What Technology’s Democratization of Worship Songwriting Means for Us

Zac HicksConvergence of Old and New in Worship, Culture, History of Worship and Church Music, Songwriting, Worship Technology2 Comments

Ones and Zeros

Chuck Fromm, publisher of Worship Leader magazine, recently summarized and explored the implications of the shift of the church’s song from paper to bits and bytes in the January/February article in that publication, “The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation.”  The transition from hard publishing to web publishing has much more de-centralized and democratized the enterprise of hymnody for both songwriters and publishers (“hymns” being used in the broadest sense of “the Church’s body of sung prayer”).

Fromm, both a tenacious student of and seasoned insider within the contemporary worship movement that arose in the 60s and 70s, does a marvelous job rehearsing the history of the emergence of contemporary worship.  For those who don’t know much about the history, the article is a great place to start for that.  But tracing contemporary worship’s origins is not his goal.  Rather, the article arrives at an open-ended vision for a way forward for the worship songwriter to regain his or her seat at the table of ecclesiastical theologizing (shaping the Church’s understanding of biblical doctrine). Fromm’s purpose appears to be to both impress upon local worship songwriters the gravity of their vocation and to encourage their contribution to the “open-sourced hymnal” that no longer exists locked down in publishers’ offices but floating rather formlessly in the cloud.

The New Hymnal

The article is a fascinating exercise in the intersection of sociology, technology, philosophy, and theology:

A new form of hymnal has emerged. In terms of appearance it hardly looks like its past predecessor. Print culture was symbolized by the book—several hundred pages of print between two pieces of cardboard. The book represented standardization, authorship, and authority. It was also a very costly form of storage…The new hymnal is stored in mp3s, PDFs, and on YouTube.

The new multimedia hymnal is networked with thousands of other hymnal content agencies (denominational and “non-denominational” producers and distributors). In modern vernacular, it is a “Hymnal Cloud” that is open for continuous contribution and enlargement, i.e., it is not limited by the pages of a book. At the creative core of the hymn cloud stands the worship leader and the rest of the congregational theological team.

We’re All Back on the Hook

But the article is also a summons to worship songwriters to return to ancient paths:

In the midst of these communicational/cultural changes we have only partially described and hinted about above, it is critical that we again review the historic role of the songwriter/poet as a member of the theological team. It’s a shame that so few seminaries across the world understand or appreciate the vital role of the hymn composers and adapters as key transmitters and creators of theology.

This should be both empowering and frightening for us as local worship pastors, leaders, and songwriters.  We should not think of ourselves merely as song leaders or lead musicians but as people called by God to guide the church’s living, fiery doctrine toward biblical ends.  To use an old-school term, worship leaders and songwriters are some of the church’s most preeminent catechists. This should therefore give us pause about doing our job in a haphazard, willy-nilly fashion.  No longer can song selection be merely about keys, groove, flow, airplay, and popularity.  Too much deep shaping is going on for us to take such a superficial approach. 

It probably means, too, that it may be less helpful than we thought to wholesale import pre-fabricated worship sets from outside entities like (well, this is ironic) Worship Leader magazine or CCLI readouts.  We, as worship leaders in tune with the people of God in our local contexts, need to straddle well that interplay between those (great and not so great) data and the movement of the Spirit in our hometown ekklesia.  And perhaps, as Fromm suggests, if we are faithful to exegete and minister to our local contexts well, we can contribute our little offerings to the hymnal cloud above to see what cyber highways and byways the Spirit might carry our songs and ideas on to bless brothers and sisters in other contexts.  It’s an exciting time to be a worship leader and songwriter, folks. 

Chuck Fromm, “The Hymn Cloud: Generation to Generation,” Worship Leader Magazine, Jan/Feb 2013 (Vol. 22, No. 1), 26-29.

2 Comments on “What Technology’s Democratization of Worship Songwriting Means for Us”

  1. Zac,
    What a great way to say it… "We're All Back on the Hook" . In fact your entire article helps name several important issues as we consider the ancient Christian (and Hebrew) practice of "hymning" in the current digital context. Thank you for deepening and spreading this conversation. I learned alot from your response. Please lead on ! The function of popular music in shaping our personal life structures is a well documented and often talked about theme. However, the role of the worship leader as curator of multi-media and both popular , and remediated historic hymns and in the process a vital agent in shaping our thoughts about our Lord God and the story of his people is unspoken, underplayed and undervalued. In rhetorical terms our focus tends to be on the "form", or as you point out the aesthetics of music. While form is of vital importance all form and no content or function, i..e., "how does this hymn function in the spiritual life of our congregation" ultimately minimizes the role of the worship pastor/leader to a songleader with a guitar or keyboard. It also guarantees a short shelf life for the worship leader as many balding 40 and 50 something worship leaders who have become trapped in a form cul-de-sac have discovered.
    Back on point with the concept of the new hymnology being an open system see Seth Godin's email today.. . It is worth reading a couple of times
    Use this link for the article: http://bit.ly/Zm1Bzm

  2. I agree with Chuck, Zac, and with you as well. I would highlight one of the "little" things you mentioned en passant as important in this article: local solutions for local situations. That has been my, and Creator's mantra for many years, a mantra that is based upon experience, and a certain degree of fallout from my own arrogance.

    Cookie-cutter worship that is superimposed upon a congregation borders on the idolatry of self in a worship context. One of the things that seems to be out of the bounds of worship training these days is the art and craft of actually listening to a congregation, corporately, yes, but as members of the body…listening to it sing, listening to it evolve, and especially listening to its particular lexicon and historical continuum. A clear example of this, and of the cloud hymnal in practice, is that there are congregational differences in how any particular hymn or chorus is sung, and played. To ignore that fact, in my opinion, approaches folly.

    Thanks for starting this conversation. It is good to meet you digitally speaking. (Thanks, Chuck for bringing this to my attention.) Keep up the great writing…your insight is valuable.

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