You Are What You Sing – Pt 2

A couple of years ago, a group of people stopped by a Brazilian restaurant for lunch. Many in the group ordered fish which had been caught by a local fisherman and prepared on site by the cooks in the kitchen. What no one realized was that a small, yet highly poisonous pufferfish had been gathered with the rest of the catch, delivered to the restaurant, accidentally prepared, and served to unsuspecting guests. Not long after eating, some of the guests became violently ill and needed to be hospitalized. Thankfully, everyone survived.

Choosing songs for worship is a difficult job and it takes discernment. Song leaders must balance lyrical content with easy-to-sing melodies and interesting song structures. But If these song leaders aren’t careful, they’ll accidentally expose worshippers to poisonous lyrics that can have disastrous results.

In my last post, I began to dig into the songs being used in many of our corporate worship services and encouraged worship leaders and songwriters to thoughtfully approach the lyrical content sung in worship.

We first looked at the importance of music in worship. Then we took the “eating” metaphor and applied it to the kinds of songs sung in worship. We began with what I call “empty-calorie” songs. Today we’ll take a look at “poisonous” songs. Next week we will discover what powerful nutritious songs are available to worship leaders. Finally, to finish the series, we’ll use the “eating” metaphor one final time to discover the role of the song leader in worship.

Poisonous Songs

No sane person would intentionally eat poison. But we should also take care that we don’t sing songs in worship that poison our souls by leading us into a false understanding of who God is and what he has done for us.

Poisonous songs take on two forms.

The first is the most obvious: songs that contain heresy.

Heretical Songs

In 2011, a catchy little song building off the 19th century hymn “Standing on the Promises” started hitting the airwaves. The original hymn celebrates the covenant promises that God has made to his people. The new one? Not so much. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics:

We will face the darkness around us
As we break the chains that have bound us…
So we stand with keys of the kingdom
To declare the day of our freedom…

We’re gonna see what we’re praying for
We believe every single word…
We release the supernatural
Stronger than we’ve ever been
We are standing on His promises

The problems jump to the surface. We’re not releasing any supernatural anything, we haven’t broken any chains at all (that’s something Jesus mercifully does for us) and the day of our freedom was declared by Christ through his death and resurrection while we were rebelliously running in the opposite direction.

Most poisonous songs aren’t so brazen. Song leaders shouldn’t need Master’s degrees to see the manifold problems of a song like “Standing”. But sometimes poisonous lyrics are embedded in songs that are otherwise totally fine.

Take, for example, the Christian radio hit “Greater“. The song affirms that no matter what others may hold against us, God seeks us out in our sin and redeems us. This is the glorious truth of the Gospel.

Sadly, the song isn’t content to leave it there. The bridge contains a line that is highly problematic:

There’ll be days I lose the battle
Grace says that it doesn’t matter
‘Cause the cross has already won the war

Yes, there will be days that we lose the battle against sin and succumb to temptation. And because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, those sins are paid for and we will be welcomed into the kingdom of God. But to say that our sins don’t matter because of grace is Antinomianism of the highest order, a heretical doctrine that teaches we don’t have to obey God because of grace. Shorthand: grace says that it doesn’t matter.

But it does! Our sins grieve the Spirit and are the reason Christ suffered and died on the cross. Far from not mattering, our sins matter deeply! But here is the 16th century Antinomian heresy in all its glory right here in a song from 2014.

Cheap Songs

The second form of poisonous song is related to “empty-calorie” songs but is more dangerous. These songs don’t espouse a historical heresy, but they cheapen who God is and what he’s done by either making God into someone he’s not, or making light of what God is doing in history. Examples are needed to explain. Regrettably, contemporary worship music is replete with them.

The Passion conference is one of the great contemporary worship showcases of the year. The January conference is then followed up by a worship album that is a must listen for worship leaders around the country. So when one of the lead singles a couple years back was “God’s Great Dance Floor“, the church was certain to absorb many eager song leaders trying to transform sanctuaries into dance halls.

The song is a mess and would fall into the “empty-calorie” category if it didn’t so trivialize the Kingdom of God. The bridge is what nudges the song over the line into poisonous territory:

I feel alive I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor
I feel alive I come alive
I am alive on God’s great dance floor

A dance floor? The Kingdom of God, in both its already and not yet (note the repeated line “Let the future begin”) is just one big party? Yes, the New Heavens and New Earth will be joyful but we’re not there yet and we can’t lead our people to think that it supposed to be.

Because what if a worshipper’s life isn’t joyful when they come to worship? What if it’s filled with pain? What of the Christians who are suffering around the world because of persecution, poverty, or natural disaster? Should they just hit the dance floor and forget their troubles? And what’s the implication for those who don’t feel joyful? Is it their problem? Is their faith somewhat defective? Has God not blessed them the way he has blessed others?

You can see the burden this can place on worshippers.

And is anyone else a little weirded out by God envisioned as a cosmic DJ?

Speaking of inappropriate ways to view God, there’s also a trend among some in the Contemporary Worship world to describe God in sensual terms that can even tend toward the erotic. Remember the 90s mega-hit “In the Secret“?

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness you are there…
I want to touch you
I want to see your face
I want to know you more

Things haven’t gotten better. One recent hit song claims that God “ravishes” the singer’s heart and another calls on God to “romance” them.

I’m not trying to be over the top or needlessly controversial. But these songs are more than theologically empty; they’re dangerous. As people sing these songs, they begin to imbibe the theology found in the words and God, in the minds of some, is transformed from Almighty Lord to boyfriend or buddy.

