Why do we gather?
We gather to worship the triune God, to glorify the Father and the Son through the Spirit who indwells us. We were created and have been saved for this purpose.
But sometimes, we don’t feel like it. Maybe it’s just circumstances that are distracting or bothering us. Maybe we’re tired. We had a bad week. We had a bad day. Argued with my spouse. Had to discipline the kids.
But is that a reason not to worship? “I just don’t feel like it right now.” Do we only worship because we like to do it? Am I singing just because I like singing, I like the songs, and I am having a good day?
No, we should worship today (and every day) because God is worthy of worship. We don’t worship because of what we feel, we worship because of who God is and what He has done. We worship because of the love the Father has shown to us in sending His Son and working through His Spirit to draw us to the gospel of Jesus. We always have reason to worship.
Or perhaps we feel that we don’t deserve to be allowed to worship today because we sinned this week. We messed up, we failed God and sinned just a little too much this week, and He is annoyed with us. We didn’t perform well enough.
This is simply not true; our performance doesn’t make us approved by God. Our sin doesn’t make Him disapprove of us and want us to essentially take a timeout from participation in worship because we were naughty. Our identity is wrapped up entirely in Christ’s work and we worship by the Spirit through that work. Our worship is made right through Jesus, not through our performances.
Not a perfect singer? Not a perfect prayer? Stumble on words? Not feeling what you should be? The Spirit intercedes and completes our worship. It’s made acceptable to the Father through the Spirit and because of Jesus, not because of how well we do it.
Assuming we are not consciously harboring unrepentant sin, there should be nothing preventing us from glorifying the Father and the Son through the Spirit that indwells us. Instead of allowing our circumstances to make us not feel like worshiping and allowing that feeling to rule us, let us purposefully recall to our mind the glorious love of God the Father, who chose us before the foundation of the world, fulfilled His plan of salvation by sending His equally glorious Son to humble himself to the point of death on the cross and endure the wrath that our sins had earned, and sent His Spirit to draw us to the knowledge of the gospel, to continually draw our hearts to love Christ, to guarantee our hope of full and complete redemption, and to even assist our weak prayers and worshiping by interceding for us.
So next time you don’t feel like worshiping (whether that’s singing, praying, or whatever), consider the worthiness of God to be worshiped and worship because He is worthy, not because you feel like it.
A year later…
I apparently started this post in July of 2013, ha.
Worship Song Categories: What should your church sing?
This may sound like it’s going to be a discussion about hymns vs. some other song form. But it’s actually more of an anti-discussion. I’ll give away my end point: we shouldn’t live or die on categories, we shouldn’t judge songs based on categories that are themselves actually based on preferences and [western] poetic forms, and we shouldn’t look down on Christians who like different lyrical forms than we do. To get to that point, though, a somewhat look at the commonly used categories/terms should prove useful. Please excuse any rabbit trails, which are likely (I have attempted to avoid them and edit them down/out! … but likely unsuccessfully to some degree 😉 ).
What is a ….
A chorus tends to be a bit better defined (though common usage is all over the place, again). A chorus is a single “verse” song that doesn’t have a repeated music section with different words (i.e., it’s not like a multi-verse hymn). While that’s a simple enough definition, it is often used based on music style (i.e., a modern-sounding song is sometimes referred to as a “chorus” even if it has three verses and no chorus). This term tends to be applied more or less consistently, though it is still used as a catch-all-term for anything with modern/contemporary music.
… praise song
This seemed to actually have a better definition when the term started to be commonly used (songs like We Bow Down by Twila Paris or Great Is the Lord by Michael W. Smith), and was more or less synonymous with “Praise and Worship.” It ended up being used to refer simply to a song with contemporary music accompanying it, though… probably because contemporary music did accompany the original “praise songs.” Unfortunately, this term seems to primarily be unhelpful, as words themselves aren’t even always true of the song it is applied to (e.g., a prayer like Create in Me a Clean Heart isn’t exactly a song of praise but Holy, Holy, Holy certainly is). Like chorus, it seems to be more of a catch-all term for songs done in a contemporary style.
This was the hardest because it has the most variance. I’ve searched the internet, books, dictionaries, and online forums for definitions of hymns. I’ve basically run into three categories (ha! see what I did there… 😉 ) of definitions.
First, the dictionary definition, which is remarkably open. It’s a song of praise to a god, hero, etc. That’s it. Interestingly, the grammar of this definition is a bit confusing… is the song directed to the god/hero or is it just the the praise that is directed to the god/hero? It seems that either one would satisfy this definition.
Second, the dictionary-inspired Christian church definition: it’s a song used in worship. Still pretty open.
Third, the tradition-inspired (in my opinion) Christian church definition: it’s a song used in worship that, depending on who you ask, has a variety of other requirements tacked on (these seem to primarily be based on experience/”growing up”). Basically everyone would agree that it’s a song used in worship, but it’s these additional requirements that make the definition so hard to pin down. Some of these requirements (or non-requirements), loosely in order of the most common to least common as I ran across them online:
- Strophic (i.e., multiple verses where each verse is sung to the same music)
- Consistent meter
- Didactic (i.e., it teaches)
- Is meant to be sung (i.e., it needs music to be a hymn; it’s a song)
- Can stand alone as a poem (i.e., it doesn’t need music; it’s a poem)
- “Objective” lyrics
- Unrepetitive lyrics
- Lyrics that have a progression of thought
- Has four-part harmony
- Has profound/deep lyrics
- Cannot have a refrain
- (and, conversely, many “allow” a refrain)
- Directed to God
- Must have traditional/”church” (Western…) music
You can likely tell that I don’t like this third category of definitions as far as clarity goes. Because it varies so much, it’s almost meaningless to talk about “hymns” because everyone starts to think about something different. Some would not consider What a Friend We Have in Jesus to be a hymn because of the “shallowness” of the lyrics. Others wouldn’t consider This Is the Day a hymn because it is just one “verse.” Still others wouldn’t consider How Great Thou Art as a hymn because it has a refrain.
