Thursday, May 15, 2014

Worship Leaders, Step Back and Remember: Lyrics Are Paramount

The statement is true that the lyrics of our music used within God’s Church are of utmost importance. This cannot be understated, yet it seems that too often it is overlooked as a secondary issue. Why? Usually, it is because we lean towards our gut feeling and emotional impulse that the music itself solicits instead. When we hear a song that has been composed with thoughtful dynamics and builds, accentuating the right beats, pulling back at the right time for reflection and then pushing forward with energy, we are left thinking that the song was powerful, captivating, epic, etc. Then if we really want to be philosophical and dogmatic, we can listen to the lyrics.

This shouldn’t be the case.

In case you missed Part 3, find it here: Worship Is Not Summed Up In Music

It is true that music, in and of itself, is emotional. If you were to sit down and listen to well composed thematic songs then you would instantly be brought to think about things that the music helps to conjure up in our minds. Some songs can only leave us feeling like we are sailing on the high seas, or standing in an elevator, or running away from a bear, or about to be run over by a train until someone pulls you out at the last minute, or falling in love. With no screen and no words, our minds can feel these emotions. This is the beauty of music, but this is also the danger of it, especially within the Church.

When Jesus told the woman at the well, in John 4, that true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, it is important to remember that the truth He is speaking of is the truth of the Word of God. Truth is never subjective. It is always objective. Meaning, it is what it is. What it says and reveals has an objective purpose that is not to be translated in different ways based on the subject receiving it.

He told the woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (Jn. 4:22)

How is it he can make a statement like that?

First off, the Israelite tribe had always been God’s chosen people and through them God would raise up the Messiah to save them from their sin. Jesus was that Jewish Messiah, so salvation quite literally came from the Jews. Even before Christ, true salvation was found only in those who's faith was in the promised Messiah (to come!).

Another testament to this is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Of the Israelites, Paul said, “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ…” (Rom. 9:4-5).

They worshiped what they knew to be true because it was God Himself who revealed the truth to them through the giving of the law, the ministry of the prophets and then through Christ Himself.

We are under no different expectation to worship what we know. This is to be contrasted to worshiping how or what we feel.

Paul speaks to this exact issue and we see it clearly addressed in 1 Corinthians 14. He is telling this church in Corinth that they need to get their priorities right in their worship services so that everybody is edified and that God is honored.

Starting in verse 14, he has just finished telling them that they should only speak in tongues (languages) when someone can interpret them. Otherwise, no one knows what they are really saying and it is a fruitless exercise. Paul’s thrust throughout this whole passage is that the congregation is to understand and comprehend everything, so that they are edified with the truth, which happens through clear prophesying (preaching) of words.

“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing praise with my mind also” (14:14-15).

Make no mistake that while the various un-interpreted tongues were a big part of their problem at Corinth, the big takeaway that Paul wanted them to get out of his corrective letter was to have a service where the mind was fully engaged and not given to mindless emotion. He wanted them edified, not confused.

By being aware of what was being taught and able to sing comprehensible songs, they were being built up (edified!), which is the entire point of the local assemblies of the Church in the first place, even today…to be built up in the most holy faith, always giving glory to God.

All throughout the Psalms we see that we are to ascribe to the Lord the glory that is due His name as well as ascribing attributes to Him that we know are true, based on His Word (Ps. 96:8). We should worship and praise Him for who He is and what He has done. When we do this, we glorify Him and we also edify each other with this truth exultation.

If we are to worship in truth, as our Lord Jesus Christ said in John 4, then we should take note of what David said in Psalm 119:160: “The sum of your Word is truth.”

What else do the words of Scripture say about our God and about the praise and worship of him?

“Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 106:1)!

Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord” (Ps. 117)!

In Psalm 18, David illustrates beautifully how awesome, mighty and merciful God is to him for His provisions in David’s life. He starts out with, “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised…”

For about the next 44 verses, we see reason after reason for why David knows that God is worthy to be praised. He says things like, “the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry” (vs. 7); and then, “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (vs. 19).

He marvels after God: “For who is God, but the Lord” (vs. 31)? “The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock, and exalted be the God of my salvation” (vs. 46).”

Then he ends with, “For this I will praise you, O Lord, among the nations, and sing to your name” (vs. 49).

Even Moses and all the Israelites sang a song about their rescue from the Egyptians through the parting of the Red Sea (Ex. 15).

Friends, this is why we still sing about God, to God. Too often we are caught up with the subjective feeling of a song and how the tempo is too slow, or too fast. Why would we ever care about the tempo of a song as long as the song accurately expresses praise and worship based on the revelatory truth of God Himself? This is not to downplay the practicality of choosing an appropriate, predictable, tempo, but it is important that we are not demanding the surface at the expense of the deep.

