You Are What You Sing – Pt. 1

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.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

19 thoughts on “You Are What You Sing – Pt. 1

  • September 28, 2016 at 6:07 am

    Thank you for this post. My husband and I have been discussing worship music recently. I feel that we must use discernment and test all things, even the music we hear in church. I have found myself thrown off during worship when they sing a song I find questionable and have been praying about how to handle it. I look forward to the rest of your series. In all things we seek to glorify God and our worship music should be no exception.

    • September 28, 2016 at 7:26 am

      You’re very welcome! Thank you for taking the time to comment, I really appreciate your thoughts. I hope the next post or two will be encouraging to you!

  • September 28, 2016 at 8:59 am

    Very good post. Heresy is flooding the evangelical church through so-called “worship music,” but even those that manage to weed out the heretical are often singing empty words that are, in their emptiness, as dishonoring to God as outright heresy.

    I have one disagreement, though, regarding the song “Good, Good Father.” It does contain heresy, in the very first lines.

    I’ve heard a thousand stories
    Of what they think You’re like
    But I’ve heard the tender whisper
    Of love in the dead of night
    And You tell me that You’re pleased
    And that I’m never alone

    Oh, really? You know what God is like because the voices in your drowsy head whispered something warm and fuzzy, and consequently, you know that he’s pleased. If that’s in any way scriptural, I’m Joel Osteen.

    We know who God is and what he’s like from scripture. Anything the voices in our heads tell us, whether in broad daylight or “the dead of night,” is worthless, unless we are meditating on scripture–and scripture, as a source of knowledge, is conspicuously missing from this song.

    Directing anyone anywhere but to scripture as a source of knowledge of God is a particularly dangerous heresy.

    Sola scriptura!

    • September 28, 2016 at 9:04 am

      Thanks for your comment David! I agree, those lines are pretty bad too. I guess my assumption is that when the Spirit speaks to us, he speaks the words of Scripture. But not everyone would hear those lines that way, so it’s certainly not helpful. And the song is truly empty of Scripture.

      But! There is some really good contemporary worship music out there too which I’ll get to in the next post. I’m thankful to those artists and churches who have focused heavily on the content of their lyrics.

  • September 28, 2016 at 9:13 am

    Absolutely, when the Spirit speaks to us, he speaks the words of scripture. But my imagination tells me all sorts of things I like to hear, such as that God is pleased with me when, really, it is I who am pleased with me (Jeremiah 17:9).

    Thanks, and I look forward to you following posts.

  • Pingback:A La Carte (September 28) | TLG Christian News

  • Pingback:You Are What You Sing – Pt. 1 | A disciple's study

  • September 28, 2016 at 10:54 am

    Right on! Thanks for the post. I’m tempted to leave a rant of agreement. There are so many songs we could pick apart, old and new. But that might not be edifying.

    And I SO agree with what you say about “throw away” lines, or even whole songs. Why do we waste so much precious worship time on things that don’t engage both the mind AND the heart with truth?

    Again, thanks!

    • September 28, 2016 at 10:57 am

      Thanks Jim! I’m glad the article was encouraging to you.

  • September 28, 2016 at 11:02 am

    You’ve put into words with something I have been struggling with over the past few months…”empty calorie” songs seems to be almost all of what plays in the Christian radio stations I listen to all day. Can you recommend any artists or songs that have “meat” in their lyrics?

    • September 28, 2016 at 11:10 am

      Hi Mari, I’m glad the article was helpful. I’ll mention some artists in an upcoming post, but artists I’ve been really blessed by are Keith and Kristyn Getty, Shane and Shane, Dustin Kensrue, Sovereign Grace Music. Of course, each of these artists will have a clunker from time to time, so we still have to be discerning when bringing music into the local church for worship through song. There are a lot of great artists out there for personal edification though, especially if you move out of the genre Christian radio promotes and venture into fields like hip-hop or folk.

  • September 28, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Im off to listen to them! And I look forward to reading the upcoming post

  • September 29, 2016 at 6:35 am

    Thanks so much for this analogy. It is perfect. Can’t wait for the other parts of this series. As a worship leader and songwriter, I always look for analogies to teach others worship principles and this is fantastic. Also note, a good parent, although some of his children will beg for gummy bears and snowcaps, will feed them meat and vegetables. It’s like that in worship as well.

    • September 29, 2016 at 8:10 am

      Thanks for the comment Bill! And your continuation of the analogy to good parenting so solid. In fact, you’ve given me an interesting way to look at the role of the worship leader. Look for that in my next post! And I’ll definitely shout you out for that too.

  • September 29, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Regarding your comments on “Your Love Never Fails,” what do you make of Psalm 136 in comparison?

    • September 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm


      That’s an excellent question, thanks so much for asking it!

      I’m not arguing against the truth that God’s love is unfailing, or as Psalm 136, “his steadfast love endures forever”. This is a beautiful truth and I am incredibly grateful for it! One major difference between the song and the Psalm is that the Psalm explicitly identifies the object of worship. He is called the “God of gods” (v. 2) and the “Lord of lords”. His works of creation are explicitly laid out (v. 4-9). His rescuing and redeeming of Israel is celebrated (v.10-22) and his current faithfulness is rested in (v. 23-24).

      So yes, the refrain “his steadfast love endures forever” is repeated often. But it’s interspersed throughout a description of who this God is that loves them so deeply. The song I critiqued is the equivalent of the Psalmist just repeating “his steadfast love endures forever” over and over again. This is true, but who are we talking about and how has he shown that love to us? Let’s celebrate that love! And let’s explore what that love looks like. That is why I think the song fails on almost every level. There’s nothing outright heretical or blasphemous, it’s just empty.

      I hope that’s helpful! Thanks again Juli, and if you have more questions, don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll answer as I can.


  • Pingback:You Are What You Sing - Pt 2 - Reformed Margins

  • Pingback:Wednesday Links | Forward Progress

  • Pingback:You Are What You Sing - Pt. 4 - Reformed Margins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.