The Value of Bespoke Worship Songs
Bespoke is not a word we use very much. The word means “custom made” and is most often employed in the clothing industry. I’ve never had any clothing custom-made for myself, but I understand the appeal. There is a welcomed utility in something made for the masses but there is a unique beauty in something made for the particular.
With some creative license, I’d like to use this bespoke language in relation to worship music. The American church seems to be rather enjoying the utility of mass-produced worship music while simultaneously missing out on the beauty of locally-sourced music. A recent study found that a vast majority of chart-topping worship songs are coming from only four different churches. “If you have ever felt like most worship music sounds the same,” the study’s authors wrote, “it may be because the worship music you are most likely to hear in many churches is written by just a handful of songwriters from a handful of churches.”
This is the sad reality but I wonder: what has been lost in this mass-produced stranglehold on worship music?
The True Religion of the Place
In Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, Jayber offers the following commentary on a church service: “I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place…I liked the sound of the people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone.” Much of Berry’s Port William novels focus on the “membership” of a people and a place. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the local church operates at this same intersection.
Liturgy is often defined as “the work of the people.” Not a generic people but a specific people. A people inhabiting a place. A people in fellowship with one another. The local church needs custom-fit songs because we are uniquely-shaped people.
Parsing the Heart
With this grassroots vision, I tried my hand at writing worship songs a few years ago. I have no formal music background but I didn’t let that stop me. In 2017, I wrote a song called Our God is Good because a divorced woman in our church told me about how hard it was to attend service by herself. For many weeks, she didn’t feel as if she could authentically voice the words to the songs that were being sung. She found comfort in the fact that though she could not sing them herself, that her friends and community around her could sing for her. The bridge to the song I wrote proclaims: “A broken hallelujah is still a hallelujah.”
In this past year, our church resurrected the old hymn We Have an Anchor* and put a new tune to it. Our three-year-old church plant is full of people who are hurting and doubting. Our congregation does not usually sing very loudly but we have noticed these lyrics bring out their voice:
“Will your anchor hold in the storms of life, when the clouds unfold their wings of strife? When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain, will your anchor drift, or firm remain?” Marilynne Robinson, in her novel Home, describes preaching as, “parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ.” Preaching is not singing but worship music has the same potential to parse the heart of humankind and point to the loving heart of Christ.
Creating New Culture
In his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch says: “It is not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique culture or to copy culture. Most of the time, we just consume culture. But the only way to change culture is to create culture.” It’s easy to condemn the American church and our infatuation with generic, mass-produced music. Instead of complaining, we have a chance to create something new and beautiful. When we handpick songs for our congregation, when we write grassroots songs, and when we support artists creating bespoke music, we are creating new culture. We are parsing the heart, pointing to Christ, and heralding music that pierces the soul. * This song will be released on Folk Hymnal’s ‘We Have an Anchor’ album in August.