Podcast Episode 5: Catchy worship isn’t always good worship.
Welcome to Season One Episode Five of the Critiques and Caffeine Podcast! I’m Zach Haas and I’m a youth pastor ordained in the Wesleyan Church. In this first season, we are looking at some of the pet peeves I have with Christianity. So, thank you for joining me today as we look at how some modern worship songs are catchy, but not necessarily good. However, before we get started, let’s hear a word from one of my sponsors.
If you’re a Christian, you’ve had worship music stuck in your head.
It’s probably happened to most of us. We hear a new song on the radio or in church and it immediately captures us. It’s catchy, got a good rhythm, and you can easily sing or hum along. The next thing you know it’s stuck in your head and you can’t get it out. You can call it an earworm, call it a blessing, or call it a prayer. You might think that such a captive tune is a good worship song. But is it?
When is the last time you actually stopped and listened to the lyrics of the songs that are stuck in your head or that you sing in church? Have you ever actually stopped and thought about what you are singing to the almighty God? If you haven’t, you might be feeling a little bit of guilt right now. Each week you simply sing the words on the screen and call it worship.
Now, before we get too far, I’ll admit two things. First, it is very well possible that your church has a good worship leader who chooses theologically good songs. Second, perhaps you have actually thought about the words that you are singing and expressing as worship to God. If either of these things are the case, perhaps you are in the clear. But then again, maybe not. While we might understand the words we are singing, we might not fully grasp the concept that the words to the songs are meant to be directed toward God. As such, we should always take the time to really look at what we are saying.
Good melodies are just that.
Just because a song has a good melody or is easy to sing, doesn’t make it a good song. Or, at the very least doesn’t make it a good worship song. Not all Christian music makes for good worship music either. Sometimes Christians write songs for their own personal experiences and they aren’t designed for corporate worship.
Consider the Psalms. There are many Psalms that have been used as a basis for modern worship music. I’ll admit this isn’t a bad way to go as they were written to worship God in the first place. However, as we read some of the Psalms, we can see that some of them are written for a specific situation that the writer was going through. They weren’t all written to be sung by congregations or used for corporate worship. Some of them are Psalms of lament some of them just do not translate well to a worship context.
Let’s take a simple example: Psalm 9:5 says “You have rebuked the nations and destroyed the wicked; you have blotted out their name forever and ever.” Could you imagine singing that in church? While I’m sure David had a good reason for writing this particular Psalm, and through many others we can see his love, devotion, and passion for God, they do not all translate well to a corporate worship setting. As a matter of fact, Psalm 9 is said to have been sung to the tune of “The Death of the Son.” It’s a little strange at best.
I’m not a worship pastor by any stretch.
Now, for those of you who know you me, you might find it odd that I am talking about worship music. You might not really think it is fair for me to judge. After all, I am not a worship pastor. I have very little training in worship music. You might even know that I am not really a big corporate singer. If you think these things about me then you are correct.
However, in seminary, for one of my classes. I did have to critique modern worship songs. The idea was that we were supposed to look at the lyrics of a song and determine whether or not they were theologically sound and worthy of being sung in a corporate setting before God. We were not judging whether or not the artist was good or bad, whether the instrumentals were good, we weren’t even judging whether or not the song had a good flow. We were simply supposed to take a look at the actual words that were being sung and see if they made sense.
Some of the things that we were supposed to look out for were difficult words. These would be things that new people to the church might not be able to understand easily. Something like “washed in the blood” for example, would not score very well with being culturally friendly. Another thing we were supposed to look for was whether or not the song was trinitarian. By this I mean did the song acknowledge God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, or at least one of them. Finally, we were supposed to make sure that there were no theological inaccuracies about who God is. For example, if universalism was portrayed in the song that would be a red flag.
I recognize that one assignment in one class in seminary hardly makes me an expert in this field. But then again, my goal here is not to speak to the experts. My goal here is to speak to the regular person attending church and singing songs. For some of you, maybe you are living in ignorant bliss and I am going to ruin something for you or ruin a song for you. This is kind of a sorry not sorry. Pointing out pet peeves in Christianity is kind of a “sorry not sorry” in general so I suppose you should have heard it coming.
At this point some of you might ask who really cares?
Who cares what we are singing to God? Doesn’t he know the heart behind what we are singing? Doesn’t he simply accept the fact that we are trying to worship him with our voices? Does God really care if some of the words in a song aren’t 100% theologically accurate? Well, I think that God does care. I’ll let you determine how much he cares, but I believe that he cares quite a bit.
First, let’s look at it from an excellence standpoint. Let say that Jesus is coming over to your house. For some reason, you know that he really likes macaroni and cheese and so you have decided that you are going to make him macaroni and cheese for dinner. You have a couple of different options you could take here. You could serve Jesus boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese. Sure, it’s okay, it will serve the purpose of eating. But there really isn’t anything special about it. It requires minimal effort and you are mostly just giving it to him because it is quick, easy, and convenient.
