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QUESTIONS FOR THE DIRECTOR: 25 Women Song-Writers You Should Know

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.

 

SPOTIFY PLAYLIST

ITUNES

 

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.