“Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.” Leonardo da Vinci
My family and I were standing in one of Chicago’s modern art museums once, when a rather loud gentleman walked in and began to look around with wide eyes at the disjointed arms, legs, and other body parts coming out of the floor and/or dangling from the ceiling. After a few moments of taking in the bizarre display, he literally yelled out in disgust, “Well, THIS ain’t art!” And to him, it certainly wasn’t. While I wasn’t particularly moved by it, either, I was far too polite to yell what many of us were already thinking. This macabre installment dredged up bad scenes from B-minus horror flicks and characters like Freddy Krueger, but who am I to judge? What makes for good art probably runs a close third as the most controversial and hotly contested topic behind politics and religion. Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder and maybe someone was inspired to be a better person from having seen this particular exhibit, disjointed body parts and all.
In Part 1 of this post, I talked about serving your church with the best of the best songs from the past and present, whether you’re a songwriter or not. I believe that great worship-leading comes down to using great songs that feed and inspire your congregation, even if you’re not the greatest musician or singer. In the end, the words and spirit of the songs are what people will be impacted by and remember. I guarantee you, they won’t walk out of church humming the pastor’s three points, poem, and closing prayer. They’ll be humming whatever the last song was that YOU led. Sorry, pastors, but it’s just truth. So, this means every song you choose to present must have three critical elements: Heart, Art, and Good Doctrine. If you missed the first installment on Heart, you can access that here. For this post, let’s talk about the art of great worship songs and how you can spot it and use it to bless your people.
When I talk about “art” with my songwriter students, I try to help them catch a glimpse of using higher language, beauty, spiritual expression, and an above-average connection with the listener/end user. I describe a spectrum of songwriting that starts on the far left with what I call “private prayer or praise songs.” These songs aren’t intended for public consumption. These are, I believe, the “spiritual songs” Paul mentioned in Ephesians 5:19 when he talked about, “…speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord…” There may be other applications of this, but for our purposes, I believe that even King David “wrote” many psalms and spiritual songs that didn’t make it in the canon of Scripture. I’m willing to contend that not every “song” we “get from the Lord” is meant for anyone but us, too.
The artistic quality that would make such a song accessible to multitudes doesn’t HAVE to be present in a personal song with and from the Lord. This is just you singing to the Lord and having a great time with Him in worship. The problem occurs when young or aspiring writers equate the inspiration of this moment with a truly publishable song. It just doesn’t happen like that very often. I’ve had people argue with me and even quit my Facebook group because they felt so strongly that “God gave me this song” and it should, therefore, go immediately on the radio or on the next Casting Crowns album. The problem with this concept is that it takes all responsibility off of the writer to learn how to write well. If God has truly authored this song, how can we touch it?
I sometimes come across an unreasonable songwriter on this issue and try to remind him or her of that great verse in the Book of First Opinions that says, “The proof is in the pudding.” If no one truly responds well to your song and certainly doesn’t want to hear it over and over again or sing it, you should probably examine your own heart and understanding of what makes a song great and how it can connect with people from an artistic standpoint. Great songwriting is great art-making. The songs that last have a higher concentration of artistic quality and distinction that make them classics. Even the titles of classic songs speak of beauty and elegance, transcending decades and centuries to speak to our hearts today. Think of Great is Thy Faithfulness, There’s Just Something About That Name, Amazing Grace, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, 10,000 Reasons, and In Christ Alone, to name but a few.
Am I advocating tossing all “modern worship songs” that use a more street-level style of language in favor of classic hymns and older worship songs? Certainly not. Just don’t use them at the expense of the historically sound hymns and songs that still have value. Raise the artistic value of your song rotations. As much as I love a lot of the modern songs, there’s a general trend toward the conversational that is losing artistic quality, and thus in my opinion, longevity. Until the day we’re all just grunting and sending selfies to communicate with family and friends (much like the cavemen painted hunting scenes on stone walls… are we there already?), man was created for higher artistic expressions and we’ll always hunger for it, even if we don’t know what we’re longing for.
Serving your church well will always mean avoiding the ruts of musical and lyrical burnout. Choosing a variety of songs and song styles will keep things fresh and interesting. If you serve up chipped beef on toast each week, people can’t help but tire of it, no matter how delicious it was the first 85 times. There’s something to be said for the elements of surprise and diversity. If your people have long ago memorized the style, tempos, and content of your songs, you’ve already lost them. Wake them up. Shake them up. Dare to be different. Dare to use an old hymn, even if you dress it up a little.
In the end, the human heart longs for Art. God, the Original and Ultimate Artist, has built into us the desire for beauty, truth, and higher expression. To deny your people this is to short shrift their spiritual lives and your own opportunity to help them experience more of God in song. To lead worship and choose songs week after week, as hard as it can be sometimes, is a high and holy calling. Gain a higher view of this calling and a higher view of artistic expression in your church, and your ministry will take on deeper meaning and value to everyone around. Be aware that not everyone will love and appreciate your art, no matter how much time and effort you put in, but many will. Remember also that it’s probably never a great idea to dangle body parts from the ceiling.
John Chisum is a long-time Christian music business professional, ordained minister, songwriter, publisher, and worship leader. He is the former Director of Song Development and Copyright for Integrity Media, and the former Vice-president of Publishing for Star Song Communications. John has managed dozens of professional Christian songwriters such as Paul Baloche, Lynn DeShazo, Gary Sadler, and many others, and has had over 400 of his own songs recorded. Along with his business career, John is an internationally respected worship leader and has traveled over one-million miles in ministry worldwide, while constantly serving in local churches over the last 30 years. He holds a Masters of Arts in Worship Studies from Liberty University. John and his wife, Donna, have been married for 36 years and live in the Nashville area.
John is currently Managing Partner for Nashville Christian Songwriters. You can reach him at john@