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Monday, August 5, 2013

on whales and worship lyrics

Two different incidents are swirling around in my head right now. The first involves a killer whale and Josh Groban. The second involves a discussion in my home group, where we are reading Bonhoeffer’sLife Together”. The discussion centered around this quote concerning worship through corporate singing:

“All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn…the music is completely the servant of the Word {Scripture}. It elucidates the Word in its mystery.”

We asked each other, is this true of church music today? Can we say of modern worship songs that the music serves the words of Scripture? Or do the words of our worship songs serve the music? Can we say that we, the worshippers love the words more than the melodies? How can we tell?

Which brings me to that killer whale incident. I’m going to confess something completely humiliating here: I absolutely love “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. On a trip to Sea World a few years back, we watched a Shamu Show choreographed to that song. Every time Josh hit the chorus, Shamu would erupt out of the water, launching his trainer thirty feet into the air off the tip of his snout. Raising him up. To more than he could be.

Tears. Streaming. Down. My. Face.

So, let’s just take a look at those gorgeous, impactful lyrics:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up... To more than I can be.

I mean, just revel in that. That’s some powerful stuff - powerfully cheesy. But between the soaring instrumentation and the velvet voice (and the orca) I sort of lost track of that. Do you think I’m pathetic? Try it yourself - just Google the lyrics to your favorite song. Try reading them without melody and instrumentation. Do they move you? Are they memorable? Do they even make sense?

With a pop song, who cares? There’s not a lot at stake if a music-less read-through of the lyrics reveals that the message is a little ridiculous. But with worship music, the stakes are higher. I believe this is what Bonhoeffer wants us to understand. Himself a musician, he would have known what every musician, every writer of movie scores, every marketer, every Shamu choreographer can tell you: Music has the power to move us in and of itself.

the powerful pull of music

Imagine the Harry Potter movies with no themed score running behind the scenes. The musical score alone, existing independently from words or images, would stir our emotions. Combined with them, the effect magnifies. Even a movie as well-written as Harry Potter would feel dull and flat without a soundtrack.

Bonhoeffer’s point is simple: When the words serve the music, we gratify self. When the music serves the words, we glorify God. In a culture that consumes music on an unprecedented scale, the church faces an uphill battle to maintain the high ground that the music must serve the words. Ten years ago, contemporary worship songs were plagued with the “I-Me-My-Mines”, every line filled with the knowledge of man. We have come some distance since then, praise God, with a shift back toward lyrics that extol the character of God. But we have further still to go.

If I supplied you with a copy of the lyrics to the 6500 hymns of Charles Wesley, two things would happen to you as you read it. First, you would be deeply moved by the truths the lyrics contained, whether you knew the melodies associated with them or not. Second, you would know your Bible better. Could the same be said if you read through the lyrics of our modern worship offerings?

Wesley composed his hymns during a time in church history when the music served the words, or more precisely, the Word. We live in a time when music, church or otherwise, serves our personal taste, and where lyrics are often an afterthought. Combine this with rampant Bible illiteracy, and we find congregational Shamu shows so glutted on the wealth in their melodies that they ignore the poverty in their lyrics. A worship song is “anointed” if it moves us deeply, whether the words communicate anything coherent or not. Don’t make me give you a sloppy wet example.

preparing heart and head

What Bonhoeffer and Wesley would say to us is that church music must do more than move the emotions: it must feed the understanding. In doing so, it accomplishes its purpose of preparing our hearts and minds for the pinnacle of the worship service, the proclamation of the Word. We wrongly believe that the worship set should fill our hearts and the sermon should fill our heads. Corporate worship should enliven both heart and head, preparing us for a sermon which does both as well.

So, to my fellow worshippers, let's consider together whether our adoration is given to music or through music. And to those worship leaders composing church music today, God bless you – you endure enormous pressure to create "worship experiences". Consider Bonhoeffer’s message: whether your gifting runs toward hymnody or poetry, write lyrics that teach so much truth they can stand on their own. And then set them to music that magnifies their beauty. We, your congregants are slaves to our personal tastes. Teach us to crave corporately the better thing - the Word rendered luminous by song, confessed by a thousand tongues.


  1. I didn't know how you would do it, but you succeeded in drawing a line between whales and worship songs! I've been thinking a lot about this subject recently because our new church sings from hymns. The music isn't thrilling, but the lyrics are so much more rich. Honestly, I miss the thrill, but its good from me to separate my desires with what is the true point of worship - God.

  2. remember my favorite line from a recent song: "When God made you, He must've been thinking about MEEEEEE!"

  3. Great post, thanks for putting all that together. I've always considered musicians to be in a teaching role in the church. what you have said confirms that. such an important role, to be faithful to the word!

  4. Good thought provoking post. The image of Shamu was great! I agree with the fact that the liturgical depth of our worship is often found wanting. As a musician myself, I'm often torn between music that I like or words that stir me. They seldom are found together. But, I would be interested to hear what you think about increasing the quality of the music as well. I think in modern worship culture, they're both in decline. It's rare to find moments of Selah in worship anymore. Music has the ability to transcend words, and as musician and worshipper, I find it another dimension where God reveals who he is.

