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Text Comparison: It Is Well

Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Reworking hymns and music of the past

Church musicians have always used, referenced, altered, and/or been inspired by Christian artists of the past. Our current age is no different, and so a common thread in some very popular contemporary…”praise and worship”…CWM…CCM (what do YOU call it!?) songs reference some of the great hymns of the past. One popular example of this in our current song repertoire is the added refrain to “Amazing Grace” which starts with “My Chains Are Gone.” The added refrain is written by Louie Giglio (of the Passion Movement) and Chris Tomlin (probably the reason you know this song). Another well-known example of this type of congregational song is “It Is Well” by Kristene DiMarco, which is the subject of today’s blog.

These types of songs always fascinate me. I end up asking why they felt the need to add or change the hymn. An age-old question asked of every hymnal editor since the beginning of time…How does what they added, subtracted, or altered change the meaning of the hymn? Let’s look at these songs side-by-side to see what’s going on.

Here is the hymn written by Horatio Gates Spafford (1873) and found in over four-hundred hymnals so far. The video below is a lovely TTBB arrangement.


Here is the new version of the hymn that heavily references the original but is certainly an original song written by Bethel’s Kristene Elizabeth Dimarco.

Text Comparison

When Peace Like A River (It Is Well)
Horatio Gates Spafford (1873)

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain

My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain

O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain


It Is Well
(as performed with Kristene DiMarco)

Grander earth has quaked before
Moved by the sound of His voice
Seas that are shaken and stirred
Can be calmed and broken for my regard
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well with me
Far be it for me to not believe
Even when my eyes can’t see
And this mountain that’s in front of me
Will be thrown into the midst of the sea
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
It is well, it is well
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
So let go my soul and trust in Him
The waves and wind still know His name
The waves and wind still know His name
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
Through it all, through it all
It is well, Lord
Through it all, through it all
My eyes are on You
And it is well with me


Stanza One

The opening stanza of Spafford’s hymn uses two creation-based images to describe the ups and downs of life. This is immediately followed by “whatever my lot” which alludes to God’s providence and control over all things including one’s station in life. The end of stanza 1 and the refrain then give us the basic idea of always giving praise to God by trusting in God’s love and care. This is the powerful idea that is likely why the hymn continues to be known and loved today. DiMarco’s first four lines double-down on that same idea that God is 100% in control and can (does?) move any part of creation for the sake of a single person. The refrain, while slightly different in text, does not change the essential message of Spafford’s original.

So, after the opening stanzas and refrains, the two songs are tracking well together with no substantial theological changes.


Stanza Two

In stanza two, Spafford introduces the idea that Satan is the one who creates the trials and temptations (the “sorrows like sea billows”) which need to be overcome. Indeed, Spafford goes so far as to say that we are helpless in the face of Satan’s trials and temptations. But, it is through Christ’s death that our souls are kept safe (For more on the “ransom atonement theory,” here’s a simple handout from a class at Notre Dame University). And so it is in stanza two that Christ’s saving acts are brought into play.

DiMarco’s text does not move on from stanza one, but rather moves into the responsibility of the believer. “Far be it for me to not believe | Even when my eyes can’t see | And this mountain that’s in front of me | Will be thrown into the midst of the sea” seems to be pulling ideas from John 20:29 (the story of Thomas not believing in Christ’s resurrection and Jesus responding with “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” ) and Matthew 17:20-21 (where Jesus says, “I assure you that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Go from here to there,’ and it will go. There will be nothing that you can’t do.”).

So it is at stanza two that we have a departure. DiMarco moves into the importance and power of the individual’s faith while Spafford moves to the power of Christ’s salvation over the works and power of Satan. Neither of these are wrong, but they are certainly different.


Stanza Three

In stanza three Spafford doubles down on the importance of Christ’s crucifixion with “my sin…is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more” and follows it with words of praise. The focus of the text remains the work of Christ and not the work of the individual.

DiMarco’s text continues to focus on the faith of the individual by entreating the singer’s soul to “let go” and “trust in Him…The waves and wind still know His name” multiple times. This desperate plea seems to have resonances with the story in Mark 9 where the father of a demon-possessed child is told by Jesus “All things are possible for the one who has faith” to which the father cries back “I have faith; help my lack of faith!”. There’s a noticeable difference, though, in that DiMarco’s text placing the responsibility of belief on only the singer while the Gospel of Mark seems to be acknowledging the complexities of faith when we do believe…but we still need help from God to fully believe.


Stanza Four

Spafford concludes the hymn as many great hymns do, with an eye towards the coming kingdom of God. This eschatological turn using images from the Book of Revelation reminds the singer that the struggle between Satan and God, the persistence of evil and pain and suffering are not the end of the story. The final stanza ends with an acknowledgement that even though we live in a time when evil and pain and suffering do still exist, “even so, it is well with my soul.”

