The Best New Worship Music (According to PostConsumer Reports)

Off and on for the past year I have spent concentrated times listening to "new" worship music for my church to sing. I am listening to "new" music even now as I type this, feeling like I am cramming for a final! This process has been intense people!

There is so much worship music and hymnody out there it is impossible to even attempt to get to it all. To illustrate I will tell a parable.

Imagine you have been appointed to curate a massive art exhibit of up and coming artists at your local contemporary art center. You have a set date for the exhibit but you also have a limited number of slots on the walls of the art center. You are excited because you love art, you love artists, and you love talking to people about art. 

You immediately set about your task by looking into the two most obvious artist networks available to you: 1.) artists of national and global renown and 2.) local artists you have a personal connection to. In your mind you have a set contemporary artists that most everyone in the art world is aware of and then you have a set of your friends and friends of friends in your city who are making great art. 

So, you put out a "call to artists" to exhibit their work and wait for them to start sending in their applications for consideration of their work. At first everything goes as expected. You get a few of the globally "famous" artists as well as a few who have started to become famous that you are starting to learn about. Similarly, a few of the local artists you know apply, as well as a few you have never heard of before. But this is where things start to get crazy...and overwhelming. Both the famous artists and local artists start telling you about other famous and local artists that they claim are either equally or nearly equally as famous and noteworthy. Then they start telling you not just about specific artists but entire art communities. If you are from the state of Illinois, as I am, you start to hear about artistic communities growing in cities like Des Moines, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska, while at the same time learning about the up and comers in Brooklyn, New York and Berlin, Germany. 

You want to be fair to everyone, so you put calls out to these cities as well, among others. But deep in the pit of your stomach you know where all this is going, that there are circles upon circles of influence and that the moment you "discover" one artist or community it will only be a matter of time before you discover ten more.

Soon more and more submissions for your little art exhibit come flooding in and you have no idea how you are going to get to them all and give them proper and fair consideration, let alone knowing how you will be able to discern which paintings will actually be displayed on the walls of the art center. At some point one of your assistants walks in and says "Have you seen the works that just came in from Portland? They're amazing. There's really quite a scene going on there." To which you say "No. No one's even told me about what's happening in Oregon. I had no idea." Your assistant gives you a blank, slightly incredulous stare and says "Oregon? No, this is Portland, Maine." Your eyes grow wide and a look of despair settles in.

At this point you basically give up. You will have to make your choices for the exhibit based off of what you know and have already see and will have to pick a cut off date and stick to it.

In a few weeks the exhibit opens to the public and it is a great show. It is a great convergence of local and global artists and people are talking about the works. However, you are filled with a pervading dull ache, knowing there were a multitude of artists you had to leave out of the exhibit. But then you realize something else and your ache deepens: what about all the artists I don't even know about? What if the greatest works are still out there and I'll never be able to get to them?

Trapped in this state of ambivalence, both the joy of the exhibit's opening and the pain of having to leave great artists out (both known and unknown), you leave for home early, hoping to decompress from it all. You make yourself some chamomile tea, and sit down in your comfy recliner in front of the Van Gogh "Sunflowers" reprint you love so much that you purchased from Target when you started college, back when you easily knew what "good" art was because the list of artists you needed to know was comfortingly short. All but forgetting the ongoing exhibit which you worked so hard on, you sleep surprisingly well that night.

A year ago I put up a list of new worship music I was going to commit to listen to. I called it a worship music "binge," comparing it to a gigantic sandwich I was going to try and fit in my mouth all at once. You could also call it "drinking from the fire hose." In many ways this was a great experience. There is honestly a lot of great music and lyrics being written for the Church to sing to God and with each other. At the same time I cannot help but feel my list is woefully inadequate. It is merely "my" list and thus it comes with its own limitations. Even as I was getting ready to publish this post a worship pastor friend shared with me another song to listen to and consider (thanks a lot Katie!). Despite the limitations, my hope is that I can save a lot of worship and music pastors a lot of time. I did all the work so you don't have to.  I believe I have given you a good set of decent to great worship songs and hymns that your congregations can sing. 

Later this week I will put up my reflections on doing this little experiment and the observations I have about the current state of "contemporary worship music," but for now you can know that my list below was dictated by the following criteria:

1.) I chose songs both according to my own musical tastes and to what I think is proper for the church to sing. That is, I naturally picked songs I liked and found pleasing but I always kept in mind the people who go to my church, what tends to work in our community, and what I think could or should work in an American and mostly ethnically white congregation.
2.) I was looking for a mixture of theological depth and simplicity in the lyrics. I wanted them rooted in Scripture but was also drawn to what poetic artistry our modern hymn writers could come up with. Finally, I wanted modern day people to be able to have access to the concepts without having to do too much work. The mixture is the key.
3.) I was looking for melodies that people could sing along to. That might sound glaringly obvious, but if only it were that simple.
4.) I did not regulate myself to music only written in the last ten or so years. I was open to any new hymn or song, whether it came to me from a hymnal, a recommendation, or a re-tuned hymns project. For me "new" means new to me or to my congregation. Anything we haven't sung before is "new". In other words: please consider that my above parable relates only to new artists and not to the forgotten artists of the past. Let that sink in.

