Derek Walker explains what’s wrong with our typical worship services, and how to fix them
What happens when you put the lyrics of some of our best-known worship songs under the theological microscope?
We’ve all stood in a Sunday morning service, bleary-eyed from a late night, and submissively warbled our way through an entire worship set without engaging our brains. We could have been singing anything.
And we’ve all sung lyrics to worship songs we didn’t fully understand. A favourite at my own church is the hymn ‘I Will Sing the Wondrous Story’, which includes the repeated line, ‘Sing it with the saints in glory, Gathered by the crystal sea’. Despite the fact that I don’t know what this refers to – and it sounds strangely like the title of an episode of Dr Who – I gamely sing it every time.
Many of us have sung things we don’t actually believe. Matt Redman’s magnum opus ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ contains the questionable line ‘You give and take away’, which seems to suggest that God actively causes, rather than allows, suffering. But is this really the nature of the biblical God? The trouble is, it’s such a good song.
In a Church culture in which personal engagement with the Bible is sometimes patchy, worship songs and hymns become a primary source of theology for some. For others it is the most dynamic tool in terms of connecting with God. We pick up memorable bits of scripture (often a bit mangled to fit the verse structure), and larger principles about God through the lyrics of our Sunday anthems. So the accuracy of their theology really matters.
The other reason we should carefully consider our song lyrics is a missional one. If a non-Christian, with no prior knowledge of the faith or its traditions, walks into your church, what might (s)he make of singing ‘These are the days of Elijah’? It gets worse at Christmas. Every year we force nominal believers to sing ‘Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he’, thus reminding them why they only come to church once a year.
PUTTING THEOLOGY TO THE TEST
What follows then is my rundown of some of the most problematic theology evident in the modern Christian worship canon. To add a little theological gravitas to my own reflections, I’ve asked my friend Andy Peck – CWR tutor and theologian – to assist me.
PROBLEM 1: THEOLOGICALLY DIVISIVE
Song: In Christ Alone
Author: Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
Problem line: ‘Till on that cross, as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied…’
This is arguably the most controversial lyric in modern worship. Much like Townend’s ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for Us’, which includes the line ‘The Father turns His face away’, this hymn splits Christians on their view of the atonement.
I’ve often watched in services as my fellow worshippers have chosen not to sing certain words, while the Presbyterian Church in America dropped the song from its hymnal after Townend and Getty denied its request to change the lyric to ‘The love of God was magnified’.
Of course, those offended by the lyricists’ conservative theology are so busy avoiding the ‘wrath of God’ that they often fail to spot the full-on Calvinism of the subsequent line ‘From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny’.
Andy says: The ‘problem line’ is a classic understanding of the penal-substitution theory of atonement - that God’s holy anger against sin has been appeased by the sacrifice of his Son.
This is a problem because some suggest there must be a division in the Trinity, so that Jesus is a victim of another party (God’s) anger. Perhaps 2 Corinthians 5:19 – ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them’ – can help us.
Song: There is a Day
Problem line: ‘We will meet Him in the air…’
It’s a beautiful song, laced with biblical metaphor, and it’s a rare attempt in a modern worship lyric to focus on the reality of Jesus’ return. The trouble is, it seems to suggest that, any day, a trumpet will sound and those of us who are true Christians will start ascending into the sky.
DO WE TAKE THE LYRICS LITERALLY AND MOVE OUR BODIES LIKE SOME SORT OF ACTION SONG FOR ADULTS?
While this end-times picture is technically found in the Bible (1 Thessalonians 4:17), there are questions over whether it is meant to be understood in a literal sense. Either way, this song is definitely primed to confuse any visitors among us.
PROBLEM 2: ME, ME, ME SONGS
Song: Shine, Jesus, Shine
Author: Graham Kendrick
Problem line: ‘Shine on me, shine on me…’
It feels very wrong to pick on the father of modern British worship music, and on the song that was named among the nation’s favourite hymns by the BBC in 2005, despite having only been written in 1987.