Consider these statements:
- I love singing the great praise songs of the faith.
- Choruses are just so stuffy!
- Hymns are so shallow and repetitive.
Ever heard any of those? Probably not… how about these?
- We need to pass on the great hymns of the faith.
- Nobody will be singing praise choruses 50 years from now. They won’t stand the test of time.
- Hymns are so old and stuffy and have such archaic language.
These statements are, at best, confusing if we don’t actually know what each other is talking about. If we only ever talk about “great hymns” yet hymns have to be consistent in meter, rhyme, and have SATB harmony, what are we actually saying is important to pass on? What makes “great hymns” great is the fact that they have such great meter, rhyme, and music parts?
If we complain that hymns are old and stuffy but someone thinks that a hymn is just a strophic form of poetry, what are we actually communicating (to them) is the problem?
If all modern songs, regardless of the quality or even form of the text, are “praise choruses,” then what are we saying when we also say that praise choruses will be more or less worthless to the church a couple decades in the future? (the “test of time,” but that’s another [large] post…)
Basically, because of our confusion of terminology (and, granted, likely also the way we think about songs), we begin to malign and divide over really silly things. Like whether or not a song text rhymes… as though what makes a hymn great is the rhyming scheme. As though what makes a given song-text worth little is the fact that it has contemporary or traditional (depending on what you prefer) music. As though what makes a worship song enduring to many generations is the fact that it has multiple verses.
Of course, we likely all disagree with those statements when put so bluntly… but when we have such unbiblical requirements for certain categories while at the same time praising those categories above others, it seems that this is exactly what we are arguing. In order for a worship song to be really good for corporate/church worship, it has to be categorized as some term; but in order for me to call it that, it has to have these certain extra-biblical requirements.
Lyrical form ultimately matters little
This is my basic point: the form of the lyrics/song doesn’t really matter that much; it’s the content that matters. Unless we take the actual biblical (i.e., the definitions that Paul was thinking of) meanings of the terms “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” there is no directly biblical basis for arguing that the church should do specifically one kind of poetic form vs. another kind (or not even using a distinct “poetic form”). Western poetry’s rhyme or meter, refrains, traditional music, contemporary music, or harmony or monody are not biblically mandated forms for New Testament churches.
Categorizing is fine (though it seems like it would only be helpful when we all agree on a definition), but we need to be careful that our cultural or preferential categories don’t become dogma that we presume are based on the Bible. We shouldn’t ultimately care that much about whether a church does what we define as a “hymn” or what we define as a “praise song,” nor should I assume that people worship better with with a given lyrical form. The church needs songs that teach, admonish, and encourage each other; songs that praise, glorify, adore, extol, exalt, and magnify Christ.
Perhaps certain topics are covered more frequently or with better clarity in certain eras of church history (now, 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 500 years ago, etc.), but that’s not really because of a particular lyrical form of writing.
It may be that, in your or my “church culture,” people do tend to think about the words of a song in a given lyrical form better than another form, and that’s fine. People, language, and cultures are different. But we should not assume that another church that uses a different form aren’t thinking or that the words are necessarily weak or worthless.
Furthermore, with whatever form or combination of forms works best, we should encourage writing new songs. New expressions of our (and their) faith.
So, how do you answer someone asking what kind of songs does your church do?
I could answer “oh, we do hymns and praise songs” or “oh, we do a mix of old and new hymns” or “we do primarily hymns with some choruses occasionally” or “we use blended music.”
Those all may be technically the right answer to what the person was asking … but I think it might be better to actually redirect the question by answering a slightly different question with something like this:
At our church, we do Christ-exalting, gospel-retelling, God-glorifying songs that we can use to worship God and encourage each other.
That’s the real point, isn’t it? The point of church isn’t to sing hymns, “praise choruses,” or listen to electric guitars. The point is to sing those types of songs that worship/glorify God (citation: the whole Bible 😉 ) and that teach, admonish, and encourage/teach/admonish each other (Colossians, Ephesians).
We actively write new theology books, new counseling books, new commentaries. We actively write and preach new sermons and organize Bible studies. We (or we ought to, anyways) constantly compare our beliefs and practice to the Word… and do the same with the books we read and the sermons we hear.
We should also, then, actively write and encourage new songs for corporate worship. We should actively compare our songs to the Word. Our songs are a reflection of our faith; this is perhaps the strongest argument for actively writing new songs. It’s not just a historic faith; it’s a current faith. It’s my faith… and I should identify with the songs that I sing as a reflection of that faith.
And, just as we read, appreciate, and learn from historical authors who have written well on various topics, we ought to also turn to songwriters from the past who have written well on various topics.
A simple self-critique/test/whatever. Read through these lyrics. There are two questions at the end.
