A couple of weeks ago one of my lecturers, who shall remain unnamed, propped up on a high horse for a minute and said that ‘Christian music’ is the bane on the body of Christ. Now, while I don’t agree that all Christian music is a blight on the body of Christ I think he had a point. Over morning tea that same day one of my fellow student friends, who works in radio, said that all ‘Christian music’ does is figure out what’s popular in the secular charts and try and find a Christian imitation.
Then recently Stephen Altrogge half sarcastically, half seriously blogged on how to write a dodgy worship song
(with reference to nobody in particular – but from his own experience). My favourite two points were these:
Be Vague About Your Theology
Make sure to avoid any theology at all costs. Don’t talk about atonement, wrath, or any other biblical concepts. You want your song to be all about feeling. Don’t let the mind get in the way. Repeat after me: “Worship is a warm feeling, sort of like heartburn, only better.”
Make the Song All About You
The main point of your song should be your experiences and how God makes you feel. Don’t bother with objective truth about God. I would suggest that you use the words “I” or “me” at least 12-15 times. For example, “I feel like singing, yes I feel like spinning, because You make me feel so good inside. Like it’s my birthday, but more awesome.”
While slightly tongue-in-cheek the rest of his points hit too close to home for many of the songs I hear on radio and in some churches. Stephen then followed up that post with an excellent post on ‘Why words matter in Worship Song
’. In answer to the comment that ‘what matters most in a worship song is the heart behind the song…’ he writes this:
To a certain extent, I agree. The sacrificial death of Christ makes our flawed, imperfect praise acceptable to God. My best worship is always stained with sin, and I always need Jesus to make my worship acceptable. And the heart really does matter. God does not like insincere worship.
But, we need to be very careful in how we think about this. The heart behind a worship song isn’t the only thing that matters. The words of the song and the ideas conveyed by a song matter. A whole lot.
Here’s why: we don’t get to worship God in whatever way we choose. We can’t sing whatever we want about God, no matter how deep our sincerity. In Scripture God has told who He is and how He must be worshiped. And because God is God, He gets to make the rules. He gets to tell us what worship should look like.
And concludes with this:
Truth matters. Sound doctrine matters. Our songs should be saturated with truth. It doesn’t please God when we sing false things about Him. It pleases Him when our songs are packed with Biblical truth.
Every one of us is a theologian. We all have our own thoughts and ideas about God. The question is, are we good theologians? Do we think and sing right, true, good thoughts about God? For the sake of God’s honor, let’s be sure that our songs help us be good theologians.
The Message Test – Does this song express the word of God? Is there a strong message and one that appeals to the new man or to the old man?
The Purpose Test – What is the purpose of this music? Was it written to lift you up or to bring you down? To make you joyful or to make you sad? Different types of song may be appropriate at different times. Obviously the very nature of music dictates that certain patterns in music have the ability to stir emotion independent of the song’s lyrical content.
The Association Test – Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions or people that are contrary to Scripture? An otherwise good song may have to be rejected simply because people will make inappropriate associations with it in their minds. The authors provide the example of singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Rising Sun” which is a song about drinking and gambling. As people were singing worship to the Lord they would also be thinking of the song’s original words, leading their minds to think of things that are inappropriate for a worship setting.
The Memory Test – Does the song bring back things from your past that you have left? The purpose of this test is not to guard against music that people may dislike, but to guard against music that may cause them to sin, heeding the biblical warning about not offending one’s brother. So it has less to do with taste and more to do with leading people to sin.
The Proper Emotions Test – Does the music stir our negative or lustful feelings? Amazingly enough, music does have the power, once again independently of lyric, to stir emotions to sin. If you don’t believe this, watch a room full of young people during a hard, driving rap beat, even before the words begin.
The Understanding Test – Will the listeners have a hard time understanding the message or finding the melody. Different people know and understand different types of music. People will have an easier time worshiping to a type of music that they understand. Those new believers in Papua New Guinea may have a difficult time worshiping to contemporary Christian music as they would simply not understand it. The same principle holds true with the lyrics, though I would suggest to a lesser extent, because unlike music, words are objectively true or false. If a song is strong in its theology, the people should eventually understand it, even if they do not now. With music this is not the case. Those natives will be no farther ahead if they learn to appreciate church-rock (and many would suggest, perhaps correctly, that they would actually be farther behind!).
