On Writing Hymns: Stakes

Great hymns matter.

This is true in several senses of the word. But great hymn lyrics demonstrate that they matter by defining stakes.

Any good book on how to write a novel, or engaging nonfiction, will tell you that conflict is key. Every scene needs to resolve a conflict.

In real life, plenty of conversations involve people agreeing on every point and saying how much they love each other. Of course it’s realistic, the writing coach will tell you, but it doesn’t move your story forward. So your listeners won’t care. They’ll get distracted and stop reading.

This same principle applies in songwriting.

It doesn’t have to work quite the same way. It doesn’t have to involve conflict, though it can. After all, in Christian music, we have the ultimate bad guy in the history of the universe, Satan himself. And if that wasn’t enough, we also have the least-expected bad guy ever—us. More specifically, our sinful nature.

And we have the ultimate good guy, Jesus, who conquers Satan, captures His enemies, and makes us His friends.

Many of the greatest hymns draw their dramatic tension from an aspect of this ultimate conflict. But either way, they have stakes. Their lyric demonstrates why you should care.

As a child, I would sing the praise chorus

God is so good,
He’s so good to me.

I didn’t mind the song, but it seemed fairly obvious. Of course God is good! I’d grown up in a Christian home. I’d known that since infancy.

Songs like this can matter deeply to someone. But when this happens, it’s because the listener brings his own stakes. Perhaps he remembers a time in his life before salvation. He remembers what it’s like to taste that the Lord is gracious (I Peter 2:3). So he draws from his own external experiences to make the song matter.

For the greatest hymns, you don’t have to do that.

Compare that chorus with the song that showed me the power of lyric, Michael Card’s “Jubilee.” Its bridge says:

To be so completely guilty
Given over to despair
To look into your judge’s face
And see a Savior there

This song also communicates that God is good. But it doesn’t use those words. It shows you why.

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