His Steadfast Love Endures Forever
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of gods,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the Lord of lords,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who spread out the earth above the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
to him who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
he who gives food to all flesh,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Give thanks to the God of heaven,
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Simple question: Did the recurring phrase get a bit repetitious?
Here’s the harder question to be completely honest with. If you sang this song in church, perhaps with modified lyrics (the original Psalm, Psalm 136, is about twice as long; I removed the retelling of Israel’s history in the above which was verses 10 to 24 out of 26 total verses [each being a two-line couplet]), would you begin to think to yourself “Couldn’t the author have written something else? Couldn’t he think of something else instead of just repeating “for his steadfast love endures forever” so many times?”
I would. Yet, there it is, in a Psalm.
I have a few conclusions for myself.
First, repetition is not inherently wrong, even something as repetitious as one line making up 50% of the song.
Second, I need to get rid of condescending attitudes, jokes, and phrases used to refer to repetition in songs. This includes things like “couldn’t think of something better to say” and “it seems like a 7-11 song” and definitely judgments like “people who sing this song are just on an emotional high, they aren’t thinking, their brains are disconnected” and “he’s trying to whip us up into a mantra/song-induced drug-like trance” (and similar nicer variants).
Third, if I honestly would have trouble worshiping by singing selections from Psalm 136, then the problem with my worship is me, not the lyrics.
Now, these conclusions don’t mean I think repetition is the new, improved, holy, right way for songs. I believe that song lyrics change with culture, with the cultural (and other influences?) of how we think about things and how we process information and how we talk about things and understand things spoken to us. So, while I think I need to change in how I view and treat and speak about repetition, I also think we do need to craft our songs such that they can be sung from our hearts and minds naturally, as I’m sure the Psalms were. If repetition is a major problem for our culture, it’s not required that you do it.
But I think it is required that we aren’t condescendingly superior about how our songs, with their quick-paced doctrine unpacking lyrics, are so much more superior to those simple, repetitious songs, lest we come to a place where we could look on a Holy Spirit inspired song with condescension and scorn.
This has been on my mind for a while, but it may still be a bit … rambling. Okay, more than a bit. 😉
Lots of songs have little problems in them… doctrinal/theological, ambiguous or unclear, confusing, etc. Given that we have a vast body of songs to choose from now (we don’t even have to rely on publishers anymore!), and given that singing to or about God is a big deal…
Let me expand on that last bit for a minute – if your pastor got up and preached something flat wrong, or ambiguous/unclear/confusing, would you excuse it with “oh, well, he’s right the other 95% of the time and he delivered it so passionately that it’s okay.” Probably not. You’d probably be concerned… and you’d be even more concerned if, when approached, the pastor just said “Oh, yeah, I knew that was wrong/confusing/ambiguous/unclear but I didn’t have anything else to say, so I just said it anyway.”
I realize that a lot of times, we more or less interpret/assign our own meaning when something is unclear, confusing, or wrong … so largely, this post is to those who choose songs (or think about choosing them, or critique the choosing of songs ).
Alright, so back to the original question in the title of this post; what makes us compromise on a song? In other words, even when you know that a song has problems … what makes you sing it anyway? I can think of a few:
- I really like the melody/music
- It sounds so cool when <artist> does it
- I grew up singing it/it’s a favorite
- The rest of it speaks to me so well
- It’s helped me through <insert trial here>
- Someone suggested that we do it
All of these are perfectly fine to happen… but not a good excuse for knowingly (or simply not thinking about it so as to remain ignorant 😉 ) singing lyrics that aren’t right.
Some may disagree about what is right or wrong (e.g., we cut out lyrics that are Covenental/Replacement theology because we don’t believe that, but others who do believe that obviously wouldn’t cut them out) and we may disagree about what is confusing, unclear, inappropriate, and/or ambiguous. That’s okay.
But I know I have thought along the lines of “well, I know those two lines aren’t good … but everyone really likes this song and it’s such a traditional favorite.” That is not good. Can you imagine what God thinks about that? Out of all the music and lyrics written, I choose to sing something to Him with something wrong in it just because lots of people like it? Yikes.
I grant that there is a lot of gray area in some “problems” … especially in the “confusing” part. For these particularly gray areas, I’m of the persuasion that if I get a group of people together and we talk about the problem lyrics, and after a few minutes we can’t actually decide what the lyric is supposed to mean… that’s bad. I don’t want to be guilty of singing empty words (i.e., I don’t know what I actually mean but they sound worshipful to me!) to God nor teaching others who-knows-what with those same words.
Don’t compromise truth for tradition nor for musicality nor for novelty. Lyric problem are not made up by it being an old favorite, a really good choral arrangement, or a really popular contemporary song by Chris Tomlin. There’s nothing wrong with any of those… it just doesn’t make up for the lyric problem. Let’s not compromise the clear proclamation of truth (which would include singing) because of music, feelings, tradition, or relevance.
I have been thinking about this for a little while… and this is something that I want to and, I think, am growing (hence the blog name) in. There may be statements in here that make you think “bah, you’re just trying to get at ” but that’s truly not the case, with one exception: yes, I’m trying to get at the group of people that sing for the wrong reasons. I know for a fact that I have sung and still catch myself singing for the wrong reasons and have thought about corporate “worship singing” wrongly.
Why do we…
Perhaps you, like me, have sometimes wondered: why do we sing in church? Before answering this question, I think there’s an important question that necessarily precedes it. Why do we have/go to church?
