MORE ABOUT WORSHIP SONGS
In my previous post, I spoke of the need to carefully examine the songs we sing in church, to ensure that they are God-focused rather than self-focused. The last three decades has seen a growing proliferation of songs which major on articulating the self-focused emotional response of the worshipper, rather than declaring the character of God and the work of Christ. Of course, not all contemporary worship songs are like this; there are still some excellent Christ-focused songs being written. But too many self-focused songs are finding their way into our play lists in evangelical churches. (See last week’s post for a more complete discussion of this).
The New Testament contains several examples of what are believed to be early Christian hymns, recorded for us by Paul and incorporated into the body of his letters. The publishers of most Bible translations have indicated the liturgical nature of these passages by indenting them within the text. (Look them up in your own Bible and see for yourself!) These first century hymns provide us with an excellent model of Christ-centred worship songs:
(Phil 2:6-11) “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
(Col 1:15-20) “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
These two passages of scripture (as well as Ephesians 5:14 and 1 Timothy 3:16) are examples of first century liturgical hymns, quoted by Paul in his letters. They were sung in Christian gatherings and would have been very familiar to many of Paul’s readers. The difference between the lyrical content of these hymns and that of many modern self-focused worship songs is stark. Significantly, there is no mention in these New Testament hymns of the worshippers being fulfilled, blessed, empowered, lifted, gifted, drawn closer, falling deeply in love or made victorious. These early Christian hymns were not about “us” at all. They were focused solely upon Christ and His saving work.
We need to formulate our model of worship from the Word of God, and not from our self-infatuated society. In particular, our worship songs are meant to celebrate the central truths of the gospel. I quoted Colossians 3:16 in my post last week, but let me reinforce its message again:
“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)
According to this verse, the act of worshipping in song is predicated upon the necessity that “the message of Christ dwell among you richly”. In other words, the content of these songs, if they are to be effective in praising God and teaching one another (the vertical and horizontal dimensions of worship) must be faithful expressions of the Gospel; they must reflect the true “message of Christ”, not any other kind of self-focused message.
I have had a lot of very supportive response to my article last week (“Lyrics In Christian Worship”). Quite a number of people have emailed or contacted me to express similar concerns regarding the shallow, self-focused nature of some worship songs. But there have been a few people who expressed concern that I was completely rejecting the validity of articulating an emotional response to God in worship. Let me be clear: There is certainly nothing wrong with expressing deep emotion to God in worship. I become concerned, however, when a song is more focused on how great my love for God is, rather than on how great my God is. It’s all well and good to sing “How I love you, how I love you, how I love you” over and over again, but why do we love God? What attributes and actions of God evoke such love and adoration? It is those attributes and actions that deserve to be shouted aloud and sung from the rooftops, rather than our self-indulgent declarations of love by themselves. It is an interesting exercise to examine some of the songs we sing and see what percentage of a particular song is proclaiming God’s greatness and all that He has done for us through Christ, compared with how much of the song is focused upon my feelings or my desire for a deeper spiritual experience.
It is my heart’s desire that “the message of Christ dwell among us richly” in every element of the service. It is only as we lift Christ up that people will be drawn to Him in genuine faith and repentance (John 12:32). Anything that takes the focus away from Christ onto ourselves compromises the gospel and inhibits its power to bring about true conversion (Rom 1:16).
Fortunately, the last few years have seen the introduction to the Christian music industry of some contemporary songwriters have who have a strong commitment to producing God-focused, gospel-proclaiming worship songs. Emu Music, Bob Kauflin and Stuart Townend are examples of a growing number of producers and songwriters who are producing Christian worship songs with sound lyrical content. Similarly, over the same period, Hillsong have significantly improved the lyrical content of their songs. After many years of criticism from evangelical church leaders, Hillsong is now taking treating lyrical content much more seriously, and have employed a theologically trained person to vet all lyrics of new songs. Perhaps the western church has turned the corner. I sincerely hope so.
For a more comprehensive study of Musical Worship, see my paper –
 Evangelical scholars such as Ralph P Martin (“Worship In The Early Church”) indicate that these liturgical quotes were almost certainly hymns. This is the overwhelming consensus amongst Biblical Scholars. The footnotes in the NIV Study Bible, and other translations, make the same point. The rhythm and cadence of these hymns is unfortunately lost in our English translations.