Friday, 2 July 2010

Wanted: 'worship songs' for men

This morning I was tackling another task I find particularly difficult, namely putting together an order of service for Sunday night. Others might find this easy: pick a few hymns, add some suitable prayers, top and tail with an introduction and closing blessing and that’s it.
Unfortunately, I usually get stuck at step one. When it comes to picking the hymns and songs, I go completely blank. This may, however, be connected with the fact that I find so much of what we sing fairly dire, and in particular I think much of it is totally unsuitable for men.
I was especially struck by this with regard to a new song we are going to learn for Sunday night. The author is well-known and well-liked, so I will spare his blushes, but to be honest, the lyrics read like a ‘rush job’ and the tune isn’t much better.
Now the next bit is very naughty, so if you might be offended look away now, but the following was actually generated by a computer script (with a tiny bit of tweaking by me):
God of Israel, I never told you how I truly feel
You mean to me a great deal
You are my eternal sunshine
When I first met you I knew it was a sign
God of Israel, you are unbelievably beautiful
You deserve the world’s largest jewel
Words from me cannot express
How you have captured my heart with success
God of Israel, you mean so much to me
I never knew that this could be
Eternal bliss is where I’m bound
In your loving arms is where it’s found
My life is yours, I hope you will like it
Because loving you, I will never quit
Until soon, when we meet again
In your heart is where I will remain.
The scary thing is, it does bear an uncanny resemblance to modern ‘worship songs’. All it needs is suitably uplifting music, and you’d be there.
It would also be just the sort of thing men would dread singing. Most men are quite capable in this regard. The problem is finding the right combination of words and music.
Indeed, music is crucial because it determines the impact of the song as a whole. Try listening to ‘O Thou who camest from above’ to this tune sung by Maddy Prior (via YouTube), and compare it with the usual ‘Hereford’. The latter is somewhat ‘woozy’, the former (in my view) rather more ‘robust’. And it is robustness that I think men need when it comes to public singing.
Far too many of our contemporary songs are set to ‘sentimental’ (or overly-complicated) tunes. Perhaps this is because the modern ‘worship group’ uses instruments which suit a style which doesn’t translate well into ‘congregational’, collective, singing. (Compare the modern group with the church ‘gallery band’ in the picture at the beginning of the Maddy Prior clip.) Yet for most of us, congregational singing is the only way we are going to let our voices be heard (or at least, ought to).
But do men want to sing? My view is they will, if they are given the right material. Try listening to this, from the repertoire of the French Foreign Legion. The song is J’avais un Camarade, and to my mind there is something almost monastic about the effect. Even the words would adapt — at least as readily as my computer-generated piece above — to express a Christian sentiment:
I had a friend
None better than he
In peace and in war
We were like two brothers
Marching in step.
I rather fancy the idea of someone writing truly Christian lyrics to fit the same tune. And when they’ve tried that, perhaps they’d like to try the Kepi Blanc — though one wouldn’t want the Legion getting upset over copyright.
Amongst John Wesley’s ‘Directions for Singing’ was the following:
Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
Perhaps we could adapt the words of Winston Churchill as a plea for the writers of modern Christian music to think about the men in the congregation: “Give us the songs and we’ll sing the praise.”
John P Richardson
2 July 2010
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  1. Modern worship songs (with exceptions) ignore the congregational element - often they were written as songs to be performed, often there's a dodgy theology of worship that's all vertical and not horizontal in both the song writers writing songs for congregations that aren't congregational and in leaders picking a song off an album by a big-name worship leader that is personal, about a very specific chapter in their life, or their church's life, rather than congregational.

    Just singing "I love you", "I'll give you my life" or an unqualified "You're great" doesn't make me see how great God is - the focus is on me, my feelings, my actions. If you look, while there is "You're worthy", "I love you", "I'll do this for you" types of praise in the Bible it is always followed up with reasons why that is the case. While I can think of all sorts of reasons why I love God, and why he's great, as I sing these songs, I don't think many in the modern church can. Let's put this really controversially - theologically shallow worship songs, for people to worship with all their mind, heart and soul, rather than just with the latter two, require far more theological training to be useful for congregational worship than theologically deep hymns!

