Why Words Matter In A Worship Song

Yesterday I wrote a post entitled How to Write An Awful Worship Song. The post was 75% humorous and sarcastic, and was written primarily out of my own experiences in writing awful worship songs. I wasn’t taking pot shots at modern songs or songwriters.

However, a number of people made comments along these lines:

What matters most in a worship song is the heart behind the song. If it comes from a person’s heart and is a sincere act of worship, then it’s a good worship song.

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. In John 4:23-24 Jesus said:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.

God is seeking men and women who will worship Him in truth. This truth is first and foremost the truth of God revealed through Jesus Christ.

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.

Comments

  1. Peter says

    Don't forget the music. An unsingable or uncomfortable melody can also make a poor worship song, even if the lyrics are great. There are a lot of great songs that sound good when sung by a band or a particular group that would make poor general worship songs because the melody doesn't work for normal people. Doctrine is important, but melody is as well. I'd also venture that the pitch of a song makes a difference. We had our praise band start a song up a 4th or 5th and the lead singer couldn't hit the notes because they were so far out of her range.

    Sadly, throwing this "truth" and "sound doctrine" thing out there tends to disqualify some of the old favorites because they've got great music, but are extremely light on truth or doctrine. They may be fun songs, but don't communicate Biblical truth.

    Good reminder about needing truth and sound doctrine. We can be sincere, but sincerely wrong and it's sometimes easy to forget that in the quest for the perfect worship song.

    • says

      in our church, we re-write the words of some of the older songs/hymns if they aren't theologically correct. and even some of the newer. usually involves only minor tweaking – a word here or a phrase there. but we are very intentional about "guarding" the truth of the Word as primary, and this enables us also to continue to enjoy the long-loved musicality of some of the songs we grew up with, too. ;) (Also – LOVE the comment below by @krisshaffer re "corporate" nature of worship, too – SO many songs old and new are still so "me/myself/I" – MUCH prefer the songs that swing the emphasis to God-focus and the personal pronouns are plural "we/us/our.")

      • says

        Leah, I also love the we/us/our focus in songs (and also the I/me focus shifting to we/us, like in 'Beneath the Cross of Jesus' by Keith & Kristyn Getty). And I appreciate your idea about guarding the truth and changing otherwise good songs to fit it (all within the bounds of copyright law, of course!). 'Arise, My Soul, Arise' is a great example. Wesley wrote an amazing hymn, which is a great encouragement of our assurance in the finished work of Christ and his High Priesthood in heaven. But the lines 'his all-redeeming love' and 'his blood atoned for all our race' are way off, even in the context of the song. We sing 'his great redeeming love' and 'his blood atoned sin to erase,' and I know there are numerous other updates, but it's really great to be able to tweak that song so that we can sing it and be encouraged by the truths that *are* present and are so well articulated.

        • says

          I just wanted to let you guys know that I really appreciate the discussion that is taking place on these posts. I think that sound doctrine is so crucial, and I'm eager that we protect it in the songs we sing. Thanks for contributing your thoughts on how we can sing sound doctrine.

        • kyle says

          Another change I've made on "Arise, My Soul, Arise" is the line "My God is reconciled" in the final stanza. God did not need to be reconciled – we did. So I change it to "My soul is reconciled."

        • kyle says

          Another change I've made on "Arise, My Soul, Arise" is the line "My God is reconciled" in the final stanza. God did not need to be reconciled – we did. So I change it to "My soul is reconciled."

          • says

            Actually, I think the doctrine of reconciliation means that both parties were turned away from each other. We were turned in sin, but God in righteousness abhorence of our sin. When Christ died, he was reconciled to us in that he could justly look upon us again. And through God’s reconciliation we are now being reconciled to him (turning back to him). That’s why, in the song, the progression moves from God being reconciled to us having the confidence to also be reconciled. (“I can no longer fear. With confidence I now draw nigh…”)

            I’ll admit, though: it’s a confusing line to most of the people in the congregation because we think of reconciliation as something that only someone who has done wrong needs to do. But that’s just not the whole meaning of the word. God needs to be reconciled to us in our sin, otherwise he cannot be both just and merciful. Christ’s blood allows him to justly turn back to those who deserve only his back.

