History of Hymns: 'People Need the Lord'
By C. Michael Hawn
“People Need the Lord”
by Greg Nelson and Phill McHugh
The Faith We Sing, 2244
For complete lyrics, see https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/avalon/peopleneedthelord.html.
What happens when two Christian musicians meet in Nashville—Music City—and have lunch? A song will likely emerge. This is the context for the song “People Need the Lord” by Greg Nelson (b. 1948) and Phill McHugh (b. 1951). The title became the “hook” for a song that has become a “classic” contemporary Christian song (Stanislaw, 1991, no. 730). Baptist hymnwriter and hymnal editor Milburn Price provides the story that took place in 1983:
The idea for this song emerged from a luncheon meeting in a Nashville, Tennessee, restaurant. According to the composers, as McHugh became aware of the pain in the eyes of their waitress, he said to Nelson, “People need the Lord, don’t they?” Nelson responded, “Yes, people do need the Lord.” From that brief exchange came the idea for the song, which was sketched in outline during the remainder of the meal. It was subsequently recorded and became a popular song with soloists and choirs (Price, 1992, p. 219).
Hymnals include only the refrain. Richard Stanislaw notes the connection of the theme with Mark 6:34: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (NIV). (Stanislaw, 1991, no. 730) The initial stanza is written in the first-person singular as a solo. It acknowledges “empty people. . . [in] private pain. . . [as they are] living fear to fear.” The second stanza shifts to the first-person plural, alluding to Matthew 5:14–16: “We are called to take his light / to a world where wrong seems right.” The message of the refrain written in the third person is clear: “People need the Lord”—six times in five lines. Contemporary Christian artist Steve Green (b. 1956) recorded this song as the signature selection on the album People Need the Lord (1994). [See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xU7jSXhVA6U]
Phillip James McHugh, a South Dakota native, is an award-winning writer of contemporary Christian songs. Two of his songs, “Lamb of Glory” and “People Need the Lord,” were nominated for Dove Awards in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Numerous Christian artists have recorded his songs, including Steve Green, Larnelle Harris, Sandi Patti, and Scott Wesley Brown (Music, 1992, p. 404). McHugh has recorded several albums, including All Glory to You (1976), Canvas for the Sun (1977), Reference Point (1980), In Heaven’s Eyes (1986), and Ride the Earth (1998). CCLI’s SongSelect lists forty-six songs, including translated versions, by McHugh. Most are co-written with others. His most frequent collaborator is Greg Nelson, and “People Need the Lord” is their most famous song resulting from their partnership.
Gregory Allen Nelson, a North Dakota native, graduated from Mary College (Bismarck, ND) in 1972 (B.A. in social science and music). After developing a sixteen-track recording studio in his home in the 1970s, he began producing commercials, albums, and theme-songs for films. Nelson founded Spirit Records in 1977. After moving to Los Angeles in 1978, he became director of Sparrow Records in 1979. Moving to Nashville in 1980, he worked for several recording companies before forming Greg Nelson Music. He worked closely with Phil McHugh; numerous Christian artists have recorded their songs, including Sandi Patty, Steve Green, Larnelle Harris, Twila Paris, Michael Crawford, and Richard Smallwood (Music, 1992, pp. 415–16). According to his Wikipedia entry, Nelson has produced thirteen gold and three platinum recordings and has received twenty Dove Awards [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greg_Nelson_(producer)].
Nelson was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2018. As a producer, he has garnered thirteen Grammy nominations and seven Grammy awards. He produced numerous recordings for the Baptist Hymnal (2008) and developed the “SongMap” technology for manipulating songs (https://gospelmusichalloffame.org/greg-nelson/). CCLI’s SongSelect lists 146 songs to his credit, including translations. Of the several collaborating artists, most are cowritten with Phill McHugh.
Milburn Price, “People need the Lord,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere Hancock (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 219.
David Music, “McHugh, Phillip James,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere Hancock (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 404.
_____, “Nelson, Gregory Allen,” Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal, ed. Jere Hancock (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 415–16.
Richard J. Stanislaw, “People Need the Lord,” The Worshiping Church: A Hymnal—Worship Leaders’ Edition, Donald P. Hustad, ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1990, 1991), 730.
Verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.