On Worship and the Word

Hands Raised By Brian A. Petersen
Hands Raised By Brian A. Petersen
In a recent post, Blessed Assurance?, I made an aside about the extent to which worship leaders shape our theology, and a couple of people have asked me to elaborate. I’m not entirely sure what they expected, but here we go nonetheless…

I often hear people complain that ‘too many people get their theology from worship songs’ and to an extent I share that concern. I do have a problem with bad worship songs shaping our theology. But I don’t have a problem with worship music shaping our theology per se. To suggest that worship music should not shape our theology raises questions about the value of having a book of 150 such songs in the canon, plus all the various songs scattered throughout the other books. And since I’m not about to write those out, we must accept that God can and does teach through inspired song.

I do think that worship music has a role in teaching. It did in Scripture and it likely should today. It is a shared experience of declaring strongly held beliefs. It is a way of corporately seeing doctrine in a new light and actively declaring that we want to follow and be changed by the truth of which we are singing. Because it involves the whole body and the emotions, it has a power and ability to move us on a ‘deeper-than-purely-rational’ level. But if individual Christians are spending their devotional times leafing through and meditating on liner notes rather than God’s word, something’s gone wrong… and it’s not the fault of the worship leaders! The first step to rectify the problem is to get individual Christians reading the Bible and critically evaluating what they hear and sing by whether or not it lines up with God’s word.

In the gathered church, I don’t consider worship songs to be the primary medium for teaching; that title goes to the 30-60 minute slot we generally call (displaying a complete disregard for the difference between nouns and verbs) ‘the preach.’ I do however recognise the power of worship songs to instruct subliminally and therefore the crucial need to get them right. But I would suggest that there are a whole host of things that we do that instruct without us realising. The way a worship time is introduced, the language used during notices, the explanation of the offering, (the quality of the coffee?!) all convey value statements and sometimes implicitly communicate hints about doctrinal positions, preferences or priorities. That is to say, if we’re gonna pick on worship leaders, we’ve got to be consistent and pick on everyone who makes Sundays tick!

It would be all too easy to write a post bemoaning the lack of theological depth of modern worship songs, picking out a few obvious examples and mocking them publicly. To be sure, there are many viable candidates for such ridicule! There are plenty of songs I would not be happy to sing on a Sunday because of the warped theology they teach, but there are plenty of other songs I would not want to sing for other reasons.

When writing and choosing good worship songs, we need to be asking more than ‘is this good theology’? You don’t have to know your homoiousios from your homoousios to write a good tune. Nor does theological accuracy guarantee musical proficiency. (Have you ever listened to theologians singing?!). Stylistic questions are important. When someone brings me a song to comment on, I’m not just interested in the words, but whether it’s aesthetically pleasing to sing; whether it makes sense musically given the cultural context of the country, city and decade (?!) we’re in; and whether it will strike the right tone in a worship time. I also recognise that it’s not my ‘theological credentials’ that equip me to make such comments, but my so-called ‘creative streak.’ Both critical faculties need to be combined.

There are language questions that have to be considered: have the technical terms been used correctly? Is it understandable to those singing it: Christian believers or not? Have these words actually been in common parlance at any point in the last two centuries? Is it clear what the idioms and metaphors refer to? I mean, I like Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, but I’m not really sure what an Ebenezer is, where I get one, or how and why I should raise such a thing. And let’s be honest, though many of us would happily sing a rousing rendition of Crown Him with Many Crowns, who of us (St Stuffed Shirt aside!) uses the phrase ‘ineffably sublime’ in everyday speech? 

In our church, the preachers have commented on a few songs and had them removed from the repertoire because of their theological inaccuracy. When a new song is written by one of our worship team, often one of the elders or I look over it for theological accuracy. And that’s great. But it’s not heavy policing. It’s not that we see the worship leader as a theological dunce who’s likely, unless we enlightened ones step in, to lead people in praising Baal by accident. Actually my experience has been that worship leaders are deep thinkers, who read the Bible, are shaped by it, are genuinely aware of the power their songs have, and so humbly want to make them the best they can. Simon Brading’s comments about the missional-charismatic ‘tension’ are a great example of a worship leader seriously thinking through and taking responsibility for more than simply crafting good songs. Or check out Matt Redman’s interview on men and worship, where he talks about the need to ensure that our language is scripturally watertight, but also to make sure it means what we think it means in our cultural context.

My point is… worship leaders aren’t idiots, and sometimes I think that the ‘we’re scared about theology being shaped by worship music’ argument is based on a mis-characterisation of worship leaders and perhaps a theological-preacher-elitism. It’s perhaps endemic of the beauty/truth divide that has plagued much of modern Christendom – we don’t seem to be able to hold the two together, and people who specialise in one area tend to be suspicious of those who are particularly focussed on the other. Sometimes we’ve got to let creatives be creative and trust that they’re grounded. We’ve got to disciple them and invest in their understanding of the Word. To my mind, it’s hardly more problematic for our theology to be shaped by worship songs than it is for it to be shaped by a writer, blogger, poet, filmmaker or theologian. Historically, preachers have made just as many theological errors than worship leaders; probably more. I could purchase a paperback on almost any shelf of a reputable Christian bookshop which will still contain moments of lunacy. And preachers are no more immune to the danger of style over substance, or rhetoric over truth. As I’ve written before, preachers need to kill their darlings.

Sometimes theologians and preachers are able to see blind spots that songwriters may not. I’m probably more aware than many in our church of the fact that most of our songs are implicitly Unitarian or Binitarian rather than Trinitarian. Not that they deny the other members of the Trinity, but many of our songs mention only one or two members max. We could unwittingly go a whole worship set and not mention Jesus, or the Father, or more likely the Spirit – and maybe that’s a blind spot a theologian might be more attuned to notice. But theologians should not simply police such things, but teach worship leaders to spot them too.

The flipside is that theologians and preachers can also be boring, uncreative or pedantic! I think a strong case could be made for worship leaders or creatives inputting into the work of preachers, helping them to be aware of their blind spots and weaknesses. I’ve certainly benefited from running ideas by people who are far more creative than I, and I hope my preaching is all the better for it.

So I’m happy for worship to shape our theology, bringing it to life, helping us to see timeless truths in new ways, crafting an experience into which we can enter together. In an ideal world, worship will shape our theology, theology will shape our worship, and both will be shaped by the Word and the Spirit.

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