Theology: The Musical

hymnals-1Before you read this post, I want to say that I’m one of those people who loves the hymns I grew up on; I sing them often throughout the day. I find them encouraging, rich, beautiful, and important to my faith walk.  I also love most of today’s worship music. It’s passionate, powerful, and helps me express praise and worship to God.  This post isn’t about one “style” over the other.  Sadly, such debates have ripped Christians & local churches apart.  I can think of few things dumber.  Thanks.

I grew up with a hymnal in my hand.  The son of a preacher man, I learned from a young age that when what we believe is set to music, it often finds deeper, more fertile soil in our hearts.  The great hymns of the faith are great because they are literally our theology set to music.  Even since Biblical times, music has always been an integral part of worship.  The largest book in the Bible (Psalms) is actually a songbook.

praise_worshipIn the past 20 years or so there has been a widespread shift in many local churches from hymnals to “praise music” as its often referred to.  And as a pastor to students I swim in that every single day.  I serve and help lead a ministry where there’s not one hymn book in sight.  We’re V-neck-deep in modern worship music and are always looking around for the latest worship songs from around the world.  But in all this striving for up-to-date worship tunes, we need to also be careful that we’re actually worshipping at all, and ever-mindful of WHO we’re worshipping.  And why.

I recently had one of our teens ask if we could open an upcoming student worship service with a song called “Paradise”.  I thought, “Only one song comes to mind when I hear the title “Paradise”, and that’s the one by Coldplay….”Para…para…paradise.  Para…para…paradise.”  But certainly he’s not referring to that song.”  I was wrong.  He was.

What makes a song useful in worship and/or appropriate to sing in praise to God?  Some would cite the words of Paul, “Everything is permissible…” (1 Cor. 6:12)  They’d say, “Open a worship service with Lady Gaga?  Sure!  Why not?  All the kids know it anyway and they’ll sing along….’Papa…papa-razzi!’  It’ll be great and really cool and so hip and then we’ll be even more relevant!”  And then there are some with clear lines as to what songs should go into a worship service and what shouldn’t.  I’ve actually discontinued using certain worship songs because they didn’t fit the description of what I consider a “worship” song.  By the way, what’s YOUR definition/criteria for a worship song to be used in a worship service?  Most recently, we stopped using a song because it never actually addresses God.   We had sung it on a few different occasions when I realized and asked myself “Who is this song directed at?”  It wasn’t a bad song; quite good actually.  But God’s people had gathered to worship God, not themselves.  So out it went.

Here are a few thoughts I keep in mind when deciding what’s worship and what’s just good music (or neither):

  • What theology is the song teaching? What is the song saying about God? What is it saying to God?  Worship songs should lift God up, speak of His attributes, and worship Him for who He is, even apart from anything He has done (though that is often included).
  • Is the song relatable to the audience?  There are some great hymns of the past, but without a thorough education beforehand the language would be lost on the crowd.  By the same token, just because a song is current in its popularity, doesn’t mean its good or should be used.
  • Is the tune easily learnable?  This one might not be important to you, but some great songs I’ve found might have beautiful lyrics of praise, but the melody is so complex people would trip over themselves trying to sing it, and so it doesn’t lend itself to group worship singing.
  • Are the lyrics redemptive?  There are lots of ways song lyrics can be redemptive, but there are also ways that lyrics can seem to sound good, but actually not being saying much of anything good at all.  Really study the lyrics before putting a song in front of a crowd.  Or better yet: put the song in front of the crowd not for singing, for first evaluative reading before they agree to include it in their worship.

What about you?  How do you decide what music to include/play before, during, and after a worship service?

And if you aren’t the one(s) who decides which songs are used in the worship service you participate in, then what are YOUR thoughts on worship music and what constitutes a good worship song?

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