I love worship music. I mean it. I love the emotion, the unique chord shapes, the sometimes nonsensical symbolism, the poetic nuance, and even the melodic dynamics. I love worship music… but… In the last decade, most mainstream worship music has deteriorated to symbolic emotional twaddle. Often our songs are loaded with vague, unexplained images of water or fire. Vague imagery and ambiguous pledges to follow without a context of direction or command make the songs feel as though the writer knows little to nothing about the Spirit of which they are writing. The music follows a pattern that climbs to an emotional climax and the melody is designed to illicit a climactic buzz at the chorus. While there are some great examples of powerful, meaningful worship music writers, the majority of what is being espoused as great worship is really nothing more than trite and unbiblical efforts to conjure up emotional responses.
So I have a simple request for worship music writers: Stop it. I mean it… You’re hurting my people. Your shallow attempts at poetry, masked by unique chord structures and strings are luring the people of Christ into a state of theological impotency. You make confusing allusions to biblical stories that don’t make sense, create difficult environments for pastors who want to disciple their people well, and fail to actually challenge believers to live what they believe. You put on a great show that brings glory to your talent and satisfies the need of a few people to cry and feel some emotional catharsis.
I know it is difficult to write music that is received by the church. It is difficult to write in such a way to connect AND teach. Your job is hard, and I get that. I have three things that I would like you to consider when writing worship music for the church.
Music is Portable Theology
First: music teaches, it is portable theology. Take it seriously when you write. Music is one of the most powerful means of teaching that the church can use. It engages people at a level that mere discourse cannot begin to equal. The melodies and rhythms drive deep into the minds of people and help to crystallize truth into the heart of the one who is singing along. The repetition helps to solidify the memory. The corporate singing aspect helps to validate and normalize the truths proclaimed in the songs. The Bible says teachers will be judged by a stricter standard in James 3:1. Further, Mathew 18:6/ Mark 9:42 warns teachers not to cause others to stumble, saying it would be better to drown. So, be careful and take your job seriously. Your job is not to engage the emotions of people, it is to teach the truth through music!
Poetry is best when it is understood.
Second: Poetry is best when it is understood. I love poetry. Seriously. I’m not a good poet, but I write it myself. In fact, I’ve got a book of poems I’m going to publish soon (editing it now). I love the works of Kahlil Gibran, William Cowper, and William Blake. Poetry moves the soul and challenges the mind. The best poetry makes deep and difficult truths understandable. The best poetry is revelatory, not hidden. Please note: I did not say that poetry is easy. Your poetry can be difficult to grasp and that is fine. But it must lead people to understanding, not confusion. So it is with worship music. Make your poetry beautifully complex, but also wonderfully expository. When poetry is vague and easily misinterpreted, it hides truth and confuses people. Reveal truth through your poetic efforts by being exact. Vague references to water or fire are confusing without any context. Utilize your poetic talents to wrap the truths in context and exposition. Strive to Explain and teach about God and His character through your music. The Scripture is full of poetry that is designed to do this. Copy God’s example of praise and worship.
Songs should call us to love Jesus.
Third: Write songs that challenge people to love Jesus more deeply. The most powerful songs in the church are songs that challenge people to love and obey Jesus. They are songs that engage people on a deep level while simultaneously praising Jesus’ character in a way that challenges. These songs need to be formed within an established context of truth that will fortify the congregation’s love for Jesus. It is no good to call upon the name of the Lord and pledge that you are going to follow Him without actually making any declarative statements about where He wants us to go or what He wants us to do. It is no good to say, “I love you” without establishing anything about Him worthy of love. You may understand where God wants you to go or what it is about Jesus that is worthy of love, but the average person singing music in the congregation may not. So make the statement! State truths about God that will challenge our hearts to love Him more. Be as specific as possible and dig deep into the character of God. I want to be clear, it is not necessary that you constantly display incredibly difficult and deep truth that boggles the mind. It is necessary that you constantly display truth. You can write simple songs. But those songs must espouse clear truth and they must lead to a deeper love of Christ.
I lead worship at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria. I am also the teaching pastor. At our church, we strive to think deeply when we sing. We encourage our people to engage their entire being (heart and mind) when in corporate worship. If you want to be a part of a group of people trying to do this, albeit imperfectly at times, come check us out. http://www.sgfbrazoria.org.