Song Explanation: You’re There

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 🙂

Lyrics:
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

You can stream and purchase Flight Metaphor via Bandcamp, iTunes, and Spotify.

Avoiding the Post-Christmas Slump

You did it! You survived the worship leader’s busiest season of the year. Most of us work our tails off throughout November and December preparing for special events and additional services. By the time New Years’ arrives, many of us are exhausted and ready for a break.

But there’s just one problem: you still have to lead worship on Sunday. And the Sunday after that, and the Sunday after that. Next thing you know, Easter will be right around the corner and it’s back to the whirlwind.

If you’re not prepared for it, the first few weeks of January can easily turn into a post-Christmas slump. Many are tempted to “phone it in” for the first part of the month, but if the church’s leaders are marked by fatigue or a lack of passion, we fall short of our calling to serve the body of Christ. And trust me, your congregation can tell when you’re going through the motions!

It should go without saying that every time we gather to worship God is important. He deserves our best not only on Christmas, but every day of the year. So if you’re feeling the Boxing Day blues, here are a few ideas to help you ward them off:

SPEND TIME IN THE WORD
If you’re like me, when things start to get busy, one of the first things you put on the backburner is spending time in the Word. It’s easy to justify: with all the extra work required of us this time of year, we’re spending plenty of time reading Scripture! But reading for work and reading for spiritual nourishment are two different things.

If you’ve fallen off in recent weeks, now is the perfect time to get back on track. Spiritual fatigue is far more perilous than physical fatigue, so give your devotional habits extra attention this month.

“Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:3

GIVE YOUR TEAM A BREAK
On the administrative side of things, try giving your team a break! Working with a cranky worship team can add to the post-Christmas snowball effect. Chances are, you’re not the only one who went over-and-above for your church last month. Reward your musicians with a week off.

For the last several years, I’ve led a solo acoustic set on the first Sunday of January. Not only does this give my team a break, but it gives our church an opportunity to hear each other sing God’s praises in a special way. I used to dread this Sunday every year, but now I look forward to it.

Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! – Psalm 96:1

TAKE TIME OFF
Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is take a Sunday off. Even the most capable worship leaders get tired, so make sure you’re evaluating your spiritual health on a regular basis. Occasionally, our leadership suffers not because we don’t plan well or because our hearts aren’t in it, but because we’re tired!

While taking a week off may not be possible for you right now, try to carve out some additional time for rest in the coming weeks. Sabbath is one of the most important practices for pastors; you can’t serve well if you’re constantly running on empty. And consider planning some downtime for after Christmas next year, especially if you’re feeling extra ragged right now.

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27

How are you handling the post-Christmas season? What works for you? Do you have any traditions or special methods of combatting malaise in the new year? Let us know in the comments!

Five Artists that Give Me Hope for the Future of Worship Music

As the Worship and Youth Pastor for a mid-sized suburban church, I’m responsible for selecting the songs we sing from week to week. While we don’t stray very far from the expected contemporary/blended approach to worship, our congregation is generally open to trying anything that’s a) Jesus-centered and b) singable. This gives me a lot of freedom to seek out new music.

Many bemoan the fact that much of modern worship music is vapid and without real substance, but it seems that this stereotype is slowly becoming the exception rather than the rule. Even groups who were once known for their less-than-stellar songwriting are making significant strides (Have you heard the latest album from Hillsong United? It’s excellent!).

There’s also a rich landscape of music that exists beyond the world of Christian radio, and I enjoy uncovering the diamonds in the rough. Below, I’ve listed five artists that give me hope for the future of worship music. It’s entirely possible that you’ve already heard of them, but for many in my circle there’s probably something new to discover.

The Royal Royal
The Royal Royal
I first came across The Royal Royal when they were simply called “Royal” a few years back. A worship leader friend shared a link to their blog, which contained early versions of tracks that would eventually appear on their debut record, The Royalty. I was immediately hooked by their pairing of theologically-rich writing with pop-inspired production. The Royal Royal wears their influences on their sleeves, sometimes coming across as “musical chameleons”; any given song by the band could fit along with the likes of The Cars, Arcade Fire, or The Black Keys.

Real Strength is one of The Royal Royal’s more congregation-friendly tracks:

 
Citizens & Saints
Citizens and Saints
Mars Hill’s music ministry has been stepping up its game in recent years, and one of my favorite bands to emerge from their camp is Seattle’s Citizens & Saints. As you might expect from a Mars Hill band, Citizens & Saints produces their own brand of biblically grounded worship singalongs. The group recently announced that they would begin touring and recording full-time, so don’t be surprised if you hear more about them in the coming year.

Here’s Hail the King, released under their former moniker, “Citizens”:

 
The Liturgists
The Liturgists
I know, I know. For some, it’s anathema to approve of anything even tangentially related to Michael Gungor right now (let alone a project that has stirred up a bit of controversy on its own), but there’s no denying the talent and creativity behind The Liturgists. The ongoing collaborative project has received input from members of Gungor, The Brilliance, Sleeping at Last, and more. While The Liturgists’ recordings are perhaps best suited for personal worship, several of their spoken-word songs and meditations could be put to use in a corporate worship gathering.

I’ve chosen to share Garden from their Easter project of the same namesung primarily by worship leader Aaron Purdy:

 
Matt Papa
Matt Papa
With worship music, you often have to pick two out of three when it comes to lyrical integrity, singability, and musical quality – Matt Papa consistently hits all three right on the mark. Papa is a worship leader I’ve been telling people about for years, but he unfortunately has yet to receive his “big break.” However, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is content never to attain worship superstar (oxymoron?) status. He would much rather turn the spotlight on Jesus, which is made abundantly clear in his music. Channeling the lyrical spirit of Keith Green, Matt Papa refuses to mince words about the big God to whom he sings.

