By Brad McMurray
Thesis: We must take responsibility for what we say and do in a worship environment, especially as it relates to the music of our worship.
The Apostle Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom, singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word of deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Colossians 3:16-17
The secret word in the above passage is “word.” The thing that is to dwell in us richly, to be used for admonishing and teaching, is also to be the rational content of our song/hymn communications with one another and before Almighty God. That thing is the Word of Christ. For practical purposes, this means truth. When we sing in worship, we are to communicate truth. How we communicate that truth is through words.
The lyrics of our songs are the word of Christ, so they must express truth. The words to a song must be true. This may seem obvious, but have you ever sung something simply because it was there in the hymnal or on the screen? Think about “In the Garden,” for example. Allow me to put you on the witness stand for a moment.
Have you sung that song? If so, was it true? Do you, or have you indeed come to a garden alone while the dew was on some roses? Where were those roses exactly? Did you hear a voice falling on your ear? Really? What did the voice say to you exactly? And did the Son of God disclose that voice to you? Subsequently, in your time in that garden, can you honestly say God walked with you and talked with you and told you that you are His own? How did He do that exactly? And is it your testimony that the joy that you shared with God, as you tarried there, was unknown by any other? How do you know that? How can you truthfully say whether or not any other person has not known a thing at all? No further questions.
For another example, the song, “The Heart of Worship” (“I’m coming back to the heart of worship”) leads us to a specific confession (“I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about you …”)—yet an individual singing the song may have no warrant to confess such a thing. Matt Redman may have cause to repent with those words, but should we place that prayer in the mouths and hearts of our people? Why should we do that?
Have you ever sung anything about “falling down in worship” or bowing or raising your hands while standing or sitting inertly in a pew? Why would you do such a thing? Why not fall down or bow or raise those hands? It gets complicated. But it doesn’t need to.
We as worshipers bring much to worship, some good some not so good. We can bring our praises and our songs and our tithes and our requests and we can know that these are things we are invited to bring. These are good to bring. We can also bring sorrows and confessions of sin and grief and cares –these too we are invited to bring and these too are good to bring.
But I may also bring some not good things to worship. I can bring prideful arrogance and a judgmental attitude. I can bring musical snobbery and a critic’s ear. I can bring a selfish focus even into the worship songs, that is more concerned with expressing my emotions than with magnifying God’s glory. If I would rather sing about how I feel about God than sing about God Himself, is that what God desires?
Truth is essential to worship. That is, the essence of worship is communicating the truth of God. We do that several ways, including sermons based on a careful and rigorous study of the word of God. We want sermons to be accurate, thoughtful and full of meaning, with no untruth or fluff. Yet we tolerate, and often crave, emotion-laced, lyrical ramblings that convey theological confusion, or a lyricist’s attention deficit or an inadequate sentimentalist view of redemption. If the content of our communication with God and with one another must be true (and so far, that commandment has not been rescinded), then our songs must be true in their lyrics. If it’s not true, don’t sing it.
This attitude may lead us to adopt a Psalms-only strictness that may be safe but limiting. We are also commanded to sing a new song. We are just not allowed to sing new facts about God, because there aren’t any. If it’s new it’s probably not true, and if it’s true it’s probably not new. So what are we left with?
When we bring our new songs of worship before the King of all kings, we are responsible to engage our rational minds. We must know what we are communicating, and we must be mindful or who it is we are addressing. For example, we must know the difference between songs to God and songs about God. We must also be aware that many songs have lyrics that speak exclusively about the church or to one another or even to the lost. Some even have us addressing our own souls, as in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord O my soul!” We are not saying to God, “Bless the Lord”; we are stirring our own feeble souls to rise up and declare blessing to God. Singing to oneself is biblical and necessary at times. But it must be true.
When we sing the truth to God or to one another or to our own souls, we must be aware of what we are saying and to whom we are saying it. We must engage our minds. We cannot simply “get lost in love” as a number of contemporary writers suggest we do. This is the stuff of suggestive prom songs, not worship of the Almighty God.
Even literal Biblical content in lyrics is subject to abuse if taken out of context or misappropriated. We would do well to avoid passages that are addressed to a certain people or a certain time but which are not universally appropriate. 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray …” and Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord …” were both spoken in a context which, if omitted, can lead to misunderstanding, even though the singer is sincere. Truth in these cases, as in all of exegesis, includes context. When I sing a scriptural song, do I know whose biblical words I am saying? Can I say, “I AM” without fear? If so, how can I say that name? Can I say it any way I want or any way the song directs me to say it?
Where does the responsibility lie for the content of songs, then? If nice, godly, well-intentioned artists put together a catchy chord progression and hang some God talk on it, who are we to say they can’t lead our people? As a shepherd of a flock, I must care about what the sheep are eating. In Deuteronomy 32 God gave Moses a song to teach the people before they entered the promised land. In Deuteronomy 31:19 God commands Moses to write that song and teach it to the people and put it in their mouths (emphasis mine). What are we putting in our people’s mouths? What are we feeding them?
The church, especially the leadership, must begin to apply themselves to the analysis and understanding of the lyrical content of songs used for worship.
As a beginning, leaders can review the existing catalogue of songs used in church for theological consistency, appropriate content and context and overall quality of the message. Treat the song like a sermon.
Ask “Is it biblical,” “is it true,” “is it in context,” “who is the singer addressing?” The Lord? The people around me? The lost? My own soul?
Does the lyrical focus bring more attention to me and my emotional condition or to the Lord and His attributes? Do the words make good theological sense if you simply say them without music?
Is it fair and helpful to put these words in the mouth of the congregation? Is it possible that someone singing these words would have to compromise their theology in participating? Is that what you want?
What is the motivation for selecting a song or any act of worship? Does the song fill a particular liturgical purpose in the worship setting? If not, why not?
Once you have the answers to these questions, ask some more and be diligent about assessing the content of what we feed our people, or what we put in their hands to give to our God and King.
Any old song won’t do. Any new song won’t do either. Whatever is true, that will do.
Writing to you about worship matters, because worship matters to God.