Singing is a spiritual exercise (Psalms; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). Few things can open up hearts to God like beautiful music and meaningful lyrics. The effects of music on the soul are nothing short of amazing. That is why virtually all Christian congregations feature music in their services. But what we sing about is just as important as the fact that we are singing. After all, singing the latest Taylor Swift song would not be deemed spiritual just because it was sung in church. Content matters. But not just any ‘ol content that mentions God will do either.
I have been increasingly concerned over the years with the lyrical content of mainstream “worship” songs. Many of our songs suffer from theological anorexia. There’s not enough theological content in them to make the Devil yawn, yet alone choke. They are so generic that one may have a hard time telling what God they are talking about (if God is even mentioned). Then there are the “God of my girlfriend” songs that are spiritually androgynous. One can’t tell whether they are singing about their love for God or their love for their girlfriend. Finally, there are songs some have called “7-11” songs: They contain seven words sung 11 times. If you want to know what theologically robust songs look like, get yourself a hymnal that’s more than 30 years old. They are pregnant with theological substance.
Other songs we sing are fraught with theological error. No, we don’t feel angels’ wings brushing our face. No, it’s not true that “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” He cried like every other baby. No, we won’t spend eternity in some ephemeral heaven in the sky. Our eternal state will be a bodily existence in a renewed, physical universe.
Theologically errant songs are even more egregious than theologically thin songs because songs are a powerful means of teaching theology. Songs are lyrical theology. Just think of how many songs you know from heart versus how many verses of Scripture you can quote. Music makes words easier to remember, and thus theology sung is more memorable and influential than theology taught. When Arius wanted to spread his heretical views about Jesus in the early fourth century, he wrote songs. The lyrics reflected his theology, and because his tunes were so catchy, people all over started singing them. And when they started singing them, they started believing what they were singing.
Given the lack of doctrinal teaching and personal Bible reading today, for many Christians their primary source of theology comes from the songs they hear and sing. This is a scary thought given the lyrical content of so many modern Christian songs (worship songs as well as Christian contemporary songs). They believe what they sing about, and assume the church is singing it because they believe the lyrics accurately reflect Scriptural truths. That’s why we should be all the more attentive to the content of the songs we sing. “But the melody is so nice,” we say. I understand. I hate the fact that I can’t sing along with some of my favorite worship songs. It’s disappointing. But in the same way we would never intentionally teach error from the pulpit, we should not intentionally teach error from the choir loft with the songs we sing.
Out of Focus
I am also troubled by the focus of the lyrics in many modern worship songs. They hardly engender worship of God because they barely speak about Him or extol Him. Sure, some songs may have quite a number of references to “God” or “Jesus,” but too often they talk about our feelings for God rather than God’s acts and glory. Rather than glorifying God, they glorify our feelings about God. If you wonder why people aren’t worshipping in your church, it might be because the songs you are singing are not promoting the worship of God because they are me-centric. Many of these songs are very entertaining, have catchy melodies, and poetic lyrics, but they are focused on the wrong thing. If we sing about us, it should not surprise us when worship services are about us rather than God.
I don’t believe there is such a thing as “Christian music” per se. Rather, there are Christian lyrics. Christian lyrics can be accompanied by any number of music styles and it would still be Christian music because the lyrics are Christian. That said, when it comes to worship songs, music style does matter. There are certain styles of music that are amenable to engendering adoration of our God, while other styles do not. Some styles of music do not touch the heart, but entertain. There is a place for Christian music that entertains, but that place is not in a worship service. It is not a performance, but an invitation to the body of believers to join together in a corporate exaltation of their Lord and Savior.
Songwriters, worship leaders, and pastors, I encourage you to rethink the songs you write and sing. Let’s write/sing songs that are ripe with good theology and meaningful lyrics that touch the soul, directing our attention to God rather than ourselves and our feelings.
Are there any lyrics that come to mind that exemplify the shortcomings I’ve discussed? If so, share the song title and applicable lyrics in the comments.