Thoughts on Contemporary Christian Worship Songs

- Rev. Joel H. Linton © 2007

Once a young preacher in New York City told me, "I wish I were a song writer. One good song could make so much more of an impact of getting the Bible's message into people hearts than all of the sermon's I have preached so far!" He knows a lot about music because before his call to the ministry, he had been a jazz guitar player. But he lamented his talent was not in song-writing.

I do not think my friend was discounting the Holy Spirit's work through the preaching of the Word -- which the Bible clearly promises. But rather, he was just noting human nature. Theology that goes into our hearts and wills as well as our minds impacts us so much more. And music is a special way to break through and bring it right into our hearts.

So Christians need to take advantage of this wonderful gift of music that God has blessed us with. We should not just use it merely to stir sentiment or make us feel good, but instead along with feeling we can and must to teach truth.

In the Bible, music was a huge part of the Temple worship. You can see it in 1 Chronicles 6. There was a "director of music." There were specifically known melodies, named tunes. A whole contingent of Levites devoted their time to composing songs and performing them using all kinds of musical instruments. In the Psalms they are called "The Sons of Korah" and literally were his descendants. Heman, Asaph, and Ethan were some of their leaders. King David commissioned them. And many of the Psalms were written by David and handed to them to perform in addition to the ones they wrote themselves.

Take a look at the Psalms if you want to see a model of the kind of content that our worship music should have. Yes, some of it is repetitive for effect and emphasis. But all of it is packed with theological content. None of it was there just to stir sentimental feelings. It was to teach, to convict. In short, and like my friend from New York said, it was like they were singing sermons.

The New Testament does not have a book of psalms. But there are also many new poetic summaries of the faith that are mentioned. It seems that in addition to singing the Psalms, early Christians continued to write new songs to God. And these new songs also followed the Psalms in content and focus.

And who were the Psalms focused on? God. They recorded our intense human experiences, but always came to focus on the Lord, God --- to praise Him, to thank Him, to confess to Him, to repent to Him, to declare what we believe to Him. There is an upward focus in the Psalms. There is also a corporate focus. Many are written with the obvious intent for God's people to assemble and worship God as a body, together. There was a calling out to each other to praise God and come before Him in worship.

Now as we think about worshipping God in our day, there is just a huge output of music, so much it is hard to keep up with. And all kinds and waves of popular Christian songs sweep through our worship bands and become the favorites of our church members. Many are sentimental and focussed on us, not God. They really connect with our contemporary ears, but that is because we are often still conformed to the pattern of this world, not transformed in the renewing of our minds; these kinds of sentimental me-focussed songs really match the culture of the day.

Following is an example of two songs that are very popular and have been requested in my church: "Above All" and "In the Secret". Lyrics will be included side by side with an analysis of the content.

Ask questions like: "Can I tell if this song is talking about God?" "Would a non-Christian know it is a Christian song?" "Does this song focus on me and my experience or on God's revealed truth?"
In The Secret
- Andy Park © 1995 Mercy/Vinyard Publishing

In the secret,
In the quiet place
In the stillness you are there
In the secret, in the quite hour I wait, only for you
'Cause I want to know you more

I want to know you
I want to hear your voice
I want to know you more
I want to touch you
I want to see your face
I want to know you more

I am reaching for the highest goals
That I might receive the prize
Pressing onward
Pushing every hindrance aside
Out of my way
Cause I want to know you more

People like this song because they think of it talking about their relationship with God, and especially maybe they think of it as a reference to a "Quiet Time" of personal devotion. It really makes you feel good.

Now take a closer look at the lyrics.

Actually, the song is glorifying a person's own experience of feeling "in love" rather than glorifying God. It is very self-focussed. And it also very ambiguous.

The question arises:  Who is the song talking about .... Your lover?  or God?

If you performed this at a secular concert, you can imagine what will be going on in people's minds.  The words basically speak of a lover -- with a few vague Christian allusions. 

  It goes for sentimentality, but not much on content.

So as a pastor or worship leader I would not want to introduce this song to the congregation even though it is very popular these days and stirs up a lot of emotion. We should use our time to introduce good songs. The worship leader needs to ask: of all the songs we could spend our time singing, should we be spending time singing, "In the Secret"? The melody of this song is very upbeat and celebratory, so maybe we can keep the music, jettison the lyrics, and replace them with others that speak clear Gospel truth.