    • says

      The desire to combine theologically sound lyrics with great melodies is one of the things I appreciate most about Sovereign Grace Music. Take for instance the song "Before the Throne of God Above." Amazing lyrics, but for over a century it languished forgotten and unused, with the lyrics set to the same tune as "Sweet Hour of Prayer." Along comes Vikki Cook with a beautiful new melody, and all the sudden Christians everywhere are singing these timeless truths to one another. What a benefit to the Church!

  2. Peter says

    Don't forget the music. An unsingable or uncomfortable melody can also make a poor worship song, even if the lyrics are great. There are a lot of great songs that sound good when sung by a band or a particular group that would make poor general worship songs because the melody doesn't work for normal people. Doctrine is important, but melody is as well. I'd also venture that the pitch of a song makes a difference. We had our praise band start a song up a 4th or 5th and the lead singer couldn't hit the notes because they were so far out of her range.

    Sadly, throwing this "truth" and "sound doctrine" thing out there tends to disqualify some of the old favorites because they've got great music, but are extremely light on truth or doctrine. They may be fun songs, but don't communicate Biblical truth.

    Good reminder about needing truth and sound doctrine. We can be sincere, but sincerely wrong and it's sometimes easy to forget that in the quest for the perfect worship song.

  3. says

    And sometimes "saturated with truth" may make for a song which is lyrically uncomfortable. Many of the Psalms are laments: Personal brokenness over sin, or despair over the spiritual state of Israel, or despair over the way enemies — both national and personal — seem to triumph.

  4. says

    You know man, I've never thought of worship songs as intended to please God anyways, I can't earn Gods pleasure any more than I can lose it, thanks to Christ.

    To steal some of CS Lewis's theology, he thought that worship songs, like everything else God has graciously given to us, was meant to turn us and remind us about God. We can only truly be satisfied in God, so therefore in the end, God let us write worship songs to him for our sake, not to please God.

    So while I get what you're saying about good theology, I don't think we place good theology in songs to please God (no matter what my theology is I'm sure it will never be absolutely perfect anyways; that's what happens when you have a finite mind trying to understand an infinite God), but instead I think we place good theology in worship songs to remind each other of true theology to direct our lives accordingly. A good worship song is like a doctrinally sound teaching. Both a preacher's message and a worship song have the same intent. To direct our lives to God.

    • says

      I totally understand what you're saying, but I don't think I agree. It would seem to me that God cares very much about what we say about Him. I can't imagine Him being pleased with us singing falsehoods, just as he wouldn't be pleased with someone preaching falsehoods.

      Does that make sense? Am I missing your point at all?

      • says

        I absolutely agree with you that we should have doctrinally sound worship songs, I guess I am raising a different issue then everyone else here, my issue is why you write doctrinally sound worship songs, I'm not worried whether or not it will please God, because thanks to Christ I can't gain any more acceptance than I already have, but I would write it to properly instruct those who sing it, like a good message

  5. says

    Totally agree with the post! Truth is vital in worship. In Colossians, singing 'psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs' is part of letting the word of Christ dwell within us richly. And in Ephesians, singing those songs is something we do to each other. It's not just me-and-God, and he'll understand if my theology isn't quite right, because he knows my heart. When I sing in church (especially because I'm usually leading, but even if it's from the pew), I'm confessing the faith to all those around me, as an encouragement to those who share the faith, and as a witness to those who don't. For congregational worship, you're right on that the theology behind the words matters.

    I think, though, that maybe part of the disagreement in the comments of the last post may be because we easily confuse writing a song as a personal act of worship with writing (or choosing) a song for corporate worship. We should strive for truth in all things, always seeking to think and express right thoughts about God. But there's a difference in standard between what an individual believer might put on paper in private (or what a 'Christian' music label might put on a CD) v. what we should sing as a congregation during corporate worship.

    • says

      I agree Kris, and I really appreciate your thoughts on singing to one another. That's one area of singing and worship that I think we forget in our culture of self.

      I'm curious about your thoughts on theology and personal worship. I haven't thought this through much. Would you say poor theology is more acceptable in private worship than public?

