NASHVILLE — Singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken is highlighting the importance of sound doctrine in worship music and urging the Church to focus less on emotionalism and more on community in today’s individualistic, scripturally illiterate society.
“One of the challenges in general culturally is the connection between entertainment and church music,” McCracken told The Christian Post during a sit-down interview in Tennessee last month. “When you come to church, there’s a sense that you are there to be entertained. The music is so professional: A big, tall stage, separated from everyone else and very disconnected. I think that can be detrimental to the experience of formation in the church.
“The human experience of living life together and being across the table and having conversations — that is the place where we can really ground and connect most profoundly,” she continued. “I think people are pretty lonely and pretty isolated and music is a way of bringing us together. Being in a room with people singing one song together is a powerful experience. It’s counter-cultural in a way; other than a rock concert, where else do we do that?"
Health and maturity in the Church, McCracken said, would be to “take the emotionalism down a notch and elevate the dailiness of living life together” when it comes to music.
“That sense of community can come through singing in a living room, or in a Sunday school class, or on a Wednesday night or whatever that looks like,” she said. “I think a big part of it is allowing music to be integrated and personal in community life.”
Scripture, she said, reveals the importance of congregational singing. She pointed out that throughout the Psalms, the singular "I" and the plural "we" are “almost interchangeable” and frequently used just several stanzas apart.
“The Psalms constantly go from the personal to communal,” she said. “I think that’s commendable and even a good thing to explore. I think maybe the job of creative worship leaders is to be able to curate those old hymns in a way that is both applying them to the specific community and drawing from what's already been written and pulling that back in.”
McCracken is one of the most prolific modern-day hymn-writers today: She’s behind a slew of well-known songs, including, “We Will Feast In The House Of Zion,” “God’s Highway” and “Thy Mercy My God.” The Nashville-based musician has also had songs recorded by All Sons And Daughters, ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Audrey Assad, A Rocha Compilation, Bifrost Arts, and Caedmon’s Call.
“I want to write songs that people can sing together, and in a more natural way,” McCracken said. “I’ve been in communities where they spontaneously sing; around tables, or at the end of the day. Those little moments are so sacred. I would love for our big church gatherings to look more like that, where it’s rooted in life and doing life together rather than focusing on a big performance that’s really slick or a televised, cleaned-up version.”
The mother-of-three was among a number of worship leaders, songwriters, and pastors featured at “Sing!,” a three-day worship conference led by modern Christian composers Keith and Kristyn Getty. The event, this year held in Nashville, is part of the Getty’s five-year initiative and learning journey to help pastors, musicians and leaders build a Biblical understanding and creative vision for congregational singing in their churches.
McCracken, who currently leads worship at a Nashville-based church, also discussed the importance of sound doctrine in worship music. It can be “dangerous,” she said, when songs are self-focused rather than actually praising God or acknowledging His characteristics.
“There can be a lot of emphasis on how we feel in the songs, and we don’t even notice it because we sing it week in and week out,” she said. “You don’t realize you're being more shaped by emphasizing what you feel rather than who God is. And I think that can be dangerous.”
To ensure her own lyrics are Scripturally sound, McCracken said she seeks the advice and insight of older, more seasoned Christians — but added her own spiritual formation, although an ongoing process, began in the years prior to her professional music career.
“I had theological training, like learning Scripture, as a young kid,” she said. “A lot of people don't have that influence; people are just not as biblically literate as the generation before. When you're soaked in the Word and have a steady diet of Scripture, the Holy Spirit prompts those things and brings those things up and calls them to mind. So for me, Christian formation went before writing.”
“Some people who are writing music today are probably more pop music literate and less scripture literate,” McCracken said. “While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are limitations to that.”
The songwriter, who focused on lament in her previous album, Songs from the Valley, said she hopes that in the future worship songs will highlight attributes of God not commonly presented in music, like hospitality and righteousness.
“When we gather for worship, that is God is inviting us into it. He’s already waiting and inviting us in. I’d like to meditate more on that, as well as a sense of His presence,” she said. “I think I notice His presence more when I can sit in silence. In that practice, I think I've really learned a lot more about who He is. It’s different than just learning things; it’s spending time with God. That's the most important thing I can do.”
McCracken told CP she believes God has called her to write worship music — and prays her Scripture-inspired songs will invoke a sense of His presence, in whatever setting they are sung.
“We’re all wired a certain way, and I do believe I was made to do this,” she said. “Sometimes all of life feels a little chaotic, but if I'm sitting at the piano, it's like, this all just kind of makes sense for a few minutes. It feels like a combination of prayer and putting something beautiful out into the room and receiving something from the Holy Spirit. That kind of that exchange is something that I enjoy. It’s truly an amazing sensation.”
Find more about Sandra McCracken at Sandramccracken.com