Spiritual Songs

First principles:

  1. My aim is not to engage in a conversation about musical taste.  Musical taste includes elements exempt from criticism.  I don’t like the genre of music called “country”.  If you like it, I’m not criticizing your preference.  You may not like my preference for “electronica” or “classical” music.  We agree to disagree.  What we cannot dispute is the existence of objective criteria for good music and lyrics.  This article does not intend to say a certain taste in music is bad or should be banned from Christian culture.  I simply want to raise the issue of what consitutes the best music for corporate worship and Christian spirituality.
  2. The message of the song matters.  All lyrics are not created equal.  Even in songs with spiritual content, some lyrics are better than others.  This is more that mere personal preference.  Objective criteria determine the quality of lyrics.  Invention, depth, truth, creativity, the use of figurative language, rhyme, and rhythm set the best apart from the good.
  3. Good lyrics transcend musical genre.  This does not deny the interdependence between music and lyrics.  Rather, we must acknowledge that quality lyrics may be found in every genre no matter how subjectively unpleasing that genre may be to some.  I may not like country music, but I cannot assume that every country song has rubbish lyrics.
  4. Like most things, context matters in music.  Funeral music is generally inappropriate in weddings and wedding music at funerals.  Thus, music chosen for the public worship of God must meet the requirements of that context.  To ignore this regulation flies in the face of reason and Biblical command.
  5. With regard to “sacred music,” a critical comment about a certain song does not mean that the person who appreciates it is wrong to do so.  One of my favorite songs is “Love song for a Savior,” by Jars of Clay.  This song violates most of what I will say later about the best music.  That does not mean I ought not enjoy it, but it does mean that I need to understand the place it ought to occupy in my mind, heart, and life.

And now to the story:

I like my reformed bubble.  It insulates me from much of the absurdity that passes for Christianity within the world.  I know those absurdities exist, but I don’t have to experience them regularly.  Nevertheless, I often find it shocking when I confront these departures from my reformed bubble.

One such shock occurred when observing an event of Christian people interacting with praise songs.  The substance of these songs demonstrated the poverty of good contemporary hymnody.  Nevertheless, the participants obviously drew “spiritual” experiences from these songs.  As I watched, my concern grew at the intellectual dissonence between the level of "spiritual" experience and the truth content of the lyrics.

This event reminded me of a conversation I once had with a colleague about music at Christian camps.  He objected to the music at camp worship which departed from the music in our corporate worship.  He suggested at the time that it created a separation in the minds of the kids between church spirituality and camp spirituality.  At the time, I understood his concern but wondered if it was much ado about nothing.  My recent experiences have caused me to appreciate the importance of the emergence of separate kinds of Christian spirituality.

Our society views spirituality as a subjective experience rather than an objective experience.  To the world, the spirituality of transcendental meditation does not differ from the spirituality of a cathedral.  Spirituality is a personal experience that has nothing objectively true about it.  This perspective has invaded the church and made many careless about the truth behind an experience, but merely evaluates the experience itself.

Every experience involves an element of subjectivity.  After all, experience affects the individual.  Some experiences mean more to us than others.  That does not diminish the reality of a lesser experience.  Even a mere subjective experience is real to the individual.  The confusion arises when culture defines spirituality solely as subjective experiences, experiences based solely on one’s subjective preferences rather than an objective reality.  Christian spirituality rests on the truth of God’s word.  To attempt spirituality in a predominantly subjective form endangers our fidelity to the truth.  Wisdom dictates that Christians pursue spiritual experiences based on truth rather than our own preferences or emotions.

How we worship substantially influences our spirituality.  Worship expresses our view of God and His relation to us.  Spirituality is how we experience that relationship.  Thus, how we view God defines how we worship Him and how we worship God affects how we experience our relationship with God.  We must be very careful how we worship and how we understand spirituality.

All worship is not the same.  We worship privately and corporately (with other Christians).  Should different rules govern these types of worship?  We hold that God alone determines how His people worship Him publicly and corporately.  The second commandment forbids the worship of God by images. (Ex.20:4-6)  Certainly, this prohibition also regulates private worship, but as images are outwardly and often publicly visible, one may easily see how the prohibition has a corporate focus.  The death of Nadab and Abihu demonstrates the seriousness with which God judges those who violate His regulation of His corporate worship. (Lev.10:1-7)

