Glenn Packiam on Songs that Bring Hope in Worship
What do contemporary Christians sing about when they sing about hope? Do they experience hope when they gather to sing in worship? If so, what sort of hope is it?
Glenn Packiam is an associate senior pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the lead pastor of its New Life Downtown congregation. As a signed songwriter with Integrity Music, he has written or cowritten more than sixty-five worship songs, including “Your Name” and “My Savior Lives.” He is an author and an ordained priest with the Anglican Church of North America. In this edited conversation, Packiam talks about his forthcoming book about how worship songs shape our views of what God is working toward.
What’s the thesis of your forthcoming book on encoded hope in contemporary worship songs?
I wanted to explore hope as it is expressed in contemporary worship songs and experienced in contemporary worship services. I discovered that the kind of hope expressed in songs worship leaders named as songs of hope were focused on the present tense, the proximate space, and the personal. Yet when evangelicals gather to worship, their experience of hope was consistent, available through variant means and modes, and resilient even after the services were over. There is something to the way the Holy Spirit works when the people of God are gathered that makes the impact of a worship service more than the sum of its liturgical parts.
I basically rewrote my doctoral dissertation, which contained original research for InterVarsity Press (Academic). It’s aimed at pastors and worship leaders. The book will be released in 2020.
What’s the quickest way to describe your research process for this book?
The research is a mix of quantitative and qualitative empirical methods. I’m still signed with Integrity Music as a songwriter, so they gave me access to their email list of 25,000 worship leaders. I got about a thousand responses. Among other things, I asked them to name a song they sing at church that brings them hope, and to name a worship song that brought them hope in a time of despair. I analyzed each song according to the way it locates the space, time, and agent of hope. For example, a song might encode “space” by speaking about the earth as a place we hope to soon leave, a place where God is acting, or a place that God will make new one day. There’s much more about how worship leaders themselves understand Christian hope and how that affects the songs they choose.
Then I did qualitative research—ethnographic work—at a Presbyterian church and a Pentecostal church. I engaged in “participant observation” of their services, conducted focus groups, and interviewed senior pastors, worship leaders, and other key leaders. Along the way, I asked people from both churches about songs that bring them hope. The songs they chose matched the features of the songs in the Presbyterian and Pentecostal-charismatic clusters in my Integrity Music survey.
How are you defining Christian hope?
In the book, I work through several models of hope. The non-theological models of hope draw on psychology and sociology, and the theological models draw from early Christian hope and two stalwart theologians of hope in the 20th century, Jurgen Moltmann and N. T. Wright. My summary of Christian hope is what I call creedal Christian hope and is based on statements in the Nicene Creed. The creed embodies apostolic faith and is built on New Testament phrases passed down through the early centuries. Thus it represents both Scripture and tradition.
Here’s my summary: Christian hope is a confident assurance, grounded in God’s promise and faithfulness as revealed in the Scriptures in general and Christ in particular, that the triune God will bring about the “resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come” at the time of Christ’s appearing. This will make heaven and earth new and one by means of what has already been accomplished at the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Which contemporary worship songs did people name most often as bringing hope?
People named 704 songs, including 319 songs named just once. Only twenty-six songs were mentioned five or more times. The most-chosen songs focus theologically on proximate space, present tense, and personal dimension. The Nicene Creed locates hope in bodily resurrection and a redeemed and renewed creation. However, the people I surveyed and interviewed talked about Christian hope more in terms of a disembodied existence in an otherworldly place or how God comes through for them at home or work.
What commonalities did you see among songs that people said brought hope in a time of despair?
Even though people named so many songs, their experiences were remarkably consistent. The Presbyterians felt hopeful and lifted up through musical worship that included silence, reverence, and candles. The Pentecostals felt hopeful and lifted up through energetic music and movement. For both groups, the experience of hope while singing was resilient in that people could describe how they could return in memory to those moments long after the fact.
Why might Christians prefer songs that focus on personal experience and going to heaven?
Christians in fairly affluent contexts seem to have very little use for an ultimate sense of hope because life here is pretty comfortable. Many worship songs are written from a position of relative affluence compared to songs that gave hope to US slaves or to early Christians who faced persecution. Life is working pretty well for the Christians in Nashville who write and record popular worship songs.
Yet God is very gracious and shows up in our services even when we don’t get it right. And even in affluent settings, people come to church navigating medical and marriage challenges. They experience hope in what they sing. This tells us something about the Spirit’s wildness and God’s kindness to work with where we are.
