LYRICS IN WORSHIP SONGS
The Bible indicates that musical worship has a two-fold purpose:
A Vertical Dimension
The first, and primary, purpose of worship in song is to glorify God by offering to Him the praise that is due to His Name. This fundamental concept of worship is inherent in countless verses throughout scripture: “All the earth bows down to you; they sing praise to you, they sing the praises of Your Name” (Psalm 66:4).
Furthermore, we are to praise God, not in the hope of getting something in return, but as a selfless expression of adoration: “Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His Name alone is lifted up; His majesty transcends earth and heaven.” (Psalm 148:13)
Indeed, this is the ultimate purpose for which mankind and the heavenly creatures were all created: “Let all the earth praise the Lord. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from heaven … Praise him, all his angels!” (Psalm 148:1)
If the songs that we sing in our Christian gatherings do not fulfil this most fundamental of purposes, they should have no place in our meetings.
A Horizontal Dimension
Worship in song also has a secondary, horizontal purpose. We proclaim God’s praises, not only to God Himself, but to each other. We do this to encourage one another, to strengthen each other’s faith and to remind one another of the central truths of the Gospel:
- “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts.” (Ephesians 5:19)
- “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3:16)
Significantly, both these verses portray the dual purpose of worship in song; the vertical dimension of worshipping God directly, and the horizontal dimension of encouraging and teaching one another. Note, also, that the teaching and encouraging of one another through worship in song is predicated upon the necessity that “the message of Christ dwell among you richly” (Col 3:16). In other words, the content of these songs, if they are to be effective in encouraging, teaching and admonishing, must be faithful expressions of the Gospel; they must reflect the true “message of Christ”, not any other kind of message.
These dual purposes of worship are not separate, or mutually exclusive. We do not need two types of songs in a worship service; some that praise God and others that teach and encourage. Songs that proclaim the majesty of God and all that He has done for us through Christ are the very songs needed to teach and encourage one another. As we praise God for His greatness and thank Him for our salvation, we will inevitably be strengthened and encouraged in our faith.
Inherent in this may well be an emotional response. Worship can, at times, be a deeply moving experience, but this is a by-product of worship, not the aim. We do not engage in worship in order to seek an emotional high. True worship does not have a selfish motivation. The scriptures exhort us to “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that openly proclaim His Name” (Heb 13:15). The word “sacrifice” (“thusia”) is derived from the Greek word “thuo”, which means to kill or put to death. Worship, then, involves putting to death, or laying aside, our selfish desires and motivations, and rendering to God that which is due to him, purely for His pleasure, not our own. I come to a worship service seeking not to take but to give, not to receive something but to offer something. When I do this wholeheartedly I may experience an emotional response – a lifting of my heart and an upwelling of joy – but this is not the primary purpose of worship.
ASSESSING THE LYRICAL CONTENT OF WORSHIP SONGS
Given this understanding of the dual purpose of worship songs, and taking into account the scriptural exhortation that worship should be predicated upon the fact that “the message of Christ dwells among you richly” (Col 3:16), we have clear, unequivocal criteria by which we can evaluate the lyrical content of potential worship songs. The criteria can be broken down into several key questions:
- Do the lyrics praise God and honour His Name in a manner that is worthy of Him? (Taking into account the fact that, ultimately, no words can adequately express His praise or do justice to His greatness!). If a song fails this first criteria it should have no place in our gatherings. One song that particularly irks me includes the words of the chorus, “Christ is enough for me”. This conveys to me the concept that “Christ is adequate for my current needs; He’ll do; He’ll suffice for the moment; He is the best option I’ve got”. This is probably not the intent of the composer, but the lyrics leave that interpretation open. To say that I find these lyrics underwhelming and completely inadequate in expressing the supremacy of Christ is an understatement! The majesty of God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, transcendent Creator of the universe, deserves to be praised in words that express his all-surpassing greatness, rather than words of mediocrity.
- Do the lyrics reflect the true Gospel, the “message of Christ”? Truth is important. Lyrics that express a false gospel, a man-made gospel, are to be rejected. One disturbing trend in recent decades has been the proliferation of worship songs that centre around me and my needs – that portray Christ as the one who exists to enhance my fulfillment, rather than the Lord who is to be served and obeyed. Songs that are filled with requests to “fill me”, “lift me”, “move me”, “draw me closer” are self-focused rather than Christ focused, expressing a desire for an experiential high or some kind of deeper fulfilment. One recent song contains the lyrics, “I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more”. On the surface, this purports to be a noble spiritual sentiment, but in reality, it is a self-focused cry for a spiritual high, a kind of transcendent experience. It is also a contradiction of the scriptures which tell us that we are to “walk by faith, not by sight”. The number of references to self in some songs (“I”, “me”, “my”), when compared to the number of references to God, reveals the disturbingly self-focused nature of some songs.
- Do the lyrics confuse romantic love with devotion to God?
