“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—He is God! The Lord—He is God!” (1 Kings 18:38-39).
Is this unique and potent passage familiar to you? Can you imagine singing it during a weekly worship service?
A worship renewal grant funded by the Lilly Foundation through the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship enabled a congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to say yes to these questions. “Sing a New Song,” a creative song-writing project, empowered the youth and children of the congregation to write original Scripture songs to enhance and personalize weekly worship.
During several six-week church school sessions, Shawnee Park’s young people were instructed and coached to add rhythm, melody, and harmony to familiar and favorite Bible passages. The carefully crafted Scripture songs that resulted have since been incorporated into worship services, broadening the congregation’s “contemporary” music repertoire, meeting a desire for lyrics with depth and import, and increasing our exposure to and memorization of Scripture.
Here’s how it works.
We begin with words of Scripture. Each composer chooses a favorite verse or passage. After writing it out, he or she speaks it many times to discern and mark the natural rhythm of the words. Eventually stressed words, as well as words more quickly spoken, display an obvious meter and rhythm—the discovery and notation of which takes time and effort. As students “chant” the verse many times, individually or with others, some begin creating or hearing a melody as well.
Not only are rhythm and meter inherent in the words of Scripture, but there also seems to be abundant melodic potential. Words and/or phrases can have a sense of lifting, settling, or driving forward. Sometimes the words of Scripture paint wonderfully specific or personally meaningful pictures that can be beautifully translated through melody—so the theology of melody becomes an inspiring and thought-provoking concept.
Adding suitable and satisfying harmonies is quite a subjective exercise. We inform students about major and minor tonality and give examples of both. Choosing the sound and mood to surround and set their composition(s) then becomes intensely personal. Exposure to contemporary music, both in church and through the media, provides young people with a strong sense of what they like and dislike, a fact that certainly impacts their choices.
These musical composition basics make their way into students’ thoughts and expression when they sing other songs and hymns. After writing her own melody, giving careful attention to the direction implied in the words of her text, one student discovered the theology in “Joy to the World”—the opening descending scale as symbolic of Jesus coming down to earth, and the subsequent rise on “Let earth receive her King” as appropriate because kings are and should be elevated.
Students also made noticeable connections in other ways:
- As they wrote their songs they found themselves using skills they learned in school (from such classes as music, English, and, for those in Christian school, Bible). Children often chose Bible passages they had memorized in other settings.
- They connected to worship in other ways. During a Sunday worship service, one student wrote the sermon text in natural rhythmic form, making it much more familiar to himself, perhaps even memorizing it; another student applied lessons about the theology of melody to sacred songs in her piano lesson repertoire.
- They discovered the foundational elements of music. Several students discovered they could “do” music, actually moving from the “I don’t do that sort of thing” camp to the “I could do music now if I chose to” camp.
Intergenerational Worship Renewal
We affirmed and celebrated the intergenerational nature of worship by having three high school student-designed and -led worship services in which the congregation was able to sing each group’s new songs. Not only were the students’ songs included in the services, but many students also served as readers and lay leaders. Our fourth- and fifth-grade students participated by testifying to the uniqueness and personal importance of the Scripture verse(s) upon which their compositions were based.
The congregation has been wonderfully open and willing to learn these new songs—at one evening service we sang 14 of them! Congregants seem ready to overlook genuine discomfort with new songs because our kids wrote them, and they gladly show their support to the students through personal encouragement and positive comments.
This adult enthusiasm and encouragement for the creative work of our youth has resulted in the blessing of greater intergenerational contact as well as deepening and furthering established relationships. One worshiper wrote “The songs have been great and the use of them in worship has been uplifting.” Clearly the opportunity to worship God through a creative work developed by a fellow member of the congregation is effective and satisfying.
Included in Shawnee Park’s mission statement is the phrase “[We are] a worshiping community directed by the Word of God. . . .” Since the express subject matter of the songs composed during “Sing a New Song” is Scripture, first the composers and then the rest of the congregation have the opportunity to learn more of God’s Word. Once embedded in the hearts and minds of worshipers, these passages are readily accessible for further meditation, reflection, and application.
Singing Scripture seems to make it easier to memorize important and inspiring words. If this is so, should we sing even more of God’s Word during our worship services? Could we sing all the occasions of hearing Scripture in our services, or perhaps even the entire service? What might this mean for the other non-Scripture songs we now use in worship? Considering these topics is stimulating and thought-provoking.
We also learned that we need to make intentional space for worship renewal, both by carefully placing new songs in our worship liturgy and by setting aside entire worship times for new song celebrations. Giving these original home-grown songs a presence and place in our worship helps us recognize that this is as it should be. We don’t really need to think new thoughts to accommodate such renewal—we just have to intentionally make space for it. Could it be so simple?
It is exciting—and sometimes even scary—for our congregation to worship God with and through their own songs. But these emotions bring new color to our worship, enriching our response to God in worship in completely new ways.