How did these hope-giving songs deepen worshipers’ understanding of what it means to be part of Christ’s body?
In interviews and focus groups, I pressed people on this question. I’d ask, “Hey, have you ever thought about other brothers and sisters in Christ who might need other kinds of songs?” Few had. Yet we all bring our own stories to church with us. And people can find different kinds of hope in the same song. People all over the world sing Chris Tomlin’s “How Great Is Our God.” Some might think while singing, “Yes, God is great, and I just got a pay raise.” Others might think, “Even though I’m going through terrible tragedy right now, I cling to the fact that God is still so great.”
In other words, the lyrics don’t make up the sum total of the message we bring to or get from a song. The Holy Spirit helps us make meaning of what we sing. Even when songs aren’t all that theologically robust, there’s often an X factor.
Does your forthcoming book raise any cautions about worship songs that bring people hope?
I hope to temper a bit of the criticism against contemporary worship music. At the same time, I suggest that people who choose music for worship should look for songs that tell a grander, more cosmic story about God’s work in our lives, the world, and the future. A couple hundred years ago, our hymns had more narrative and progression. They talked about conversion, our final stages of life and journey to heaven, and also the new creation, when God will complete the process of making all things new.
Can you give examples of newer songs that give a grander, more cosmic picture of hope in Christ? It’s okay to mention your own songs.
Examples include “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend and Reuben Morgan’s “Cornerstone,” which is a revisit of “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” Hillsong’s “This I Believe” does a great job with the Apostles’ Creed. It’s powerful because it mines ancient words.
The chorus in my “Mystery of Faith” is the memorial acclamation that so many churches use before communion: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” “Is He Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson and Jon Egan’s new album Unveil are other examples that go beyond the personal and the present dimensions.
What do you mean when you say that some songs make the gospel smaller?
I’m talking about songs where the verb tenses stay so heavily in the present. It’s not bad to use the present tense and singular pronouns to communicate God’s nearness. For example, “Good, Good Father” is all in the present tense, and it’s very popular. But church musicians and worship leaders need to balance such songs with songs that include the whole church, songs that look back to the cross and resurrection, welcome God’s work in the present, and look forward to what God will do for the whole cosmos. Hillsong’s “So Will I” and Chris Tomlin’s “I Will Rise” both convey the resurrection future described in 1 Corinthians 15.
What else can worship planners do to help worshipers experience what you call “a bigger salvation”?
If your worship and music simply zoom in on the cross without the narrative behind it, people may understand the gospel as a very small and distorted story: You broke rules, God’s mad, but Jesus paid the price. You need to zoom out for it to make sense. We need the whole kingdom narrative. Creation was made as a container of God’s glory, a temple. Humans were set within it to reflect and extend God’s rule downward and outward—and to carry creation’s praise upward. When the first humans failed, God called a people to do this work, but they too were unfaithful. Jesus came to complete the mission and to restore our vocation as imagebearers. Those in Christ can participate in God’s rule arriving on earth as it is in heaven by the way that we live and love those around us. One day, this will all be complete, and God’s reign will result in resurrection and new creation. That is good news!
Our songs can’t do the job of telling this whole story by themselves. Yes, songwriters can do better in giving a more cosmic picture of Christian hope. But so can preachers. And, as great liturgists have always done, you can plan a whole service order that builds in a narrative shape.
If churches are filling seats, why break the mold? Why go to the extra work of zooming out?
We need hope. We need the full story of the gospel for us to be captivated and motivated by the Good News. Is your worship pointing people forward, and, if so, what to? It should be to more than going to heaven when you die. The Nicene Creed calls us to “look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Consider that hope along with Revelation 7:9, where “every nation, tribe, people, and language” will worship at the throne. Now we have a vision of hope that can carry us through and compel us to mission here and now.
How can contemporary worship give a bigger vision of Christian hope and a sense of story about why that matters?
My entire final chapter deals with that. Also, remember that, because contemporary Christian music has become so commercialized, only a few artists can cut through and get distributed globally. That means the songs you need most might not be on the radio. But nothing should stop faithful songwriters from writing songs just for their congregational context.
While you’re waiting for Glenn Packiam’s book about hope in contemporary worship songs, read his Blessed, Broken, Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus. Packiam’s music career began when he was a teen in Malaysia.