Name That Tune . . . And Rate it From 1 to 5
“Worship music” has become the third rail of church politics in that no one dares touch it. But everybody—from the person or people who lead the singing on a Sunday morning to the guy who stands in back like a ventriloquist—has an opinion. It’s more complicated than hymns vs. choruses or old vs. new—although those are common battle lines. Nor is it only a matter of parishioners squabbling over preference, although that is often the case. And while it is a controversial subject, I don’t think that means we should avoid talking about it. As one who has waded—nay, plunged headlong—into this topic previously, allow me to attempt to do so with a modicum of dexterity.
First, let’s remember what we’re talking about. Worship. That word has come to be synonymous with singing, but that does worship a disservice. Singing is just a component of worship, which should encompass the entirety of our lives (Isaiah 29:13; Romans 12:1). Singing songs (be they hymns or choruses, be it while standing or sitting) is no more worship than sitting under the authority of a biblical preacher, giving a tithe or offering, serving as an usher or sound technician, or teaching children’s church. We need to be careful that we don’t place a special emphasis on singing as the worship portion of the Sunday morning service or of our lives in general. That being said, we are using song as a method of corporate worship as is the model laid out for us in Scripture (Psalm 30:4; 147:1,7; Ephesians 5:19). Therefore, we must be mindful of the purpose. We aren’t singing to hear ourselves sing (believe me), to be entertained, or to get a good feeling. Rather, we are lifting an “offering” to God.
So what does that mean for us? What makes “good” worship or “bad” worship? Is there any point or merit in judging the quality of worship songs? Does the style of music matter at all? How important is experience or emotion? Are either an indicator of good worship?
Let me break this down into two tracks. First, let me analyze the “technical” aspects of “worship through song.” I believe there are three criteria the songs we sing in church should meet.
1) Lyrically Accurate - I can’t recall ever being in a church where they were projecting heresy on the screen, but with an enemy who “masquerades as an angel of light,” (II Corinthians 11:14) we can’t be too careful. I have, however, sung and heard a number of songs with lyrics that have made me do a double-take. We have to remember that not all Christian musicians are theologians, and even the dearest and oldest of hymns are not canon. In theory, we’re singing to God. But we’re also, in a sense, singing for the benefit of each other and ourselves (see Colossians 3:16). The words we’re singing are being ingrained in our heads and hearts, and it’s imperative that they be doctrinally sound, according to Scripture. We could sing utter nonsense to God and He would know the truth, but if we express concepts that are even only a degree or two off, it could cause some of us to miss the mark in our application.
2) Situationally Appropriate – As a corollary to the accuracy point, I think we sing some songs in churches that are very relevant to some people but far less so to others. For instance, a songwriter has an incredibly powerful experience or work of God in his or her life, and, being a musician, puts it to song. It’s catchy, he or she is popular, and before you know it, the song is on the radio and then in the worship service. All that’s fine, until I’m singing that song in church, and I haven’t had that experience or God hasn’t worked in my life that way. It can still do me some good to sing that song, because in a way I am still extolling God’s character and actions. But, and this is simply my opinion, we would be better served singing about the nature of God, the death and resurrection of Christ, and the hope of glory—things that are “true” for every believer as opposed to specific workings of God that may not be. There’s also something to be said for the song being understandable. I balk when people complain about hymns because the language is too hard to understand. However, when I sing something like “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” I have to admit that I’m a little lost. Similarly, I’ve never quite understood exactly how we’re in “The Days of Elijah.” Maybe I’m just a dope, but I doubt I’m alone in questioning exactly what I’m singing sometimes. That’s not to say we can’t sing such songs, but we should be careful that folks in the pews aren’t just mumbling words with no idea what they mean. (Please do not get me started on trying to Google translate “El Shaddai” on my phone before a recent Sunday service.)
3) Musically Accessible – I am not a singer. Sure, I do a mean Johnny Cash in the privacy of my car or the shower, but nobody has ever clamored to hear my voice in a crowd (although it would beat hearing it solo). I don’t know an alto from a soprano from a bongo. When it comes to reading music, I know that half notes are longer than quarter notes (only because a half is longer than a quarter in football), but I get lost somewhere between upside down hats and that thing that looks like the Planters Peanuts mascot at the beginning of each bar (or is it measure?) of music. All this to say, I am musically challenged. As beautiful as they may be, there are some songs I cannot sing (at least in a way distinguishable from a half-butchered hog). There are other songs I can pick up quite easily. That doesn’t mean we should limit our in-church singing to simple choruses that can be mastered by a five-year-old, but we do need to be mindful that the majority of people in church on a Sunday morning didn’t get a music scholarship to Juilliard.