I know my own typical response to this question. Because the question is “why do we [do something],” I kinda immediately put on my theological/”Christian” hat, it seems. I tend to think of those nice, Christian sounding answers like “to glorify God” or “to praise and worship God.” Or perhaps I go for the horizontal aspect – “to encourage each other” or “to stir up one another to good deeds.”
I think of the question differently, though, when I ask it this way: why do you go to church?
Why do you?
Suddenly, I’m required to not think about the theological reasons for going to church in general, but to examine myself and to question why I, Paul, go to church. Not why it’s good to go to church or why people in general go to church, but why does Paul Ellsworth go to church.
I can’t simply answer with Biblical reasons, because that’s not the question. The question is not a right-or-wrong answer sort of test question, but a question of my own motives, my thoughts, my heart. It’s not why should Paul go to church but why does Paul go to church.
There are lots of options here. Tradition (Paul goes to church because that’s how he was raised), social (most of his friends are at church), encouragement (I am encouraged), worship (I go to worship God) …. teaching, admonition, instruction, preaching, conviction, exhortation, etc. Rather than go into detailed explanation of my own thoughts, I’ll just leave this point at a question for you to ponder: why do you go to church?
The Purpose(s) of Church
With the challenge aside… let’s go back to the original “we” question. Why do we go to church? We could delve quite deeply and lengthily into ecclesiology, but I’d like to keep it relatively short. The passage most will likely think about is Hebrews 10:25, about not forsaking the assembly. Verses 24 and 25 are:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
The author of Hebrews specifically grabs onto a horizontal function/purpose: encouraging one another. Now, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that we definitely do praise, worship, glorify, and serve (and many other words) God, not only in gatherings of believers but in everything we do in life. And there are various aspects of our gatherings – remembering the death of Christ in Communion/the Lord’s Table, baptism, preaching, praying, prayer, singing, teaching, exhorting, encouraging, confessing.
But the author of Hebrews, in drawing attention to the importance of meeting, grabs onto one particular function: encouraging each other.
The Purpose of Singing
So, church (a gathering of believers) is non-exclusively for mutual encouragement. How about a particular activity – singing? The two passages, of course, that come to mind are Colossians and Ephesians. I have posted about those before, so I’ll summarize here: Paul specifically grabs onto horizontal aspects as well; addressing each other, teaching and admonishing each other.
Again, we have numerous other passages that talk about praising and glorifying God through singing and through instrumental music… but Paul latches onto the same horizontal aspect as the author of Hebrews: encouraging each other.
Why do you sing?
This leads us to the question: why do you sing in church? When you come to church, sit down, and some guy gets up in front of you and asks you to join him in singing, what is the motive for you to join in? What goes through your head? What are you consciously doing?
In the past, I think I had one thought: praise/worship of God. That was it. It was me and God. People were around me, sure, but they weren’t the point; the point was just me singing to/about God in praise.
Or perhaps the answer might be peer pressure; everyone else is singing, you look weird if you don’t sing.
Perhaps the answer is that you like singing. You don’t get to sing during the week because it’s just not in our culture. Church is a place you get to sing.
There are numerous other ones, I’m sure. Your parents tell you to; your pastor tells you to; you want to look good; you have a good voice and feel like its your duty.
I need to remind myself of this: these are not the right reasons. The primary goal, of course, is to worship God. But a very important and specifically mentioned in the epistles purpose is to address each other with the goal of encouragement.
I’m sure you can figure out what some of the wrong reasons might lead to. If I sing because I like singing, then I won’t sing if I don’t like the music (whether it’s too old or too new or too loud or too soft or the wrong instruments or whatever). If I sing because of tradition, then I’m not … really … worshiping. I am honoring God with my lips but not because I want to; I’m just doing it because of ritual. Israel got in trouble for that one. If I sing just because of peer pressure … same thing. If I sing only to sing to God, then I’m missing out on a very specific biblical reason given for singing… and, again, it won’t be a big deal if I don’t sing for whatever reason (don’t like the music, don’t like the song, don’t feel like it, don’t like the leader, don’t like the people next to me, whatever).
When’s the last time you specifically thought, while singing, “I hope this encourages the person standing next to me.” I might add that the point isn’t to encourage with your musicality. I love music, but singing in a secular choir is not “encouraging” the way Paul is thinking. In other words, you are not “more encouraging” because you sound amazing… or, well, you shouldn’t be
On a personal note, I am most encouraged during times of corporate singing when I see others singing that, well, don’t care what you think; they are corporately worshiping God. They are consciously aware of others near them. They actually seem to want me to know that they are worshiping the same living God that I am. That’s encouraging.
So. Why do I sing? I’m working on it… but I hope I continue to grow in singing to both worship God and encourage others.
Why do you not sing?
And this brings me to the “negative” side. When I don’t sing … why don’t I sing?
There are some good reasons… like not knowing the song.
There are also some bad reasons. I don’t feel like it (had a hard morning or a long night). I don’t like the music style (man, it’s just so boring, why can’t they play some lively music?) or speed (it’s so slow, how can I possibly worship with that?) or the leader (man, HE sure doesn’t look like he knows what he’s singing) or those next to me (they are so out of tune!) or … the lights, the lack of sheet music, the presence of sheet music, the boring white-on-black text, the distracting pictures in the presentation, the imbalanced music, the distracting person two rows in front of me that is raising their hand…
We are good at excuses. I’m good at it. I can come up with an excuse pretty quickly. What convicts me in times like this is the following: replace “sing” with “encourage.” Why don’t I encourage?
