The modern worship music explosion has certainly had its benefits, helping many believers develop a deeper appreciation for worship and for drawing closer to God.

But while many of today's worship songs certainly have style, they often lack substance, relying on "me-focused" lyrics and shallow choruses, often repeated ad nauseum. What gives?

I think often, though not always, the answer is as simple as this: The songwriters simply haven't yet matured enough, theologically or experientially, to get it just right. They haven't been through the fire, so to speak, that's often needed to ignite the insight necessary for penning lyrics of depth and eternal significance.

Shawn Craig knows what I mean. He's been in the music industry for 14 years as one-third of Phillips, Craig & Dean, popular for their worship music. But he's been in the business of pastoring souls even longer at South County Christian Center in St. Louis. When he writes songs, he's got something of real substance to draw from.

"As a pastor, I've learned the importance of reinforcing the doctrines of the church," Craig says. "There are some popular worshipchoruses that I have refused simply because they are not in alignment with basic Christian doctrine. The ones I am most concerned about are those that trivialize God."

How did Craig make sure he didn't fall into those same errors? "As a theology student, I've seen the importance of emphasizing the major points of the gospel. How easy it is to get off track! I'm still trying to write a song that the church will sing 100 years from now. So far, I'm not even close! How did Charles Wesley do it?"

How indeed? Wesley, like other great hymn writers whose works have stood the test of time, first went through the fire before penning his greatest hymns. What can we learn from Wesley and the other masters—and why do their hymns continue to endure? Let's look at three of them.

Charles Wesley (1708-1788)

Shawn Craig wondered how Wesley could write such enduring hymns. One answer might be because he wrote so many of them—no fewer than 8,989 hymns, including Oh, For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. What drove this man to churn out so many timeless classics?

Charles Wesley, the brother of the famous evangelical preacher John Wesley, was an Anglican clergyman. Charles was educated at Oxford, but that wasn't much help spiritually. He later wrote that Christ Church college was "certainly the worst place in the world to begin a reformation; a man stands a very fair chance of being laughed out of his religion at his first setting out, in a place where 'tis scandalous to have any at all."

Article continues below

But set out Wesley did, and no event informs his faith—or his music—more than the "heart revival" both brothers experienced, and the club they formed afterward to promote personal lives of holiness. This "Holy Club" met regularly in groups of three or four for prayer, devotional study, and mutual encouragement to live lives of faith and piety. For this, the Wesley brothers earned their peers' undying scorn.

Townspeople didn't care for the Wesley brothers either. It's said that Wesley wrote Jesus, Lover of My Soul just after some Irishmen attacked him on the grounds that they disapproved of his doctrine. Fleeing the mob, Wesley hid in the milkhouse of a local farmer, then took refuge under a hedge behind the building, where he wrote:

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Did Wesley really write within earshot of a bloodthirsty mob? Regardless, the man knew what it meant to suffer for Christ. Yet the encouragement and instruction he received in the Holy Club, and his travels with John as he preached to the people, gave Charles just the kind of spiritual training he needed to write the hymns he did.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

The father of the Reformation, Martin Luther was a man who faced not only the wrath of an established Church mired in errors, but also understood the dangers of a life lived disingenuously. Eminently qualified as a doctor of theology, Luther never tired of saying experience was the theologian's best training ground. "I did not learn my theology at once," he wrote, "but I had to search deeper for it, where my temptations took me. . . . Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living—nay, dying and being damned—make a theologian."

Luther's life doesn't lack for drama. Signer of the 95 theses that challenged the core of Catholic Europe, and translator of the Bible into the people's language (something which hadn't been done in a long, long time), Luther rocked his world. Watch a movie like Eric Till's Luther, and you'll grasp something of Luther's force of personality, as well as his immense compassion for the suffering common person. Here was a man who knew that sola gratia—salvation by grace alone—was good news indeed for a people who believed heaven awaited only those few who could afford to fork out the cash.

