song review

O Come to the Altar by Elevation Worship - Song Review, Meaning, and Worship Leading Tips

I grew up in a small Pentecostal church in Northern Vermont. It was the church where I discovered my passion for worship ministry. I love the vitality and energy of the charismatic tradition. When I was young, the charismatic church and its style of worship were all I knew. I did not know that not all churches value extended worship sets, raising hands, clapping, and altar calls. Elevation Church is one of a handful of charismatic mega-churches that has been producing solid worship songs for any church to use on Sunday. In early 2016 they released the album, Here as in Heaven. One of the most popular songs on that album is O Come to the Altar written by Chris Brown, Mack Brock, Steven Furtick, and Wade Joye. Since the album’s release, O Come to the Altar has made it to the top 10 most popular songs on CCLI Song Select. Many churches across the globe are singing it right now. This song is both singable and powerful for any congregation.

The following is a review of the song from both a musical and theological standpoint. You’ll learn some practical tips for arranging the song for congregational singing and understanding the song meaning.

The Music

O Come to the Altar is a ballad in 6/8. I don’t know what it is about 6/8 ballads. For some reason, they have a high emotional impact. Another popular but older song that is a 6/8 ballad is How He Loves by John Mark MacMillan or Come as You Are by David Crowder. The range of the melody is small and stays under an octave. That makes it singable for just about anyone. The motifs in the song are also memorable and repetitive. There is nothing particularly challenging about the instrumentation in this song. It sounds great played acoustically or with a full band. If you’re new to leading worship, I would recommend having this song in your library. One of my favorite things about this song is the chord progression in the chorus. I love how it moves from the one chord to the two chord, then to the six chord. The two chord feels a bit surprising but it fits well and gives the song a distinct sound.

The Theology

As I mentioned above, I grew up in a charismatic church where altar calls were the norm. Personally, I can connect with the idea of coming forward to the altar as a sign of surrender and worship. In the Old Testament, the altar was the place where God’s people made sacrifices for their sin. It was a unique place where God interacted with humans. It’s where people would go to consecrate themselves to God. In other words, it’s where people would go to find forgiveness for their sin and devote their life to God. In the New Testament, Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice on the ultimate altar. As Christians, we do not need to make animal sacrifices anymore. Instead, we are to offer our lives as “living sacrifices” to God, as Paul says in Romans 12. We are “living” sacrifices because Christ has brought us from spiritual death to life. We are in right relationship with God. We are consecrated. We are set apart for his purpose. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were a prediction of what was to come in complete fulfillment in Christ.

So when you sing the lyrics of this song, know that the imagery of the “altar” has a lot of Biblical meaning behind it. The chorus is simple but packed with truth. When we sing, “O Come to the Altar,” we are not asking people to find a lamb to kill at the front of the church. It’s referring to the type of sacrifice Paul mentions in Romans 12:1. We want to make it a habit of laying down the ways of our old self at the altar so that we can embrace a new life in Christ.

Worship Leading Tips

I would recommend leading this song in the key of F or G if you are a male vocalist and D or E if you are a female vocalist. On the album, they play it in B. In my opinion, it is an awkward key for your average small to mid-sized congregation. If I were leading, I would play it in the key of F and capo the 5th fret and play in the key of C.

This song works great as an invitation for response to a sermon or call to salvation. Depending on your church’s style and traditions, you could even invite people to come to the front of the stage as a tangible expression of coming to the altar. You could have church leaders available to pray over them. Using the brief theological explanation above saying something like, “In the bible, the altar was a place where people came before God and sought to be made holy for His purposes. Back then they sacrificed animals to experience communion with God. Since Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice on the altar of the cross, we can come before God without needing to make animal sacrifices. Instead, we surrender our own lives to God so that we can be living sacrifices. That’s what this song is about. I want to invite you to embrace God’s transformative love for you through Christ.  You are made holy and accepted by God because of Jesus' blood.”

If you found this review and these tips helpful hit that like button and share it with your worship leading friends! I’d love to hear your feedback on this song. Are you singing it in your church? How has your congregation received it? What do you like or do not like about the song?