I don’t encourage the person next to me because I just don’t feel good this morning. I am not going to encourage the person next to me because he’s out of tune. I’m not going to encourage the person next to me because the church didn’t give me a hymnal. I’m not going to encourage the person next to me because there’s an organ playing and I hate organs.
When I think about it that way, I realize just how selfish I am in singing. Something as silly as someone being out of tune can cause me to get distracted in worship of God and encouraging others? How ridiculous of me. Sadly, this happens more than I’d like to admit.
It’s hard. No denying that. New song? New music style? Someone out of tune? Someone doing something distracting? In the back of the church where you feel removed? Perhaps these are all things that could be helped and minimized, but ultimately, that doesn’t excuse me from worshiping God and encouraging others. I sometimes think … if God simply asked me, “why weren’t you singing my praises last Sunday along with everyone else?” and I had to answer “Well, the person next to me was out of tune” or “well, I just don’t like this style of music… it’s for the [old or young] folks, not me.” I somehow doubt God would think that a valid excuse.
Which leads me to my final instruction to myself and anyone else willing to read it
Work at it, Paul… Try.
Is there a new song? Okay, Paul, you are faced with a choice: decide to simply give up then and there with “oh, it’s a new song again, ugh.” Realistically, though – and this obviously varies with everyone – I can probably pick it up the second or third time through the melody. So if there are three verses, Paul should be singing on that third verse. Or the chorus, which is usually shorter. Or at least look like I’m actually thinking about what I’m reading.
Is there someone next to you that is out of tune? Sing anyway. Sing with just as much conviction as if you were surrounded by a chorale made up of the 50 best and most faithful Christian vocalists… because it’s not about the musical ability of you or the person next to you, it’s about manifesting the Holy Spirit and having the Word of Christ dwell in you (no really… read the context of the Colossians and Ephesians passages).
Is it not your preferred music style? Without getting into a big discussion about what music style should or shouldn’t be used in a given church … sing and encourage others anyway (do I seriously think that God is pleased if I stop singing His praise and encouraging His people just because it’s not my preferred music?! It sounds so silly when I put it that way, but so easy to do). Do you have a hard time with it? Try to learn. (“Pastor, I just have a hard time encouraging people that are different from me … so, I just figured I don’t have to anymore.”).
There are other things that certainly should be brought up and discussed. Music too loud? That’s not good. Music leadership look like they don’t care about what they’re doing? Not good. Does it feel like people didn’t practice their instruments? Not good. But even with all these, I need to make sure that the reason I’m concerned isn’t just that “I don’t like it” or “it bothers me” but that “I think this is hindering/not encouraging worship of God and mutual encouragement in the body.”
I’m having a hard time coming up with a good excuse. There are certainly things that are, in fact, problems that the church or music leadership or whatever should work on, can do better, etc. But the imperfections of someone else is not a valid excuse for refusing to do what God wants me to do for Him.
I still get distracted, have my preferences, etc. But I am working at remembering (and practicing) that I’m singing to both worship God and encourage others, and allowing myself to get distracted by silly things and imperfections in others is not good; using those distractions as an excuse to not worship and to not obey God is … well, wrong.
The British spelling is intentional, as Watts was English. Watts is an interesting character that I need to read more about (especially regarding theology; I know some about his life and background, but little about his theology). One thing that I notice and appreciate about his hymns is he uses very … graphic language. It’s not generic, ambiguous, or … colourless, I guess.
Note that there is a version of this song with an added refrain, but I don’t like the refrain that was added … so, this is the original, no additional refrain. Also, in case you wonder what music I like, I think Sovereign Grace’s version is good – contemplative, decidedly minor sounding (it’s a “minor” sort of song), etc. It also has an added refrain, but I find it to be more complementary to the original lyrics.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Right at the beginning, I really like how Watts draws our focus to the great injustice of Christ’s death; that the Sovereign (King) would die for the Worm (fully depraved, rebellious, enemy-of-God sinner). I know there’s the “worm theology” thing … I don’t think Watts is overly worm-ish though. I think he balances it pretty well, doesn’t dwell only on that, and does not constantly just refer to us as worms (which God does not, either – co-heirs, adopted children, redeemed, loved, etc).
Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, Thine—
And bathed in its own blood—
While the firm mark of wrath divine,
His Soul in anguish stood.
This is an “unknown” verse … I have never sung it. Perhaps the editors thought it was too graphic. Personally, I don’t think so… it seems that we sort of sterilize some parts of the Bible (e.g., the manger scene was this very calm, clear night with stars out and everybody quiet, Mary apparently had a painless birth, Jesus never cried, etc.). I think it’s good to be reminded about the very disturbing imagery of what it really meant to be crucified. The 1st century Christians knew what this meant and, I assume, many had seen crucifixions (and many were crucified).
I’m not sure about this analysis, but it seems as though Watts draws a distinction between the physical abuse – blood – and the divine wrath which His soul stood in. If so, I think that is something that is very good to remember; ultimately, what caused Christ to cry out in agony (at least, in the Gospels) was not the physical pain and abuse which He did suffer and which was indeed excruciating; rather, what caused His agony was the “forsaking” of His Father.