Unfortunately, this is now endemic within evangelical Christianity. Several songs I have recently encountered include the phrase “Jesus, I’m so in love with you” or something similar. In a recent worship service at the church I belong to, one particularly vacuous “worship” song included endless repetitions of the bridge:
“How I love you, how I love you, how I love you, my first love
How I love you, how I love you, how I love you, my first love …”
“My first love“? Really??? How completely inappropriate to use a term which is universally employed to refer to one’s first romantic love – one’s first experience of “falling in love” with a boyfriend or girlfriend! Significantly, the song never clearly identifies the recipient of this sentiment: God and Jesus are never mentioned. Assuming, however, that it is God who is being addressed, this kind of vacuous, romantic sentiment is utterly inadequate and inappropriate in addressing the all-powerful God of the universe. I play in our worship band, and as we were rehearsing prior to the service one of the other men in the worship band turned to me and whispered, “Oh no! Not another ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ song!” I quietly agreed with him. Not only do songs like this represent the feminisation of worship in recent years (which leaves the average male feeling extremely uncomfortable saying they are “in love” with Jesus), but such shallow romantic sentiment is completely inadequate in expressing praise to God. Rather than this kind of emotive, introspective drivel, the Bible exhorts us to a much more robust devotion to God that involves obedience and the submission of one’s whole life to His Lordship. It is this kind of love, the love of submission, obedience and service, that needs to be expressed in our worship songs, rather than romantic sentiment.
- Do the lyrics contain any significant content at all? A song which effectively says little more than “I love you, I love you, I love you” without identifying and praising any specific qualities of God is vacuous and self-focused – a euphoric wallowing in our own emotions. Chuck Colson writes of an experience in his own church one Sunday;
“We’d been led through endless repetitions of a meaningless ditty called ‘Draw Me Close to You,’ which has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub. When I thought it was finally and mercifully over, the music leader beamed, and said, ‘Let’s sing that again, shall we?’. ‘No!’ I shouted, loudly enough to send heads all around me spinning while my wife, Patty, cringed.”
- Do the lyrics mention God at all? Surprisingly, there have been some songs written in recent years which completely fail to identify who is being praised. An example is the song, Draw Me Close. It contains lyrics such as “Draw me close to you, never let me go”, but at no point mentions God or Jesus. The “you” could be anyone – the song could easily be sung to your boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife. Worse, the song has zero theological content, and consists of wallowing in a desire for an intimate, emotional experience.
- Are the lyrics understandable to most people? In order for a congregation to worship God with their minds (1 Cor 14:15), they must understand what they are singing. And in order for worship songs to be useful in encouraging and teaching the faith, the meaning of the lyrics must be clear. Issues that may detract from clarity include;
- Antiquated vocabulary – words that are no longer used in modern English. This can be particularly problematic with hymns written centuries ago. (Eg: The words “deigns” and “repining”, used in the first verse and chorus of the classic hymn “Oh Rejoice Ye Christians Loudly” would be incomprehensible to most people today).
- Technical or theological jargon (Eg: “propitiation” is probably not readily understood by most people)
- Awkward, inverted sentence structures in order to achieve a rhyme
- Obscure biblical allusions (Eg: “Here I raise my Ebenezer” in the hymn, “Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing”)
- Use of obscure poetic imagery (Eg: the lyrics, “Night with ebon pinion brooded o’er the vale” in the hymn of the same name by Love Humphreys Jameson)
Some may argue that songs with obscure or antiquated lyrics can still be used, provided the vocabulary is explained first. But if clarity is to be guaranteed, these obscure lyrics would need to be explained every time the hymn or song is sung, for the sake of newcomers, visitors, congregants who may not have been present when it was originally explained, and even those who were present but who have forgotten. Conducting an “Olde English” vocabulary lesson each time a hymn is sung is impractical and interrupts the flow of worship. It is also unnecessary, as there are many songs written in contemporary English that can express the same concepts.
An example of a modern worship song with excellent theological content, is “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, love so amazing
Jesus Messiah, name above all names
Blessed redeemer, Emmanuel
The rescue for sinners, the ransom from Heaven
Jesus Messiah, Lord of all
Obviously, the words “messiah”, “redeemer” and “Emmanuel” require some unpacking, but they are in a different category to antiquated English words that have fallen into disuse. These are important biblical concepts that are foundational and that church members will grow to understand more fully as they grow in discipleship. Advocating for songs without obscure lyrics is not, therefore, advocating for simplistic, superficial lyrics.
When churches evaluate worship songs for possible inclusion in their services, the first, and most important, criterion for evaluation must be their lyrical content. A beautiful melody, sweeping chord structure and a polished arrangement are not sufficient to qualify a song as worthy of inclusion. What we sing in church has a powerful, formative influence upon people’s theology. A beautiful song with questionable, misleading or incomprehensible content can subtlety undermine the truth of the Gospel and lead people into beliefs and attitudes that are unhelpful and possibly harmful. Most contemporary songwriters are not theologians, and they may not have been exposed to consistently sound teaching themselves. It is, therefore, essential that pastors and elders who are responsible for the worship ministry of their church exercise wise oversight to ensure that the message of the songs does not contradict or obfuscate the “message of Christ” (Col 3:16).
For a more comprehensive study of Musical Worship, see my paper, “Towards A Proper Understanding Of Worship”.