DiMarco does not provide a fourth stanza but rather moves into a repetition of “It is well with my soul” as somewhat of a mantra. Those familiar with meditation or the power of cyclical song forms such as those from Taize or parts of Sub-Saharan Africa understand the power that the repetition of a single phrase can have. As is common in many songs in the CWM/CCM/Praise&Worship genre, the emphasis of the song is to experience God through the making of music together rather than by the attempted explanation of God through words.



While the two songs share a common refrain, the trajectory of the texts and the ultimate purpose of the songs are different. Spafford’s text places the majority of the agency on the salvific works of Christ with an eschatological hopefulness. DiMarco’s text is an statement of God’s power followed by a mantra designed for the singer to manifest a belief in that powerful God. With that conclusion, my recommendation is this: do not replace one song for the other! Spafford’s hymn is a powerful text that keeps us focused on the work of Christ that was done, is still being accomplished, and will ultimately be completed. DiMarco’s song provides a powerful opportunity to sing our faith into being. If I had it my way, I’d use DiMarco’s song near the beginning of the service and use Spafford’s hymn for a sending song. If I had to choose one or the other, I’ll stick with Spafford’s consistent focus on Christ.


Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.


In a very thoughtful and collegial Facebook Group I’m a part of, a member asked this question:

Contemporary congregational song: who would you say is doing stuff that if fresh, original, breaks the mould maybe, different from the rest, and good for congregational song?

Here’s the list of recommendations from folks in that group in the order they appear.

Porter’s Gate


Common Hymnal


Wendell Kimbrough


Civic Club


City Alight


Caroline Cobb Smith




Ghost Ship


Sojourn Music


Poor Bishop Hooper


St. Benedict’s Table


“The Heart of God” by Alana Levandoski


Rivers and Robots


“Come to Me” by David Baloche


“Our God Is All Over” by New Life Worship


I hope you found something new and useful for your worshiping community! Post your recommendations in the comments below.



Blogger Brian Hehn is the Director of The Center for Congregational Song.



The United Methodist (UMC) organization “Discipleship Ministries” has just released a project that has been years in the making. As a denomination (like many mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S.), the variety of worship practices, music accompaniment styles, and song selection in the United Methodist Church is all over the map. For many genres that work well in printed song collections, the curation of hymns and songs has been handled through the creation of hymnals and hymnal supplements (The United Methodist Hymnal 1989, The Faith We Sing 2001, and Worship & Song 2011). For songs and genres that do not work as well on the printed page or that have been left out of those collections, however, there has been little guidance on which songs and hymns are best suited for congregational song in United Methodist worship services.

This situation is not unique to United Methodists, but is a broader issue that the majority of denominations find themselves in today.



A few years ago, a group of UMC musicians and theologians set out to “vet” the CCLI-Top 100 List in order to give UMC pastors and worship leaders guidance on which of those songs are well suited for United Methodist worship. After creating a rubric tool (found here) to use on each song in the top-100 list, the group published the results of that vetting process here: 2017 CCLI Top 100 Commended List January 2018.



After the completion of this first step and identifying some striking representation omissions and theological gaps in the CCLI Top-100 list, a new group was formed to bring the vetting project to begin working on creating another list called the “CCLI Top 100+ Beyond” project. The group and its work are described on the project’s homepage as…

…a diverse team of eleven United Methodist and pan-Methodist pastors, theologians, and contemporary worship practitioners who not only evaluated the latest CCLI Top 100 songs, but supplemented this list by evaluating and recommending other contemporary worship songs that more accurately reflect the richness of our United Methodist connection. This vetting team represents the diversity of our denomination; each member has a strong facility with contemporary congregational song (including Contemporary Praise and Worship Music, Contemporary Gospel Music, Global Song, and other genres/forms of contemporary song).

The project results were just released (Monday, March 8th, 2021) and can be found as two resources:

The first is the recommended song list of 89 songs from a variety of sources. Each song includes a YouTube link to a performance, a “key Wesleyan theological emphasis” found in the song, the song’s perspective (Personal, Personal & Corporate, or Corporate), a paragraph description of the song’s context, and finally links to additional arrangements of the song.

Click To Download The Song List

The second is a 14-page PDF entitled “toolbox for worship leaders” that includes short entries from the project team on topics such as the “History of The Project,” “Making Your Song Choices Contextual,” “Cultural Competence In Song Adaptation,” and more. While the project and this resource’s audience is certainly leaders within the United Methodist Church, worship leaders from any denomination should read it. The recommendations, insights, and practical advice contained within these fourteen pages are an excellent guide to thinking theologically, practically, and critically about congregational song.

