What really matters: Singing truth
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
I guess I’m old school in a way. I know music is all streamed these days, and my teenage son barely knows what a cd is, but does anyone else love the physical act of opening up a cd, taking out the booklet, reading the liner notes and the thankyous and seeing who the musicians and producers are and, of course, reading the lyrics? I love a good tune but for me the bottom line is that it’s all about the lyrics. Oftentimes, before I listen to the songs, reading the lyrics first will tell me which songs I’m interested in checking out.
One of the many things I’ve learned from the acclaimed Bible teacher (and lifelong worshipper) Terry Virgo is this: ‘Truth ignites fires in people’. If you are responsible for choosing songs for your congregation, you have the huge responsibility of putting words into people’s mouths to express their worship to God. It’s a responsibility Miles and I have always taken very seriously.
In gathering our church’s worship leaders together on a regular basis, we will often bring together songs that have been suggested and discuss the lyrics. If there are any lines in a song that, shall we say, raise an eyebrow, we’ll ask the group ‘what exactly does that mean?’ It’s a question you should ask yourself every time you’re thinking of introducing a new song. If you can’t explain it, why are you asking other people to sing it?
We know worship leaders get passionate about songs and we don’t just want to say ‘no’ if someone suggests a song that we feel has a line that is theologically incorrect or misleading. We want to discuss it and hopefully model the thought processes and safeguards we put in place to ensure we’re always bringing strong song content to our church, whatever the style of song. We have chosen not to use some songs just because of one word or line. That might seem picky to you, it seems responsible to us.
‘Truth ignites fires in people’. If most of the songs you select for a worship time are basically subjective and about how you feel, where is that taking you (and your church) in a worship time? Are you just going round in a big circle, starting with you and coming round and ending up there, too? Or are the songs you sing pointing you to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, to the character and attributes and actions of God, stirring faith and hope and adoration?
In one of my many COVID spring-cleans, I’ve been going through old articles about worship and worship leading going back years, and have been finding some things of real interest. Here, Graham Kendrick makes the following points about the songs we sing:
“We must have a biblical theology of worship to test our practices… We must re-instate the value and importance of biblical teaching through songs (as well as by other means) and cease to be casual and uncritical about the words we sing or put into other people’s mouths… We must develop song forms that carry rich content… We must not use songs just because they are popular or ‘cool’ or in the style we prefer – but by virtue of how well they edify the church… We must become vigilant and discerning or we will end up singing the world’s values and philosophies, ie songs that are self-focused, comfort-seeking, individualistic, consumerist etc… We must develop songwriters of scholarship and skill who can put biblical teaching into contemporary songs that people will want to sing.”
- Graham Kendrick, ‘The Power Mix’, Worship Together magazine
I couldn’t agree more. Though Graham Kendrick was a good decade younger than he is now when he wrote those words, he makes a point that is endlessly relevant. In the preface of an 1877 copy of ‘Wesley Hymns (with tunes)’ (!) that we excitedly found in a second-hand store, John Wesley writes, “In these hymns there is no doggerel, no botches, nothing put in to patch up the rhyme” but “such a declaration of the heights and depths of religion, strong cautions against the most plausible errors and clear directions for making your calling and election sure, for perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
One of my favourite books that I always recommend is J I Packer’s ‘Concise Theology’. Though I never met him, I shed a tear when he passed away earlier this year. So dear to me is his writing that I thought of him almost as a friend. I love his ability to write in plain English, explaining complex theological concepts in clear and simple language. If you want to grow in your theological knowledge but are daunted by wading through a Systematic Theology, start with this book. Each chapter or topic is only a couple of pages long, perfect for reading one a day.
It really matters what we sing, and the words we put into other people’s mouths. Matt Redman has said, “Someone once told me that congregations learn so much of their theology from the songs of worship they sing.” If you have any input into choosing the songs your church sings, take your responsibility seriously. If you’re not sure about any of the content, ask your church leader or Bible teacher and involve them in the process. We want an authentic picture of God. Songs that will feed the church, not just in a high moment on a Sunday, but when Monday morning comes round as well. As Keith Getty says, “This is what we should be expressing when we sing as a community of believers: the great truths, the humbling thoughts, the enriching wonder, the daily challenges that will sing through our heads throughout the week and pour out into our conversations and choices and minute-by-minute relationship with God.”
Matt Redman and Keith Getty quotes from ‘Worshipping Trinity’ by Robin Parry
© Kate Simmonds 2020