    Not all of us can sing "Worthy is the Lamb" twenty times and go through all sorts of things about the Lamb - the Lamb was slain, the Lamb takes the sins of the world, the Lamb propitiates God - so that's why he's worthy to receive praise (and given that going through the why is the only way my emotions will be affected, linked as they are with my brain, its far better to spell it out!)

    Men struggle more with this - English men aren't very emotional (but just as being saved doesn't make us more intellectual, it also doesn't make us more emotional) and because of the lack of theological depth, the songs that are tug on the emotions don't move us to God - it freaks us out - no part of us ends up worshipping God. Our gnostic culture has divorced head from heart - we too often get cold intellect in preaching (though I've also heard preaching that was just vapid emotionalism), and vapid emotionalism in singing. Neither are great - and those churches and times when you get singing and/or preaching that doesn't have this dichotomy are an amazing blessing.

    Of course, this problem of naff worship songs isn't only our time's problem - other times have made mistakes too, but the filtering of time covers those mistakes, and we only really get the better songs from those times.

  2. Dominic Stockford2 July 2010 at 14:35

    I agree that choosing hymns is time consuming - it takes almost as long as everything else in the service (excepting the sermon of course). On the whole however it is the older hymns that are better. A lot of modern hymn writers do not write hymns and no-one can sing them - indeed, you feel that you need a modern pop-group to accompany them.

    If you have a piano, flute and violin accompanying your hymns, or even, as we often do, have NOTHING to accompany them they work much better.

    And for content one should look to books that are more conservative - Christian Hymns (the newish one) provides sound hymns with sound doctrine for "every"* occasion.

    And using tunes that people love is an idea adopted by the Wesleys (and others) with great success. I wrote a hymn to the "O Sole Mio" tune which worked well for the men especially, because they loved singing that tune.

    *Except of course, the passage that you happen to be covering that week can't be found in the Scripture index...

    P.S. I disagree about your tune for "O thou who camest" - Hereford is a far better sing - her version is not for congregational singing.

  3. I heartily recommend the English Hymnal....with all the favourite rousing hmyns nothing else is needed! And unlike so many modern choruses these are directed at God 'Immortal, invisible etc.' and not self 'Is it me Lord, me me me me me me meetc..' Men prefer that sort of thing

  4. Two or three points I would like to make in response:

    1) How likely is it that one would find theologically correct words with a robust tune to match the variety of topic headings which you have selected for a preaching series on Hebrews? Are you not setting yourself up for difficulty? Stuart Townend/Keith Getty’s hymns are full of theology (with good tunes as well) – but one cannot blame them if they don’t contain all the phrases from the book of Hebrews!

    2) Maddy Prior is an excellent proponent of her style but she does not have the “sweetness” of tone exemplified, say, by the boy soprano Ernest Lough with “O for the wings of a dove”. Maddy Prior’s “Gaudete” is a perfect example of how “rough” Latin words can sound when performed “a capella-style” – a style which one imagines would fit a crowd of football or rugby fans readily. And perhaps, in that sense, you have hit the nail on the proverbial head, John. Next time you go to a match, have a look round at how many males are joining in with the singing (particularly a national anthem) as if they meant it. Macho men, in my experience, do not enjoy singing as much as women do, unless they are expressing their “macho-ness” in what they sing. Gareth Malone (BBC: The Choir) has done a lot to encourage young men in singing but he has had to suffer numerous casting of aspersions on his sexuality. Instead of attempts at making reluctant men sing, perhaps more would be achieved by encouraging them to play drums – with the proviso that church is not the place for performance-narcissism but for God-worship!

    3) I suspect that there are not a few women in church who would like men to display (or even to acquire) emotional intelligence. When God created human beings in His own image, He did not designate men with brawn and women with brain. We should use such intelligence as we have to examine our prejudices. Matt Redman’s “The Father’s song” may not be the first song to introduce to unchurched men but it is as important to our understanding of God the Father as “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”. Women, in time past, have had to put up with jingoism from the men whether they liked it or not. Tenderness is not a quality which should only be confined to women.

