Over the past 12 months or so I have seen quite a lot of discussion over two popular worship songs and their content. I’m not writing this post to add to that specific discussion, as many people with far more wisdom than myself have weighed in on the subject, I’m writing this because within that discussion I feel that I’ve seen an alarming number of responses that read something like this:
“So what? Why does it matter if the songwriter said ______? It doesn’t hurt anyone and it’s a beautiful song.”
So why does it matter? It matters because we, as worship leaders, are responsible for shepherding our people. This isn’t just an issue with songs that have questionable lyrics. I won’t name specifics, but there are many popular worship songs I’ve encountered where I’m not really sure what they’re saying. Sure, they don’t say anything bad, but that’s because they really don’t say much of anything. As Ephesians 4 says, we as leaders have been called by Christ “...to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:12-13 NIV). When it comes to the songs we sing this is an enormous responsibility that needs more response than a simple ‘so what?'
Teaching Pastors have to spend hours, and even days, every week pouring over commentaries and bible translations as they craft a sermon. Worship Pastors often can create their contribution to the service within just a few minutes, and that can be a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that it allows us more time during the week for other tasks like prepping song slides, practicing our instrument, or meeting with volunteers. The potential curse comes when we gloss over the words we’re singing without realizing what we’re singing.
We live in one of the strongest eras of songwriting for the church; countless new songs are being written, recorded, and released every year, and yet we often fall into the temptation of simply choosing what’s on the radio because it has the best chance of being popular with our congregation (I mean, it is on the radio right?), but a songs popularity does not equal a songs worth for the church. Now, this is not to say we should throw out all modern worship songs, or that all songs need to have a certain word count. A song can be new and simple and yet still contain an important truth, or it can be wordy and poetic but never really take you anywhere.
"A songs popularity does not equal a songs worth for the church."
We need to be clear on what a song is saying, because if we’re not clear about it our congregation probably won’t be either. In speaking on preaching, Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary once stated “If its a mist in the pulpit, it'll be a fog in the pews." and I firmly believe the same applies to our singing. So how can we approach this in a biblical manner? When I’m selecting new songs for my church to sing there are 3 questions that I ask myself as I listen to and consider them. While it’s not a perfect gauge for which songs my church will ultimately connect with and sing back to the Lord, it does help provide a series of safety nets to weed out some songs that otherwise might sneak in on a catchy guitar part or memorable chorus along.
Is This True?
This is always the first question I ask when considering a song for my church. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well He gave two requirements for biblical worship; it must be done in spirit and it must be done in truth (John 4:24). Why is this so important? Because if we lead our congregation to declare something about God that is not true then we are leading them into idolatry. If I wrote a song that was beautiful musically and lyrically but it said something like ‘Father, thank You for dying on the cross’ or ‘Jesus You sinned so that I would sin no more’ it should be unusable within a church because of those errors. Those words do not worship the God of scripture in truth, which means they are worship for a false god.
"If we lead our congregation to declare something about God that is not true then we are leading them into idolatry."
Every word of every song we put in the mouths of our people should be tied to scripture; it doesn’t need to be word-for-word verbatim, but if we view biblical content as an ocean, we should be at LEAST up to our knees in it (if not up to our neck or even over our head). Merely dipping a toe in the water of biblical wording or imagery doesn’t do enough to cover poor songwriting choices where truth was compromised for the sake of artistic expression. This leads me to my second question.
*For further consideration: I’ve recently started taking songs that are already in our church catalog and have begun searching for the scriptures that reinforce what the song is saying. There have even been Sundays where I’ve displayed the references next to the lines of the song as we sing them to remind my church family ‘Hey! What we’re singing here isn’t just poetry, it’s God’s truth!’ This has been a tremendous blessing for myself as I prepare, and also for many members of my church as we sing. Take some time to do this for some of your songs on a Sunday morning, I promise it will be worth the time!
Is This Clear?