Some people like this song because it stirs their sentiment. But we want to engage their minds and hearts at the same time; and we want them to learn truth through songs. The singing is one of the most powerful parts of the worship service, and the place where Gospel truth can go into people's hearts even easier than the sermon. 

Now compare these lyrics to another song: "Secret".

When you sing this one, who are you talking about: Your lover? or God?
Do these two songs, "In the Secret" and "Secret" not sound so similar?

Things haven't been the same
Since you came into my life
You found a way to touch my soul
And I'm never, ever, ever gonna let it go

Happiness lies in your own hand
It took me much too long to understand
How it could be
Until you shared your secret with me

You gave me back the paradise
That I thought I lost for good
You helped me find the reasons why
It took me by surprise that you understood
You knew all along
What I never wanted to say
Until I learned to love myself
I was never ever lovin' anybody else

So in case you did not know: this song, "Secret", is by Madonna (1994). As is usual with secular pop, you find veiled allusions to fornication or adultery. I know this sounds harsh, but we really need to be thoughtful about what kind of lyrics we sing.

Above All
by Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche © 1995 Integrity Music

Verse 1
Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature, and all created things
Above all wisdom, and all the ways of man
You were here, before the world began

Verse 2
Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders, the world has ever known
Above all wealth, and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what You're worth

Crucified, laid behind a stone
You lived to die, rejected and alone
Like a rose, trampled on the ground
You took the fall, and thought of me
Above all

This song has been sung by a lot of famous Christian music artists. Michael W. Smith. Randy Travis. Hillsong.

It is an excellent confession of who God is and confessing the worth due His Name! And there are some good verses in the Bible that can be read along with it: Colossians 1:13-20 or Romans 11:33-36. Unfortunately the last part of the chorus undermines the message of the rest of the song.

But interestingly, Christians actually value that last half of the chorus above the rest of the song. One new Christian told me, "It's a great song...very moving, particularly the last two lines: 'You took the fall, And thought of me above all.' My interpretation of this is that He paid the price for our sins and put us before Him. Is there something wrong with that?" he asked.

And it is good if that is what people are thinking: Jesus put our needs ahead of his own needs. But what does the song actually say?

The issue is the accuracy of the truth of the statement in the way it was originally written.
The problem is the man-centered focus-- certainly Jesus thought of us when he was dying but not "ABOVE ALL".

Actually, that last verse contradicts what has been said in every other line... If God is above all, and God is the God of truth, and He would think of Himself Above All. His Creatures are under.

So what seems like a touching poetic turn of phrase actually takes us away from truth... Though I know most people do not think of it that way.

The last line says it this way (though the writer did not intend this, I'm sure)

powers and kings and wonders and wealth and treasure.

But GOD needs to be at the top.

The problem is that the phrase "above all" is used in the context of powers and creation and etc. So the meaning is literally "above all"... and that cannot be said of me == I am not above all... and Jesus did not think of me above all, though he did think of me.

What to do about a song like this with beautiful poetry and a moving melody -- but with an error?

The last line would have needed to say... that even though you are above all, Lord, that you even cared to think of me, who is so low -- so not above all. But poetically that does not work very well.

One worship leader changed the last two lines of the chorus to reflect the accurate meaning of "above all" That was the only way to keep the final words "above all" which is a key part of the poetry of the song.

"We worship You Lord who alone are above all." That matches what is said everywhere else in the song.

Now here is a modification that really takes care of the difficulty.

Above All

Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and all the ways of man
You were here before the world began

Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what you're worth

Crucified, laid behind a stone
You lived to die, rejected and alone
Son of God, Lamb for sinners slain
Exalted Lord, we worship you
above all.

by Lenny LeBlanc and Paul Baloche © 1995 Integrity Music
Words modified by Walt Harrah

To all of you worship leaders out there, and to you elders: I want to call on you to do your own analysis of the content of the songs that your church members love and sing. We need leadership, especially in this area, especially in the generation we live among.

If you wish to read more on Biblical worship following are some of my recommendations. You might not agree with every point, but I think these books are worth reading and make good contributions to the discussion of the issue.

Gospel Worship - Jeremiah Burroughs (1648) republished by Soli Deo Gloria Publications

Contemporary Worship Music - John Frame (1997) P & R Publishing
(not concise, a little repetitions, but it has quite a few good points)

Online essay from RUF regarding worship.

Online writings on worship music from Steward Townend, author of the hymns "In Christ Alone" and "How Deep the Father's Love for Us"