The written language is one of the most important vehicles through which we as human beings communicate to each other. Words have the ability to communicate knowledge, feelings, thoughts, and attitudes to others. Words also have the ability to express our deepest acts of worship to God, and they give us the ability to express them together in a corporate worship setting.
I have been doing a lot of thinking about words lately, especially in the context of song lyrics. This is something that we have spent a number of hours discussing in one of my doctoral classes at the seminary. Through these discussions I have been forced to think deeper than I ever have before about such issues as textual depth, theological content, updating texts, politically correcting texts, as well as how to make wise choices for texts to use in worship. Through these discussions, I’ve come to a number of key conclusions that I think are particularly relevant to my job as a worship pastor, and to all of us as worshipers of God.
We live in a day and age in which more and more emphasis is being placed on the style, feeling, or “groove” of songs, with less and less concern about the textual content. If you were to go up to the average person and ask them about the meaning of whatever pop song they were currently listening to, I think you would find that most people don’t really know. They just enjoy the music.
I think this mentality has crept into the church as well. In this day of mass-market worship, a big name worship leader can release a single and within a month, half of the country is singing it. The song that comes to mind from this past summer is Chris Tomlin’s Our God. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that song in and of itself, but I’m afraid America’s worship leaders are simply checking their brains at Itunes, and programming the “latest and greatest” songs without really giving thought to the texts of what they are singing. And not only that, but I think our people have disengaged with textual content as well. They become attached to songs because they are catchy or fun, but they don’t really know what the songs are saying or what they are about.
So, how do we fix this? Well, I don’t have all the answers, but here are three general recommendations:
- Utilize texts that really mean something. A trend that I am seeing in the latest “worship music” is that there is a real lack of meaning and depth in the texts. Songs need to say more than simply “God you are great, and I worship You.” Where is the depth? Where is the theology? Where is the life-altering truth? We are handicapping our worship when we sing songs that don’t really have that much to say.
- Utilize texts that have stood the test of time. Do I use contemporary songs in church? Yes I do. Do I use traditional hymns? You bet I do. God has gifted hundreds of writers throughout church history to pen texts that express great depths of worship and devotion to Him. The filter of time as allowed the greatest of those expressions to pass down to us. We MUST continue to use them. What arrogance we express when we refuse to use the great hymns of the faith. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not simply referring to the “good old songs” that a lot of us grew up with. I referring to the great hymns of the faith by men such as Watts, Wesley, Gerhardt, etc.
- Make sure our congregations understand the texts and their importance. It’s not enough to simply sing great songs if the congregation has difficulty relating to the texts. As worship leaders, we must find ways to educate our people. People often despise that which they do not understand. We must help them understand. We must help them think. We must teach them that worship is more than emotion. We must teach them how to process the truth of God’s revelation and respond in ways deeper than they ever have before.