You know who else did things that were quick, easy, and convenient? Cain. Cain did things the easy way and things did not go well for him. You can serve Jesus Kraft mac and cheese if you want, and if I’m coming over you can serve it to me as well because I actually like it myself, but if I were you, I’d do things differently. I’d bust out Grandmas secret 10 cheese mac and cheese baked to perfection recipe and serve that to Jesus instead. And I’d do it on the best plates that we have.
You could argue here that Jesus is a humble man.
He accepts the best that we are able to offer him. If Kraft is the best that you can do, then by all means, serve it to Jesus and know that he accepts your offering. He said the woman who gave two copper coins was more worthy than the Pharisees. But this does not have to be the case with music. We can easily choose songs that are worthy to be sung to God. It takes no extra effort than to look at the lyrics and make sure they are good words to be sung to the creator of the universe. Would you rather give God something that is good, or something that is great that he is going to go and brag to the devil about like he did with Job? Choose the latter even if it means painting a target on your back.
Second, let’s take a look at it from an accuracy standpoint. Does God really care if we are 100% accurate in what we are saying to him and singing to him in front of a congregation full of his people? This might depend on how you view the Bible. Do you view it as true, inerrant, and infallible? I really hope you do because if not, your entire faith is built on shaky ground.
Do you think that God would be okay if we said that you could get to heaven in other ways besides Jesus? For example, if you believed you could still get to heaven by doing animal sacrifices and rejecting that Jesus is his son? That’s kind of an extreme example, I know, but it’s really only making a small change to Scripture.
The point is, I think that God is very concerned with accuracy.
The Bible is very harsh against church leaders who lead people astray. I believe this is true whether it was done intentionally or not. As pastors, it is our responsibility to make sure that we are preaching and teaching things that are true and theologically accurate. This includes worship music. If your church isn’t big enough to have a worship pastor do this, then it falls to the senior pastor to vet songs before they are sung with the congregation.
That said, pastors are humans too. We are trying to interpret divine meaning and understanding. We do not have all the answers and at times have to use our best understanding when it comes to things the Bible isn’t directly clear on. That said, we must also be willing to accept when we are wrong, apologize, and make things right before the people God has entrusted us with. There have been a few times mid sermon that I had to stop myself, apologize and correct something that I had just said that I believe came out wrong and thus would have reflected bad theology. No one is perfect, and God forgives us of our mistakes, but this doesn’t give us permission to be flippant or irreverent when we know better.
So, let’s say for example there is a really popular song on the radio that everyone and their grandma seems to be listening to. It is a Christian song, by a Christian artist and there are churches who are using it in their worship sets. It’s catchy, it popular, culturally relevant and you want to have your worship team sing it at church. Great! However, it is important to make sure that song is theologically accurate in what it is saying.
All right, enough beating around the bushes, let’s get to some examples!
Subject number one. Cory Asbury’s Reckless Love. While it has now been a few years, this song is still immensely popular. It’s on the radio, it’s in churches, and it’s wrong. Take away the fact that it comes from Bethel Music, a questionable organization at best (not the time, not the place for that discussion right now, but someday), and it is not a lyrically good song. If you float around in Christian circles online, this song has been discussed at length from both sides. Cory himself has come out and argued in favor of why he chose to use the word reckless, but I don’t think this changes the fact that he is wrong. God’s love is simply not reckless. It does not fit with the whole of the Bible story and as such is actually damaging to the character of God.
You might think this is extreme. It’s one adjective in a song. Okay, fine, but what if I said that you were reckless with your family because you work on the weekends. You are doing it because you love them and care for them and now, I am calling you reckless. Would you be offended? I should hope so. Why are you offended? Because this is a negative word. It is used to describe the irresponsible actions of teenagers. And yet, in this song, we are using it to not only describe God, but to describe his love. It’s not just once in the song, it’s the title of the song.
God’s love is simply put, not reckless.
The definition of the word reckless is “without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.” Are you freaking kidding me? This is how we are going to describe God? The God who sacrificed his own Son so that we could have eternal life? Reckless? God? C’mon. No. Just freaking no! There are literally hundreds of other two-syllable adjectives that can accurately and poetically fit the actual character of God. Use a positive one. God has fearfully and wonderfully created us and the world. It wasn’t without thinking. Everything God does has been carefully planned and thought out. God cares about every consequence of his actions. It simply makes no sense to say that God is reckless. A god whose love is reckless is destructive. If your god is the Kool-Aid man, then sure, maybe his love is reckless. But if your god is one who carefully planned out a way for your eternal salvation, then I don’t think you can call that reckless.