Article continues below

In fact, it was that love for the poor, working person who had no time for leisure—and thus no time to learn such arcane languages as Latin—that drove Luther to write the hymns he did. During Luther's time, church services were held in Latin, and that included the church's worship music. So Luther set about writing hymns that would not only connect at the people's level, but also draw them into a deeper and more intense relationship with God.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God aims to do just that. Based on Psalm 46, the hymn expands on the leading thought: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble." It is a magnificent piece of reassurance to the believer stricken with sorrow and self-doubt. It reflects the deep convictions Luther came away with after years of tortured self-examination, wondering whether he was righteous enough to enter heaven. And it's a hymn that reformers carried with them over the years, despite the grievances laid at their door by the Catholic Church.

One scholar noted that Luther's hymn "was sung in the streets; and so heard, comforted the hearts of [Reformation greats like] Melanchthon when banished from Wittenberg in 1547. It was sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way to exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of history."

Is it any wonder we still sing Luther's songs today?

John Newton (1725-1807)

One of the most dramatic conversion stories in Christian history began when Newton, born to a pious mother and hardworking father, began backsliding spiritually. Like his father who was a sea captain, Newton took to the sea as well, picking up the notorious habits of that bunch—swearing up a storm and, worse, persuading his companions to abandon their faith in God. When the British Navy tried to force him to serve aboard one of her ships, Newton escaped—only to begin working aboard a slave ship off the African Gold Coast.

But God hadn't given up on Newton. On one voyage back to England, he awoke to find the ship in rough waters—and a crewmember fallen overboard. Newton was terrified, believing he was next, and squeaked out a prayer for the first time in years. This, he later said, was "the hour I first believed."

Legend has it that Newton wrote his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace, while stretched out in fear over that heaving deck, but that's not true. In fact, he wrote the hymn more than 20 years later, while a pastor in a comfortable English village. He actually had in mind 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, which has king David giving thanks to God for the everlasting covenant he had made with Israel. Clearly, Newton was moved with gratitude for the enduring nature of God's love—even when the sailor had chosen to go his own way many times over.

Article continues below

Newton's life is instructive when it comes to his hymn writing, because his best work took a long time—and many hours of preaching, visitation, and study—to percolate. Twenty years away from the raucous life of a sailor didn't dampen his freshness or vitality; it deepened his reflection and helped him crystallize the most important—and enduring—truths. As he writes in Amazing Grace, he once was blind, now able to see. But even good eyes take time to adjust after they've been in darkness for any length of time.

Only MDivs Allowed?

So, what's the point of all this when it comes to the modern worship movement? Am I saying that a seminary degree or pastoral experience are prerequisites to writing memorable songs of depth? No. But I can't help but wonder what the worship music scene would look like if every artist were required to have at least some higher Christian education and maybe a year in full-time Christian work before forming their band or cutting their first CD. Would worship songs be so "me-focused" or chorus lines so unimaginative?

There's a wonderful source of story and inspiration in the words of Scripture that serious study unwraps for the songwriter. And there's something to be said for the saints of centuries past, whose lives demonstrated incredible courage in the face of intense adversity, or who showed enormous compassion in circumstances that would have overwhelmed any do-gooder.

Michael Card is one popular Christian musician who comes close to the mark. Card has long impressed me with his powerful reflection on Scripture. For example, The Life (1988) does a stunning job in faithfully re-imagining the panorama of Jesus' time here on earth; a decade later, I'm still fishing for those CDs when I want some spiritual nourishment. More recently, Card's Soul Anchor (2000) recalls one of the first Christian symbols ever to appear in the Church's language, even before the cross or the fish we all know from car bumpers. As a church historian, I can appreciate that research, but I can benefit from its imagery as an ordinary Christian too. 

Want to write songs for posterity? Take some advice: Pore over Scripture—soak it up, discuss it with colleagues, relatives, friends. Then study the lives of the great hymn-writers. Make sure your faith is active, living on the cutting edge where it's not comfortable being a Christian. Take your time—let mentors, age, and experience teach you wisdom. Then—and only then—start writing.

Steven Gertz is assistant editor of Christian History & Biography magazine.