Text and Tune: Rich Mullins (1955-1997)
For reasons of copyright I will not include the text, but click here on this link.
Although this is not my favorite contemporary worship song, it does need to be included here. Few songs were as well known in its time. The lyrics, repetition, somewhat in the character of a mantra—are a problem for many, but my issue is that too much of its weight is on the adjective awesome, not on a verb. Adjectives are not where the most important word should be--something most writers believe.
Written in 1988 by Mullins who had started a Christian contemporary band but had had little success, until this song on his third album, Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth, rose to the top of the Christian Contemporary charts and made him famous. His life is typical of many in the Christian contemporary music scene.
Mullins' mother had been a Quaker and he was influenced by the Friends and their emphasis on social justice. He and his family attended the Whitewater Christian Church in Indiana. When he was nine he saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and idolized John Lennon’s gifts as musician and text writer. He attended Cincinnati Bible College in the 1970s, and began a band, Zion, while serving as youth minister in the United Methodist Church in Erlangen, Indiana.
When he saw how the youth in his group responded to music, he decided to devote himself to Christian music full time. Amy Grant recorded one of his songs, “Sing your Praise to the Lord” and got him some notice, but nothing like "Our God is an Awesome God."
He became an important voice in the Christian contemporary scene until his tragic death in a car accident in 1997. He started The Ragamuffin Band, but began singing on his own. He was a restless believer and seeker after truth. He wearied of his time in the evangelical scene of white middle class Christians and left to work and live with the Navajo in Tse Bonito, New Mexico. There he became a devotee of Francis of Assissi and expressed interest in becoming a Catholic. When he died he was, some think, ready to convert, although that is disputed.
He did write many songs that became hits, and wrote a musical on Francis, The Canticle of the Plains. At the time of his death in a traffic accident while he and his colleague were driving to a gig, he was working on a musical on the life of Jesus, Ten Songs about Jesus.
Why "Awesome God" became a hit probably has as much to do with who sang it and the luck of the draw as anything. Mullins was a gifted musician and composer. He continued to grow and flourish in his work. His restless life made it difficult for friends to keep up with him—he was engaged for ten years to a woman who broke off the engagement just before they were to marry.
He was devoted to Compassion International, supporting them with his money and work. In his own life he wanted to imitate Jesus and his concern for the poor and helpless.
The year after he died, his friends recorded an album, Awesome God: a Tribute to Rich Mullins. Amy Grant noted in a speech that he was "the uneasy conscience of the movement. He didn't live like a star. He'd taken a vow of poverty so that what he earned could be used to help others." His family, friends and fans produced a film, Ragamuffin, in 2014, which told the story of his life along with a documentary on his life and legacy.
Mullins’ life of witness and singing in praise of his Lord needs our attention and understanding. He, with his restless faith and eagerness to do good as a disciple of his Lord is worth pondering. He brought the Gospel to millions who needed to hear it at the time, and still today as other artists record his work. God, who is awesome, never seems to stop surprising us with the variety of disciples he makes, people of every kind, who witness to his glory to all the world.
Although hymnal editors viewed this hymn askance, it has become a fixture in many hymnals today. The feature many do not like, is probably what makes it popular—the constant repetition “Our God is an awesome God, he reigns” makes it easy to sing without a book rather like the mantras of the Taizé community. It has maybe faded a bit from its place at the top of the Christian music hits. The contemporary Christian song today has more textual complexity than this. But in its time it was exactly what the audience wanted--a text and tune they could sink into and sing without reading words or music. While the chorus repeats itself many times, there is a section in the middle where more text about God is included.
Rich Mullins singing
Michael W. Smith https://youtu.be/38V8jnN1Kpw
Hill Song version/23 million viewers! https://youtu.be/6RGcb7alSk0
Praise and Harmony a cappella version/with more text https://youtu.be/0xopH3jlfjg
NB: Lent is less than a month away. A wonderful Lenten discipline is reading the Passion hymns, one for every day of Lent. Follow the link to buy it and receive it in time.