    Beryl Polden,

  5. Beryl, I belong to several choirs and we have plenty of hefty tenors and basses who are quite capable of singing tenderly! I don't agree that men don't like singing. (And Gareth Malone has a pretty young wife!)

    I do agree that men do not much go for the contentless and tuneless style typical of a lot of worship songs which can be assimilated by the average three-year-old in about ten seconds. Nor do a lot of women, come to that. I agree with Father Ed, give me the English Hymnal any day. It is also useful for finding the right hymns for any occasion.

    Having said that, I loved Maddy Prior's version of 'O thou who camest'. I think Maddy sings everything 'lustily and with good courage'. I got sidetracked listening to several of her other hymns. Try listening to her version of Charles Wesley's 'Love Divine', and the passion with which she sings the last verse -

    Finish, then, Thy new creation;
    Pure and spotless let us be;
    Let us see Thy great salvation
    Perfectly restored in Thee:
    Changed from glory into glory,
    Till in heav'n we take our place,
    Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
    Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

    Brava, Maddy! Not the sweetest sound, admittedly, but church gallery singers were often reputed to be somewhat inebriated by the time they got to church, on their way home from the pub, as their singing was not restricted to hymns.

    However, I think these are good tunes and could be used for congregational singing. I remember as a kid singing 'O for a thousand tongues' to the tune 'Lyngham' which nearly raised the roof in our church, and which the men loved. Not the simplest of tunes, but really, most people can pick things up after a few hearings, and all the more rewarding for that. But then, when I was a kid, we had hymn practice at school! I think that ages me.


  6. Yes, let's put the 'Jesus is my girlfriend' school of contemporary Christian songwriting to rest as quickly as possible!

    However, there is a message of love and nonviolence at the heart of the gospel, and it may not appeal to the macho male (or the macho female, for that matter). Let's not forget that there is an offence of the cross.

  7. I'm female (don't think I'm a "macho" female - whatever that is) and I would throw up or laugh out loud if I had to sing that first lot of guff.

    I love the traditional hymns like "Praise my soul the King of Heaven" and "Thine be the glory".

    I'm not sure about this idea that men aren't emotional or romantic though. I think men are very romantic and don't think Christian men have any problem with songs that express strong Christian emotions. What about "When I survey the wondrous cross"? You couldn't get more emotional than that line "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all", but I certainly knew one man who identified that as his favourite - he also loved "Onward Christian soldiers."!

    Just wonder if we can generalise. I'm not sure girls like saccharine ballads and boys like macho football chants, it's a bit more complex than that.

  8. Still on this point! It's not just about "love and non violence", is it? A lot of Christian hymns are about total surrender of the self to God as a gesture of complete response to his love. Men are great at giving their all to something they completely believe in, seriously, it appeals to them and can bring out the best in them (as well as women!)Think about giving your all in a war, a football game, a job, to a family, to your God - girly it ain't!

    If you look at the lyrics in the post by Anonymous,

    Changed from glory into glory,
    Till in heav'n we take our place,
    Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
    Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

    If I were to find a word to describe the above, I'd say passion, rather than soppiness.

    Come on blokes, you can do passion can't you:)

  9. What about "The Son of God goes forth to war" by Reginald Heber to the tune "A minstrel boy"? Every 19th century evangelical would have known this.

    As sung by Sean Connery and Michael Caine in "The Man who would be king"!

    The tune is played on the closing credits of "Blackhawk down".

    1. The Son of God goes forth to war
    A kingly crown to gain.
    His blood-red banner streams afar;
    Who follows in His train?
    Who best can drink His cup of woe,
    Triumphant over pain,
    Who patient bears his cross below--
    He follows in His train.

    2. The martyr first whose eagle eye
    Could pierce beyond the grave,
    Who saw His Master in the sky
    And called on Him to save.
    Like Him, with pardon on His tongue,
    In midst of mortal pain,
    He prayed for them that did the wrong--
    Who follows in his train?

