Keith Getty has often said that “we are what we sing,” meaning that we end up believing whatever it is we keep singing about. As we have discussed in a recent post regarding the lyrical content of our songs, the selection that we make is no meaningless task. Simply put, our music should reflect what it is we know about God, i.e. who He is and what He has done. In fact, whether we realize it or not, our music will reflect what we believe about God—be it correct, or incorrect—and to what level we grasp a particular truth will be manifested in our songs.
Generally speaking, IWL’s will find themselves operating in one of two paradigms when it comes to song selection: 1) They select the song based on its overall thought, statement, and lyrical content, and then considers the musical accompaniment that enhances it; or 2) They select the song based on the overall sound and feel of the music—period. In our modern world today, it is all too obvious that most churches operate under the second principle. This practically leaves them at the mercy of the latest “worship” album being generated by young musicians in their early to late twenties who have virtually no theological training, or firm grasp of the timeless doctrines of the Christian faith that are taken from the Word of God. It is a vicious cycle that continues to degenerate, rather than mature since the model is based on emulating youth, rather than theologically proven wisdom.
To be clear, youth does not necessitate bad theology, but as a general axiomatic principle, maturity grows with age, so the younger someone is the more prone they are to the trappings of their immaturity if not well-trained. It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul told his dear—and quite young—apprentice, Timothy, to “let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). He was to be even more diligent in his youth to be an example to everyone as to what a godly, faithful youth looked like. All of this is to say that the youth-dominant—or youth-targeting—music that dominates the albums being emulated in our churches around America are not exactly a bunch of Timothy’s, meaning they are not theologically minded-pastors. This is not so much a criticism as it is an observation, which demands our attention as to what we do with it. Put another way, it is not to say that there is necessarily bad theology in a bulk of the music being sold, rather there is very little of it—and this is a problem.
It is notable that when the Apostle Paul told the Colossian church to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (3:16) in this familiar and oft-quoted passage, that he preceded it with the instruction to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” He told the exact same thing to the Ephesian church in 5:18–19. John MacArthur has rightly said that our worship will be as high as our theology is deep. The deeper we understand the Word of God, the more it will be reflected in our lives and in our songs.
This goes right back to what Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4 in regards to what worship would look like—it would be in spirit and in truth (v. 23). It is also why he told this Gentile woman, “you worship what you do not know; we [the Jews] worship what we know” (v.22) (emphasis mine). Again, make no mistake, this is not relegated to music alone. In fact, it is largely targeting the life of the individual and their obedience; their holiness. Yet, it affects everything that falls under the worship umbrella. Truth is knowable, definitive, and absolute. It goes without saying that it should be a hallmark of any song that we offer up to our mighty and holy God.
It is also important to understand how the Word of God impacts our volition, or our will. When the word of Christ dwells in us richly, it does not sit stagnant—that wouldn’t be very rich. No, we understand from Hebrews 4:12 that the “word of God is living and active,” so we can expect it to have an effect on the soul in which it resides.
Listen to the beautiful way in which the prophet Isaiah wrote in regards to the effect of the word of the LORD:
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10–11).
The outcome? Verse 12 continues: “You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
The more we are saturated with the word of God, the more we have reason to praise Him with all reverence and awe and, in fact, the more natural it will be for our mouths and lips to articulate those things. Our Lord Himself said of both good and evil people in Luke 6:45 that it is, “out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” It is no wonder that both Isaiah and Colossians attribute the work of the Word of God to high and acceptable praise and worship. This is what the Holy Spirit does in a redeemed life.
Consider the commendation of Hebrews 13:15: “Let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” For our lips to be fruitful in offering this sacrifice of confessing His Name, then our hearts must be full of—yes, richly indwelt by—the word of Christ.
The takeaway from all of this is two-fold. First, The IWL must constantly be devoting himself to the study of the Bible. I cannot emphasize this enough. This alone would revolutionize the way most churches approach the congregational time of singing. Far too often—and I mean painfully so—the first available kid who can play a guitar and sing is given this weighty task and many times he couldn’t tell you where any given book of the Bible is even located. From my own personal observations, this is usually because the church wants to save money by not hiring on a full-time music minister. That has been the prevailing shift in the last ten years. The theological importance of singing truth as a congregation is usually not appreciated, thus not prioritized, as it should be by the leaders who make the scheduling decisions.
By the way, I was one of those kids once. From the beginning, I have wanted to understand what worship really is, biblically, and how music is a part of that. I was (and still am) passionate about doing music right before my Lord and Savior. My disposition notwithstanding, I was theologically immature and unable to practice the best discernment in song selection as I am today. Churches would be doing themselves and the Lord Jesus Christ a great service to place the responsibility of the music of the church into the hands of a doctrinally sound and theologically mature leader who also possesses the exceptional ability to play and/or direct music.
This takes us to our second point in that the IWL must select songs that are theologically rich so that it contributes to a higher exaltation of God as well as the edification and maturity of the saints who sing the songs. They will start learning and believing what it is they are singing, so we are indeed a type of pastor as we contribute to the shepherding of people into the truth of the Word of God. The song selection goes hand in hand with the preaching and teaching ministry of the church—they both teach. The music aspect has its own special benefit, in that it makes these truths that are being sung more memorable.
Keith Getty said on one occasion that if the sermon on Sunday is a really good one, then people typically remember the last song . . . If the sermon was a really poor sermon, people still remember the last song! In either case, we leave a memorable impression on people with our music, so it would be a shame if they left with an impression of showmanship, rather than the melody line running through their heads that carries along a precious truth or praise about God. Music aids memory. It is extremely practical and entirely useful. Professional jingle writers make a lot of money for simply creating a memorable sound byte that ties people’s minds to a product. Again, music aids memory.
A fantastic example of this is when God had Moses write the law down in the form of a song in Deuteronomy 31. God’s reason?
“Write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel . . . this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring)” (19–21) (emphasis mine). In other words, the song would be memorable and teachable to all generations so that the kids would pick it up and be able to sing it. The song would be a witness against them, if need be, as it was the actual reminder of the Law of God to be obeyed.
Friends, every part of the congregational worship service is to be focused on glorifying and exalting our triune God which will in fact spiritually benefit and edify the saints involved. The musicians and their leaders are simply servants who provide a service that helps to meet that end. They are not there to act as a marketing gimmick to fill the seats. They are not there to take votes on what style everyone wants. They are not even there to meet people where they are at. That misses the entire purpose for gathering. They are simply there to play music so that everyone can sing to God! The whole church gathers in order to hear from God’s Word and sing God’s praises. They meet together to worship God from where they are at. While true worship has a spiritually beneficial impact on the soul and mind, the target of our music is not to achieve an experiential, or emotional, end that someone thinks they need. No; rather, if you are offering your sacrifice with a pure and humble heart before God in reverence and awe, then you will simply experience the camaraderie of worshiping God with others of a like mind, knowing that you are honoring God with acceptable worship—the right spirit and grounded in truth.
Fellow musicians, do not cave into the pressures of having your ministry dictated by complaints. Be a teacher. Shepherd your team and as much of the church as you can to understand biblical worship and how music then fits into that. Remain diligent to study Scripture so that when you speak it is obvious what your time is spent reading and when you select songs they will be ones that reflect the knowledge and reverence of the most Holy God. This will make you more valuable to the work God is doing in His Church on earth. We will not be giving an account to our congregation, elders, or family when we stand before God—we will give an account to God alone. May we be men of conviction that take the opportunity, through our musical talent, to raise the thoughts of men and women to the highest of heights, where God is seated in the heavens on His throne.
As John the Baptist rightly said: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
In Christ Alone,