I’ll be clear, these are my views. I can’t point to chapter and verse to back up each point, although I think Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians to sing “together with Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19) would suggest that A) a diverse selection of music should be employed and B) everybody should be able to sing along, making a joyful noise to the Lord. I also think his instructions to the Corinthians on orderly worship (I Corinthians 14), while not directly applicable across the board, do advocate a standard or order and group participation. And Jesus, while conversing with the Samaritan woman (John 4:20-24), pointed out that worship should be centered on spirit and truth.
Let’s move on to what I call the “emotional” section: Let’s say the singing on Sunday morning is lyrically accurate, situationally appropriate, and musically accessible. And let’s say it does nothing for you. No emotion. No experience. Just twenty-five minutes of singing and “you may be seated.” Is that a bad thing? Is the inverse—half an hour of intense, passionate, swaying and hand-raising singing that seems to transport you to the throne room of heaven—automatically a good thing?
I would point out that doctrine is sometimes dry. It isn’t meant to stir us, but to steer us. But there’s also a reason why we sing with instruments instead of reciting in monotone. (Some of us sing in monotone, but that’s neither here nor there.) Namely, it would seem there is to be a balance. All the emotion in the world doesn’t do you a lick of good if it doesn’t have doctrine to back it up. It’s just fluff. But if that doctrine isn’t at some point generating something of an emotional response, it is fair to ask if that doctrine is penetrating the heart.
To be fair, a lot of this comes down to personality. Some people raise their hands and dance at the least provocation. Others superglue their hands into their pockets and won’t even raise their hands at the second coming, unless it is to shield their eyes. Personally, I’ve often felt compelled to raise my hands, but it’s been while listening to Bon Jovi singing “Livin’ on a Prayer” or Katie Perry belting out “Roar.” For me, the urge to raise my hands has little to do with doctrine and plenty to do with a feeling created by the music itself. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, but people will think I’ve lost it if they see me “worshipping” to the Dixie Chicks or CCR (Google it, kids). I can’t speak for the people who raise their hands in church—is it because they are deeply moved by the words they’re singing, because the tune “fires them up,” or some combination of the two? And unless they’re standing directly in front of me during a new song (with a tune I can actually carry) so as I can’t read the words, it doesn’t much matter to me.
The point—yes, there actually is one coming—is that our worship needs to be authentic. If you’re just getting a feeling because the music moves you, I would suggest you could just as well be listening to Switchfoot or U2 with me in my car (in which case keep your hands down so I can see to drive). But if your heart and mind are engaged with the words and the tune, and it compels you to raise a hand or a celebratory fist or finger pointed to heaven, that’s great. Conversely, if you’re focused on the words, singing along or in quiet meditation, and you wish to keep your hands folded or pick lint in your pockets, that’s fine too. But if your mind is also shut off, and you’re just counting down the minutes till you can leave and go listen to some Bob Marley, mon, it might indicate a heart problem.
One last point. My old Sunday school teacher (my Sunday school teacher from years back, not my elderly Sunday school teacher) said something that stuck with me. The essence of it was that if your “heart” isn’t in worship, you can still offer a meaningful sacrifice to God with your will. That is, singing or reflecting on the words when you don’t feel like it, when you don’t get an emotional buzz, is legitimate, sincere worship. Essentially, it is heartfelt worship. And I would say that applies to more than just worship through singing, but worship in every aspect of life.
In the end, remember this: Song leaders can please some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time, but they can’t please Abraham Lincoln. Or something like that. But if the music is accurate, appropriate, and accessible, and if the mind and heart of the worshiper are engaged, then the worship experience is “holy and pleasing to God.” (Romans 12:1)
- Nathan Birr is the author of The Douglas Files series and God, Girls, Golf & the Gridiron (Not Always in That Order) . . . A Love Story. (It’s as crazy as it sounds.) He learned long ago from his uncle that if you don’t know the words to a song, just repeat the word “watermelon” quietly and no one will be able to tell the difference.
(Unless otherwise noted, Scripture taken from New International Version, © 2011.)