When I was a kid, a Sunday evening worship service was not complete without people shouting out their favorites to sing next. Number 147! Number 269, verses one and three only! Number 16, just the refrain! No attempt at connection, theme, or thread seemed necessary. The hymnbook was the sole common denominator.
Fast-forward (several decades!) to the current day: a worship leader friend of mine posts his worship set on Facebook. There is no apparent rationale that explains his thinking, or what drives his choices. Of course as a friend I should “like” that list. But why, exactly?
Wouldn’t it help to know why these songs were deemed appropriate to the occasion before I hit “like”? Just how did this particular grouping of songs come to be? Did “beats per minute” get overvalued? Has context been considered? There is no way to know whether those songs fit in any purposeful or pastoral way, or whether they were just picked “shotgun style” with the sincere hope of hitting something.
Song Shelf Life
Meanwhile, many popular songs today are just as disposable as your previous IPhone. They tend to run their course quickly, and most are unlikely to get much of a hearing five years from now.
As a worship leader and song writer, I am well aware of the constant pressure to “keep up” with the latest songs. But it’s the same kind of pressure I feel from coffee snobs. It’s the demand to stay relevant. Worship songs come and go these days. Like milk and vegetables they have a shelf life, a pull date, and knowing that dates becomes one of the challenges of worship leading. If I were to have my congregation sing “Shout to the Lord” or “Lord, I Life Your Name On High” or, God forbid, “Majesty,” believe me, I would need to defend my choices!
How did the rapid rising and falling of songs acquire such enormous power in the church, sometimes even excluding more of a focus on Scripture and prayer? Are there ways we can infuse our worship more deeply with what is timeless, while at the same time provide more explicit connections between the various components of a service?
Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Isaiah claims, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isa. 40:8). Given the enduring relevance of God’s Word, doesn’t it make sense to marry the substance of Scripture with the power of song, letting the song function as a musical “Amen!” to the truth of God’s Word?
Paul showed value for the wedding of heart and mind when he stated in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.” When Scripture is followed by song, echoing and responding to the truth, both our minds and our spirits are engaged.
The Puritan Stephen Charnock argued for the use of the mind in worship this way:
There cannot be religion where there is not reason. There cannot be the exercise of religion where there is not an exercise of the rational faculties. . . . . All worship must be for some end—the worship of God must be for God. It is by the exercise of our rational faculties that we can intend an end (The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 1 [Baker, 1979), 425).
The Word of God does many things, but engaging the mind in worship is one of its most undervalued uses. Scripture is living and active. Songs can make no such claim. While songs excel at exciting our emotions, Scripture gives us the truth that should direct and channel our emotions. God has graciously given us both, and each plays a role in worship.
Chris Tomlin’s song “How Great Is Our God” is one of the most influential songs in the last of decade of contemporary worship. It helpfully awakens the imagination to the beauty of holiness with the opening lines—“The splendor of a king clothed in majesty”—and then invites the whole world to join in—“how great is our God.”
This wonderful song can become even more moving if it’s fueled by the truth of Scripture. What if, for instance, the song was introduced with a responsive reading from Psalm 145:1-13:
LEADER: I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever.
CONGREGATION: Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.
LEADER: One generation shall commend your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.
CONGREGATION: On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
LEADER: They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds, and I will declare your greatness.
CONGREGATION: They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
LEADER: The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
CONGREGATION: The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.
LEADER: All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
CONGREGATION: Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.
Now let the song begin. The mind, engaged in the glory of God’s greatness, is ready to respond. And as the Tomlin lyrics begin to be sung, the heart and the mind are encouraged to join together, producing the kind of worship John 4:23 tells us the Father is looking for: worship in spirit and in truth.
Songs, like fads, come and go. Good songs serve the church but will often see the greatest effect when combined with the public reading of Scripture. This strategy, while obviously requiring different application in different contexts, has many benefits. It can direct our emotions more closely along biblical truth. It may help us structure the flow of our worship services. And it may anchor our worship in that which does not wax and wane with current trends, but indeed, will last forever.