changing words, never-changing Word

The following was previously published on the Crossing Songs website and refers to that competition (winners have now been announced). However, I think the thoughts can be applied in a more general sense, too.

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Words have an impact, but not always the one we expect.

They say something is official once you’ve put it down in writing, but meanings change. Read something that was written a hundred years ago and you may find yourself frowning – what was meant by this sentence or that term? What was the intention? Words seem so solid, but old uses fade and the meanings can now carry new, unhelpful baggage. It may no longer be appropriate to use the same word. Contexts shift and new styles of culture form. And our use of words moves with them.

So why should we assume that the lyrics we use in worship are any different? These words, too, slip out of common use, or pick up new – and sometimes unhelpful – nuances. We often need reminding what they actually mean (or used to mean).

So how do we use ever-changing words to worship the never-changing Word?

One of the aims of this Crossing Songs competition is to challenge us to make our lyrics understandable. This means understandable to those who aren’t used to church, those who puzzle over some of our old hymns and present songs – they may sound very nice, but what do they mean? And if I don’t understand the words, how can I sing them and mean them? How can they be helpful to me?

I’d encourage you not simply to look through your back catalogue of hymns and songs and choose three to enter. Ask yourself – what is the point of the competition? How is it aiming to resource the church?

Part of the answer is that we are looking for new ways to communicate eternal truths – by crafting our language so that it is accessible, by making our songs fresh and sing-able. This doesn’t mean we can’t use beautiful language, but we need to think about which words we use.

Take a look at a song or poem you’ve already written and go through underlining all the words that are not often used in contemporary society, or perhaps carry a very different meaning. Then challenge yourself to write the same thing without using those words. Hard, isn’t it? But if we want to be missional in our song writing, we are going to have to embrace this challenge. If there’s a word you simply can’t bear to leave out, ask yourself – is the meaning made clear by the rest of the verse? Does the song itself explain what is meant by redemption, salvation or glory? Because although these words are familiar to regular church-goers, they may be a struggle for others to grasp.

Another tactic is to take these words and write down a definition for each – an exercise which will not only help you clarify their meaning, but also to ensure you yourself know what they mean. We can be so used to saying the words, we don’t actually think about what they mean for ourselves. I wonder how many of us stand in our church congregations and sing words we don’t actually understand.

We may need to change our words in order for people to hear their meaning.

Can you do it? Will you try?

Related post: behind the scenes of Crossing Songs

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