International Hymn Writing Collective
Last week, with the encouragement of my wife and the incredible generosity and sponsorship from a faithful friend, I took a huge step towards a new season of writing theologically rich, musically beautiful and timeless songs and hymns for the church to sing together.
International Hymn Writing Collective
For the next three months, I will be a part of the inaugural International Hymn Writing Collective - an initiative of Getty Music to stimulate the writing of hymns for congregations to sing around the world that are full of timeless beauty, deep theology, and singable melodies. This three month intensive program will allow me to learn from leading hymn writers in the modern hymns movement and hone my creative skills as a songwriter, learn practical tips on lyrics, melodies, and the songwriting process. I’ll also be able to surround myself in a community of like-minded writers and creatives to find encouragement, share ideas, and foster co-writing opportunities.
Participating in this collective is, frankly, very intimidating for me. I am incredibly green in the area of hymn-writing. Though I have been writing songs for the church for many years (25+ years), I have never once written a song that I would categorize as a "hymn". I don't have any formal training as a songwriter and can’t read music for the life of me. Oh, and I have a hymn submission due in 10 days for review. Jesus take the wheel.
So the question could be rightly asked, “What in the world are you doing, Rob!?”
Nearly all of my 27 years as a Christian has been spent leading worship within a movement (Calvary Chapel) that has a wonderfully rich musical history. I’m honored to be a part of that rich history; one that was instrumental in the massive revival that occurred in late 1960s/ and early 1970s known as the Jesus Movement. Some of the songs that I first fell in love with as a young believer were nearly all written from within this movement and time period. Songs like “Humble Thyself, Come Let us Worship And Bow Down, Father I Adore You, You Are My Hiding Place, Create In Me A Clean Heart, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus, and so many others, were often sang late into the night by large groups of young believers filling up our homes. Hymns (as I knew them) were rarely part of any of these gatherings, but, whenever I did hear them, I was deeply moved by their simplicity and lyrical beauty.
When I was a young boy, I vividly remember singing “How Great Thou Art” at the church I grew up at - pipe organ and all. When Bob (the organist) would play that song, I always got chills hearing all the voices singing - especially when Bob would modulate the song up a step and hit the low notes on the organ. Wow!
Later on in my teens, I went to a Promise Keepers event at the Kingdome in my hometown of Seattle WA., where I heard 65k men singing “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”. No band, just voices. “Powerful” is a understatement. It literally brought me to tears.
That was about the extent of my exposure to hymns; incredibly moved by them when I heard and/or sang them, followed by long periods of life lived without singing another one.
I wonder how many of us relate to that?
Contrary to my experience, many people have grown up with a steady diet of hymns all over the world. Hymns were how some individuals learned how to read and appreciate literary forms of art. Hymns were used to teach people how to sing. Hymns were also used to help people learn and understand the Bible. Theology was taught and passed down to the next generation through the writing and singing of hymns.
So, why have hymns largely disappeared?
More than in all my years as a worship leader and songwriter, I am deeply moved that there is something wonderful beginning to happen in our midst. There is evidence of a long-needed shift beginning to appear in our churches that is restoring a simplicity and beauty to our times of corporate singing.
Right now, we are seeing the creation of a growing collection of songs and hymns like never before in the church that once again teach Christian doctrine, cross multiple genres of musical styles, and are being sung all over the world. This is where Getty Music (and others) have stepped in - to help literally re-invent the traditional hymn form.
As a result, I am thrilled to see a surge of young songwriters (and some gray haired ones as well) purposefully participating in the art of hymn-writing. What we are seeing from these efforts is a growing engagement and deeper appetite across all age groups being built within our church cultures for these new beautiful songs and hymns.
In light of this, those of us who are worship leaders, songwriters and pastors have to decide if we want to see these changes carry into the next generation or not. If we do, Mark Dever and Paul Alexander give us this advice:
"As the main teaching pastor (or worship leader), it is your responsibility to shepherd the congregation into the green pastures of God-centered, gospel-centered songs, and away from the arid plains of theological vacuity, meditations on human experience, and emotional frenzy." (The Deliberate Church - Crossway 2015)
This is who I want to be (must be) as a pastor who leads the gathered church in singing. This is also who I want to be (must be) as a songwriter in the church. Both leading towards God-centered, gospel-centered songs, and away from theological emptiness, an over-emphasis on singular human experiences and emotional frenzies.
I want to write (and be involved in the writing of) unforgettable songs, both modern hymns and what Colossians 3:16 refers to as “spiritual songs” that the church can sing with full confidence - songs that are filled with melodies and lyrics that are beautiful, understandable, full of truth, easy to sing, and timeless.
Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. - Colossians 3:16–17 (CSB)
As I enter into this next three months, some of the foundational questions I'm working through outside of actual songwriting and hymn-writing are:
What differentiates a hymn from a modern worship song?
Why are hymns (both old and new) important for the church to be singing today?
Why do I feel so strongly about this subject (motive)?
Why in many circles are the incredibly poetic words and timeless truths of hymns considered irrelevant and antiquated?
Why do we typically disregard songs with bad melodies + bad lyrics (or bad melodies + good lyrics), but latch onto songs (often to extreme degrees) with great melodies + bad lyrics? What are the ramifications within the church?
Why do we regularly sing songs that are insanely positive (written to make us feel better) when scripture is filled with the full range of human emotion and experience?
What is God trying to teach me and therefore trying to teach others through me as I glean from this experience?
These questions, and many more, are just part of a deep well of thought and interest that I have which has led me to join this collective.
I'm thankful for Keith & Kristyn Getty, Matt Merker, Matt Papa, Matt Boswell, Jordan Kauflin, Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace Music, City Alight, Andrew Peterson, Aaron Keyes, Matt Redman and many many others who are leading a humble charge for us to humbly follow.
I want to see a revival in the church like we saw with the Jesus Movement over 50 years ago. I believe God-centered and gospel-centered hymns and songs will have a very large part to play in that occurring.
Finally, I would love your prayers as I immerse myself into this time. Please pray for a flow of creativity, good time management, patience, a humble attitude and good fruit (in the form of songs!). I thank you so very much in advance.
If this is an area that you have experience or have also been feeling moved in, I would love to hear from you!