Andrea C. Hunter on Contemporary Songwriters and Scholars
You might think of scholars as looking back and contemporary Christian songwriters as looking forward. Songwriter Andrea C. Hunter says that scholars can help remind musicians and congregations of what to aim for in worship. Scholars also mine treasures from Christian traditions in many eras and places.
Andrea C. Hunter is a songwriter, director, producer, writer, and editor in San Juan Capistrano, California. She runs Recon Records, a worship and prayer label, and has dozens of CCLI credits. Hunter has worked in the recording industry, academia, and at Worship Leader magazine. In this edited conversation, Hunter talks about fruitful collaborations between songwriters and scholars of contemporary worship music.
Why do Christians and congregations often have such strong feelings for or against contemporary worship music?
Christian music reflects the passions of God’s people across nations, denominations, and centuries. Music intersects with the human mind, spirit, emotions and body in ways that form deep attachments. Contemporary expressions through the centuries often meet with resistance and sometimes downright hostility. Even revered and treasured classics like Handel’s Messiah were thought to be too worldly and theatrical when debuted. I believe we haven’t yet learned the message of Maundy Thursday as it pertains to worship, serving God and each other.
I’m a proponent of releasing the poets and bringing on new music—but also of continuing the conversation around it from the seminary, pastors, leaders, congregational members, and creators. British theologian N.T. Wright writes that new Bible translations of unchanging truth are necessary for new generations. I love how theologian Marva Dawn unpacks the biblical commands to write “a new song.” Yet in her book How Shall We Worship: Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars, she questions the idea that only “‘contemporary’ music—particularly that which matches the styles of the culture around us—should be used for worship.”
What kinds of Christian music resonate with you?
Generally, music that has a sense of narrative. My slogan is “all God’s music for all God’s people.” Read Psalm 150. Bring on the hymns, odes, folk, rock, classical, semi-classical, jazz, hip-hop, Americana, salsa, Chaabi, and Native American drum circles. Bring on all the instruments and percussion and vocal styles, not just for diversity’s sake—but because all these reflect the beauty of God’s people in worship and form them in God’s image. My millennial godchildren and ones I have adopted have a sophisticated embrace of many kinds of music, deep and wide. They are not scared off by intricacy or vocabulary.
What streams of contemporary Christian music do you find especially nourishing?
I see a trend where new writers are committing to go deep in their writing. They feel the responsibility that writing songs carries with it, so they see themselves as teachers. As James wrote, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NIV).
How can scholars contribute to the songwriting process?
Scholars can demilitarize worship and create a place of peace for all people and generations within church communities. They can give context and perspective and call us to think biblically in a “truer,” un-sanitized way. They can speak with wisdom and eloquence about distortions that have crept into worship. They can forecast prophetically an old-yet-new and better way. They can call us to repentance.
For example, Lester Ruth, a historian of Christian worship, analyzed Top 25 song lists from CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) from 1989 to 2004. He noted how few contemporary worship songs “worship the Trinity as a whole, the Holy Spirit, or the Father.” Instead they mainly “directed worship to Jesus Christ alone,” which meant they failed to form worshipers “in a faith true to the New Testament.”
Lester Ruth’s research on the lack of trinitarian songs has had an impact. In my early days, there were a lot of songs and choruses sung to the Father, such as “Heavenly Father, I Appreciate You” and “Father, I Adore You.” Now there are Jesus and Spirit songs mainly, but “Good, Good Father” has perhaps initiated a trend back to acknowledging God the Father, and the Trinity is present in new song once again.
Can you give a personal example of how you’ve seen scholars influence songwriters?
I attended a 2018 Christmas songwriting retreat hosted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The scholars there set a tone in their teaching and devotions that pervaded the whole week. They embodied and incarnated the welcoming kindness and creativity of God.
That retreat was a foretaste of heaven. I have never been in an environment where there was such graciousness all around, such perfect love and acceptance. It wasn’t because we were all alike, because we weren’t in terms of faith traditions, political perspective, ethnic background, age, and experience. But everyone was “for” everyone else. There wasn’t an ounce of competition or comparison, just excited anticipation and delight at each night’s song reveal.
What’s your favorite story about a song that resulted from scholar-songwriter collaboration at that Christmas songwriting retreat?
David Taylor shared fresh considerations about worship and gospel texts around Jesus’ incarnation, helping us see the narrative and characters anew. Lester Ruth described devices that Charles Wesley used in songwriting, such as paradox, irony, and juxtaposition of heaven and earth. Josh Lavender picked a few lines out of what Lester had furnished, and, when he shared the beginnings with Lester and me, we were hooked.
The three of us wrote “What Glory!,” a song that counters what the world generally values at Christmas and more accurately reflects the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. It focuses on God more than us:
. . . Oh, the strength of the meek:
GOD, the Word, could not speak,
Willingly joining the poor and weak.
GOD, fix my eyes
On the Master who lies in a manger;
. . . A manger will bury my pride.
GOD, let me be
Like the Savior I see in a stable,
. . . A stable will satisfy me.
What else can result from scholar-songwriter collaborations?
I think good theologians can safeguard the gospel in song. So many songs say, “Jesus, you’re all I need.” I’ve written some myself and recognize the passion and adoration that overflow into song. But that individualistic thinking is a possible graveyard for Christians who do not live out their faith in community. In the garden, Adam was with God, but God was not all Adam needed. God in fact said that in the context of their relationship it was “not good that the man should be alone,” and so God created Eve. It’s true that God supplies all of our needs according to God’s riches in glory. Yet you need to balance “Jesus, you’re all I need” with other songs about the family of God.
Scholars can point to powerful devices used by prior generations to frame the word of God in song. They can be part of “releasing the poets” in churches. Their research can remind us of what we are aiming for in worship and of what we already have in our treasure chest.
Listen to “What Glory!” by Josh Lavender, Andrea C. Hunter, and Lester Ruth. It’s part of a three-song Christmas EP meant, as Lavender says, to be an “avenue for God to form the humility of Jesus in his people.” Read Lester Ruth’s analysis of trinitarian content in CCLI songs. His research struck a chord with pastors and musicians such as Bruce Benedict, Glenn Packiam, and W. David O. Taylor.