    • says

      I agree Kris, and I really appreciate your thoughts on singing to one another. That's one area of singing and worship that I think we forget in our culture of self.

      I'm curious about your thoughts on theology and personal worship. I haven't thought this through much. Would you say poor theology is more acceptable in private worship than public?

      • says

        I wouldn't say that poor theology is 'acceptable' in private worship, but I do think there's a higher standard for mutual edification in corporate worship than in private. We see that specifically in I Corinthians, as Paul differentiates the way prophetic gifts should be exercised in private and in congregations, and I think that principle can apply to our songs. (I also think it can apply to private/corporate prayer and gospel sharing/preaching, but that's another discussion.)

        That said, I don't think we should ever excuse or condone wrong thinking about God or our relationship to him. In situations where people in our churches have thought hard about an issue and have decided to contradict clear scriptural teachings on which the church has taken a stand (perhaps requiring members to consent to a doctrinal statement), I think we should actively warn against praying/singing/teaching/believing those things even in private. In some situations, church discipline might be merited.

        There also might be situations where the church hasn't taken a stand on something—say millenialism—and it would fine to encourage people of different views to write songs expressing their theology, but it would not be edifying to ask a congregation with a diversity of views to sing a song specifically articulating one view among several biblical options, all of which are held as acceptable by the eldership.

        But in most cases, I think we're probably talking about people who believe what is true, but either haven't worked out all the details yet or are still growing in their ability to articulate it clearly in their speech or their songwriting. In that case, I think we should encourage them to continue writing songs or whatever they're doing, but make sure that they are getting good biblical instruction in sermons, sunday school, small groups, discipleship/accountability partnerships, etc. And if they really want to grow specifically in songwriting, then maybe a discipleship arrangement with a more seasoned songwriter, or even just a non-musician with good theology that can critique lyrics, would be a good practice.

        Ultimately, though, when it comes to corporate worship, I think we need to make sure that every word spoken or sung is truth, clearly articulated, and seasoned with grace, and that means that some songs which are fine for personal expression of thanksgiving to God aren't going to be appropriate for the congregation at large.

      • says

        I wouldn't say that poor theology is 'acceptable' in private worship, but I do think there's a higher standard for mutual edification in corporate worship than in private. We see that specifically in I Corinthians, as Paul differentiates the way prophetic gifts should be exercised in private and in congregations, and I think that principle can apply to our songs. (I also think it can apply to private/corporate prayer and gospel sharing/preaching, but that's another discussion.)

        That said, I don't think we should ever excuse or condone wrong thinking about God or our relationship to him. In situations where people in our churches have thought hard about an issue and have decided to contradict clear scriptural teachings on which the church has taken a stand (perhaps requiring members to consent to a doctrinal statement), I think we should actively warn against praying/singing/teaching/believing those things even in private. In some situations, church discipline might be merited.

        There also might be situations where the church hasn't taken a stand on something—say millenialism—and it would fine to encourage people of different views to write songs expressing their theology, but it would not be edifying to ask a congregation with a diversity of views to sing a song specifically articulating one view among several biblical options, all of which are held as acceptable by the eldership.

        But in most cases, I think we're probably talking about people who believe what is true, but either haven't worked out all the details yet or are still growing in their ability to articulate it clearly in their speech or their songwriting. In that case, I think we should encourage them to continue writing songs or whatever they're doing, but make sure that they are getting good biblical instruction in sermons, sunday school, small groups, discipleship/accountability partnerships, etc. And if they really want to grow specifically in songwriting, then maybe a discipleship arrangement with a more seasoned songwriter, or even just a non-musician with good theology that can critique lyrics, would be a good practice.

        Ultimately, though, when it comes to corporate worship, I think we need to make sure that every word spoken or sung is truth, clearly articulated, and seasoned with grace, and that means that some songs which are fine for personal expression of thanksgiving to God aren't going to be appropriate for the congregation at large.

      • says

        I wouldn't say that poor theology is 'acceptable' in private worship, but I do think there's a higher standard for mutual edification in corporate worship than in private. We see that specifically in I Corinthians, as Paul differentiates the way prophetic gifts should be exercised in private and in congregations, and I think that principle can apply to our songs. (I also think it can apply to private/corporate prayer and gospel sharing/preaching, but that's another discussion.)