A few years ago a conversation (much like the one I mentioned at the start of this post) popped up around another song and whether we should sing a specific lyric. Some were caught off guard by this unforeseen metaphor, and perhaps considered it to be sloppy while others didn’t see anything wrong with it at all.
In this case of this song I don’t think the issue was whether it was true, but whether it was clear. As artists we have a strong desire to do things differently; to say something in a way it hasn’t been said before, to show something in a way no one has ever seen it before. This desire is not inherently wrong, and I believe that God has placed this desire in us to create because He Himself is a creator. However, we cannot let fulfilling this desire become the end-all be-all when it comes to creating for the church. In the battle between biblical truth and artistic expression biblical truth should win every single time.
"In the battle between biblical truth and artistic expression biblical truth should win every time."
Now, to be fair this metaphor isn’t perfect because the author of the song has stated previously that when he wrote it he did not have corporate worship in mind, and because of this he used metaphors that made sense within his specific culture (which many people immediately understood and latched onto the lyrics). But it does serve as a reminder that as we choose songs for our church we need to be aware of what could ultimately lead to confusion or distracted from the overarching message of the song, and ultimately from worshipping God.
There is nothing we can do to make someone worship, but there are many things we do that can keep someone from worshiping. Our goal as worship leaders is to remove as many of these distractions as we can, which includes unclear lyrics. There is another distraction (though not as serious as false lyrics or unclear lyrics) but I always try to address it when I ask my final question of a new song.
*For further consideration: Sometimes there may be one or two lines that aren’t as clear as the rest of the song. If you think the rest of the song is strong enough in biblical truth that you want to use it, take some time to set up the song when you teach it; talk through the line with your people, show them where it comes from in scripture, or even put a footnote on the slide with the lyric in question. If it requires a lengthy explanation that you aren’t able to do every time then maybe the song is better served as a one-time special element for your church. We aren’t just song leaders, we’re teachers who should desire to help our church body think clearly and truthfully about what we’re singing and the One we’re singing to.
"We aren't just song leaders, we're teachers who should desire to our help our church body think clearly and truthfully about what we're singing and the one we're singing to."
Is This Singable?
*Of the three questions this one has the most variability within your context and people. No one should know or understand more about your congregations context and people than you do, so please take my thoughts through the filter of your church culture.*
There is a common phenomenon that fascinates me within our society. People from many different walks of life, backgrounds, careers, all come together to watch their favorite band or artist and sing along with the songs at the top of their lungs with no regard for what anyone around them may think. Yet, many of those same people will file into the rows of seats at church and barely mumble through the words of the songs on a Sunday morning at church. There are a lot of factors that can play into this, such song familiarity, loudness of the music, sometimes alcohol (and not the communion type). I’ve addressed some of these issues in another blog post so I won’t go more into details about those. However, I do want to address the important of making sure we’re choosing songs that are singable for the congregation. When I say ‘singable’ that means different things to different people, but my main focus is on 2 specific areas:
*For further consideration: Sometimes a songs range can be fixed by removing the octave jump that’s so popular in modern worship songs. If you’re worried about the song losing some of its ‘power’ then ask yourself this question; "is the song powerful because of the message, or the dynamics?" If the dynamics carry the song, chances are the message isn’t that strong to begin with and you can find another song that says the same thing in a better way.
What we sing matters. The way we say what we’re saying matters. Yes, God knows our hearts. Yes, our imperfect offerings of worship are perfected by the atoning work of Jesus Christ. However, just as we should not continue to sin so that grace may about (Romans 6:1), we also should not continue to act out of ignorance to what God has called us to do. James 3:1 warns us that those "...who teach will be judged with greater strictness", and if you are in a position of leading worship then you are a teacher of your congregation. Your responsibility in leading worship is a great joy, but it should never be taken lightly. Just as Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, we too are responsible for the spiritual feeding of the church through song. Let’s make sure we’re giving them something healthy to chew on.
Contributor / Brad Spead
Brad Spead is the Pastor of Worship Arts at Bridge Bible Church in Norton Shores, MI.