, too. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.

Read the whole piece here. We are blesses at McBIC with pastoral staff and worship leaders who “get it”. I am so glad that we mix old and new, “choruses” and hymns, and set theme and pace appropriate for the topic and scripture of the morning. We even have some original music from songwriters within our church mixed in on occasion. Having experienced life as a worship leader (Joy and I were the worship team for a while at the church we attended while I was in graduate school), I know the complexities and time can make expediency seem inevitable. The key is that we must remember Who we are worshiping and make sure that we are focusing ourselves as leaders on Him, so that we can lead the congregation there as well. A good challenge and a good reminder.

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