the liminal edge of worship

So my friend Greg Willson and I are contemplating a new worship album project. Here’s the concept:

The issue that I’m wrestling with is the balance between lyrical specificity and ambiguity. I feel as if much of what passes for congregational worship is boring. I use the word boring purposefully. This is not to say that these songs are not lyrically true, musically sound, or even great vehicles for worship. It is to say, however, that they are “uninteresting, tiresome; dull.” Many of the words, metaphors, chord changes, and melody/harmony lines are tired and worn out.

I’m not the only one to think this way. The problem is in execution. There are several directions this could go. The first is what I like to call the “add crunchy guitars” method. You see this a lot when people try to update older songs/hymns. The thought goes something like this: “The melody line is familiar so we don’t want to mess with it. What we’ll do is add some guitar distortion to make the song seem more modern.” Songs tend to follow traditional CCM worship trends. The second is what we’ll call the “lowest common denominator” approach. In this method the songwriter/worship leader panders to the hypothetical lowest common denominator. It’s the belief that the melody lines and instrumentation must be simple. Now simple is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, simple can be excellent. But this method errs in saying that the necessity is simplicity, therefore the melodies will be very repetative, the musical arrangments either paired down or repetative in chordal structure, and the lyrics simple and to the point.The third possibility is what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, “indie-kid worship” approach. In this approach the songwriter/worship leader seeks to make the worship more ‘modern’ by copying the latest music trend. Indie-kid worship is headed in the right direction, but whereas “add crunchy guitars” dressed standard songs with distortion, the indie-kid worship leader in trying to be creative crafts/plays songs which tend to be either overly personal or lyrically ambiguous.

So here’s the rub. How does one overcome these pitfalls? It’s possible, but difficult, which is why I think that I’m tempted to try (masochism anybody?). Though from a somewhat different genre, the song “Warrior”, out on the new Sojourn Music album “Over the Grave”, is a great example of a well crafted song. The lyrics are a tad straightforward, but the way they walk around the theme is catchy, to say the least.

While this example is moving in the right direction I think that our particular project is going beyond this. But to do so we’re going to have to be very careful. Congregational songs cannot be too vague or ambiguous lyrically, overly personal (by which I mean to say, the lyrics cannot be so specific to a situation that they are difficult to apply universally. I understand that some say the Psalms do this, but since I’m not Holy-Spirit-Inspired, I’m not sure how much we can transfer over. Though I’m willing to dialogue on it.), nor musically obtuse (that is, overly complex in either instrumentation or melody). Where does this leave us? I’m not sure, but we’ll see how this all plays out. There won’t be work on it for a bit, I’ve got to move and buy some gear first, but I just needed to get some ideas out of my mind and onto (digital) paper…