        That said, I don't think we should ever excuse or condone wrong thinking about God or our relationship to him. In situations where people in our churches have thought hard about an issue and have decided to contradict clear scriptural teachings on which the church has taken a stand (perhaps requiring members to consent to a doctrinal statement), I think we should actively warn against praying/singing/teaching/believing those things even in private. In some situations, church discipline might be merited.

        There also might be situations where the church hasn't taken a stand on something—say millenialism—and it would fine to encourage people of different views to write songs expressing their theology, but it would not be edifying to ask a congregation with a diversity of views to sing a song specifically articulating one view among several biblical options, all of which are held as acceptable by the eldership.

        But in most cases, I think we're probably talking about people who believe what is true, but either haven't worked out all the details yet or are still growing in their ability to articulate it clearly in their speech or their songwriting. In that case, I think we should encourage them to continue writing songs or whatever they're doing, but make sure that they are getting good biblical instruction in sermons, sunday school, small groups, discipleship/accountability partnerships, etc. And if they really want to grow specifically in songwriting, then maybe a discipleship arrangement with a more seasoned songwriter, or even just a non-musician with good theology that can critique lyrics, would be a good practice.

        Ultimately, though, when it comes to corporate worship, I think we need to make sure that every word spoken or sung is truth, clearly articulated, and seasoned with grace, and that means that some songs which are fine for personal expression of thanksgiving to God aren't going to be appropriate for the congregation at large.

  6. says

    On krisshaffer's comment and your response Stephen on the "one another-ness" of our singing together, I so agree. Though we're sometimes encouraged to "forget about the person next to you" and "shut out everything around you," as we sing, that's far from Paul's thought in Ephesians and Colossians. I long for this in our congregations. Had a nice taste of it at WorshipGod 06! Think how that will be when all the ransomed church sings around his throne someday.

  7. says

    You know man, I've never thought of worship songs as intended to please God anyways, I can't earn Gods pleasure any more than I can lose it, thanks to Christ.

    To steal some of CS Lewis's theology, he thought that worship songs, like everything else God has graciously given to us, was meant to turn us and remind us about God. We can only truly be satisfied in God, so therefore in the end, God let us write worship songs to him for our sake, not to please God.

    So while I get what you're saying about good theology, I don't think we place good theology in songs to please God (no matter what my theology is I'm sure it will never be absolutely perfect anyways; that's what happens when you have a finite mind trying to understand an infinite God), but instead I think we place good theology in worship songs to remind each other of true theology to direct our lives accordingly. A good worship song is like a doctrinally sound teaching. Both a preacher's message and a worship song have the same intent. To direct our lives to God.

  8. says

    So in summary; I agree with your conclusion that we should write doctrinally sound worship songs but not for the same reason

  9. says

    On krisshaffer's comment and your response Stephen on the "one another-ness" of our singing together, I so agree. Though we're sometimes encouraged to "forget about the person next to you" and "shut out everything around you," as we sing, that's far from Paul's thought in Ephesians and Colossians. I long for this in our congregations. Had a nice taste of it at WorshipGod 06! Think how that will be when all the ransomed church sings around his throne someday.

  10. Dave says

    I agree with the message of this post. We have been exhorted to worship in Spirit and Truth, you cannot have one without the other. If your heart is into it but the theology is lacking, it's not worship. If you say all the right things yet there is no expression of faith/hope/praise again, it's not worship.

  11. Jayson says

    God doesn't like it when we sing false things about him. What about when we sing nothing, or just plain nonsense, about him? I don't find a ton of explicit falsehood in much worship music. But I find a lot of nothing.

  12. says

    Thank you for this great reminder, Stephen. As I plan worship services in coordination with our pastor, I want to make sure the texts we sing are as biblically truthful as I pray his sermon will be. In other words, if the texts of the songs we sing do not “preach,” they don't belong in worship.