  5. Great post. Unfortunately this is not agreed upon in many churches, especially Evangelical. I think that you are right that it is getting better over the last 10-15 years. I still remember many chapel services in college going like this:

    "Yes, Lord, Yes Lord, Yes, Yes, Lord
    Yes, Lord, Yes Lord, Yes, Yes, Lord
    repeat, repeat, repeat, AMEN" (You probably know the song)

    I always felt guilty that I thought this was a pathetic attempt at song writing.

    1. You know what's so funny about that? The rest of the words of that song are pretty amazing, especially the bridge:

      "We are pressed but not crushed,
      persecuted not abandoned,
      struck down but not destroyed.
      We are blessed beyond the curse
      for His promise will endure,
      that His joy is gonna be our strength.
      Though the sorrow may last through the night,
      His joy comes in the morning."

      It's an amazing description of suffering through persecution and pain because it brings great joy in the Lord. But instead of singing those parts over and over again, we tend to sing "yes, yes, yes, yes, blah blah blah" Drives me crazy!

  6. Thank you for articulating my confused discontent. As music editor of a new psalter, this is the hardest thing to teach composers. The message is the painting; music is canvas, frame, placement in space, and lighting.
    Until very recently, "hymn" was understood to mean "metrical text" -- the music was usually interchangeable with other music of similar strophe.
    I am not opposed to "text painting," where the music and text are too closely wed to separate ("How Great Thou Art"), but the primacy is ALWAYS to the text, or it does not fulfill the biblical purpose of singing (Eph. 5, Col. 3).
    Again, thank you! I am sharing.

  7. This comment was emailed to me by a kind man who was unable to get his comment to post. He asked me to post it for him. I can relate to having "technical difficulties" with blogspot, so I am obliging his request :)...Jen

    "I am adding this to my collection of articles from a growing number of church worship observers, who have finally begun to realize that content trumps emotion, in fact, it begets emotion, and faith, conviction, etc., rather than the other way around. The last 15-20 years have produced a long list of what have come to be known as 7/11 songs, 7 words repeated 11 times. Their value is, alas, short-lived and their effect, numbing. As a composer contributor to what I am sure is the same aforementioned new psalter, per Dad above, I am dedicated to writing music that lifts the lyrics off the page, and transfers them into the hearts of the congregants, where they will forever be imprinted and sung again and again, at any time, renewing their confidence and faith in the Lord. I'd add Isaac Watts to the list, as well, with Bonhoeffer and Wesley. There are many others from the past. We need more, and new authors, composers, and poets, who will come forth and again write as powerfully." - Mike in TX

  8. I appreciated your focus on content rather than style. It seems to be a trend to accept anything old as "holy" and to dismiss everything new. To rigorously examine the words we say is not a trend in most areas of our society, and it is an important opportunity for growth. I would also contend that it's important to look at the words we're NOT saying as well. I read your post and then read this post (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2013/07/no-squishy-love) about the decision not to include "In Christ Alone" in the new Presbyterian hymnal, and I thought it was a great reminder to see every part of our Sunday gatherings as an opportunity to lift up, learn about, and reaffirm our beliefs in God. He is complex, but He wants us to know Him and we should allow no opportunity for growth to be ignored. Thanks for putting this in the spotlight.

  9. I really appreciate this post. As a leader of the music at my church I struggle to find new songs for our congregation to sing. I tried to dig some up yesterday and about 70% were all about the "me, my, mine, I" you mentioned above. Oftentimes it makes more sense to modernize the music of older hymns, because you can't beat the theological insight you can get from hymns like "The Solid Rock" or "Great is Thy Faithfulness". I've made it a goal of mine on many Sundays to only sing songs that speak directly of God and don't contain a single "I, me, or mine". It's a lot harder to do than it should be, in my opinion. (Although, in recent years there have been a few songs whose lyrics have been so great! It really encourages me when these songs become popular. I wish more of them did.)

  10. Completely agree! One of the reasons I love corporate worship so much at my church is because the lyrics are true to the Word, and they engage the mind and the heart. Thank you for your thoughts on this!

  11. great post. Churches are often using music as a partial replacement for the WORD of God preached. The primacy of the preached Word is a biblical concept that is being threatened by the powerful emotional draw of music. Rather than focus on the God-ordained means of the preached word – there is a real danger in over-emphasizing music in corporate worship – even good music. It doesn’t make the music bad – it is simply destructive to the church to emphasize music over the preached word – how can they hear the Gospel if they don’t have a preacher? How much worse then when the music itself is bereft of meaning!

  12. Awesome conversation. I noticed there are times you capitalized “Word” as if to acknowledge that we worship Jesus not words. To this end I believe that melodies can lead us to worship without words. Think Mozart, the beauty and wonder of God that he created our ears to catch sound waves floating through the air in perfect rhythm and harmony with no lyrics attached. Just like the sunset can stir up awe inside of us enough to cry out with worship to God without scripture scrolling across the view, or flavor combinations can excite our senses in ways that make us give glory to the God who created taste buds. Yes, the words we sing should be true, just like all the words that leave our lips. But there is more to the Word than words.

  13. Check out theversesproject.com it is a website that offers free music. Songs are written by using the bible verses from the Fighter Verse app. The songs are really good and have been such a blessing to me. It has been the best way for me to introduce my children to the Word and I have personally memorized so much scripture simply by listening to good music. My kids and I regularly worship throughout the day by singing and dancing to these bible verse songs. Our church will sometimes sing one during corporate worship as well.