The trouble is, it provides us with a perfect example of the curse of ‘me-centric’ worship. Calling God to ‘shine on me’ plays to the idea that he is principally concerned with personal prosperity and an individual relationship that benefits us (which many would argue is true). Had the line been ‘shine on us’ it might have better reflected the heart of the New Testament.
Song: More Love, More Power
Author: Jude Del Hierro
Problem line: ‘More love, more power, More of You in my life…’
Like many Vineyard worship songs, the focus here is on intimacy between individuals and God, and on calling on the Holy Spirit to fill us. Del Hierro’s call for ‘more power’ is a reference to that regular filling up of God’s spirit, which charismatics would say is vital to live a successful spiritual life. Critics would argue that this repeated ‘filling’ only makes sense in the light of the spiritual fruit that should follow, however.
Andy says: ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ (Ephesians 5:18) was said corporately to a church not an individual, and was given in the specific context of godly living in relationship with others.
PROBLEM 3: SONGS THAT ALIENATE
Song: Let My Words Be Few
Author: Matt Redman
Problem line: ‘Jesus, I am so in love with You...’
Songs that turn our relationship with God into a slushy romance can be problematic for men and women alike.
This is actually a beautiful song, but how many of us are really comfortable with the idea of being ‘so in love’ with Jesus?
Dubbed ‘Jesus is my boyfriend worship’ by various bloggers, lyrics such as these can create anything from discomfort to a complete sense of detachment for some people.
For others, songs like this and Phil Wickham’s imagery-heavy ‘You’re Beautiful’ are helpful in discovering a deeper and more intimate relationship with God.
Andy says: Poetic language will always borrow from culture, but the danger is that the emotions of a romance are expected to be a measure of our devotion, when we all know that emotions ebb and flow. The kind of love we have for Jesus – though it has connections with the love we have for people – is of a different quality.
Song: I Stand in Awe
Author: Mark Altrogge
Problem line: ‘And I stand, I stand, in awe of You...’
Imagine for a moment (if this doesn't already apply to you) that standing up is an issue for you. Perhaps you're elderly; perhaps you're wheelchair-bound. You're already fairly alienated by the service leader's repeated requests to stand up, but now the worship songs themselves are asking the same impossible thing.
That might feel like political correctness gone mad – and of course the image of ‘standing in awe’ is more symbolic than literal – but it’s surely worth being sensitive to those for whom the language in our worship songs might have a more painful double meaning.
Andy says: David wrote many of the psalms that use the idea of ‘standing’, but he was sensitive to the plight of Mephibosheth (who was crippled in both feet, see 2 Samuel 9).
PROBLEM 4: SONGS THAT CAUSE CONFUSION
Song: My Hope is Built on Nothing Less (Conerstone)
Author: Edward Mote (re-popularised by Hillsong)
Problem line: ‘My anchor holds within the veil…’
It’s the HTB leadership conference. Tim Hughes is belting out the biggest worship song of the moment, filling the Royal Albert Hall with praise. He gets to the line listed above, closes his eyes and sings it out with passionate abandon, and of course we all join him. It’s only as we reach the end of the song that I ask myself: ‘What on earth did that mean?’
I don’t even understand the nautical/bridal metaphor, let alone whether it’s theologically accurate. A few lines earlier, I’d also sung that ‘I dare not trust the sweetest frame’, which I can only assume is a reference to a really good snooker performance.
Andy says: ‘Within the veil’ comes from the NKJV translation of Hebrews 6:18-19 referring to the veil (or curtain) covering the holy of holies in the temple. The passage says that Jesus has entered the holy place on our behalf through his death, so that we are accepted by God through Christ. So at the place where we could potentially have been ‘turned to dust’ in the holiness of God, we are ‘held’ by Christ, who anchors us. All of this requires a knowledge of some pretty detailed imagery intended for Jewish Christians who might have been tempted to return to Judaism!
Song: Mighty to Save
Author: Reuben Morgan, Ben Fielding
Problem line: ‘My God is mighty to save, He is mighty to save…’
One of the most popular songs of the last decade centres on a strangely worded sentiment that could be misapplied. In what other context would we say someone was ‘mighty to save'? What might the non-religious person make of such jargon?