    3. A glorious band, the chosen few,
    On whom the Spirit came,
    Twelve valiant saints; their hope they knew
    And mocked the cross and flame.
    They met the tyrant's brandished steel,
    The lion's gory mane;
    They bowed their necks the death to feel--
    Who follows in their train?

    4. A noble army, men and boys,
    The matron and the maid,
    Around the Savior's throne rejoice,
    In robes of light arrayed.
    They climbed the steep ascent of heav'n
    Thro' peril, toil, and pain.
    O God, to us may grace be giv'n
    To follow in their train!

  10. See, giving your all lyrics!

  11. I note that when I started my 30-year military career, the overwhelming denomination of the officer corps was the Episcopal. Why? Because it was stately, dignified, muscular Christianity full of great poetry. I grew to love singing hymns such as "Once to Every Man and Nation" and "Go Forward Christian Soldier, Beneath His Banner True". We had THE most admired and beautiful services in all Western Christendom thanks to the 1928 BCP and The Hymnal 1940.

    Now of course, I'll have to find some "deposed" fellow to bury me with any hope of dignity since I'd rather be thrown in a ditch that dispatched from the 1979 BCP whilst some ill-dressed, ill-rehearsed choir sings "Dat's mah Jezzzsusss Man!"

    The overwhelming choice of the officer corps today is Presbyterian. I hope the House of Bishops - excuse me, I mean Clowns is satisfied.

  12. Having nearly driven my family mad yesterday by singing 'O for a thousand tongues' all day long, I thought others might like to be driven mad too. Here it is, with the words. Pretty powerful stuff.

    Kelso, I feel for you! We only have the 1662 BCP in the UK, as you probably know, but it is rarely used unless you want to get up at dawn on a Sunday morning for a said service. I will only go to BCP services now that my children have flown.

    Emboldened by a fellow BCP enthusiast, here is a snatch from a little ditty which I always get into trouble for posting.

    All things trite and trivial
    All liturgies banal
    Handshakes mock convivial
    Our vicar loves them all!

    Sadly I can't remember any more.

    Btw, I was delighted to see that our august host on this blog is speaking at this year's Prayer Book Society conference. See you there, John!! :)


  13. John I think you're being a bit hard here. The theology of the words of many new songs is excellent (no doubt someone will respond with some howlers). I understand that Keith Getty actually submits his to a small group of friends for a check. The new writing on biblical truths is also good for making us think about them, rather than just singing old familiar lines without thinking. And there are lots of old hymns which are spot on too. As to singability I was bowling down the autoroute yesterday (we're in Provence at the moment) with Stuart Townsend and then Lou Fellingham on, the top down and singing the Lord's praises at the top of my voice. I count myself as a reasonably robust man.

    David Brock

  14. I found it interesting that both your examples from the French Foreign Legion are in fact derivations of Wehrmacht songs. The first is a French adaptation of "Ich Hatt' Einen Kammeraden" and is a traditional song for German Military funerals. The tune to "Kepi Blanc" is much better known as "Panzer-Lied." I recognized both instantly from their German instantiations.

    And you are right. Both of those songs appeal specifically to men. The hook is the bond that forms from the shared suffering and risk of war. On display is the Brotherhood that is stronger than blood. It is not so much the tune or the words of the song as it is the context. Go to Youtube and listen to "Ich Hatt' Einen Kammeraden" without watching the video. Then watch the video with the music and you will see the difference. The images of German soldiers slowly rolling across the screen become a 'force multiplier' that fixes the context.

    The trick then in writing worship music that appeals to men is to fix the proper context. Not as an emotional appeal of interrelationship (women like that 'relating' thing) which is why much of worship music seems silly and banal to men. Such songs are all about our 'relating' to God. Instead, you appeal to shared suffering and risk. The courage to stand when others shrink back. The ability to endure the unendurable. The certainty of victory in the face of apparent defeat. Typically this can be done by direct appeal to the text of scripture. But it can also be done by allusion. One of my favorite hymns is "Once to Every Man and Nation." The theology in the third verse is dicey, but the imagery in the song is spectacular. It is a text-book example of "How to write songs that men like." So also "It is Well with My Soul" which wouldn't be half the song without the context that attended the composition of the lyrics.