Shadow Step by Hillsong United - Worship Song Review and Tips for Leading

If you are like me, you are a huge Hillsong United fan. I began listening to them back in 2007 when I was discovering a passion for worship leading in high school. “Hosanna,” “Break Free,” and “Lead Me to the Cross,” were some of the first songs I learned how to lead worship. Ten years later, they are still writing amazing worship songs for the church. I especially love their willingness to push the boundaries of what is considered “worship music.” I was excited when they released their new album “Wonder” a few weeks ago. While I do not know the album super well, I have had some time to listen to it and begin discerning which songs would be a good fit for my church. The song that has jumped out to me is “Shadow Step” written by Joel Houston and Michael Guy Chislett. Here is a brief review of the song. I’ll unpack it both musically and theologically. I hope it helps you in discerning whether or not it will be a good fit for your church.

The Music

“Shadow Step” is very singable. Lately, a significant portion of Hillsong United’s music is not ideal for congregational singing. The arrangements and melodies are a bit more complicated than I would prefer for leading the local church on Sunday morning. But that is not to discredit their approach to songwriting. As I mentioned above, I love how Hillsong is pushing the stylistic boundaries of worship music. With that comes the downside of not everything being ideal for congregational singing. However, there are some songs, such as “Shadow Step,” that I think are very singable. The melodic range is small, and the melody is simple to follow.

I would recommend playing this song in the recorded key of E or maybe dropping it to the key of D. When songs are led by a female like Taya Smith, I think it is unnecessary to change the key since men can comfortably sing an octave lower. If you are a male leading this song, I recommend keeping it in the key of E. Sure, you will not be able to show off your beautiful tenor voice, but more people will be able to sing along.

The Theology

The message of this song is simple. It’s a prayer asking God to help us follow in his steps. The imagery of “shadow step” means walking so close to God that we are walking in the shadow of his steps. At least I think that is what it means. The song also emphasizes the fact that we do not always know where God is going to take us. “Fix my eyes on the unexpected.” Having faith in God means we follow Him no matter how unexpected the path may seem. I love the bridge of the song. We cannot explain the ways of God and the paths he leads us on, but no matter what we know he leads us out of grace and love because of what he showed us on the cross.

Scripture references that support the message of this song include Psalm 119:129-133, Proverbs 16:9, and Romans 11:33.

I think this song fits great toward the end of a worship set. It could function well as a song of response to the sermon or a song of sending. Introducing it to my congregation, I would say something like the following.

We’re going to sing this new song together. It’s a prayer about our need to follow closely in God’s footsteps. So close that we are walking in the shadow of his steps. We often do not know where God is taking us, but that’s what faith is about. He often leads us in unexpected places, but we can be sure that his purpose for our lives is filled with grace and love.

Here are some worship planning resources for this song. Let me know if this information was helpful for your worship planning and leave suggestions for future song reviews in the comments!


Why the song "What a Beautiful Name" by Hillsong Worship is so popular right now

Last summer my wife and I attended Hillsong Conference in New York City. Along with hearing some amazing talks on church leadership, participating in the conference gave us a sneak peak at Hillsong Worship’s latest album. I remember the first time they led us with the song “What a Beautiful Name” and how it was an instant favorite. Since then the song was released as the single from their new album “Let There Be Light” and has rapidly grown in popularity. According to CCLI it is the number one song currently being sung by churches in early 2017. In this article, I want to dissect this song to better understand why so many churches love singing it. By analyzing this song and how it was written, you’ll discover three ingredients that make up a great worship song. This will further equip you as you search for other new worship songs and determine whether or not they will be a good fit for your congregation.

#1 - This song is singable

The first reason this song is so popular is that it is singable. If your church is not engaging with a song, it is probably because that song is too difficult to sing. Here are a few factors that determine whether or not a song is singable.

First, a song is singable if the vocal part has a small vocal range so that anyone can comfortably sing it in the right key. By vocal range, I mean the distance between the highest and lowest notes of the melody. For congregational singing, you want to have the smallest range possible, generally not much more than an octave. An example of a song with a large vocal range is “Let it Go” from Disney’s “Frozen.” The melody of that song spans nearly three octaves. A large vocal range does not mean it is a bad song. It’s just not a song you want to have hundreds or thousands of people sing at the same time.

An example of a song with a small vocal range is “Take me out to the ballgame.” It’s the song that everyone sings during the 7th inning stretch at baseball games. The reason it’s a great song for that context is that its vocal range stays almost within an octave. That makes it easy for everyone to sing.