Many people find this a powerful anthem with which to celebrate God’s saving power. The danger is that we take it to mean that God saves people from all bad situations, when the evidence suggests that sometimes he does not.
Andy says: This line affirms the enormity of God’s capacity to secure redemption for us, whatever state we’re in. But it may be understood to mean that he is a superhero in all situations when, in the Bible, God sometimes gives conditions to his activity in our lives.
PROBLEM 5: ACTION SONGS FOR ADULTS
Author: Matt Redman
Problem line: ‘I will dance, I will sing, to be mad for my king…’
At youth events such as Soul Survivor, where it was originally popularised, this song has often produced an explosion of joy. Teenagers would throw themselves around in the manner of David, who danced outrageously in loose-fitting clothing (to the disgust of his wife Michal in 2 Samuel 6).
The trouble comes when the same chorus is translated into a local church context, when it suddenly becomes an uncomfortable call to un-Britishness. For fear of making a spectacle of ourselves, we sing the lines absolutely deadpan; arms by our sides, feet rooted to the spot. And God must be thinking: ‘Seriously? You’ll become even more undignified than this?’ We sing one thing, but our bodies tell another story.
'For fear of making a spectacle of ourselves, we sing the lines absolutely deadpan'
Andy says: Those who dance in worship can understandably mirror David’s delight at the return of the ark. But the problem with such lyrics is that few of us actually have the liberty, inclination or specific experience to behave in that way. Some lines do have the benefit of giving us something to aspire to, but this is more likely to alienate us.
Author: Joy Williams
Problem line: ‘I’m falling on my knees, Offering all of me…’
Many of us struggle with songs such as this. What exactly are we supposed to do? Do we take the lyrics literally and move our bodies in the way described, like some sort of action song for adults? Or do we see the whole thing as a metaphor? Whichever we choose, there may be a sense of discomfort.
Andy says: Hymns and songs that show our total commitment to God express something significant. But this line may promote guilty feelings in the worshipper as we ask ourselves, ‘Am I the only one who has failed to attain this higher level of commitment?’
WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH
We haven’t even touched on songs that suggest that life is super-duper when you’re a Christian (‘And in His presence, our problems disappear’ [Jesus, We Celebrate Your Victory; John Gibson]), songs that are all a bit too hypothetical (‘I can only imagine What it will be like’ [I Can Only Imagine; Bart Millard]), or songs that don’t work at a men’s breakfast (‘Rise up, women of the truth’ ([Shout to the North; Martin Smith]). All these lyrics were written with the best of intentions, but nevertheless create certain issues.
Of course, many songwriters take pains to ensure that their songs are checked for theological inaccuracies and quibbles. Speaking before the 2014 Hillsong conference, senior pastor Brian Houston said: ‘We work very, very hard on the lyrics of our songs and we have a couple in our church who are well trained theologically and they literally look at the lyrics of every song.
‘Sometimes there’s a head-butting – a friendly head-butting – that goes on between them and the songwriters, but just looking after the theology of the songs, I think it’s made a huge difference. Joel [Houston] always says when it comes to…praise and worship; it’s all about the songs. If you don’t have good songs, then no matter how good the musicians and singers are, it’s not going to work. It’s all about the songs. And I think that’s true.’
On the whole, Christian songwriters do an excellent job and it is impossible to measure the positive impact that many of our worship anthems have had on worshippers on British soil and beyond. Sadly for the egos of most preachers, the average Chris Tomlin chorus is a lot more memorable than the average sermon.
Going forward, our worship leaders and songwriters must continue to write for normal people and take seriously the reality that they’re the conveyers of popular theology to the masses. And there’s a challenge to all of us who sing in church: to think through the meaning and theology of the lyrics we sing. If worship is an act of total devotion, then it demands our minds as well as our hearts.
"If worship is an act of total devotion, then it demands our minds as well as our hearts" - @martinsaunders