  13. says

    I agree with the desire to have a rich, orthodox, historic theology and good music/melodies in our worship songs. That's one of the things I love about Sandra McCracken's new album http://www.newoldhymns.com/

    That said, let me ask a question about using worship songs that are written in such a way where they sound orthodox, but the original author does not hold to trinitarian-orthodoxy. In other words, he uses the right words, but has another meaning behind them. Would you consider it wise to avoid the songs in worship?

    • says

      Well, I think it would depend on how clear the meaning of the words is. If the words could easily be misinterpreted to mean something unbiblical, it seems like it might be wise to stay away. That's just my opinion though.

    • Jeri Tanner says

      songs I've heard written by such people are problematic. I think of songs like "surely the presence." There's nothing in it that specifically speaks of the writer's modalist error but the song is filled with vague imagery that does not connect with biblical truths (it is highly subjective). Maybe someone with bad theology could mess up and write a good song but it's unlikely.

  14. says

    I love John 4:23:24 and try to plan out worship sets accordingly. Worship songs can be great examples of biblical truth that are encouraging and worshipful.

    I really enjoyed yesterday's post, How to Write An Awful Worship Song, despite the comment I made. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Stephen.

    And here's to all of us who have wrote really crappy worship songs that will never be heard outside of our closets! ;)

  15. Geoffrey says

    As well as the words of a worship song needing to be true, they also must be true for me. An “I” song may not represent my experience of God, so it creates a difficulty for me to sing it “in truth”. It is much safer – and probably more honouring to God – to sing words that we know are true about Him.

    I like Stephen’s desire for the words and tune matching up as much as possible. This is a difficult task, and there are few songs that live up to such standard. My favourite in this category is “the George Mathieson/Albert Peace hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go”. What’s yours?

  16. says

    nice, Stephen! It's really encouraging to read this post and all the comments. As worshipers, we definitely need to make sure that what we write/sing exhorts other believers to deeper faith and shares the truth of scripture with unbelievers.
    I've really been enjoying Sovereign Grace music and Indelible Grace, Sandra McCracken, Red Mountain music and many others who are pursuing that depth of expression in worship songs. My church recently put out an album of hymns/songs, some we wrote and some re-done hymns featuring other musicians in Lancaster (including some folks from Crossway), and we welcome your feedback. You can listen/download here:http://www.noisetrade.com/pageantmusic

  17. Louise says

    I loved reading the "How to Write an Awful Worship Song". It is just so true of many of the songs around today – especially the comments people wrote after it about singing the last 3 lines 15 times and putting nanananas in. I am just so sick of songs like this – my brain usually switches off and I strat making a mental list of the things I need to do when I get home.

    Correct theology is very important. Songs have a way of sticking in peoples' minds when other things like a sermon are forgotten much more quickly. If a song is the only thing a person remembers from your church service then you want it to be one with sound theology not fluffly nonsense or dodgy doctrine.

    That said I also agree that good music to go with the song is important. It should be written in such a way that anyone (with musical knowledge) can play it. So many modern songs don't actually follow the rhythm that is written on the page and this makes it hard for both musicians and congregation.

    Most of the grand, old hymns have great theology and good tunes. There are very few songs around today that can top Amazing Grace, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Great is Thy Faithfulness and others like those. Though there are some excellent songs coming out of places like Emu Music which have as good theology as the old hymns and usually have a reasonable melody (though sometimes a bit monotonous).

  18. JR24 says

    Stephen–truth matters (of course); hence, words matter (of course). And–yes–those who suppose that songs can be written purely on the basis of "God speaking to me" are more postmodern than biblical in this regard. But your own understanding of "truth" is more "Enlightenment" than biblical just the same. "Truth" in Scripture is coupled with godly conduct such that the latter will evidence the sincerity of the former. Your last post was probably much more sarcastic–bordering on priggish–than humorous. It's hard to see how you weren't taking "pot shots." Perhaps this was the case; but it's sounds like an incredibly disingenuous comment.

  19. says

    An excellent article. Thanks! Yes, words do matter–a whole lot. To suggest that it doesn't matter what you say as long as you're sincere is foolishness. God has spoken to us in words, and we need to praise Him and edify one another in well-chosen words as well. It is true that not all hymns and gospel songs are of equal merit. But for the text not to be true to Scripture is a major flaw.

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