Here now is the list. We have sung a number of these songs already in my congregation, but most of them have not yet hung on the "walls" of my church, to continue the parable. Now begins the ongoing rotation of what to "exhibit" in my church over the course of the next few years. And even though this might be an insane request because of all I went through, feel free to suggest your own candidates for "best new worship music" in the comments section.

I have included the song title, the artist who either sings it or wrote it, and a brief description of the song's themes. No links are included as all of these songs are available for streaming through the artists' own sites or through Youtube, Spotify, or any of a number of other services. Special thanks to Tim Briggs of Church at Charlotte created a Spotify list of most of the songs (make sure to check out his Church's music page)

Song Artist Themes
Song of Moses Aaron Keyes God is with us, gives us victory, worship in the storms of life
Awake Oh Sleeper Bach Hymn Preparation, readiness for Christ’s coming
Salvation is Created Chesnokov  Incarnation
We Do Not Presume Andy Piercy Eucharist
A Mighty Fortress Martin Luther the greatness, strength, faithfulness of God
Open Our Eyes Rain For Roots hearing God
Benediction Matt Redman prayer of blessings
Worthy Matt Redman the greatness of God
Prepare the Way of the Lord Jeremy Riddle Prepare the Way, John the Baptist, Coming of Christ
Ah Holy Jesus hymn sacrifice, the cross, Communion
O Sacred Head Now Wounded hymn sacrifice, the cross, Communion
Show Us Christ Sovereign Grace preparing our hearts, God revealing himself
We Will Feast in the House of Zion Sandra McCracken praising in sorrow, God is our protector and defender
The Lamb Has Overcome Cardiphonia, Luke Morton resurrection, Lamb of God, 
Come to the Feast Sandra McCracken & TGC wedding feast, a call to all sinners, mission
Love That Will Not Let Me God Jeremy Casella The love of God
O God of Our Salvation Matt Boswell, Michael Bleeker Trinity, salvation, 
Man of Sorrows Hillsong the cross, atonement,
I Need Thee hymn Our need for God
And Can It Be That I Should Gain hymn the cross, atonement,
Prince of Peace/You Are  Holy Michael W. Smith God's greatness
Hallelujah What A Savior Ascend the Hill the cross, atonement,
O the Deep Deep Love of Jesus Audrey Assad, using the tune Bunessan the love of Jesus
Even Unto Death Audrey Assad The love of Jesus, praising God through suffering
New Every Morning Audrey Assad Salvation story, the love of God
Abide With Me Matt Maher/Matt Redman abiding in God through suffering, Gethsemane
Abide With Me Audrey Assad finding strength in God
Song Artist Themes
King of My Soul Matt Redman gathering, up-tempo praise
Your Grace Finds Me Matt Redman general praise, suffering, celebration, praising in everyday life
When We Call Upon Your Name Scott Cunningham Band seeking God, finding grace is him
The Cross Has Said It All Matt Redman the Cross, Communion
Come As You Are David Crowder healing, redemption, God’s presence in suffering
Come and Listen David Crowder call to worship
In the Silence of the Beginning Chris Juby atonement, the Lamb of God, worship, Biblical narrative,
Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery Matt Papa Christology
Your Joy Josh Fox Identity in Christ, the love of God,
They That Wait Kevin Prosch waiting on God, receiving strength
Not to Us Chris Tomlin giving glory to God
Damascus Road Rich Mullins God finding us, conversion
Nothing is Beyond You Rich Mullins Psalm 139, the greatness of God and God knowing us
Not in Me Eric Schumacher & David L. Ward righteousness in Christ/God
By Faith The Getty’s Hebrews 11, salvation history, having faith
A Prayer to the Trinity Peter’s Branch Trinity, meditative
Prayers of the People The Brilliance designed to be sung with the Prayers of the People
Because He Lives Matt Maher life/victory in Christ
Yahweh The Brilliance preparation, calling out to God for peace/change
In the Shadow of the Glorious Cross Sojourn the cross, doubt/Thomas,
How Good it Is Getts church unity, love amongst the body of Christ
Holy Spirit Gettys the work of the Holy Spirit
I Shall Not Want Audrey Assad resisting temptation, focusing on Christ, freedom from sin/fear
Spirit of the Living Audrey Assad  For the Holy Spirit to fall on us
Oh! Great is Our God The Sing Team the greatness of God, 
Come Ye Souls By Sin Afflicted Indelible Grace trusting in God’s grace, resting in Christ, repentance
The Lord Is My Shepherd Stuart Townend Psalm 23, trusting in God
Listen to the Words of the Risen Christ (Peace Be With You) Resound Worship Peace, trusting in God, risen Christ
There’s No One Like Our God Vineyard Worship God’s sovereignty, 
Swallowed Up Death Corem Deo Church victory of Christ over death, salvation
Sing, Sing Redeemed Corem Deo Church Christ the Redeemer, Holy Saturday
Jesus Christ Is Waiting John Bell, French Carol mission, going to the needy
Take Oh Take Me As I Am John Bell opening ourselves to God
How Long? Bifrost Arts Lament, asking God to act, move, human suffering
Rise Up Bifrost Arts Lament, asking God to act, move, human suffering
In Labor All Creation Groans Bifrost Arts Christ is our peace, human suffering
Within Our Darkest Night Taize Advent, God being with us in our darkness
My Worth is Not In What I Own Getty’s w/Feranando Ortega finding worth in the cross, trusting in God
Be Still My Soul Hymn (Finlandia) resting and waiting in God, peace in God
Living Waters Getty's finding life and refreshing in Christ, the Living Water
All Things Rise Vineyard Campbellsville Salvation history, new creation, 
O Come and Mourn With Me a While Hymn/Green Carpet Players The Death of Christ
Recent Articles on Worship Music:
The Golden Ages of Worship Music: Which One is Yours?
Worship Music's "Good Old Days": Featuring Vineyard Music, Delirious?, Revival Generation, and Darrell Evans.
Chasing the Ghosts of Worship Past—a worship leader's lament