    Context. Context. Context. Show me the Christ who took a bullet for me. Show me the purpose behind the suffering. Show me the courage to make the stand. Show me the victory behind the defeat. Show me the Sovereign God who never sleeps and never wavers. Show me the glory that attends Him. Then I shall be content.

    carl jacobs

  15. I'm getting a little uneasy at the stereotyping here.

    I am a man. Straight, 51, grandfather. I like camping and hiking and other outdoors things. But I also love Shakespeare, folk music, good conversation over a coffee, and 'relationships'. I remember that Jesus' great commandments are that we love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and love our neighbour as ourselves. I remember that Paul told us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Healing relationships, in other words.

    Oh, by the way - our church (of which I am the pastor) has one of the highest male to female relations in our Diocese of Edmonton (Canada)...

  16. Male to female ratios, I meant to say!

  17. Just a couple of responses, but many thanks to all the posters here.

    I hope I didn't give the impression that this was about men being 'unemotional' and women being 'emotional'.

    As a man, I am very emotional. (Viz I cannot watch It's a wonderful life in company.) Indeed, I believe most men are 'emotional'. But a lot of the contemporary songs on offer for 'worship' don't allow for expressing the right emotions in the right way.

    This is where the example of 'Legionnaire' songs comes in. Here, as Carl observes, we have a powerful underlying emotionality, but I would suggest it is a 'masculine' rather than a 'feminine' emotion - and if you want me to be more specific, I mean by this it is deeply felt, but not readily expressed.

    Incidentally, Carl, I checked it out in advance, and apparently Ich hatt' einen Kameraden is a nineteenth century Austrian composition. As it happens, though, the tune to How Great Thou Art bears an eerie resemblance to the Horst Wessel song, which was, of course, a Nazi party favourite. Nevertheless, it was probably based on a folk tune and I don't think we should have any difficulty about using it in church.

    As to whether I'm being too harsh on modern songs, maybe, but I'm really not looking forward to singing:

    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life
    We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
    You’re the Giver of Life

    And forgive me, but theologically just what is this saying?

    Enough grumpy old man for one evening!

  18. Adrian Plass does a fine line in songs from obscure sections of the Old Testament...

    "We raise our elbows to the ephod in the sanctuary,
    We cleanse our gourds from water pots that once were sealed,
    We gather at the sacred stones of Zebulon
    Where the sons of Eli's nephews will be healed.

    And they who were not will not be not now,
    And they who were will now no longer be,
    And they who thought they were will now know that they are not,
    And the whole thing will remain a mystery.

    And I must go and feed my kangaroo now,
    He's juggling LEGO on the kitchen range
    He's changed his name from Albert to Virginia,
    I think I need a week at Ellel Grange.. "

    (note: Ellel grange is a christian healing centre).

    Incidentally, my wife controls the computer that puts up the words of the songs on the video projector in our Church. She has found that the congregation will sing anything that appears on he screen. Maybe I'll get her to put this up next time I'm taking the service.

    Chris Bishop

  19. As someone who is technically Jewish, and married to a German whose grandfather was imprisoned for opposing Hitler, can I suggest that in no circumstances should we use the tune to the Horst Wessel Lied in church? The associations are too poisonous.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  20. John,

    I have found very helpful in this area David Murrow's Book "Why Men Hate Church". Where songs/hymns are concerned it's not only the words but often over looked is the pitch of the tune. Too often it is too high for men!

    Richard Wood
    East London

  21. Agreed- "Shine Jesus shine" is impossible to sing without surgery.

    Stephen Walton, Marbury

  22. Stephen Walton,

    Perhaps your neck of the woods suffers from the same handicap as mine - too near the oil refineries and industrial atmospheres of the North West. However, I note that the author of "Shine, Jesus, shine" not only wrote it but sings it in the key in which he wrote it.