This unplugged version of All for Your Glory is an excellent example of Papa’s work:

 
David Potter
David Potter
Omaha’s own David Potter is a wonderful example of how you don’t always have to look to CCLI’s top 25 to find songs for Sunday morning (how many weeks in a row were you planning to sing “10,000 Reasons,” anyway?). Potter is one of the many worship leaders who are breathing new life into time-tested hymns, reworking the music yet honoring the words. He is just as careful with his original songs, using scripture and well-known liturgies for his lyrics. I have had the pleasure of working with David in various settings over the years, and I can attest to his desire to serve faithfully in the local church. Perhaps the next “perfect song” for your church isn’t one written by Chris Tomlin or Phil Wickham, but someone within your own ranks.

David Potter’s rendition of Rock of Ages is a favorite of mine:

Omaha Collective’s Christmas EP

Well, this was unexpected.

About a year ago, I got together with my good friends Jared Kliewer, David Potter, and Cody Villarreal to record some Christmas songs for our friends and family. It was very much a “just for fun” project; we tracked everything in one afternoon in the basement of a church friend’s lake house. As you can see from the photos below, there was nothing glamorous about the recording process – we just set everything up and hit record:

We put the songs on Noisetrade so we could share the music with as many people as possible. About 100 people downloaded it, and our friends and families loved it. Success. The end, right?

Not so fast. We discussed taking the music down earlier this year, but I never got around to it. There’s plenty of albums, EPs and samplers buried behind the frontpage of Noisetrade, so I left it online in case anyone ever went looking our music again. If nothing else, we had someone hosting the music for us in case we ever lost it ourselves.

Well, you can imagine our surprise when we all checked our e-mail yesterday and found this promotional message in our inboxes:

Was it random? Did someone like our music? We don’t know, but we’re thankful for the plug. Since the e-mail was sent yesterday, our EP has been downloaded more than 1,000 times!

Today is Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t be more grateful for our music to be reaching so many people. However you ended up reading this post, thank you for your support! If you found us through Noisetrade, we’d love to hear from you: we made a page on Facebook where you an connect with us. I’m especially curious as to whether any worship leaders are planning to use our arrangements during Advent.

Happy Thanksgiving, and Merry Christmas!

For those of you who are interested in knowing a little more about the Omaha Collective, here’s a quick rundown of who we are and what we do:

Jared is a worship leader for Christ Community Church‘s Sarpy campus in Bellevue, NE. He played guitar and sang for our EP.

David is a worship leader, formerly of Christ Community Church, who just relocated to St. Louis to attend Covenant Theological Seminary. He recently released an album of hymns and original worship songs. Visit davidpmusic.com for more information, and grab his free download of Come Thou Long Expected Jesus on Noisetrade. He played acoustic guitar, drums, bass, and sang for our EP. He also engineered and mixed everything.

Cody is a worship leader for Journey Church in Gretna, NE. He played electric guitar, mandolin, and sang for our EP.

I, Mike, am a worship leader for Community Covenant Church in Omaha, NE. I play in a band called Flight Metaphor, and we also have free music on Noisetrade. I played acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, and sang for our EP.

And oh yeah…in case you haven’t yet, you can download the EP below:

David Potter’s “Man of Sorrows, Glorious King”

My good friend David Potter just released an album of worship songs and hymns called Man of Sorrows, Glorious King. I’ve known David since I was in high school, and I’ve been bugging him to put out a record ever since. The wait is over, and I’m happy to recommend this CD to anyone who likes quality worship music. Church worship leaders will especially enjoy this project, as it gives a fresh take on some familiar tunes (I’m especially fond of the two-step feel on “Be Thou My Vision”). The original titles are also accessible and suitable for congregational worship.

Unlike many worship projects, this CD isn’t just a few “hits” surrounded by deficient fluff. Every track stands on its own, with top-notch production and some of the best musicianship I’ve ever heard on a local project. The proof is in the pudding: click here to download the song, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” for free on Noisetrade.

Here’s some basic information about the record, from David:

Man of Sorrows Glorious King is a full length record of both hymn re-workings and original songs for corporate worship.  My hope is to see this collection of songs and hymns serve to remind the church of the beauty and wonder of the Gospel; that a perfect and Holy God would become man, take on the punishment we deserved at the cross, and rise again as the conquering King who offers salvation and new life to His children.

Isaiah 53:3-5 says this about Jesus:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from    whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought  us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Not the picture of Jesus we tend to remember, is it? And yet Jesus’ humility and lowering of Himself “even to death” was a huge part of what made His sacrifice on our behalf acceptable to the Father.  Because Jesus was fully man, God could accept his death for sin as if we ourselves were on the cross, but because he was fully God, His offering was perfected in a way that could have never been offered by sin-stained humans.

And as we know, Jesus (and our) story didn’t end at the Cross.  Jesus is the Reigning King, having conquered the grave.  He is seated at the right hand of the Father “in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1).  This is the great and glorious King we worship!

The idea behind Man of Sorrows Glorious King is to unpack the tension that the title suggests.  That we would wrestle with the weight of what it cost God to make His glory available to us, and then respond to who He is and what He has done for us with passionate, devoted worship.

Click here to download the record on iTunes. Or, if your’e like me, you’ll want to order a physical copy here.

For more information about David, visit davidpmusic.com