Worship songwriters (and others who create resources for worship - video editors, visuals-creators, prayer-writers etc) are often referred to as 'artists'. They tend to be 'creative types', and often model themselves on the popular artists of our day - the singer/songwriter alone in her room, searching her soul in the small hours of the night for that perfect song that expresses the depths of her emotional state. Recently, not one but two books have been published under the title 'Curating Worship', both developing the metaphor of the worship-leader-as-art-curator; selecting and juxtaposing different artistic media for congregations to engage with more like a crowd at a gallery.

I'm not denying that we need Christians who are engaging wholeheartedly in the artistic process, or that worship songwriters or resource-makers shouldn't be exposing themselves to an increasing range of inspiring and challenging art. Bring it on! But I would question whether the dominant model or metaphor for the worship songwriter, planner or resource-creator should be that of 'artist'. It seems like a useful, and yet incomplete, picture.

Great artists, I think most would agree, excel in self-expression. Their work should be honest and personal, coming from their emotions and experience. It doesn't matter particularly whether or not people understand their work, or can even relate to it, what matters is that it is authentically their 'voice'. Art also thrives on being new, being controversial, being about form rather than function, and often in showing off skill, talent or raw 'attitude'.

Designers, on the other hand, have a related but significantly different role. They are crazy not to be inspired by great art, but they know their work goes beyond self-expression and outward form. Great design, as well as being beautiful, authentic and original, must also work. The 'function' is as important as the 'form'. In fact, the more effectively and efficiently the design fulfills the brief, the more beautiful it is considered (eg Apple's iPad).

It would seem to me that creating resources for worship is more like design than art, because worship needs to 'work', not just for the writer but for the congregations who use the resource. For example, a congregational worship song needs to be singable by the majority of the congregation, not just the musician who wrote it. A set of words needs to be true for a whole crowd of people to express, not just the inner workings of the writers soul. A piece of visual art for worship needs to be accessible to a wide range of people, not just the 'arty types' who 'get it'.

That doesn't mean there isn't room for ambiguity, personal interpretation or transcendence in worship. Those are some of God's great gifts to us through art! But they need to be used thoughtfully, and I can't help feeling that the majority of an act of worship ought to be, at least on a surface level, clearly understandable for everyone. Part of the designer's skill is to give that act of worship hidden depths and resonances, so that people can approach it again and again, finding more truth as they go deeper.

One way of thinking about this is that designers will always work to a brief - a set of goals they need to achieve for the design to be successful. The same questions could be asked of a song or other worship resource -

  • who is going to use it: what type of congregation/service/band/pastor? How will this effect the way I write this piece?
  • what is it trying to express: what is the central theme, the scriptural basis, the main message?
  • what response do I want to get from the users: praise, confession, intercession, commitment...?
  • how are others going to be able to re-use this: is it easily repeatable?
  • and finally - does this resource achieve these goals in an engaging, beautiful and original way?

As I have begun to think this way, I've found it releasing. Although I continue to put myself into my resources, I'm not seeing the things I make for church worship as primarily about 'expressing myself' but about meeting the needs of others. I can continue to be influenced by art, music and films, but at the same time submit those influences to the service of congregations, and consider their needs more important than my preferences. When form and function combine, then I know I'm on to something.

As a fairly unscientific but interesting experiment to test my theory that worship resource-makers might consider themselves 'designers' more than 'artists', I googled 'design quotes' and then tried to apply them to worship. The results were quite revealing...

"Design should never say, "Look at me." It should always say, "Look at this." — David Craib.
Wouldn't it be great if all worship songs, prayers, services, visuals etc were completely pointing to God and his heart for the world, rather than the singer, the particular church, the 'artist'?

"People ignore design that ignores people."— Frank Chimero
How about "people ignore worship that ignores people" - eg has the song been written with the concerns, the experiences, the vocal ranges of the congregation it in mind? Have we considered the minorities, the fringe-y people, the newcomers, those with particular needs in our worship?

"Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent."— Joe Sparano
There are objects that are so well designed we barely notice them - the stacking chair, the biro, the lightbulb. Aren't truly great worship songs/resources transparent - you hardly notice them because they are doing their job so well of pointing you towards God; helping you to praise him, or confess your sin, or intercede for the world...etc?

"Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it's decoration." — Jeffrey Zeldman
When our worship is lacking biblical, truthful and authentic content, is it any more than decoration?

"Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up." — Tate Linden
Isn't worship an opportunity to continue telling the story of God, what he is doing in our lives today, how his Kingdom is being worked out in our 24/7 experiences? Isn't the creation of new worship resources today a chance to praise God for his recent acts as well as his ancient ones, in new styles as well as old?

And finally, just in case you think I'm saying its all about planning and thought with no inspiration, how about this great quote -

"A designer can mull over complicated designs for months. Then suddenly the simple, elegant, beautiful solution occurs to him. When it happens to you, it feels as if God is talking! And maybe He is." — Leo Frankowski

I long for the songs I write, the resources I make and the services I help lead to be simple, elegant and beautiful solutions to the issues of how to help diverse congregations express themselves to God, and to allow God to reveal himself to his people today. May you mull over your services, think through your songs and craft your resources in such a way that God is talking through them.