The lyrics of our songs need to be taken seriously. A poisonous song here and there won’t kill anyone, sure. But would a worship leader want to be guilty of leading their people into flirting with poison?

Because if you eat enough pufferfish, you’ll die. And if you sing enough poisonous worship songs, your heart will begin to turn from the God of Scripture toward a God of humanity’s own making.

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.

3 thoughts on “You Are What You Sing – Pt 2

  • October 4, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Hi Marcos,

    I know we agree this series is not designed to pick on anyone. But,I do wonder if the theology of a ministry parallels the worship music it puts out. I have been having trouble singing songs from certain ministries that preach a false doctrine. Some of their songs parallel their ministries, but some are not as obvious. However, my mind goes directly to the ministry when I hear the song and I have to block it out or leave the sanctuary while that song is being sung. I am concerned that if we sing those songs in worship, we are in a way legitimizing what they teach and believe and our congregants could seek out the music and be led to the ministries that create it. Ultimately , they are led astray and poisoned. Or am I taking my concern too far?

    P.S. Go Eagles!

    • October 6, 2016 at 8:32 am

      That’s a great question. I’ve had to wrestle with this time and time again. I don’t know if there’s a “right” answer, so I’ll just give you the conclusion I’ve come to. I use songs based on the merits of that song alone and not based on my level of agreement with the author.
      Now, this can be tricky. If a song is coming from an organization I don’t trust theologically, I am extra careful with what the song says. If I can tell that the author was intending to push something heretical or even heterodox with the song, I won’t use it. But if the song falls within the bounds of orthodoxy and is consistent with the local church’s theological tradition, I use it.
      Let me give an example. Matt Maher has done Some work with the group International House of Prayer (IHOP). I’m personally uncomfortable with some of IHOP’s teachings and cannot endorse them. However, Maher’s songs “Lord, I Need You” and “Amen (Because He Lives)” are both quality worship songs that we use in my local church because the songs themselves don’t promote IHOP’s theological positions.
      So I tend not to place an abundance of weight on the source of the song because most of the people in the pews don’t know (or care, frankly). I just focus on the content of the songs.
      There is definitely a link between church theology and the music being produced. We write what we believe. In the end, if we’re diligent about examining the lyrics of the songs we use, we’ll find ourselves naturally trending toward some groups and away from others.
      I hope this answers your question. And I would also encourage you to see if your pastor and worship leader have some time to sit down so you can share your concerns. That way they can hear where you’re coming from and you can hear the rationale behind song selection.
      The more communication the better!

    • September 21, 2017 at 5:21 am

      Lisi15, I could have written your words myself. I totally agree with what you are saying. At times, I feel a need to leave – to truly RUN from – the sanctuary when certain songs are being sung. However, I’m the one who does all the videos and words for our songs. I’m stuck there, having to support songs that seem so insulting to God, to my Lord Jesus, to His Holy Spirit. So…I sit back there struggling through the battle within myself, fighting that need to run, feeling the need to scream, escaping the entire thing. No amount of prayer and beseeching God to show me if I’m the one who is wrong in how I perceive this music is alleviating this battle within.

      I try to explain to those in charge that certain songs, We Come Alive in the River, and God’s Great Dance Floor, for instance, make the things of God cheap, common, and cause me to feel that God is being insulted by our foolishness.

      But what can I do? There is NO one else who knows how to, nor do they have to skills to do what I do for the musical and scriptural portions of our services, and I’m not one to bail on the pastor or my precious fellow Christians. So I suffer through the battle within me, as we sing these atrocious songs. At times, I feel gut-wrenching sickness deep within my body and it’s all I can do not to run out of there, screaming.

      I can’t dishonor my Lord as I am forced to do with these songs, and be at peace with myself, yet prayer has not lessened my angst, nor has it changed the situation. So what do I do? Who knows. But I hear you. I feel these same things, and I’m at least comforted to know that I’m not the only one, even though there seems to be no way out, for now.

      Our younger (30’s and younger) want their music to be like God’s Great Dance Floor, the latest I’ve been subjected to and am forced to deal with, since the pastor’s son is the one who insists on playing it on a regular basis. I’ve struggled with even the song, “We Come Alive in the River”, hating every second of it. Pointless, silly, no honor to God, whatsoever, yet so many in my church just love that song.

      If I were not the only one who can do slides, which includes assembling and designing them each week, as well as all things video related, for the pastor as well, then I’d be hard pressed to stay there. I love the people with all my heart, but what is happening in our churches is cheapening the things of God and it makes me feel gut-wrenchingly ill, at times.

      Frankly, I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried to explain that these kinds of songs are an assault on my senses, not just because of the extreme loudness they insist on forcing on us, but moreso because of the violation toward all things God that I feel, with so many of the songs coming out of the young adult generations. But I’m treated as some old fogy, out of touch, too critical, etc., and my plea to worship God and not ourselves, or make all things of Him common falls on deaf ears. I’m so broken-hearted that churches far too often only “worship” horizontally, and don’t understand that it was meant to be “vertical”, far more so than what we do nowadays.

      My heart just wants to sing songs of adoration, of honor, of worship and loyalty to my Lord, yet I’m not a song writer, or I’d be writing them pronto. I so understand Noah’s heart, as his world had become so decadent, Lot’s travail as he saw the evil in his community spread to overtake the entire region. It’s how I’m feeling lately, and my face, spiritually, is in the dirt, weeping and feeling such pain for what is coming upon us. Prayer seems to be fruitless, as my own church struggles to find balance, once again. Will it, ever? Only time will tell.


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