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
Drawing attention to why Christ was crucified; it was for my crime. I like the word “crime.” “Sin” is, of course, a good word, too … but “crime” just brings an added jolt, since it isn’t a common term that we use. I also like that Watts also distinguishes between what grace was previously known; we now have a perfect sacrifice, as the author of Hebrews points out; this is a grace that was unknown before the crucifixion of the perfect Lamb of God.
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
I believe this is the only confusing part, for me, in the song; is it true that the darkness surrounding the crucifixion was to shut His glories in? What exactly that means may need some clarification. However, again, I like Watts’s ironic distinction of the Maker dying for the creature.
Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.
Blushing; surely that is a proper response! We would be horrified if some accidental insult or something caused one of our friends to undergo hardship. We’d surely blush then. How much more-so when we recall that it was our sin that caused the need for the cross?
I do have a bit of an issue with calling Christ’s cross “dear.” I know what is meant, but I don’t think there is a biblical precedent for holding the cross to be “dear.”
I also really like the imagery of “dissolving” my heart in thankfulness and “melting” my eyes to tears. Again, it describes very proper actions and accompanying emotions.
But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.
This is very reminscent of When I Survey, where Watts says that the whole realm of nature would be a present too small, so I give my entire life. I like, too, how Watts says that it’s “all” that I can do; implying the mentality of humility… it’s not an expression that makes you think “oh, well, nature isn’t enough, so I’ll give myself instead – which is better than nature!”
Lastly, I like that grief over Christ’s death is not enough. Pitying Christ isn’t salvation. Agreeing that He suffered unjustly is not salvation. An emotional response of grief, even, is not salvation. Salvation – of course, accompanied by repentance and confession as Romans would tell us – involves “losing” my life … submitting it, entirely, to Christ as Lord.
I’m sure you’ve all heard one of the following… or perhaps both of them. “I don’t have a good singing voice.” “If you don’t have a good voice/can’t sing on pitch, just mouth the words.”
The purpose of this post is neither to tell people who don’t have good voices “sing LOUDLY!” nor to tell people who get told they can’t carry a tune in a bucket to “sing anyways.” Nor is this to tell people who *can* sing to “sing louder.” Or quieter. In fact, the point isn’t to say how to sing at all, really.
I was thinking about the Colossians and Ephesians passages dealing with music today and something stuck out to me; Paul didn’t care about your singing ability – good or bad. I would like to offer perhaps a reason why… from the perspective of a participant, not the perspective of a leader.
Congregational singing isn’t about the music
What? How could singing not be about the music? Well, Paul connects singing to two things. He connects it to being filled with the Spirit and to letting the word of Christ dwell richly among you. He also gives, more or less, a purpose to the songs: teaching and admonishing one another. I might sum it up as “encouraging.” In Ephesians, he refers to “addressing” one another.
So here’s my thought. The encouragement, teaching, and admonishing is not dependent on your musical skill and we really shouldn’t be more taught/admonished/encouraged by someone with more musical skill than someone with less musical skill. We’re not told to encourage each other in music or encourage each other to sing louder or encourage each other to sing in rhythm or whatever. Musical skill simply isn’t what this is about, nor is it limited to those who are skilled, nor is the teaching based on the skill.
So what is the encouraging part? It doesn’t seem like Paul really addresses this specifically – i.e., how do we teach and admonish each other in songs – but I have some observations.
First, seeing others worship is encouraging. I don’t mean seeing other people come to church and passively listen… that’s kinda encouraging because they are there … but there’s something distinctly encouraging to hear and see people actively worship. Actively meaning they are both choosing to do it and they clearly want to do it… even excited to do it! And, furthermore, they actually want people around them to know it (I wonder if that’s why “loud cymbals” are mentioned, hehe). Hearing other people teach and admonish each other in song, as well as worship and praise God in song, is encouraging … regardless of how they sound. Having thought about this, it actually saddens me now that we seem to so easliy say things like “well, maybe just sing quieter so the others around you can’t hear” or “mouth the words.” Paul didn’t say that. We aren’t the Levites, the select musicians in the temple. To tell someone to “tone it down a little, you’re out of tune” or something like that, in the context of worship? I would hope that is rare and only necessary in extreme cases of extreme distraction. It bothers me that I think I used to think more that way before and probably joked about it and whatnot.
Second, knowing that others are worshiping with you … doing something with you … is encouraging. We’re not alone. The person next to me is worshiping the same God, singing the same song, praising the same Savior. That’s encouraging. Even more so when we sing something like “as you go, may you know the love of Christ” and actually know that the person next to you is thinking about you, or someone else near them, as they pray that.
Well, I guess just two. Just somewhat undeveloped thoughts, hehe. My main point, though, is still this: encouraging each other in corporate, congregational singing isn’t something that is better or worse depending on how well you sing or carry a tune or how good your harmony skills are. Oh, sure, we should do the best we can and all that; but we shouldn’t look at someone who can sing and say “ah, they can *really* encourage each other with their voice” and someone who has trouble and say “well, they can encourage others in different ways.” We shouldn’t be encouraged by the music. I don’t think that’s the point.
(by this time, after so many paragraphs of saying the same thing, I should mention something about a dead horse.)
tl;dr (too long, didn’t read): sing to encourage, not to show off your ability; be encouraged by the worship, not the musical skill.
Hum. This requires more thought and fleshing out.