    On a more general note -

    one of my responsibilities is to select, present and broadcast a programme of hymns and songs for a Christian radio station each Sunday morning. Each two-hour programme requires a minimum of 24 choral items from CDs, based on a theme which I choose. Sometimes it is easy to make a selection – but, at other times, it can become onerous if the theme is too self-limiting. It can be easily deduced that an average hymnbook of 1000 hymns would be not be adequate for a repertoire of 52 programmes without repeating several items several times. I do realise that for devotees of Reform/GAFCON, a choral item comes nowhere near the stature of the “preached” word – but God values the motivation of the heart, both in presenter and listener.

    More to the point, I have recently reviewed a package of four CDs under the title “Heart of Worship”. The first CD is devoted to what is termed “men’s” songs, the second to “women’s” songs, the third to “youth” songs and the fourth to “congregational” songs. It concerns me that people believe that it is right and good to divide up music in this way. As a woman/wife attending church, I am aware of the presence of my husband and my children with me and the need to sing stuff to which we can all relate – of course, small children need items to sing that are related to their cognitive ability. The growth of conferences dedicated solely to men or women, for me, is an unnecessary problem. If one only concentrates on “gender strengths” rather than “gender weaknesses”, individual genders are not being helped in being able to relate to each other. Before the pendulum swings in a completely opposite direction from “Jesus is my girlfriend”, let’s consider whether, in supporting the “macho” male (and male headship), we are alienating strong-minded women and effeminate men.

    Beryl Polden, Wirral.

  23. If we are looking for good tunes, it might be worth looking at some German resources, like the Evangelisches Gesangbuch, the official hymnbook of the Evangelische Kirche Deutschland. A lot of English hymn tunes come from the 19th century and tend to be more "soppy". German hymnbooks have more 16 and 17th century tunes, and are often more robust.

    Stephen Walton

  24. One can get away with somewhat less than stellar lyrics (emphasis on "somewhat") with a tune that can carry the text further than it should by right be able to carry itself. Many modern hymn tunes, however, besides not being thought of for communal singing, also seem to be largely inspired by commercial jingles and theme songs. It's also instructive to look at what happened between the 1940 and 1979 PECUSA hymnals: there was a whole long section in the 400s in the former, with mostly Victorian tunes, which are almost entirely absent in the latter tome.

  25. I happen to know that you have a rather fine singing voice John. More power to your elbow or larynx rather. I agree wholeheartedly with you.

  26. I have been thinking about this some more, and also listening to more Stuart Townend and Phatfish (both on and off the autoroute, but usually with the top down still). It’s true that not many of the songs are obvious masculine choices. I’m happy singing them because they express great Christian truths (yes John, even “We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes, You’re the Giver of Life” does that, eight times; we can look on the Lord, unlike Moses). And Townend does manage a very gutsy rendering of “My First Love”. “O to See the Dawn” is another strong hymn with majestic music and clear bold words (“This the power of the Cross”).

    Part of the issue however lies at the core of our belief. Christians – men and women – put themselves under the Lordship of Christ, and submission isn’t a very masculine thing. There’s some good material about this on the Christian Vision for Men website( where they point out that ‘for the most part, major male driving forces are “Money, Sex, and Power” ’ .

    It seems to me that actually as a Christian man you need to be fairly confident in your masculinity. To submit to Christ, and be part of the bride of Christ can be a challenge. As is singing about it. But we also know that strong things are expected of Christian men (see e.g. Ephesians 5) and in (imperfect) men such as Boaz and David there are some important lessons.

    There’s an advert here in France at the moment for a friendly summer rugby match and it shows that gigantic, fearsome rugby player Sebastien Chabal (you know, the one with the black beard) in full and terrifying charge. What does he advertise on his shirt? “Dove: Men & Care”. Christian men could learn something from that. Keep singing chaps.

    David Brock

  27. I love Louis Vutton, and I'm hunting for the best men's church suit, because I'll wear it for my upcoming wedding.

  28. I & other men I have talked to about this find the trad hymns impossible to tackle as they are delivered - its not content (although alot of the lyrics are more than a little wet) its the register. I & others can sing higher & lower but not comfortably for the range demanded. Result stand & read the words & at best mime.