Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
– Psalm 139
I am terrible at writing worship songs. Allow me to explain:
Part of my job at Community Covenant Church is evaluating and selecting appropriate music for our worship services, and it’s something I take very seriously. There’s a (dated) saying that goes, “If you want to know what’s important to a person, look at their checkbook.” Well, it’s kind of like that with a church’s theology: if you want to know what they believe, look at their songbook.
Consider these words from Constance Cherry in her book, The Worship Architect:
The persons responsible for song selection are accountable to God for what they ask the community to sing. Selecting music is a holy duty that carries the weight of great spiritual responsibility. The implications for our choices are enormous because…song selection wields tremendous influence on singers…Selecting song texts, then, is one of the most significant things that worship architects do because they are shaping their congregations’ theology (and therefore worldview) by the texts they select. It is an awesome responsibility. (182)
This is a very high standard! If I’m responsible for putting words in the collective mouth of the congregation I serve, then I want to be sure that I’m selecting songs consistent with our theology. The music that’s popular on Christian radio or churned out by mega churches isn’t always a good fit for us. If I’m not careful, I can inadvertently use songs that confuse people or lead them to believe the wrong things about God. I need to be careful, mindful, and most of all, faithful.
Of course, when evaluating a song I’m also mindful of practical concerns: is the song congregationally-friendly? Is it easy to pick up on the melody? Is it in a singable key? What’s the melodic range? Is it in a style or genre that works for my church, and if not, can I adjust it? Does the instrumentation make sense for our team? Is it worth pushing musical boundaries for the sake of good theology? Etcetera, etcetera.
So what does this have to do with You’re There? Well, You’re There is a worship song, and it’s one of the only worship songs I’ve written that I actually like. Most of the time, I overthink it. If I sit down with the goal to write a worship song, I get bogged down asking all of the questions listed above before I write a single note or lyric. What comes out is something clunky, or too heady, or so mind-numbingly simple that it sounds like a poorly written Tomlin knockoff.
So what was the difference this time? I threw my “worship rules” out the window, and, instead, tried to write an honest song that doesn’t suck. Does this mean that my concerns about congregational worship don’t matter? Hardly! But what I realized is that if I’m a follower of Jesus and I care about good theology already, it will naturally be reflected in the songs that I write. Will I always hit a homerun? No, but not every song that I write needs to be sung by my church. I just need to keep trying to write good songs, and once they’re complete I can evaluate them based on the criteria that’s important to me.
I recognize that this entry is more about my philosophy of songwriting, but I figure some of you might appreciate having the curtain drawn back a bit. This is the kind of stuff that worship leaders and songwriters are thinking about all the time!
Fun Fact: You’re There is used as the opening music for the Husker Football Fan Podcast. It’s the kind of thing that happens when one of the co-hosts is in a band 🙂
When I’m surrounded by friends, you’re there
When I’m alone in my bed, you’re there
Through the night and the day
When asleep or awake
I will not be afraid, ‘cause you’re there
Oh, you’re everywhere
And you’ve made my heart your home
Yeah, you’re always there
And I will never be alone
When I’ve figured it out, you’re there
When I’m scared by my doubts, you’re there
When the world’s crashing down
And there’s no one around
Still your mercy abounds, ‘cause you’re there