Have you ever enjoyed singing through three quarters of a new song, only to find one bar or phrase that jars badly? What a disappointment! If only this had been picked up on much earlier, and the writer encouraged to revisit it; it is a serious distraction from being able to engage in worship, and frustratingly could probably have been sorted out with just a little more care in the writing process. The whole team at Jubilate works extremely hard to ensure that this doesn't happen by filtering all new music through three distinct assessment groups.

Firstly the RESOUNDworship group (the contemporary songs branch of Jubilate) has practised this process right from its inception several years ago. All songs are scrutinized by theologians, as at Jubilate we are very aware that 'you believe what you sing', and that songwriters, whether they like it or not, are helping to shape theology in congregations where their music is sung.

Joel explains:

'At a RESOUNDworship "Songclub" everyone brings something - a half-formed idea, a melody, five-verses-and-a-chorus - whatever they've got. We play them and, crucially, we sing them together. Then we say what we think. We praise what is good and we point out the weaknesses that the original writer was too close to see. We suggest lyrical and melodic corrections and directions. We challenge theology and we test poetry. Sometimes we bin whole sections leaving only the barest bones. It can be hard to take, when you've brought along something you think is already pretty good, but we've pressed on and learnt to trust the group now. And then, in between meetings, we work on our songs and collaborate online.

On one occasion I took the following lyrics with me. The group loved the melody, and the theme of God's love, but encouraged me to press on into more substance. They also pointed out that the current opening line gave no clues as to the song's contents!

1. Life is a mist,
it appears and then vanishes,
but you stay the same,
a Father who lavishes
love that remains
when everything crumbles and falls apart.

2. Your love is strong,
it brightens my darkest days,
leading me on
and driving my fears away,
lifting my head,
filling my heart, giving hope to me.

Your love is better than life to me,
it's higher than the heavens,
deeper than the sea.
Your love stretches into eternity,
O God.

So I returned home and did a word study on 'love', looking up every reference to love and
compiling verses and phrases from my Bible that could be used to build more into the lyrics. I changed the opening lines of the verses to make the theme much plainer.

1. There is a love
that's better than life to me;
jealous and strong,
pursuing and claiming me;
seen in the Son,
in Jesus who rescued me;
this is love.

1. There is a love ... (as before)

This was well received, but there was so much more from my study that could be included. One member of the group suggested having three verses with a loose Trinitarian structure.

Each verse would make more concrete the expression of God's love in the persons of the Trinity - a sending Father, a sacrificial Son and a sustaining Spirit - without necessarily having to make it explicit. The chorus? Singable, but clichéd! After much work, the final two verses and chorus were added:

2. There is a love
that speaks of amazing grace,
stooping to serve
and taking the sinner's place,
humble in death
and suffering my disgrace;
this is love.

Oh your love is better than life to me,
heaven's highest treasure,
wonderful and free,
binding me to you for eternity,
your love.

3. There is a love
securing my destiny,
filling my heart,
to counsel and comfort me,
stilling my fears
and trading my pain for peace;
this is love.

As often happens during this process, I had to sacrifice a few lyrics that I had been really pleased with, in order to make the rest of the song work. And I had to listen humbly to my colleagues throughout. But I look now on a song that is immensely more substantial and inspiring, and I'm very glad that I did.'

Jubilate has two other assessment teams: the Text Advisory Group (TAG) meets to look at new hymn texts. A key part of TAG's approach is anonymity, as some of the texts are written by members of the assessment group. Texts are circulated and individual marks and comments are submitted in advance to provide a steer for meetings. The group will sometimes pore over one troublesome line for a while, resulting in more than one possible alternative that results in a better outcome in style or meaning. Martin Leckebusch, the Chairman, then negotiates with the original writer until an agreed outcome is reached. Only then will a piece be submitted to me to be included on our website.

This sounds good in theory, but how does it work in practice? Here is a text from Martin Leckebusch recently added to the Jubilate website:

Tell all the world: the Lord is King;
with newly-written songs declare
the awesome greatness of our God,
whose glory no-one else can share.

Proclaim his splendour round the world,
from mountain-top and desert sand;
and let the voice of praise be heard
from every town, in every land.

Relate, with joy, how God fulfilled
his promises from long ago;
then watch the future he unveils -
the Lord still has new plans to show!

How eagerly he smoothes the road
for precious saints, so long displaced,
as now he calls his people home
from years of hardship, pain and waste.

This is our God, who intervenes
to judge and save, to heal and guide;
this is our God, the glorious King
whose name is honoured far and wide.

© Martin E Leckebusch, admin. The Jubilate Group

It's a strong, stirring text with a suitably uplifting tune. But here's how the middle verses were first presented (anonymously) to the TAG team (first and last verses were unchanged as above):

From coast to coast lift high his name,
from mountain-top and desert sand;
proclaim his glory round the world
in every town, in every land.

He spoke across the centuries
to make an unknown future plain;
with what he promised now fulfilled
our God unveils his plans again.

For as a warrior he will come:
the Lord is ready for the fight!
The cause of justice he pursues
with holy zeal and sovereign might.

He comes to bring his people home -
those precious saints, so long displaced;
in eagerness to smooth their road
he even lays creation waste.

... a very different version. So how did it get from the original draft to the finished text? Martin takes up the story:

'This was quite an old text - first drafted in 1989 - but I'd never put it forward for publication. I suspect I had long known some amendments were needed; the TAG team heartily agreed. The first challenge was to the military imagery in the original. This is increasingly seen as unacceptable. Yes, there is a spiritual battle, but our use of language has to be careful and unambiguous; so, goodbye, verse 4. Ambiguity also emerged later, in the line about creation being "laid waste"; thankfully I was able to employ a stronger alternative phrase without having to rework the whole stanza round a different rhyme. The opening of verse 2 was judged too clichéd - I personally never felt that, but the author's view is not always the most objective - and some of verse 3 needed greater clarity. I was sorry to lose the concept of God speaking "across the centuries" but sometimes good ideas have to be sacrificed to benefit a whole text. I was pleased when our next meeting accepted these revised words; some texts have passed through half a dozen versions before obtaining full approval, which illustrates how painstaking (or awkward!) we are in searching for the best texts.'

Our Music Assessment Team (MAT) operates in a similar way. Sometimes we will suggest alternative harmonies, sometimes a change of melodic shape. There may be additions to consider, such as an instrument part or guitar chords to add. We are particularly keen that all new material is singable at a normal congregational range, and with rhythm that is not overly complex. Again, there is negotiation with the composer before a final version is agreed (or not).

Finally here are some wise words from the Jubilate website's 'Information for prospective writers', written by Martin Leckebusch:

Items to check

The following are worth consideration before considering a text 'complete':

  • Are the verses in the best order, presenting a steady progression through the text from start to end?
  • Are the first and last lines of each stanza, and especially of the hymn as a whole, clear and strong?
  • Does the text lift heart and mind heavenward and involve the singer in engaging with God, leading to a deeper understanding of the faith and a deeper commitment to discipleship?
  • Can the text be understood when read once at singing speed, or is it likely to cause confusion, whether from the content, from unnatural phrases or from stresses which are not obvious?
  • Does the text have conviction, consistency and integrity, or does it lapse into sermonizing, morbidity, parody or hollow triumphalism?
  • Is there any 'padding', or does every stanza, line and word carry its full weight and make a contribution to the whole?

Written by Roger Peach, with Joel Payne and Martin Leckebusch. This article was written for RSCM's CMQ magazine and is reproduced with their permission. No unauthorised copying; please contact roger@jubilate.co.uk if you wish to make copies.