Since corporate worship occupies a different character then private worship, we must answer the question how the corporate character of worship regulates the character of our song selection.  Some rational conclusions follow:
  1. Corporate worship involves corporate singing.  Our song choices need to reflect this context.  Songs written for solo singers probably ought not find their way into the hymnody of the church.
  2. Corporate singing reminds us that the congregation will have greater or lesser musical ability.  Some will possess the talent envied by contestants on The Voice.  Others will simply make a “joyful noise” according to the command from Psalm 100.  This range of musical ability should draw our song selection to the easy-to-sing options.
  3. Corporate worship includes the immediate presence of God.  His presence demands holiness and the best of our efforts.  We cannot accept mediocrity before God in our worship.  Our lyrics must express the best and fullest expressions of our hearts in worship before God.  The good must make way for the best.
Some people balk against the concept of objective criteria for gradations of music or lyrics.  They argue that music includes only subjective elements.  I will not attempt to enumerate criteria for good music even though I think they certainly exist.  I will suggest that the argument to ignore lyrics cannot be sustained.  Words will always remain open to analysis regarding their truth content at least.  At a minimun, the best lyrics for corporate worship must maximize its truth content.  Criteria for the best lyrics for corporate worship and spiritual growth include content about the totality of the redemption accomplished by Christ as fully and excellently expressed as possible.  If we can only agree on the necessity of truth in corporate worship this guideline must be accepted.

We come to the crux of the problem.  Well meaning artists have unwittingly created a confusion between corporate and private worship.  When you gather an audience in a stadium or concert hall and sing, you create an environment that looks confusingly similar to corporate worship.  You then give people an experience that dwarfs their ordinary experience in corporate worship.  They understandably confuse the experiences and wonder why their ordinary church worship seems so sterile.

Now, I have no problem with these Christian artists producing music or holding concerts.  I do have a problem with many of the  consequences of these events.  These events have confused Christians with a false idea of corporate worship.  Many think these concert songs should migrate to corporate worship.  These talented artists are not performing easy-to-sing works.  These song are generally written for solo performance.

Fans of these events often place pressure on church leaders to replicate the concert experience within the church during corporate worship.  The outcome has been disastrous.  The concert experience has superseded truth.  The truth ought incite our emotions, but we find people taking the spiritual shortcut to emotions without depth.  Perhaps the artists intend tp minister spiritually, but more often than not, their performances inevitably depart from the strictures of corporate worship.

I am not saying that these artists create songs without truth.  They certainly repeat some wonderful truths or passages of scripture.  The question presented, is whether we ought to include them in worship.  Do they exhibit the excellence that corporate worship demands?  God calls us to discern the good from the best in corporate worship.  These songs may be good, but are they best?  Are they that expression from which we should expect the development of  spirituality, a spiritual experience arising from the best and fullest expression of the truth?

Music possesses emotional power.  It has the power to create emotional experiences.  God’s people have used music throughout their history to express their faith.  The danger with music is that it allows for an emotional shortcut to a “spiritual” experience.  Think of a balance scale.  On one side we have the truth content of the lyrics.  On the other we have the emotional content of the music.  From which side do we want our spirituality to emerge?

Think of that balance again.  The lighter the content of the lyrics, the more pressure you place on the music to create the spiritual experience.  The principle we draw from this structure is that the weaker the lyrics the greater the danger of creating an emotional shortcut to perceived "spirituality".  While we may appreciate the experience and emotion of the song, the lack of content suggests that we ought not allow it to define our spirituality.  It simply cannot bear the weight of spiritual truth content.

These songs have unfortunately trained people to be satisfied with a level of spirituality that weeps at the allure of the partial, the unfinished, the unbalanced.  We have raised a generation that judges the spiritual best by experience rather than truth.  Christians must develop an appreciation for the full, the balanced, the excellent.

In music for corporate worship, we may list some elements to avoid.
  1. We should beware the simplistic.  An unbalanced truth often appears in these songs.  The positive aspects of God’s attributes and human life often exclude God’s wrath and human suffering.  
  2. We should avoid the repetitive.  There is nothing wrong with repetition.  Repetition fills song length without adding anything to the truth content.  If we desire spirituality based on truth, we want as much truth as possible in our hymns.    
  3. We should beware songs that seem to directly appeal to the emotional.  Songs performed for the purpose of creating an environment rather than proclaiming truth should be avoided.  
  4. Obviously, songs with questionable or speculative theology should only appear in our personal music.  The rigors of regulated worship forbid lyrics unsubstantiated by scripture.
I want to stress again.  The songs I criticize here are not evil.  They may be good.  They simply are not best.  They should not be included in corporate worship.  In your personal enjoyment, please support your favorite artist, but understand the difference between corporate worship and personal enjoyment.

