• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Chris Tomlin's Worship Songs: We Have Got to Do Better

Since I have been complaining about loud music in church, I’ll stay in the groove and complain now about bad lyrics in church. And I have a particular songwriter in mind, probably the most popular one nowadays, to stand in for all the rest.

There’s no doubt that Chris Tomlin can write “hook-y” tunes. Many of them stay with you after church, even if you want them badly to go away.

And why would you want them to go away? Partly because some of them are musical clichés. Alas, I lack the technological ability to argue this case using musical samples via this blog. So I’ll have to settle for what I can talk about here: the frequently discomfiting lyrics.

I don’t know Chris Tomlin personally. I expect he’s a nice man and a devoted Christian. So please be clear that I’m not attacking his sincerity or his love of Jesus or anything else I can’t possibly judge.

What the evidence shows, however, is that he is a bad lyricist.

The man either doesn’t care about rhyming and settles for the merest assonance, or he lacks the skill or patience to actually craft rhymes. And rhyming is a pretty basic part of the pop genre in which he writes, not some exotic quality of songwriting I am unreasonably demanding of him. He also has no strong grasp of Scripture and particularly of the metaphors and allusions he uses.

My suspicion, in fact, is that these songs “come to him” and he then records them with little or no alteration. Surely he can’t be crafting them with the diligence of a serious poet. For if these are the best he can do after working and reworking them, he simply needs to get someone else to write the words. They’re just that bad.

Strong accusations? You bet. Proof? Let’s pick one of his more recent songs, “Praise the Father, Praise the Son”:

O sov’reign God, O matchless King– the saints adore, the angels sing and fall before the throne of grace to you belongs the highest praise.

Note: “Grace” has a hard “s” while “praise” has a soft “s.” No big deal, you say? Okay, but how big a deal is it to find a rhyme for either “grace” or “praise”?

Let’s go on. Next stanza:

These sufferings, this passing tide under Your wings I will abide, and every enemy shall flee; You are my hope and victory.

We have rhymes this time–hooray! But now we have a metaphor malfunction. If sufferings are passing over us like a tide, it’s not going to do us much good to be under Someone’s wings, is it? We’ll still drown. This is a common feature of Tomlin’s mix-n-match approach to imagery, a kaleidoscope of fragments that happen to occur to him and yet don’t make any sense once they’re set down together.

Then the refrain:

Praise the Father, Praise the Son. Praise the Spirit, Three in One. Clothed in power and in grace the name above all other names.

Here we go again: still can’t think of a rhyme for “grace” and now we have “names” instead. [Shudder]

And what is “the name above all other names”? That name would be “Jesus,” wouldn’t it (Phil. 2), which doesn’t actually appear in the song so far? Or perhaps YHWH (Ps. 138), which also has yet to show up in the lyrics?

Next stanza:

To the valley, for my soul; Thy great descent has made me whole! Your word my heart has welcomed home; now peace like water ever flows.

What’s with the “Thy”? Is that supposed to make the lyric more sacred because (slightly) archaic? Or what? It’s weird, that’s what it is, because the very next line has another second-person possessive, but now it’s just “Your.”

Next line: Who’s on first? Is the sentence saying, “Your word has welcomed home my heart”? Or is it saying, “My heart has welcomed home your word”? Who knows? Does it matter? Is Tomlin concerned to provide us with a clear thought here, or just vague evocations of blessedness?

And the last line offers this rhyme for “home”: “flows.” Say it with me, now: “Home, flows. Home, flows.” Nope, no rhyme there. Not by a mile.

I’ll stop now, because I can’t go on. This avoidance of simple lyrical craftsmanship shows up over and over and over again in Chris Tomlin’s songs.

So why am I pounding on him? Because he’s popular, very popular, and thus he’s setting the pace for others. Please, aspiring songwriters, aim much, much higher! It’s not that hard and your music will sound better. And who knows? Maybe having to reach for an actual rhyme will do for you what it does for other poets, namely, force you out of your comfort zone into new words and new ideas.

Why else take Brother Tomlin to task? Because those of us who want to praise God with our minds as well as our hearts, as our Lord taught us to do, cannot just ignore bad lyrics. None of us can just ignore repeated wrong notes sung or played by worship leaders, and these lousy lyrics go “twang” and “clunk.” They distract from the worship they are supposed to foster just as much as a lazy or untalented musician distracts us when his guitar isn’t tuned or he keeps playing the wrong chords on the piano. So don’t come back at me with “Well, just ignore it and praise the Lord anyway and appreciate his heart” and all that. Chris Tomlin is a professional songwriter. He’s not a sweet little kid doing his best in a Sunday School concert.

Let’s be clear, furthermore, that there’s lots of blame to go around here. Brother Tomlin’s music producers are happy to keep churning this stuff out. Worship leaders keep programming it. And we keep singing it without protest.

Well, enough’s enough. We are the most educated Christians in history, and yet our lyrics are considerably stupider than our much less educated Christian forebears–the people who sang lyrics by Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts.

And please note that I didn’t say our lyrics are “simpler.” Simple can be good. Simple can be beautiful. I’m not arguing with simple.

But what Brother Tomlin seems happy to keep sending our way–and what the rest of us are happily receiving–isn’t simple, it’s just bad. Shame on him, shame on the worship leaders who aren’t finding anything else to set before us, and shame on us for not objecting.

This is serious business, friends, and I don’t apologize for ranting. For we spend the days after we’ve gone to church humming and recalling the words from the songs we’ve sung a lot more often than we recall the words of the Scripture that was read, the liturgy that was recited, or the sermon that was preached. Let’s do all we can, then, to make sure our heads and hearts are full of something good.

Nominations? Where do we go for better worship songs?