This is just one example of one song, but I think it very accurately portrays what I am trying to get at. This is a song that should be avoided in church and avoided in our worship towards God in general. Maybe, for some reason Cory thinks that God’s love was reckless for him. Whatever, that’s for him. However, it is an extremely catchy and popular song. Despite my distaste for it, I hear it constantly floating through my head, and every time I call God reckless in my head, I feel a twinge of guilt and the need to apologize for thinking such a flippant thought.
That’s not even my only problem with that song!
Although at this point, I might be nitpicking, I do not like the line about how God’s love leaves the 99. This is actually another theological inaccuracy though a little more hidden and perhaps even a forgivable one. God is omnipresent. He is everywhere. God does not actually leave the 99 to come for you. He doesn’t have to. God wouldn’t condemn 99 other people just to save you. This is not what the parable of the lost sheep is suggesting at all.
First of all, the shepherd is a human, limited in his human nature of existing in one place at one time. And second, it is a testament to how much more rejoicing in heaven there is when someone is saved. It has nothing to do with God’s love coming after someone. The entire song gives the feeling that God is working really hard to get his love to us. Is Satan really that powerful that he is actually putting limits on God’s love and ability and so God has to do something reckless to save us? I don’t think so. We have the responsibility to do better in the words we sing to the all-mighty all-worthy God.
I think Cory chose to use a controversial word because it causes people to talk. It raises eyebrows and makes people think twice when they see a word or a phrase that seems unusual in the context you find it in. As such, I think using such a word as reckless to describe God’s love is, well, reckless. You are causing people to focus on the word that you put there rather than on worshiping the God you are supposed to be singing toward. This is a problem. If lyrics distract you from worship, this is a problem. Now, it could be a problem with you or your own heart in which case you need to work that out with God, but it could be a result of a tool that the writer used to strongly to make a point. Like this next example.
Quick side note:
(Also, side note, sometimes you simply cannot get away from supporting an organization you don’t agree with. This means that to some extent we are working with broken and fallen sinful human beings. Yet, God chooses to use these human beings to bring him glory. As such, it is probably impossible, or at least impractical for most churches to attempt to reject all things that disagree with what they stand for. If that were the case, it would be very hard to support coke or Pepsi or most brands of just about anything.
So, if something can be used for God’s good, even if the money somehow supports something we don’t agree with, we may have no choice but to oblige. Although, I am actually a little more hesitant to support a “church” or “Christian” organization that goes against my beliefs since I’d be believe I am helping to spread their false messages (like Bethel church for example). For these cases, I simply have to believe that God uses all things for his good.)
So Reckless Love is a good example of a theological reason as to why you should avoid some songs in churches, but what about some other reasons why you should avoid some songs in corporate worship? How about when there are lyrics that are just so far out there, they take away from the worship experience. A great example I can quickly think of is the “sloppy wet kiss” lyric in the song How He Loves written by John Mark McMillan. Personally, as a corporate worship song, I do not like it at all. The metaphors are just too far out there for the most part, but the sloppy wet kiss line is way too far. When this song first came out and was first sang at my conservative Christian college, I could hear snickers and other audible sounds throughout the chapel. This is not how worship should be.
Some songs are personal, not corporate.
Ironically, this song was not intended to be written for a corporate worship setting. In an interview with David Crowder he talks about how they changed the lyric from sloppy wet to unforeseen in order to be more acceptable in a worship setting. Personally, I still have problems with an unforeseen kiss because it’s again, awkward at best, and creepy at worse, but it is better and less shocking than sloppy wet. In that same interview, he talks about how it was originally written with an entire verse that was removed that points to how McMillan was dealing with the death of his best friend. I’d imagine very few people know this verse, but let me tell you it is by far the best verse in the song. Let me see if I can get it to play in here for you.
Check out the song here and listen for the verse about his friend, Stephen (around the 6:25 mark): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0luHiWwi08&list=RDU0luHiWwi08&index=1
Again, it doesn’t really make sense in the context of a corporate worship setting, but it’s a great verse.
I like that they recognized the phrase sloppy wet kiss was too much for a church setting and replaced it, but I still think it’s a bit too much and I personally prefer to not use it in worship due to the shock value being a bit too high. That said, I don’t think there is theologically anything wrong with the song.
Hymns of Bust?
So, at this point you could think that I am an old stick in the mud and that I think we shouldn’t sing any new songs and stick to the good old theologically sound worship hymns of the old days. However, you’d be incorrect in that thinking. While there is some good trinitarian theology in some of the old songs, I think there are some problems with using them in corporate worship settings today.
First of all, some old hymns were written out of anger and theological disagreement. I wish that I had saved it because I have since been unable to find it, but I remember reading a Charles Wesley hymn in seminary that was radical. One of the verses said something about condemning the heathen Calvinists or something to that effect. It was really harsh, brutal, and it was a hymn! Something like that should not be used in worship.