If asked to give some favorite hymn-writers, I probably would not say P. P. Bliss off the top of my head. There would be a smattering of new and old ones, but he doesn’t come immediately to mind. However, he actually wrote what is probably one of my favorite hymns from traditional hymnody, Hallelujah! What a Savior. I’m not such a fan of the music, to be honest… it goes into the “it’s a tune to sing words to” category. However, I think the lyrics are very good.
The recurring phrase “Hallelujah! What a Savior” actually makes sense after each verse, which is nice. “Hallelujah” means “praise the Lord,” which also fits in the way it is used.
Man of Sorrows! what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
We have three references to Jesus – “Man of Sorrows” (Isaiah 53), “Son of God” (numerous places, of course), and “Savior” (also numerous places). I “like” (seems like an odd word to use here) the irony that Bliss draws our attention to – that the Son of God came and, contrary to what He deserved, He was called a “man of sorrows.” Also, the irony that the Son of God was called the man of sorrows because He was saving ruined sinners. I like the word ruined. I know the meaning, it’s clear, and it’s pretty accurate.
In reading through, I wasn’t sure about the usage of the word “reclaim” … but it seems appropriate, seeming more to refer to the idea of reclaiming the “lost.”
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Hebrews 12 (“despising the shame”) … I’m not sure about the scoffing part, although various descriptions of how Christ was treated before the crucifixion (and during) would easily be called “scoffing.”
The clear reference to the substitutionary atonement is in the second line there – in my place, condemned, He stood. I also like the sealing part; it was done completely, not partially. If my pardon has been sealed, then there’s nothing I can add to it.
Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement!” can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
The emphasis on our complete depravity and helplessness (we can’t earn our salvation) is good; the contrast between our state and His (a sinless sacrifice) is also good. And I also like the wonder that is expressed in verse 3. It’s easy to take salvation for granted, for some reason, as though … well … as though it just kinda makes sense that God would do that! But it doesn’t make sense. I am reminded of Wesley’s And Can It Be, which asks the same question and follows it with “amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, would die for me?” We should always wonder that God would do such a thing for guilty, vile, ruined sinners.
Lifted up was He to die;
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in Heav’n exalted high.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
This is fairly generic; however, I like the tie-in of “it is finished” with Christ being exalted in Heaven. The “exalted” part, I think, is important to remember; not in every song, of course, but it seems that many songs about the atonement/crucifixion dwell on the crucifixion and stop there. While it’s not necessary to always move on in every song, I think we should remind ourselves that Christ not only died and was forsaken by God in our place, but He finished, was raised, and not left forsaken by the Father but was actually exalted by the Father and “given the Name that is above every name.”
When He comes, our glorious King,
All His ransomed home to bring,
Then anew His song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
This is perhaps my favorite part about this song; it actually looks forward to Christ’s return! It seems this is lost in so many songs. As an example, these sorts of songs can easily be used to accompany communion; but even communion is not just a perpetual, everlasting remembrance, is it? Christ seemed to tell the disciples to do it until they were reunited with Him (“I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”). We should remember that part, too; we not only remember what Christ did but we look forward to the culmination of what He did, when we are finally reunited with Him with resurrected, perfected bodies and finally free, completely, from all sin.
All that to say, I like this last verse; it refers to Christ coming as a King, it refers to us as being ransomed (which is biblical) and mentions that Christ will come to bring us home (don’t forget, we’re not home yet). One slight confusion that I might fault the song slightly with is that the “bring us home” part is actually the rapture, though the “when He comes” matched with “King” makes me think more specifically about the Second Coming.
Lastly, I like how he still ties the last phrase in with the verse; it is true that even in Heaven, we will continue – and with renewed and fresh understanding (and REALLY COOL, GLORIFIED VOICES! 😉 [that means everyone will be a bass, right?]), we’ll still sing – joined by the angels, apparently, who glorify God as Savior even though they actually aren’t redeemed – about God’s (“our”) salvation.
I like to maintain at least a facade of balance in reviewing songs. 😉 Seriously, though, I am not anti-old-song and pro-new-song. Since contemporary songs, however, are not traditional, they are not … well, as universally well known (and I don’t listen to contemporary Christian radio, so I don’t know many of them). Because of this, I know I probably seem like I critique traditional hymns more than modern hymns. I/we review all contemporary songs basically just as closely as traditional and/or old songs… so, as an example, here we go; several CCLI Top 25 songs.
First, some general comments. With many (definitely not all) contemporary songs – and this is a common critique though I think it tends to be lobbed to generally, and more often based on music style than actual content – there is fairly little content. That’s okay, we don’t always need tons of content, there are Psalms that exemplify “fairly little content,” too. That said, it shouldn’t be characteristic. There’s a LOT one can say about and to God; we should not be lacking for content. Also, it seems pretty common to throw out Christian-esque phrases without really seeming to know how they go together, what the end goal is, and what is really meant by them. For example, “hallelujah” means “praise the Lord,” but it’s used everywhere with apparently little thought to what the word even means. Same with words like “life” and “light” and “darkness” and even “love.” Lastly, it also seems common to more or less sing a list of attributes of God that simply aren’t applied in any way. While they are still true, it often feels more like haphazard “hey, this word fits my rhyme scheme” writing than thoughtful and intentional … worship.
Ok, so, the songs. Forever Reign, Our God, and Everlasting God.
Forever Reign is by Hillsong. I think this song falls into the “lots of Christian lingo without much substance.” I’m going to take this one in clumps of lines rather than all at once.