Click To Download The Toolbox PDF



This project is a great first step in helping to prayerfully, critically, and intentionally curate the church’s song that has largely been missing from printed publications over the past few decades. While I’m sure the results of the project will be scrutinized and criticized by many (hey, I’ve got my own thoughts on the list, but that’s not what this blog entry is about), the main point is this:

Discipleship Ministries has given us a viable model for how denominations and/or organizations can provide ongoing guidance to pastors, worship leaders, and church musicians on how to faithfully choose band-driven and electronically available congregational song. For the health of the church’s song repertoire and to enable disciples who are intentional in living out their faith, I believe it is now an imperative that the leaders of other denominations (and/or organizations that resource and support those denominations) follow suit with similar projects. I’m looking at you Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and more…




This episode is with ethnomusicologist and professor at Baylor University Monique Ingalls. Recorded at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship during their annual Worship Symposium, host Ben Brody once again hosts a lovely conversation that is both informative and challenging.


Season 2 – Episode 2

In this interview with Dr. Monique Ingalls, she shares her story about a home church that struggled with worship music style changes and her journey to becoming a ethnomusicologist focusing on modern worship music and congregational singing.



Listening time: 43 minutes


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Also available on: iHeartRadio


Blogger Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


Lots of Questions

As the director of The Center for Congregational Song, I’m often asked questions for which I don’t know the answer. There’s usually one of two reasons for me not knowing the answer. First, I’m only one person with limited knowledge and experience. The answer is out there and I just don’t know about it. One of the advantages of my position (and a benefit of serving an organization like The Hymn Society) is that when I don’t know an answer, I often know somebody who does! The other reason I might not know the answer to a question is that there isn’t a singular answer. Music ministry and congregational song is often so contextual and/or multifaceted that one person’s answer can be another person’s mistake. My simple hope for this series of columns entitled “Questions for the Director,” is that my answers will be helpful beyond the individual who originally asked.


The Question

Dear Center Director,

We are currently working on a hymnal for our denomination and we have noticed that the list of contributors for the CCM/Praise-and-Worship music we’ve selected is overwhelmingly by white males. Can you point us to songs written for praise bands and or in the style of Contemporary Worship Music that are written by women?


The Answer

Dear Friend,

I’m so glad you’ve reached out and am encouraged by your intentionality as you develop your new hymnal. Representation matters! I’ve reached out to friends and colleagues to crowd-source my response below. I hope you find it helpful. Each artist/band is given a simple 1 to 2-sentence description. If I’m aware of a particular song that I think is particularly good for congregational singing or representative of their style, I’ve linked to it as an example of each artist’s work. But don’t let the first example stop you from exploring the rest that each artist has to offer. I offer this list (in no particular order) as a conversation starter, not as a definitive list.