In an attempt to encourage this discernment, I offer the following analysis.  I offer two praise songs for examination.  I will then turn my critical eye toward my own favorite in the interest of fairness.  Finally, I will examine examples of excellent hymnody.  In this examination, we will analyze the lyrics alone, leaving style and musical questions for another day.

“Your Love Is Strong” by Jon Foreman

In the interest of full disclosure, I love Switchfoot and Foreman’s songs.  Remember, we are not calling these songs bad.  They are good, just not best for corporate worship.

An easy glance at the lyrics will show you that the inspiration for this song comes from the Lord’s Prayer. (Matt.6:9-13)  So far so good.  The first problem comes in the emphasis that the artist places on this prayer.  In his exegesis, the prayer demonstrates the strong love of the Lord.  This interpretation does not appear in the context of the prayer.  The immediate context of the prayer involves the simplicity of our prayer life and indeed all our spirituality.

Second, this song demonstrates the imbalance that plagues modern worship music.  It emphasizes God’s love to the detriment of His other attributes such as holiness or wrath.  Could you imagine a modern writer crafting a song that repeated the refrain “your wrath is strong.”  It probably would not hit the top of the Christian music charts.  Yet this statement is as true as the former.  Indeed, the power of God’s wrath demonstrates the power of His love.

Finally, we must note some troubling theology.  “Let Your kingdom come in my world and in my life,” presumes that we possess a world and life, which we don’t.  Do birds really not play a note out of tune?  This ignores the effect of sin on the created order.  Birds are as subject to sin as we are.(Isa. 65:25)

“It is Well” Bethel Music

Again, the inspiration for this song clearly comes from Horatio G. Spafford’s great hymn, “It is well with my soul.”  Instead of an extended discussion of confidence in God, this song takes a shortcut to that confidence with a brief allusion to the days of the disciples.  We see allusions to Peter’s walking on the water and Jesus discussion of faith.

The major problem with these lyrics besides their blatantly repetitive character is the emotive notes throughout the lyrics.  This song takes a greater one and chops it up.  The apparent motivation is the artist taking a shortcut to the spiritual experience.  Truth takes a backseat to the creation of an experience through music.

“Love Song for a Savior” by Jars of Clay

Well, what can I say.  Repetitive - check.  Vapid - check.  Theologically obscure - check. Confusing lyrics - check.  Do I still love it - check check.  Just because I may like it doesn’t mean it’s excellent or best.  We should not include it in our liturgy for corporate worship, but every time I hear it, it transports me back to sunny Saturdays driving down Scenic Highway in Pensacola, Florida.

None of the forgoing measure up to the quality we ought require in hymnody for corporate worship.  None are best.  None reflect the completion of truth we ought experience in our spirituality.  For that, we need the words of the past.

“Arise My Soul Arise” by Charles Wesley

Arise, my soul, arise, (Ps.42:5,6,11)
shake off your guilty fears: (Ro.3:19-26)
the bleeding Sacrifice
in my behalf appears: (Heb.9:11)
before the throne my Surety stands,
before the throne my Surety stands, (Heb.7:22, 12:2)
my name is written on his hands. (John 10:28-29)

He ever lives above,
for me to intercede, (Heb.7:25)
his all-redeeming love,
his precious blood to plead; (Micah 7:9)
his blood atoned for ev’ry race,
his blood atoned for ev’ry race,
and sprinkles now the throne of grace. (Heb.9; I John 2:2)

Five bleeding wounds he bears,
received on Calvary;
they pour effectual prayers,
they strongly plead for me.
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“Forgive him, O forgive,” they cry,
“nor let that ransomed sinner die!” (Heb.7:26-27)

My God is reconciled; (II Cor.5:18-20; Eph.2:16; Col.1:20-21)
his pard’ning voice I hear;
he owns me for his child, (Heb.2:10-12)
I can no longer fear; (Ro.8:1,15)
with confidence I now draw nigh,
with confidence I now draw nigh, (Heb.10:22)
and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry. (Ro.8:15; Gal.4:6)

Just reading the lyrics gives you the sense of depth and strength of the doctrine within this great hymn.  While the Wesley’s may fall out of favor to the Reformed community, Charles’ lyrics truly plumb the depths of biblical truth.  Notice the lack of direct biblical quotations.  Some think this necessary for excellent hymnody, however wise, proper, and effective use of biblical allusion beats mindless copying from scripture, especially if used out of context.  From the Psalms to the book of Hebrews, this song alludes to the breadth of the Bible.  It speaks the bloody necessity of Christ’s death to satisfy God’s wrath for our sin.  It declares our freedom from sin’s guilt.  It demonstrates the love of God and His acceptance of our person before the throne of grace.