You are good, You are good
When there’s nothing good in me
You are good. What does this mean? Jesus was called good. He responded that no one is good except God, so how do you call me good? I would ask the same question, here. What do you mean by saying that God is “good?” It is not explained in the song (there is no “how” or “why”).
You are love, You are love
On display for all to see
Again… what does it mean to “be” love? And how is this love on display for all to see? Is this talking about salvific love? Love as in “you don’t let the world be blown apart?” Something else?
You are light, You are light
When the darkness closes in
Referring to Jesus as the “light of the world” is pretty popular, but again … what does that mean? I think of John 1… but the way it is used in these two lines doesn’t seem like it can refer to what John is referring to. So, what does this mean, again? It is vague enough that I can attach … a lot of meanings to it.
You are hope, You are hope
You have covered all my sin
This is a bit more clear; I assume the “hope” here is the hope of salvation, since it references “covering” my sin.
You are peace, You are peace
When my fear is crippling
You are true, You are true
Even in my wandering
These lines actually make sense, I think. Hooray
You are joy, You are joy
You’re the reason that I sing
You are life, You are life,
In You death has lost its sting
And I think these lines do as well, since the “You are life” is explained, more or less, by “in You death has lots its sting.”
Oh, I’m running to Your arms,
I’m running to Your arms
The riches of Your love
Will always be enough
Enough for what?
Nothing compares to Your embrace
Light of the world forever reign
“Your embrace.” Does that just mean … love? Or something else? And, here we have “light of the world” coupled with “reigning.” Reigning … in me? In the world? In the future Kingdom? When/where/how?
You are more, You are more
Than my words will ever say
You are Lord, You are Lord
All creation will proclaim
Creation does not proclaim that Christ is Lord. In fact, you don’t get “Christ” or “Jesus” at all from creation.
You are here, You are here
In Your presence I’m made whole
In Your presence I’m made whole? What does this mean?
You are God, You are God
Of all else I’m letting go
Letting go …. meaning sin? Or something else? Or does this just mean not idolizing anything else?
My heart will sing
no other Name
Using “sing” as a synonym/symbolism of praise, this does make sense.
Our God is by Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman.
Water you turned into wine, opened the eyes of the blind there’s no one like you, none like You!
Fair enough, I can go along with this so far. Miracles = no one like God.
Into the darkness you shine out of the ashes we rise there’s no one like you none like You!
Now he lost me. We rise out of ashes? Where are the ashes from?
Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.
Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!
I can go along with this. They are all true.
And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.
And if our God is with us, then what could stand against.
Ok, so this seems to clearly be a reference to Romans 8:31. However, without any context in the song, I don’t know what this actually means here. Paul was pretty clear as to what it means; Paul is talking about salvation. If it’s God who saved us, God who justifies us, and God who judges … then who can mess with that? If God is for our salvation and is the one who accomplishes our salvation, then who can possibly thwart Him? However, the song does not make this clear. In fact, I think it misuses the verse by saying “if God is for us, then who could ever stop us.” Paul doesn’t seem to have “stopping us” in mind, he seems to have “stopping God” in mind. He does use the phrase “against us” but that seems to more be a legal type of “against” … i.e., if God is the one “arguing” for our salvation, then who is going to be arguing “against” us? And, in fact, Paul literally says: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (emphasis is mine. Paul didn’t have bold-type font. 😉 )
That’s the end of the song. To me, this is far from compelling. Could I sing it? Sure… but it feels ambiguous, disjointed, and unclear with the whole “if God is for us.”
Everlasting God appears to be by Benton Brown.
Strength will rise
As we wait upon the Lord
We will wait upon the Lord
We will wait upon the Lord
Right away, I have two questions. What does it mean to “wait” upon the Lord, and whose strength is rising … and (okay, three questions) – strength to do what? Just … generic strength? Physical strength? Strength to share the gospel? Strength to stand up for the next ten minutes of singing? Strength to withstand temptation?
The ambiguity kinda makes me feel like this is a taken out of context verse, sorta like “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” That doesn’t mean you have the strength to finish your football game (and certainly not to necessarily win it). That simply was not what Paul meant in the context.
It is true that Psalm 27 mentions waiting on the Lord at the end of the Psalm; but David said a lot more than just that one verse. He also said that God is his light, and salvation, requested God to teach him, expressed faith and confidence in God’s ultimate salvation plan, expressed his love for God above everything else (this is the same Psalm as the verse that says “one thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life….”
I think David had a better idea of what it meant to “wait.” Specifically, David seemed to be saying to wait for God’s timing; just previous to the “wait upon the Lord” statement, David said:
I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
All this to say … this seems to be Christian lingo that is ambiguous and feel-goody. But ambiguity and feel-good-without-truth is not good. Can I interpret this to mean something good? Of course I can. And I’m sure you, if you like this song, do that. But that doesn’t mean the song is actually good at expressing that truth. I am of the opinion that ambiguity in worship is not generally good. I don’t want to be singing to or about God and not really know what I am saying… otherwise, it seems rather presumptuous.
Our God, You reign forever
Our hope, our strong deliverer
This is all true.
You are the everlasting God
The everlasting God
You do not faint
You won’t grow weary
Also true, though I’m not sure how exactly it’s meant to “apply” to me.
You’re the defender of the weak
You comfort those in need
You lift us up on wings like eagles
These statements have biblical references, though I feel like saying them in short, terse statements like this can be a big … confusing or ambiguous. Also, what does it mean to lift us up on wings like eagles?