Past Articles in the "Worship in Full Spectrum" Series
Will it Endure? The Search For a Canon of Contemporary Worship Music
I Don't Care If the Church Will Sing It In 2065
Worship in Full Spectrum: An Introduction
Hymnals = Vinyl: The Case For and Against Hymnals in Worship 

Confession: I Am An Irrelevant Worship Pastor
Worship Music Should Be Radically Contemporary

1 comment:

J. Chase said...

This is near and dear to my heart. Although I know there are undoubtedly hundreds of other worship music leaders across the nation (and the planet) who could say the same. Yet for me, it speaks to where I recently was and where I am now. After more than 20 years as a vibrant, in-the-community body of believers, our Anglican church closed its doors for good in late August last year. I had been minister of music for the last nine, joining them when the process of walking away from TEC was underway. I had spent about the last four or five years of that time becoming more and more deliberate about the music I chose, which meant spending a lot of time listening to every nook and cranny of the worship-music world.

Along the way I discovered some gems, like Overwhelm Me from Corey Voss and company at Centric Worship (which led me to discover Lauren Daigle before her first album release), The King is Among Us from Elevation, Holy Unafraid from Tim Timmons, Come Sweet Presence from Joseph Zwanziger and Stuart Garrard, Isaiah 55 (Nothing You Can't Do) from Katie Gustafson, Bless the Lord from Paulette Wooten... I could go on. So searching out music that spoke to our journey as a church and encouraged and challenged us to follow after God even harder became a part of my life--in the midst of working full-time, pursuing a bachelors degree part-time, and being a father to eight children 24/7. Then it all came to a stop. (Silence may be kept)

We have since fallen into a local church with no denominational affiliation (though loosely Baptist) planted by the former youth minister from the Anglican church. No matter sacred or secular, when you've been swimming in a particular stream of thought and vision, it's difficult to try to swim in another where the thoughts, visions, and focus is different--not wrong, just different. I've tried to be a part of the musical direction here but have found resistance. Still, I am someone who approaches situations where there is friction as a chance to be shaped, sharpened. Not everything that brings friction is on the whole wrong and in need of rejection. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle. I did some things great, but had room for improvement elsewhere. The same is true where we are now. We are trying to not focus on the friction, but seek God on how he wants to continue to form and shape us through this experience.

The point of this ramble is that I miss that energy I had found in pursuing the best of the best. I still poke around, and I intend to listen to every one of these songs you've listed here. But to extend your parable, for me now, it would be like searching the world for the best art just so that you can hang it in your bathroom. But still I search, because there will never be enough words to describe and give honor to our God. (thinking...) There's so much more to this story, like how my involvement with David's Tent (davidstentdc.org) has shaped me, and us beginning to host a "worship night" in our home on a monthly basis...

Bottom line, thank you for your efforts here, and I look forward to walking in your footsteps on this musical journey.