Hymns from the Cutting Edge: An Introduction to Stuart Townend
I first saw Stuart Townend at a Worship Together conference in Waterloo, Ontario, two and a half years ago. He led the worship, and his voice, combined with a musical sensitivity to the needs of the songs and the Holy Spirit, culminated in a session that I will long remember. I came home that night inspired by a new song that is becoming a well-known, modern hymn for the church: “In Christ Alone” (see p. 33). My aim here is to introduce readers to a gifted songwriter who has written many new songs for the church.
As one of the worship leaders emerging from the United Kingdom, Townend is perhaps best known for his work at Stoneleigh International Bible Week, a large festival that took place for several years in the UK. His musical releases include the live worship albums from these festivals along with four solo albums (most recently How Deep the Father’s Love, November 2003). Townend attends Church of Christ the King in Brighton, where he lives with his family. He travels often as a featured speaker at Worship Together conferences and edits the magazine Worship Together. He plays guitar and keyboard, both of which he uses when he is leading worship.
Although Townend is known and respected as a worship leader, his most significant contribution to church life are wonderful songs that are biblically and theologically accurate, including “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” “How Long?,” “You Are My Anchor,” and “In Christ Alone.” These songs often cite lines almost word for word from the Bible. For instance, “In Christ Alone” is filled with Pauline language, and “The Season of Singing” is based on a passage from Song of Songs. “When people leave churches at the end of the service, they don’t go out quoting parts of the sermon, they are going out singing the songs. Therefore, we want them to go out feeding during the week on good theological content and on basic Biblical principles,” says Townend (quoted from www.worshiptogether.com/ magazine/?ID=27). Townend’s songs are healthy food that will satisfy pastors, musicians, and congregations.
Let’s look at three of these meaningful and powerful songs. One of Townend’s earlier songs, and probably the one that’s most well-known in North America, is “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” (1995). The first stanza explains the incredible love of the Father in enduring a pain so deep that even God himself turns his face away from his son dying on the cross (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9-10; Isa. 53:4-6). The second stanza is perhaps the most powerful, speaking directly to the torture of the cross and personalizing our part in holding Jesus there until our sins were paid for.
Behold a man upon a cross, my sin upon his shoulders;
ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished;
his dying breath has brought me life—I know that it is finished.
(Matt. 27:41-44; Mark 15:37; John 19:30)
The third stanza brings a renewed commitment on the part of the people to boast in nothing, “no gifts, no pow’r, no wisdom” save Jesus, his victory over death through cross and the resurrection (Jer. 9:23-24; 1 Cor. 1:31; Gal. 6:34). With open hearts and minds, we realize that we are unworthy of this gift, that our debt was paid for by Jesus, and that in Christ, we are now free.
“Sometimes we emphasize the cross so much as a symbol of victory, we can tend to ignore it as a place of suffering and sacrifice—a place that had to be endured because of our own sin and selfishness. In the tradition of hymns down the centuries, this hymn draws us back to humble gratitude for the saving work of Jesus,” writes Townend on the cover of the album Say the Word (1997). In my church, we often use this song during communion when we want to be brought back to the reality of the cost Christ paid at Calvary.
“You Are My Anchor” is a song that reaffirms who God is in our lives. Based largely on the psalms, it uses analogies to express our hope in God and the comfort that brings. The first stanza begins by describing who the Lord is and then turns to explaining what that means for daily life.
You are my anchor, my light and my salvation.
You are my refuge, my heart will not fear.
Though my foes surround me on every hand,
they will stumble and fall while in grace I stand.
In my day of trouble, you hide me and set me above
to sing this song of love. (Ps. 27:1-6; 46:1-2)
The second stanza continues in Psalm 27, using verses 9-14 as its basis:
Teach me your way, Lord, make straight the path
Do not forsake me, my hope is in you.
As I walk through life, I am confident
I will see your goodness with every step,
and my heart directs me to seek you in all that I do,
so I will wait for you.
Anyone who has ever tried to take a psalm and set it to music knows that it is no easy task; Townend’s song is a lyrical yet accurate musical version of this psalm.
Psalms provide believers with a wide range of expressions of emotions and thoughts that accurately express the journey of a Christian from valley to mountaintop and back down into the valley again. And yet it seems that Christian songwriters and leaders have often had difficulty incorporating some of the psalms, especially the psalms of lament, in worship. In the song “How Long?” Townend provides the church with a lament echoing the words of Psalm 13. The Christian journey includes many times when we consider suffering and hardship—our own and that of the world around us. During these times it is both appropriate and necessary to voice our complaints and questions to the Lord. For congregations who are going through hard times, “How Long?” adequately expresses the frustration of knocking at God’s door again and again and continuing to suffer. However, the song also reminds us that the pain of the world breaks God’s heart too, and that there will be a day when all the pain will cease.
Here are some tips for introducing this song to your congregation:
- Have a choir sing it the first time and simply allow the congregation to take in both the honest pain and the hope expressed in the words.
- When singing with the congregation, play a little musical interlude between the chorus following stanzas 2 and 3, again to allow the congregation to deal with the emotions they may not always allow themselves to express.
- Change keys between the chorus following stanzas 2 and 3, going up one whole tone to give that added lift to the hope of the stanza 3.
- If you have a large worship team, start with sparse accompaniment and build up to a larger sound at the final chorus.
Pastors have sometimes stated that some of the new songs coming from the Praise & Worship movement are theologically weak or even inaccurate; worship leaders have sometimes noted that some of the stronger theological songs are difficult to sing or simply musically dull. In Stuart Townend’s songwriting, pastors and worship leaders alike can find strong lyrics that are biblically and theologically accurate and music that is both singable and melodically interesting. These songs are Townend’s gift to the worship of the church.