Why be so picky about songs? Here’s my reasoning. If you disagree, I really would encourage you to comment; I’m not perfect and I will readily say I can be wrong… I encourage you to convince me of my error
One thing I do want to be clear of … I do remind myself regularly not to judge others who are not as picky or analytical as me. It may feel like I am inherently telling other people how they should look at songs; perhaps that is the case, but that is not my goal. My goal is to try to be faithful to Christ in what I sing and what I recommend others to sing (by picking songs for a corporate worship service). Do I think someone else is unfaithful to Christ because they do a song that I would not have done? No. Are there times that I think they must not have thought something through? Yes. Do I make mistakes, too? Definitely.
Also, one other preface: these are not based on looking at other church’s and trying to come up with where they fall short. This is based primarily on experiences of my own and those I have talked to, and thinking through how we can be more faithful to Christ in these areas. In other words, this is not reactionary in a “you guys are doing it wrongly, look how we do it!” way, but a “how can we improve in this area” way. Hopefully that makes sense. The goal is to better shepherd the church and better worship Christ, and to not let tradition, familiarity, or apathy get in the way of that.
The Gospel Is Important
The area that I am the most picky about and the most analytical about is the gospel. If a song gets the gospel wrong or if it’s ambiguous, I want to know about it. If it says Christ came to save me from something that, in fact, He didn’t … that’s bad. If the song gives a bad reason for coming to Christ or talks about it in a non-committal way (you know how it goes – the “if the world doesn’t satisfy you, why don’t you try Jesus?” mentality) … that’s bad. We don’t trust Christ because we’re not satisfied with what the world has to offer us. Now, can I “explain” that sort of song? Sure – the world offers us sin and death, and I’m not satisfied with that, so I trust Christ for righteousness and life. But I only can do that because I already know the truth… but the “try-Jesus” or “add-on Jesus” gospel is alive and well today, and not everyone knows the truth of the gospel.
If it is ambiguous about it or unclear, I still think that’s usually bad… why? Because there may be people that don’t know enough to “fill in the blanks” as a more mature believer might be able to do. I do not want a song I pick to teach someone wrongly about the gospel!
Now, that said, does a song need to explain the full gospel every single time? No. On the other hand, I still want to be aware of what it say and what it does not say. The differences between Amazing Grace and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and All I Have Is Christ should be known to me, I should be aware of what each song is saying and what they do not say about the gospel.
We Should Sing with Understanding
With the most important issue aside – the gospel – my second primary reasoning is that we should sing with understanding. That means we need to think about the words we sing. That means that the words should be “worth” thinking about that (there’s some leeway there, I admit) and they should be accurate. That “accurate” word is important… it’s encompassing a lot of things. It’s not just that the song “doesn’t teach bad theology.” It’s that it teaches good theology, that it teaches and encourages correct ways to view things, that it does not take verses or biblical references out of context, etc.
Here’s a hypothetical situation that I do not want to be in. I encourage the congregation that I lead in music to really think and ponder and be encouraged by the words we sing. After the service, someone comes up to me and says “You know, Paul, I was really thinking about the words that we sang … and, did you realize that the song is actually incorrect? Did you realize it’s teaching something about Christ that is not true?” Ouch. Here’s an example that I used recently on a Facebook conversation Lo! He Comes With Clouds Descending was written by Wesley, who appears to have a different theology about the Rapture and the 2nd Coming. That’s fine. However, my church believes in a pre-tribulation rapture. That particular song appears to place the rapture at the end of the tribulation, right at the same time as the 2nd Coming and the beginning of the millennial kingdom.
Now, I realize people may disagree with my theological position on this, and that’s fine. However, I cannot encourage people to really think about the words of this song when the words are teaching a theology that isn’t what we actually believe. What profit is that to them? And what kind of shepherd am I being if I encourage people to let themselves be taught by words that are teaching something I don’t want to be taught?
We Should Not Encourage Singing Without Understanding
It’s possible that there are songs where we, for the most part, understand and are able to think about them as we sing… so, the question may come up – what about something where there’s a verse in a song where we don’t understand it? Should we still sing it?
I am of the opinion that as I, as a “lead worshiper” or worship-in-song-leader, should not pick a song that I do not understand completely. Does it mean I understand every single thing the song is trying to say? No. But I should be able to know what everything a song says means. If there’s something that I don’t understand, I shouldn’t pick it. Does it mean the song is bad? No, not necessarily. What we don’t want to do, though, is get people (or ourselves) into the habit of simply ignoring things we don’t understand. I realize there will be songs where some people may not understand it; but what I don’t want to happen is that they don’t understand it, they come and ask me, and I say “uhhh well I don’t know, I was hoping no one would notice.” Songs aren’t sacred, holy ground that we dare not tread on; it’s okay to say that we don’t do this song because there are parts of it we don’t understand. Or, just don’t sing the parts you don’t understand. Often, we will simply cut a verse or two if we disagree or don’t understand that particular verse.
One might ask why it’s so bad to sing without understanding. Well, singing in the church has, as best I can tell, two biblical purposes… one primary, and one secondary.
- Worship God (i.e., our singing is directed directly towards Him)
- Encourage others (i.e., our singing is also directed “towards” others)
Let’s deal with #1 especially. If I am directly worshiping God … how can I assume that He is pleased when I try to worship Him with words where I don’t actually know what I’m saying? “Well, He understands,” one might reply Yes, but we don’t, and that’s the point. How can God be pleased when we try to worship without knowing what we’re actually saying? Especially when we are choosing to sing those words. Does this mean that if you don’t understand every single word in a song that I think you’re not really worshiping? No. But I do think that we should strive to understand what we are saying … and if we don’t understand it, then maybe we should not choose to sing those words – especially since we have so many resources at our fingertips. We are not short of songs these days.
Sing Because of the Song, not Tradition
Do all songs need to be amazingly profound? No. Not all the Psalms were, either. Do all songs need to be long? No. Do all songs need to mention any particular specific topic? No.
However, I think it’s important to remember that we need to sing songs because we know they are good. That means we have to know what’s in them and make a conscious decision of yes, this song will help our congregation really worship God, encourage others, etc… or no, this song will not really help; there’s better ones we could do, and this one really isn’t worth doing. Now, a decision I make for my congregation may different from yours, and that’s okay; we have different people in our congregations.
The important part, though, is that we don’t start doing songs simply because it’s a song that we’ve “always” done. The sort of “it was good enough before” sort of mentality. Tradition – the practices and songs of those who have come before us – can be good and can be encouraging; however, tradition needs to be analyzed, because people who have come before us made mistakes or believed differently, too.
Here’s a short version of these few paragraphs: Christ is worth us constantly making sure that our worship of Him is good, biblical, engaging, and real. Doing something not so good or not so engaging or not so biblical simply for tradition’s sake is not good. Clearly, this also means that not doing things simply because they are traditional is also not good.
Make sure your songs are good. Make really sure that your songs’ depiction of the gospel is good and accurate. Don’t do or not do things simply because of tradition. And, lastly, remember that Christ is worth us trying to honor Him as best we can; it’s far more important than we honor Him well than hold up tradition or non-tradition.