One of the things I’ve been blessed to do since I embraced Christ is lead God’s people in worship through song. God has gifted me with a singer’s voice and a love for music. My youth pastor allowed me to lead the songs during youth group and I’ve done it ever since, almost always in the “contemporary worship” style popular on Christian radio. (I’m thinking of “contemporary worship” as a genre typified by artists and churches like Passion, Hillsong, Bethel, and Jesus Culture).
Over these fifteen-or-so years of song leading, I’ve witnessed fights over style of worship, bold declarations that “true worship” is done this way or that, and wannabe rock stars posturing under the lights (I must confess; I was guilty of this last one for far too long).
I’ve also watched students deepen in their love for the Lord, the Spirit break down heart-barriers, and parents joyfully proclaim the truths of Scripture through song in unison with their children. I am a supporter of all styles of worship music and truly believe that the good of the movement outweighs the bad.
But it wasn’t until recently that I began questioning the content of the songs being sung. While I was growing as a worship leader, singability and musical interest tilted band repertoire lists much more than song lyrics ever did. And these are certainly important factors that help song leaders and band decide what makes the cut. The goal, of course, is for people to enjoy what they’re hearing and encourage them to sing along in worship of our God.
It is what happens after the worship service is over, however, that has forced me to pause and analyze the lyrics of these songs more carefully. Maybe you have experienced this: you leave worship not mulling over the point of the sermon or meditating on a recited creed, but humming the melody to one of the songs sung that morning.
Those melodies carry words with them.
And those words carry theology.
And that theology is shaping our souls.
Music ministers to people differently than the sermon or any other element of Christian worship. This doesn’t make it more important than any other element; after all, a wonderful set of strong worship songs can be eviscerated by a vapid or heretical sermon. But the church has understood since she began that singing is vital to Christian worship precisely because it catches in our minds and begins to catechize our hearts.
It is important, then, to be aware of the words that are sticking in the minds of our fellow brothers and sisters. Just as the food we eat can strengthen us, bloat us with empty calories, or poison us, so can what we sing do the same to our souls.
Friends, we are what we sing.
In my years doing this, I’ve found that all songs of every worship style fit into one of three categories that, using the food analogy, play a large role in the spiritual health of worshippers. They are: empty calorie songs, poisonous songs, and nutritious songs. As many churches are more challenged by “empty calorie” songs than downright poisonous ones, I’ll focus the rest of this article on the first category and tackle the other categories in my next post.
“Empty Calorie” Songs
Empty calorie songs are those that don’t teach heresy or false doctrine, but that don’t really teach good theology either. As Al Mohler said at Together for the Gospel, “In many churches, they’re looking for songs that include no heresy. That’s not enough! We need songs that have genuine content. Some of the songs I’ve heard have no capacity for heresy. There’s not enough theology in them!”
Here’s an example. The song “Good, Good Father” has been burning up radio dials for quite a few months. There’s nothing really wrong with the song. In fact, there are some precious truths included. God is, indeed, a good father. And, yes, we are loved by him. I also find nothing wrong in repeating these truths (although some leaders seem to repeat ad nauseum). The song is simple (and, it could be argued, simplistic) so I certainly don’t expect confession-level nuance from the lyrics.
But there’s a line in the bridge that makes no sense.
You are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways
You are perfect in all of your ways to us
Again, this bridge contains a glorious truth – God is truly perfect in every way! But what does it mean that he is perfect “to us”. Is he perfect in his dealings toward us? Is he perfect based on our definition of perfection? Is he only perfect towards us and imperfect towards others?
You could say that I should sing charitably and assume the best, but I’m not sure what the best is. I don’t know what the authors want me to believe because I don’t know what the line means.
And so it becomes a throw-away line. Think about that for a moment. We are worshiping the God of the universe, transcendent above all things yet imminently present with us at every moment. We have come into his presence. Should we really tolerate space for throw-away lines? Worse yet, should we tolerate entire throw-away songs?
In 2010, one of the most popular worship groups in the country released the song “One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)“. Since then, the song has appeared on more than thirty separate worship albums and, as of the writing of this post, is still the twelfth most popular song as ranked by the Christian music licensing organization CCLI.
It is also the epitome of an “empty calorie” worship song.
I’ll let Jonathan Aigner, blogger at Patheos, give the critique.
That ‘Jesus-is-my-girlfriend’ label is often unfair criticism, but in this song, it holds. There’s no mention of Jesus or any other member of the Trinity. We’re just left with a couple phrases that might be part of our sacred jargon…It seems like it repeats the same thing over and over again because the lyricist literally had nothing else to say.
How is it possible that a songwriter with the rich resource of Scripture and access to the beauty of the Triune God could find “nothing else to say”? But alas, this song has nothing to say at all. Within the context of a worship service, should we not at least identify the object of our worship? Should we not at some point remind ourselves what his never-failing love looks like? How can we speak of his love without reflecting on the cross or incarnation or providence or something resembling Scriptural truth?
I have more to say in the next post, but for now I close with this: everyday worship leaders do not have the time to write our own music. And so we rely on those who have assumed the calling of providing the church with her songs to thoughtfully assist in bringing us before the throne of God. It is right and good, therefore, for us to demand songs that fill us, not empty-calorie ditty’s that leave us spiritually malnourished.