For another example, let us look at another example of great hymnody.

“God Is Known among His People” in The Psalter, 1912

This is Psalm 76 versified and put to music.  Sometimes great hymnody plagiarizes from the inspired hymnbook of the Old Testament saints.  Because we live in after the work of Jesus, we must understand these words in the context of Christ.  “[W]hile to save the meek and lowly God in judgment wrought his will,” we understand as a reference to the person and work of Jesus.  Notice the contrast between God’s care of His people and anger against their enemies.

Finally, we move to a different era of time.

“In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend

I include this rare example of modern hymnody to show that the best hymnody does not remain in the past.  It even can be performed by the Newsboys.  Notice the balance between the love of God and wrath of God in verse two.  This hymn takes you through the person and work of Christ and applies it to how Christians ought to live in response to all that He has done.

C.S. Lewis suggested that “[I]t would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not to strong, but too weak….  We are too easily pleased.”  Our generation has trained itself to be pleased with  the short, the easy, the simple, and the shallow.  We want the shortcut to experiencing God.  We want a spirituality that is easy and simple.

Too many Christians live their lives in a state of arrested development.  When we begin our lives, we need milk not meat.  We need “Jesus loves me. This I know.”  Nevertheless, we should never become satisfied with this level of spirituality.  The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to grow past the beginning stages of Christian living.  "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.  For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe." (Hebrews 5:12-13)

God never intends us to be pleased with a childish spirituality, theology, or worship.  We must outgrow milk and desire meat.  Instead too many Christians live in a condition of arrested development.  We look not for meat, but for the latest flavored milk.  Our maturity comes when we adjust our image of spirituality from a mere experience to an appreciation of truth.  It means learning the talent of “worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” (Ps.96:9)

I will restate the point of this series.  The topic is not musical style.  The issue is musical content.  The exhortation is to pursue the truth in all its fulness.  Be not satisfied with partial spirituality in music.  Don't be pleased with easy musical experiences as a substitute for deep spiritual truth.  Stop building spiritual "mountains" in your sandbox when spiritual Everests exist in the riches of God's word.

In The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis presents a picture of heaven.  As the main characters enter it, they hear the refrain continually, "Further up, Further in."  This exhortation I leave with you.  We have not obtained a spiritual place of repose.  In Christ, our hearts cry "more."  Let me not be satisfies with the weak.  Let me not be easily pleased.  Let me go further into the knowledge of Christ.  Let Christian worship be an expression of the fullness of Christ and our yearning to know more of Him.

I cannot leave this topic without commenting on the leadership of the church.  We pastors must bear responsibility for the current state of widespread arrested development.  Leaders, who should know better, settle for substandard hymnody, usually to placate or attract “young people”.  We let the immature to determine the standard of worship.  Does this honor the Lord?

We are not called to make everyone comfortable with the level of spirituality to which they have grown accustomed.  We are not called to set the standard of spiritual excellence.  We are called to exhort and model the relentless pursuit of Christ.  We are called to show people depth and in that depth, people will yearn for the knowledge of God in Christ.

In addition, church leadership must develop educational opportunities to mature believers.  The Bible mandates this upon the church and its gifted ones. (Eph.4:11-15)  We pastor must take responsibility for committing the sin of making the truth unattractive.  Pride, anger, prejudice, and exclusion has marred the truth with human sin.  Doctrine does not repel the Christian.  Instead, Christians are repelled from doctrine when expressed with superiority or condescension.  Have we forgotten what makes doctrine awe-inspiring?  Can we explain why bloody sacrifices show the glory of God?  Do the doctrines of grace move us to tears or merely satisfy our logic?  If our doctrine merely remains something logical, is it any wonder that the generation has looked to something other that doctrine to satisfy its longing for spiritual feeling?

I have seen this operating in my own life.  For a long time, I saw the doctrinal truth of scripture as a bludgeon with which to wreak vengeance on the abuse of false doctrine that had been leveled against me.  Then, I saw it as an intellectual exercise that flattered my vanity because I had it and no one else did.  Doctrine became the foundation needed to prevent Christians from falling into the deceit of postmodernism.  Only recently have I understood the importance of doctrine as beauty.  If we pastors don't see the beauty of truth, how can we expect others not to be swayed by musical beauty even if shallow theologically?  If we cannot express the beauty of Christ, why are we surprised that Christians have no passion for Christ?

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