How many churches would do themselves a favor by shaping their congregation’s theology of worship, rather than changing the superficial elements of the music based on who gets annoyed the most?

It is important, again, that you don’t drag your music so much that it is distracting. If people are barely getting through a word when they need another breath, then you could be dragging a song down and playing at a sub-excellent level. This takes discernment and the careful, constructive criticism of gracious people who have the same desire for theological accuracy and doxological excellence as you do. I have had such help and it is necessary to consider and helpful to hear.

I will be dealing with the styles and genres of music in a future post to help think biblically along that vein. Make no mistake, though, our first priority in our music should always be on the words. Start there. Every time. That is what reveals the spirit and truth behind your music; not sixteen measures of synth.

Let’s take this a step further for the sake of practicality.

Instrumental Worship leaders, if someone sends you a song asking you to consider playing it in church as a worship song, then read the lyrics first before you even listen to the song. Let your doxology be informed by proper theology. If it doesn’t pass that test, then who cares what it sounds like?

Consider what passage your pastor is preaching on in order to bring a song in behind it that will drive that truth home. This is something I have been trying to get better at myself. Sure, any appropriate song could be sung after a sermon, but why not sing “In Christ Alone” by Keith & Kristyn Getty after hearing a sermon on Acts 4:12: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Why not sing the gripping hymn “It Is Well” by Horatio Spafford after the pastor preaches on 2 Corinthians 12:10: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.”

Why not sing “Jesus Messiah” by Chris Tomlin after having Communion and hearing a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Or Philippians 2:8: “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

It’s not just that the titles to the songs have a topical match. No, we must be better than that. We must be more theologically informed than that.

From “In Christ Alone”: “In Christ alone, my hope is found. He is my light my strength, my song. This cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.” And: “In Christ alone, who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe!” The Getty’s were writing about the exclusivity of God incarnate (in the flesh), our Lord Jesus Christ! This distinguishes the Christianity of the Bible from all other religions. Let’s sing that in God’s Church.

From “It Is Well”: “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way; When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say: “It is well, it is well with my soul.”” Horatio, after losing all four of his children in a sea-faring journey, as well as all of his wealth in the Great Chicago Fire, could still say “it is well with my soul” because he trusted the sovereignty of God and knew he would see his children in Heaven again.

From “Jesus Messiah”: “He became sin who knew no sin, that we might become His righteousness. He humbled Himself and carried the cross. Love so amazing! His body the bread, His blood the wine; Broken and poured out all for love. The whole earth trembled and the veil was torn. Love so amazing!” Chris Tomlin pulls this right out of Scripture and puts it to music, singing about the substitutionary atonement of Christ.

If anyone has heard Keith Getty talk about writing songs for the Church, there is no doubt you have heard him say: “We are what we sing”. This is not to mean we can sing ourselves into salvation, but the words we put in people’s mouths are words that they will start believing, just like a pastor who is preaching. We need to be careful and thoughtful with what we are having people sing.

When I attended one of Keith’s workshops in Annapolis, he recounted how his grandfather, though losing some of his memory, could still sing the hymns he grew up with, without missing a beat. Those of us who lead the songs in our churches are responsible for putting solid theology in the mouths and minds of the people in the pews. Let’s not forget that. We are really a musical type of preacher.

Keith wrote a great article for The Gospel Coalition a number of months ago on What Makes "In Christ Alone" Accepted and Contested? In it, he says:

“Truth put to music remains with us. It's why we still sing the powerful lyrics of hymns written centuries ago. Speculation and questioning about theology will come and go, but truth remains.”

He also said:

“We must sing wholeheartedly about concepts such as penal substitution, as well as the many other attributes of God that unfortunately go ignored in some churches today. The songs we sing have a powerful way of shaping our soul and becoming grafted into our being.”

Remember, the whole reason God had Moses put the Law (essentially, the book of Deuteronomy) into the form of a song was for remembrance of the truth. He told Moses, “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” (Deut. 31:19).

Scripture also tells us that we will give an account for every careless word we have spoken (Matt. 12:36). This includes lyrics sung. I certainly don’t want to stand before God confessing I picked songs that were musically energetic even though I knew they were theologically shallow and insufficiently articulate of His majesty. The word of Christ ought to dwell in us richly as we sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16).
If we are living with an expectation of worshiping God who sits on the Great White Throne and that we will be joining the elders and creatures of Heaven by singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” then let’s start now.

Let us lead with God’s glory in mind. Let us lead with a conviction that we are helping people to remember the truths of Scripture. Let us lead with an overflow of our own study of Scripture, so that our doxology is truly informed by proper theology. Let us sing to God about who He is and what He has done and is doing and will do…

“And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Rev. 15:2-4).

In His Sovereign Grip,