The Light of Christ in Contemporary Songs
"Why are there no good Christmas songs?” one of my college students asked last December. He was frustrated in his search for contemporary songs to use in our Sunday evening worship service. Though he found several good hymns and carols to use, he wasn’t coming up with anything new.
Many of us know plenty of new songs for Advent and Christmas, many of them written in the last few decades. But try to find something in the praise and worship genre and the search is much less fruitful. Songs about the child lying in a manger or the waiting cry for the coming King are largely absent in this modern rock-oriented repertoire.
It has been satisfying, though, in recent years, to discover new projects and songs that are connecting with the Christmas gospel. Some come out of the praise and worship stream, while others originate with the liturgical renewal movement. All work with a stanza/refrain structure that plays well with an acoustic guitar and/or a modern rhythm section. Many of these songs are also easily led with piano alone.
The following three songs will be included in the upcoming Contemporary Songs for Worship published by Faith Alive Christian Resources in 2009 (www.faithaliveresources.org).
Open Our Eyes
Advent is a season of watching, waiting, and praying for the return of Christ and the fullness of his kingdom. It is a time of anticipation as well as of action as we work to expand God’s kingdom here on earth.
The vision of this season, however, is often eclipsed by the glowing lights of Christmas and the bright colors of store displays. This commercialized season of “getting” can blind us to the needs of the poor and the injustice that surrounds us, so much so that we have little longing for Christ’s return.
“Open Our Eyes” by Kevin Keil is a prayer to restore our sight. The song asks the Lord to bring us out of darkness into light where we can see the needs of our world and respond in compassion and love.
The stanzas are very specific and inclusive in their references to the brokenhearted, the poor, innocent children, victims of violence, those in prison, and so on. The song serves well as a prayer of intercession. The congregation could easily sing all of the text, but consider having a soloist or multiple soloists sing the petitions with the congregation responding, “Open our eyes.”
The song may also be used as a prayer of dedication as the people sing, “Teach us compassion and love.” Consider inviting a leader to light a candle at the beginning of each stanza, visually representing our anticipation of the coming light of Christ and our desire to bring his light to a people in darkness.
Musically, the song has a folk-like melody that works exceptionally well with a guitar and light rhythm section. Sing the song prayerfully with intensity, feeling one beat per measure. To capture the passion of the prayer, build dynamically out of the stanza into the chorus.
The author, Kevin Keil, has been director of music ministries at St. Francis Catholic Church in Grapevine, Texas, since June 2000.
I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” was written in the sweltering hot summer of 1966 by Kathleen Thomerson, an Episcopalian organist. Often characterized as a hymn, and certainly appropriate to lead in a more traditional style, it works surprisingly well as a modern rock ballad. The stanza/refrain structure is similar to most praise and worship songs. It is easy for a congregation to hear this song as new and contemporary.
Feel the rhythm in one beat per measure, and allow the guitar and rhythm section to establish a subtle groove, providing energy and movement to the song. This arrangement by Greg Scheer is excellent for a worship team or guitar. Here, the harmonic rhythm is slower than other arrangements (such as in Sing! A New Creation, p. 77). This allows for the guitar to establish a solid strumming pattern.
“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” was written as a scriptural meditation and prayer. It was inspired by many Bible verses, including Genesis 1:17; Isaiah 60:19; Psalm 75:16; Psalm 139:12; Ephesians 3:17; 5:8; Galatians 4:6; Hebrews 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:5; 2 Peter 1:19; 1 John 1:5-7; and Revelation 21:23. Though it was not written explicitly for Advent and Christmas, it is quite fitting for the season.
On one hand, a slower tempo commends the song as an Advent prayer for illumination. The congregation sings “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Additionally, the second stanza conveys a longing to see Jesus and to be led through Christ to the presence of the Father.
On the other hand, a quicker tempo captures the spirit of dedication in the season of Epiphany. The worshiper commits to live in the light of Christ, singing, “I want to walk . . . I want to see . . . I’m looking for . . .” And in hope and anticipation, the worshiper concludes in stanza 3, “When we have run with patience the race, we shall know the joy of Jesus.”
Here I Am to Worship
“Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes is a popular modern worship song that is perfect for Christmas. The chorus expresses adoration of the one we call Immanuel: “You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.” But consider the content of the stanzas that provide motivation for the adoration.
The incarnation is explicit in the lyrics: “Light of the world, you stepped down into darkness.” In stanza 2 the reference to the humiliation of the incarnation is intensified: “Humbly you came to the earth you created, all for love’s sake became poor.”
The chorus that follows, then, is a personal affirmation of that faith: “Here I am to say that you’re my God.” This savior who has come to the world is my God and savior. The incarnation is not a two-thousand-year-old abstraction. Jesus’ incarnation is for us, and it is personal.
At the same time the worshiper is led to express in awe the beauty of Christ’s humiliation. It may seem strange at first that we should call a newborn child laid in a feeding trough “lovely,” but it’s a natural response. Bernard of Clairvaux once remarked, “The Word is born a child. It is only right that we should be astounded.” And Jerome once spoke in a sermon, “I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay” (Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Christian Inspiration, ed. John D. Witvliet and David Vroege, Baker Books, 2004, 83 and 21, available through Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.faithaliveresources.org).
“Here I Am to Worship” is an excellent gathering song as the people sing, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down. . . .” Because the text is in the first-person singular, consider introducing the song with a soloist on stanza 1, which captures the testimonial quality of the song. Follow this by repeating stanza 1 and inviting the congregation to join in singing, creating a corporate confession.
One way to conclude the song is by returning to stanza 1 and singing only the first two lines ending on “open my eyes, let me see.” Let the subdominant chord remain unresolved. Follow this with an invocation that gives thanks to the Father for the incarnation and prays that the Spirit might open our eyes to the presence of Jesus Christ in the gathered body of believers.
Tim Hughes is a young British worship leader and songwriter. He writes, “I’m passionate about writing songs that’ll be a blessing to the church, that’ll encourage the church to worship.” “Here I Am to Worship” has been a great encouragement to the worship of the church. For two years it was the most frequently sung song in the church as recorded by CCLI.