Fernando Ortega has always behaved as one cut from a different swatch of the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) cloth. His instrumentation has almost always been a bit more folky and “classical.” His melodies have always been a bit more lyrical. His albums have always shown an awareness and embracing of the Church’s hymn tradition. His latest album, Come Down, O Love Divine, probably goes further into history and liturgy than any previous, with two Kyries (Can I pluralize a Latin word with an English “s”?), a Sanctus, a Doxology, and several old hymns. It’s beautiful, and much of its music can easily serve ancient-modern worship services that embrace contemporary/modern styles along with historic liturgy.
The reason I am surprised, then, by Ortega’s recent post, “Avoiding Convenience: A Word to Hymn-Writers,” is not because he lovingly calls out some of the superficiality of modern worship songwriting but because he does it so eloquently. This is the first bit of prose that I have read from this poet, and the whole post is worth a serious read for any modern worship leader or songwriter.
He discusses being a part of an Anglican church, where the worship-planning, understandably, is much more nuanced than a typical evangelical (block-of-songs-offering-sermon-song) liturgy:
Now that I’m in an Anglican church the weekly song search is much more complicated…There’s the lectionary to deal with—scripture passages that are appointed for every week of the year: an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (or one from Acts), and finally the Gospel reading. These readings are arranged according to the narrative of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the season after Pentecost). More often than not, there’s an obvious theme that ties all the readings together such as contrition, service, God’s faithfulness, baptism, etc. I’ve learned to love the challenge of discovering that theme and finding the perfect songs to underscore and enhance the various portions of the Anglican mass. This process in the last year and a half has opened the door for me to many rich and beautiful hymns that I’d never heard before.
He then goes on to recount how his discovery of such hymns strengthens his conviction that modern worship songwriting needs to go much, much deeper. His final challenge to songwriters is:
Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliché. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.
Thank you, Mr. Ortega. As for me, I’ll stick to setting old hymns to new music. I want to sit under the tutelage of the masters a bit longer before I feel up to the task of crafting lyrics.
HT: Justin Taylor