  1. Audrey Assad – “Your Peace Will Make Us One” is a new text for an old standard, flipping the original on its head to celebrate the peace that Christ brings. Audrey is a Syrian-American Roman Catholic sing-song writer.
  2. The Many – A folk ensemble focusing on inclusivity, “All Belong Here” is a great communion song. Also, “These Bodies” is a unique and important song.
  3. Darlene Zschech – One of Hillsong Church’s main song writers and worship leaders for many years, she has written and co-written a huge number of songs. Her most popular song is certainly “Shout to the Lord” from 1994.
  4. Lisa Gungor – 1 of the two “gungors” who made up the popular band. One of their breakout songs, “Beautiful Things” continues to be one of their most influential and singable.
  5. Laura Story – Best known for her song “Blessings” which showed up on more than just Christian Radio Stations. She has many other songs that have congregational possibilities.
  6. Amy Grant – Known for songs like “El Shaddai,” I think one of her most useful congregational songs is “Thy Word” which is flexible in its instrumentation and easily transposable into a singable key.
  7. CeCe Winans – A well-known gospel artist. Just google her to finds lots of songs.
  8. Sandra McCracken – A Nashville-based singer/song-writer whose recent work has focused on psalm-singing and congregationally friend songs. Check out “Trinity Song” and “All Ye Regufees.”
  9. Liz Vice – A Christian artist who focuses more on secular concert venues, some of her songs non-the-less carry over into congregational repertoire. A recent collaboration created “Away from the Manger,” which is stunning.
  10. Casey J – A well-known gospel artist best known for her song “Fill Me Up.” A simple chorus and call-and-response lends itself to congregational participation.
  11. Karin Simmons – Her setting of “out of the depths” utilizes a Chopin Nocturne as the accompaniment. It feels modern and ancient simultaneously.
  12. The McMakens – A husband/wife duo with a soft folky style. A good example of their work is “Rend Your Hearts.”
  13. Rachel Wilhelm – Her most recent album “Songs of Lament” is an important addition to the praise-band oriented repertoire.
  14. Geraldine Latty – A soft-rock ballad focusing on God’s compassion, the chorus of “Lord, You Hear the Cry” is super singable.
  15. Bernadette Farrell – Well-known and well-published in the Roman Catholic world (OCP page here). This British song-writer has some must-sing songs that aren’t strophic hymns but still feel natural for those who sing that style. Similar to Marty Haugen, David Haas, etc…
  16. Jenna Martin – A Nashville based singer/song-writer who isn’t easy to find but who has some lovely songs. The one recommended to me was her Christmas song “O Come, Be Born Again.”
  17. Leslie Jordan of All Sons and Daughters – A former group based in Nashville who came out with some wonderful hits that are both catchy and congregational-friendly. I particular enjoy “All the Poor and Powerless” for use with congregations.
  18. Lynn DeShazo – One of Integrity Hosanna’s early-generation song writers. A good singable chorus by her can be found in her song “Mercy.”
  19. Deanna Witkowski – A jazz artist who loves congregational singing and re-vamping hymns. She recently won The Hymn Society’s annual hymn search with her setting of Psalm 100 “We Belong to God.”
  20. Andra Moran – Some simple but beautiful songs in a soft country-western style, I think one of her most congregational song is surprisingly “Lullaby,” which could be included in a night prayer or benediction section of a hymnal. A playlist of her most popular songs is here.
  21. Sandra Montes – The Spanish-Language Consultant for the Episcopal Church, her song “todo lo puedo hacer” made quite a splash recently at one of their denomination’s annual gatherings.
  22. Danielle Rose – One of her best songs is “Touch Him,” which is a lovely setting of one of the Gospel narratives, though it would be tough with a congregation. The chorus of “Pursue Me” is very singable, however. So checking out her catalogue may be fruitful.
  23. Kiran Young Wimberly & The McGraths – Their collections of “Celtic Psalms” are traditional Irish tunes set to psalm texts. One of my personal favorites that works really well with congregations is “Sing to the Lord.”
  24. Sally Ann Morris – Published through GIA, her work floats between classic strophic hymn settings that would feel at home on the organ and driving songs with refrains that need a band to bring it to life. One of my favorite selections is “If Jesus Is Come” from the collection Stars Like Grace and is begging for an awesome band-driven arrangement.
  25. Mary the Mother of Jesus – The Psalms are great. New songs are great. But one of the most important and most sung songs of all-time was written by a woman. Make sure to include a setting of the Magnificat some time this year, and take that time to thank God for women poets, composers, and prophets!


The Context

Hillsong Worship, not to be confused with Hillsong United or Hillsong Young & Free, is a behemoth in the “industry” of music for Christian worship. Considered individually, each team of Hillsong’s writers has a slightly different generational or demographical focus, with Hillsong Worship being the more “adult” or cross-generational of the three. Each release by Hillsong Worship contains several singles that are given heavy Christian radio airplay, although it is just as often that a new song makes the rounds on social media via a viral video clip. Most of the songwriters on this album are longtime contributors to Hillsong such as Reuben Morgan, Brooke Ligertwood, and Joel Houston.


The Content

Though these songs are ostensibly written for the Church to sing, the live versions on this album are arena rock—driving drums, soaring guitars, pads and synths, and lots of reverb. The final four tracks on the album are “acoustic” arrangements that are a bit more accessible for the average church and volunteers who serve in music ministry. In both cases, the key for songs may need to be adjusted, as these songs are intended to be sung in prime unison. Even songs led by Brooke Ligertwood are pitched low for men singing split octave. Average song length on the record is more than five minutes, so several of the songs would also need to be rearranged with less ambient space and/or repetition. As is often the case with Hillsong’s pop songs, the anthems of the song are found in both the chorus and the bridge of the respective song, with a jump of an octave or a fifth guiding the dynamic changes. Singles that have already been well-received from this album include “Who You Say I Am” and “So Will I (100 Billion X).” The strongest songs on this album are the ones that provide opportunities to sing Scripture—“God So Loved” is a powerful setting of John 3:16, “The Lord’s Prayer” adapts just that, and “Remembrance” celebrates the benefits of the Supper.


The Conclusion

Each Hillsong release usually contains one or two songs that have strong enough melody/lyric resilience to survive the rearrangement that smaller or more local churches must conduct in order use the song in corporate singing. Although the theological distinctions of Hillsong Church peek through in certain lyrical turns, the songs are rooted in biblical concepts and often paraphrase the Scripture in ways that are adaptable to many languages and contexts. It remains to be seen which song(s) from this album may take hold in the global church.





Review provided by David Calvert, who is the Creative Arts Director for Grace Community Church in rural North Carolina and a PhD graduate in Theology and Worship from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.