The Music Test – This test asks if there is really “a song within the song”? Is the song singable? Does it flow from verse to verse? Does it stir the listener’s heart to join in the song? A song with beautiful words may quickly disappear from the hymn books simply because it is not singable.
So there are the seven tests suggested by the authors. Conspicuous by its absence is one I would like to add, which is:
The Excellence Test – Does the song provide God with the best music and lyrics? We should strive for excellence in all we give to God. If our giving to Him should not be half-hearted, how much less our worship?
On this basis he evaluates ‘Draw Me Close’ and comes to this conclusion:
- The Message Test – Fail. Colson would clearly fail this song on the basis of the message and so would I. Storms and Taylor would pass it. It seems to me that the song is trite, void of meaningful content and too man-focused.
- The Purpose Test – Pass. The song was written to honour God.
- The Association Test – Pass. I don’t know that people would associate this song with much of anything.
- The Memory Test – Pass. See above.
- The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. The music is consistent with the lyric.
- The Understanding Test – Fail. The song is schmaltzy in its lyric and many people, especially men, will object to the romantic overtones.
- The Music Test – Pass. While it is not inspired music (see the next point), it is singable.
- The Excellence Test – Fail. Neither the music, nor the lyric is an expression of excellence.
This is an excellent series of questions by which to test any music we sing corporately in church.
At this point I want to turn my attention to Starfield, an increasingly popular band to which many of my blog readers would be familiar. I’m making these comments because a) someone has asked me to look into their lyrics, b) their songs are making their way into teens groups and churches, and c) anytime I hear a group of Christians sing the praises of a group/band then I want to reflect upon their lyrics/theology. I want to make some observations on their lyrics as found online and hope that my comments will be taken with these necessary provisos:
Firstly – I haven’t listened to all of their albums and don’t know much about the band personally. My comments are going to be restricted to their lyrics (which, after all that I’ve posted so far, you should be convinced are the most important part of any song).
Secondly – I don’t want these observations to be any reflection upon their fans or anyone who appreciates their music and has been encouraged by it. My concern is to raise discernment among listeners.
Thirdly – my observations will be limited to their ‘Saving One’ album.
Ok, here are my observations:
- With the exception of one track the album contains no ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ type of songs. However the song ‘Absolutely’ is about as typically ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ as you can get. Even the references to ‘worship’ and ‘forgiveness’ are vague, containing little definition.
- The lyrics seem to focus primarily on the personal experience and relationship of God – there is only one song primarily concerned with ‘we’ (and one other song which mentions ‘we’ once) and no mentions of ‘us’. This isn’t necessarily bad, but if your diet of songs in church or youthgroup are primarily ‘me-centric’ and not ‘theo-centric’ then your theology will inevitably be shaped towards ‘me’.
- ‘The Saving One’ is probably the heaviest song in regards to theological content. That said, it’s much like the song ‘Jesus, God’s Righteousness Revealed’ which is just a collection of theological lines with nothing tying it together.
So if I were to take their lyrics and test them against that which Tim Challies has suggested then I’d be disinclined to use their songs in corporate worship.
A very practical thing for pastors: I asked that we sing when I was done because I really wanted you to be able to say with the heart “all I have is Christ.” I wanted you to say it and sing it. My suggestion for pastors is that you study the music here, the lyrics, and you do the research and get the gospel songs. Sovereign Grace is serving the evangelical movement incredibly, I think. I’m going to qualify my enthusiasm here. I’m totally there, these are my favourite contemporary songs. And it is a narrow slice of culture, it’s a narrow slice of musicality. Know that, and be okay with that, and maybe not limit yourself to that.…It’s amazing how many churches don’t—from their hearts—sing the gospel, sing the glories of justification, sing the glories of substitutionary atonement, sing the glories of the resurrection.
When was the last time you sung about the wrath of God or the substitutionary atonement in church? It’s not that hard to write songs containing these themes – Sovereign Grace music seems to do it consistently, and consistently well. Here’s an example from their album ‘Sons and Daughters’ in which the parable of the Prodigal Son is reworked into a wonderful performance song:
May the music in your church not only prepare hearts to hear God’s Word, but teach it faithfully also.