Now let’s take a look at the vocal range of “What a Beautiful Name.” Just like “Take me out to the ballgame,” this song has a range only one note over an octave, making it easy for everyone to sing because they do not need to strain their voice reaching high or low notes. Let’s compare that to another Hillsong song on the same album. The song “Behold” has a much larger vocal range at almost two octaves. The verses are super low, and the chorus reaches up to a F#. While I love this song, I do not think it would work well for most congregations, because most people would give up on trying to sing the melody.

The second factor that determines whether a song is singable is the key. Unlike the range of a song, the key can be changed. “What a Beautiful Name” is one of those rare worship songs that was written and produced in a key that is comfortable for most people. Although it is female-led, even guys can sing it comfortably. It may be a little low for you Chris Tomlin tenors, or should I say altos, but I would recommend keeping this song in D as it is the optimal key for both men and women.

The final factor that impacts whether or not a song is singable is the memorability and predictability of the song’s motifs and sequences. In music, a motif is a short melody, usually consisting of two or three notes, that when linked together form a sequence. Let’s look at the chorus of “What a Beautiful Name.” The motifs and sequences are simple. This makes the melody easy to memorize and easy to sing for the congregation. You’ll find more simple motifs and sequences all throughout the song. If you’re looking for a new song to introduce to your congregation, they will have no trouble learning this one.

As you can see, “What a Beautiful Name” is an incredibly singable song. It has a small range, it’s in an optimal key, and it has an easy to learn and memorable melody.

#2 - This song has good theology

The second reason this is such a popular song is because of its great theology. Unfortunately, I cannot always say this about popular worship songs. So whether or not worship leaders have chosen this song due to its theology or how singable it is as we’ve discussed, I think this song is an excellent example of modern worship songwriting done right.

A quick side note, a lot of folks think for a song to be theologically sound it has to be in a hymn book or a modern hymn written by the Getty’s or Sovereign Grace music. I love old hymns, and I love what modern hymn writers are doing. But to bash the songwriting of churches like Hillsong, Elevation, and Bethel? That’s ridiculous. Some of Hillsong’s music has way more theological depth than the most sacred of old hymns. I would even argue that writers like Joel Houston and Jason Ingram are modern day Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley. That could be a topic for a whole other article.

All of that to say, modern worship songs with great theology do exist, and I think “What a Beautiful Name” is an excellent example of this. This song is rich in both theology and direct references to Scripture. The first verse, pulls themes from John 1 and Colossians 1, referring to the pre-existence of the Son, and his role in creation. Verse 2 touches on themes of our sinfulness and the resulting reconciliation in Christ. The bridge, which is my favorite part of the song, speaks to the victory of the resurrection. All of the choruses, pulling from Philippians 2:9-11, speak of how beautiful, wonderful, and powerful the name of Jesus is. I love how many different facets of the gospel this song covers in such a powerful way. This is the type of theology you want your congregation to be singing on Sunday.

#3 - This song is gender-balanced

Finally, the third reason why this song is so popular is that it’s a song both guys and girls love to sing. It’s what I call gender-balanced. I don’t know if that’s even the right phraseology, but I think it works.  I never considered this to be criteria for a worship song until I read the book, “Why Men Hate Going to Church” by David Murrow. In it he unpacks various reasons why men do not like attending church. One of those reasons is that a lot of worship music being written today is extremely feminine, and uses romantic references to God. For example, “Real Love” by Hillsong Young and Free, is one of my favorite songs because of the bass drops, synths, and the way it makes me want to dance. When I look at the lyrics, sometimes I think the songwriter wrote this for his girlfriend, they broke up with her, and rather than throwing away the song, he just threw the line, “Jesus, I’m found in your freedom,” and said, “Hey look! It’s a worship song!” That’s probably not what happened, but I say all of that because songs like that feel weird to sing if you’re a dude. Men enjoy songs like “Lion and Lamb” and “What a Beautiful Name," because they are more triumphal and victorious. I cannot speak for all men, but I know that most of them like to sing about the fact that our God can beat up anybody and has the ultimate cosmic street cred. Songs with lyrics about “Jesus my lover and boyfriend” can often be weird for men to sing. Despite having a somewhat feminine title, “What a beautiful name” has a victorious, anthem-like feel, especially in the bridge and last chorus. That is why I think this song is gender balanced.

I hope this analysis of the song “What a beautiful name” helped you reflect upon the reasons we sing the type of songs we do in worship, and why songs like this one should be a part of your worship band’s song library. Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there any other new songs right now that you feel are singable, have sound theology, and are gender balanced? Let me know in the comments.

"What a beautiful Name" Song Resources