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.
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.
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.
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
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.