Occasionally someone writes a piece about how terrible certain worship music is for one reason or another. The latest piece to come to my attention is this one. The piece urges us to stop singing ten rather popular songs for reasons ranging from lack of theological depth to ambiguity of object. Such titles as In the Secret, Above All, Draw Me Close, and the currently popular Oceans and others are all deficient.
Most of the complaints were pedantic in my opinion. Draw Me Close was criticized because it doesn’t identify who is to be doing the drawing – God or Jesus. To this I say, “Context people! Context!” Anyone familiar with modern Christianity should know the implied object is Jesus. You are in a church and the common object of seeing face to face is Jesus, not God. But does it matter if it is God? Does it matter if the song can be sung outside the church in a bar? Perhaps part of the author’s goal was to write a song that could cross over and reach another target audience and so introduce that audience to Jesus over time. The complaint seems ridiculous.
What we are seeing in such discussions is usually a complaint from the crusty old theological class which seems to think that every song has to have the content of A Mighty Fortress is Our God versus a laity that is moved by the spiritually inspiring music and “shallow” lyrics.
This harkens back to the days when we debated whether guitars and drums should be allowed in our churches along with those shallow praise choruses or which hymns were theologically sound enough to be in the church-approved hymnal. It all strikes me as another unnecessary exclusionary boundary: we can only have one type of music in the church and that is theologically rich music! Only now we have shifted the debate from style to substance with the assumption that only substantive songs are worthwhile. Not so!
Even a cursory overview of music history or contemporary practice tells us that people are touched by a number of styles and presentations. There is no one “right” way to do church worship music. One of my professors in Bible College told the class that at his stage in life he most enjoyed going into a particular church that had a great organ playing and a choir all hidden away. He could sit and absorb the music in quiet meditation until he was spiritually refreshed and ready to leave.
When I read this latest piece attacking worship music content I jokingly commented that we just need to remove all lyrics so that we don’t offend anyone. Then we can change the debate to whether E-minor is a spiritual chord or the chord of the Devil! But instrumental music has long been part of the spiritual scene. Any number of classical composers wrote instrumental pieces for use in church worship. It is commonplace in many churches to have instrumental prelude, closing, or communion music. No one challenges such song selections on the basis of lyrical content and yet many of these songs used in this fashion have lyrics.
As the worship leader and an elder at our church, I don’t have many opportunities to visit other venues for worship. But in the past couple of years I’ve participated in Gathering Knoxville, a group of people who have put denominational differences aside in order to gather for worship and prayer at different participating churches. Some prominent members of the group fall into the broad category of “charismatic” and they sing some original songs and songs I don’t do at our contemporary church. I have found myself sitting and listening to simple lyrics sung repetitively and absolutely feeling the heart of worship. One example will suffice. David McDaniel does a song he wrote titled House of Prayer. The lyrics are simple and few based upon Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 56:7. “My house shall be a house of prayer” is repeated about four times and then a couple of lines of “And you shall see my glory there” with minor variations. Yet I find myself captivated by that song with as little as just a simple guitar accompaniment and David singing. In fact, I find my mind thinking of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem of the moneychangers. He called them a “den of robbers” in one of his less charitable moments of anger. I remember that he is quoting from the Hebrew prophet and then I think about the current church building we are in and how it should be a house of prayer. In fact, we are gathered there for the purpose of intercessory prayer and we are taking that back to the individual churches where we serve.
A lot of things roll through my mind as we sing that song. Usually they are the same images and thoughts but they never get old! The song is scripturally rich but not theologically deep. Yet in sharpens the focus on prayer, reminds us of Scripture and, implicitly, our relationship to God. It also simply has a good “spiritual feel” to it so that you feel closer to God through the experience. Isn’t that the result we want people to have?
Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the depth of the songs but the expectations and desires of the congregant. It is a bit of church consumerism to criticize the songs just because you don’t like them or you don’t find them moving. If your requirements for a successful song are four-part harmony and a tight-knit-five-piece band then you are going to be left wanting along with the person who wants a theologically rich song. Consider those around you. Are they being moved? Do they like the songs? The Apostle Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians about the edification of the church. Does the music edify the church on the whole? If so, then leave it alone. It serves its function.
In picking our songs I value two things: praise and worship. God is worthy of praise and worship so we should give it to Him musically. We do a lot of upbeat music because that, to me, is praise and worship – generally speaking. We also do slow songs because there is a beauty and a worshipful, emotional connection in those that cannot be attained in the faster music. This week we have added Oceans, not because it is a theologically rich song but because a lot of Christian people find it moving and comforting. As many times as I’ve heard it on the radio I still don’t know the lyrics. But when I read them online it reminded me of someone who desires to trust Jesus enough to walk on the water, so to speak, and devote their life to him. I actually found that a good thought and not unlike other songs we sing where we desire to give our all to God in some way. I like the song and it is suitable for quiet moments in the worship service. Yet I don’t love the song like I do other songs but not everything is about what I want. It is not a good congregational song but it is good for the congregation to hear. The song edifies the church as a whole and it is pleasant for me as well. Like the Apostle Paul, I can shelve my desires so that others might be served.
The demand for theologically rich songs seems to me to be poorly focused and ill conceived. It assumes that people need such songs in order to be spiritually fed and yet that is demonstrably not the case. Song lyrics are also not the magical solution to fix ill-educated congregants. I think of the song Agnus Dei and how beautiful and moving it is and yet how simple and repetitive the lyrics are with only fifteen different words. Yet Michael W. Smith has a 10:16 version of this song and no one seems to mind. Everyone loves the Hallelujah Chorus and yet lyrically it is simple. I can find no fault in such things so long as they edify the body of Christ.