Secondly, and more importantly, some of the meaning behind hymns is completely lost. I am not saying that we shouldn’t sing any of the classic hymns, I think there is something really cool and traditionally reverent about them. However, some of them, even really popular ones, simply don’t make sense in a modern context. If the purpose of singing worship songs is to glorify God with our voices. I think that we should understand the words that we are actually singing out loud.
Language changes over time.
Let’s take a couple of examples, though I am sure there are probably better ones out there I just cannot think of them right now. But in the hymn Holy Holy Holy, the line “Casting down their Golden crowns around the glassy sea; Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,” What is a Cherubim and seraphim? I mean, they are some kind of angels but even I couldn’t tell you exactly off the top of my head.
Another one would be “All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall. Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all.” We sang this song a lot in my church growing up and I’ll tell you I had no idea what it meant for an angel to prostrate fall, but I actually used to think it was a bad thing! Like, I thought it was something like a fallen angel like Satan or something. Oops!
Now that I have seen Harry Potter, I would be able to know what a diadem is, but still words like this are not used very often anymore and have lost a lot of meaning. This doesn’t mean that they cannot be used for worship, but I do think that we should at the very least consider that our congregations might not know what the words mean that are coming out of their mouth when they are supposed to be singing worship to their King.
While the theological soundness may be there in hymns, they are not the answer to the problem with catchy worship music. Their dated language needs to be updated in order to be relevant to the people of God. To sing words without meaning anything to the heart and soul of the singer is less than ideal. Sure, sometimes a person may be new to the faith and not understand aspects to the faith. The idea of Jesus dying for our sins is quintessential to our faith, but to someone with no understanding of the church this is going to be a really strange concept. Hymns, are going to come across as old, irrelevant, and confusing.
Nothing is entirely black or white in worship.
This is not to say that all modern worship music is bad. There are plenty of songs that are catchy, easy to remember, get stuck in your head, and are still theologically sound. I’m not going to go so far as to say that every member of the Trinity must be mentioned in order to be a good worship song. However, if there isn’t at least one member of the Trinity mentioned, then who exactly are we singing the song to? This is the difference between a secular love song and a worship song. There are many songs out there that would work for Jesus, or your boyfriend/girlfriend. Maybe this is why people started to get confused and said they were dating Jesus in college.
Before getting into some worship songs I do like, Let’s take a break here for another message from my sponsor.
So, what do I think is a good worship song? Well, today was Memorial Day and we sang a couple of hymns. The first one was “How Great Thou Art.” While we do not use the words, “thou” or “art” like this anymore, the rest of the lyrics are pretty solid and easy to understand. There are clear references to God the Father and God the Son. Verse 2, could even be referencing God the Holy Spirit. There aren’t any theological issues that I see here and there is no real shock value. Overall, I’d say this is a very good hymn. Again, maybe it is a little old fashion, but there’s nothing wrong with singing old fashion hymns once in a while.
Good hymns, though dated are still good worship.
The key words being once in a while. I think that the church needs to adapt and evolve with culture to some extent. This does not mean sacrificing biblical truths, but it does mean keeping up with the times. We no longer require certain clothing in most churches. Children are not taken out of the church and spanked for misbehaving anymore. It is okay to use modern instruments and new songs to bring worship to God. Could you imagine singing the exact same song to God every single week for thousands of years? I think he’s a little more creative than that and he created us to be better than that. Use your talents!
So, what about a more modern worship song that I think fulfills the requirements for being good? I really like the song In Christ Alone. Depending on your definition of modern, it might not fit the bill as it was originally written something like 20 years ago. However, I did check a chart of the most popular worship songs this year and it was still on there.
I like the song because it is filled with emotion, but it tells a good story of Christ. It’s recognizing who God is without using gimmicky adjectives or lyrics. Some people appear to have a problem with the line “the wrath of God was satisfied,” but I don’t really see the huge issue with it. It focuses on Christ, but also recognizes God. The song is easy to relate to.
Personally, I also really like this song because it doesn’t rely on excessive repetition. Sometimes I feel that modern worship songs focus too much on trying to force feelings of the Spirit by saying the same line over and over a dozen times. While this does bring on emotion, it’s like saying the same word over and over. Eventually, it begins to lose its meaning. It comes back to being boring. There’s nothing theologically wrong with doing this. I just find it to be a little gimmicky and I don’t care for that.
Repetition should be used sparingly in worship.
That said, sometimes repetition can work if there’s a good reason for it. For example, I really like the song Tremble. Half of the song is just the word Jesus. But the song is almost more of a prayer of desperation. Sometimes, there are circumstances in life where we do not know what to say. We don’t know what to pray. We don’t know how to worship. In times like these, sometimes all we can do is get out the name of Jesus. Over and over. Just Jesus. There is power in the name. When there is nothing else we can think of to sing or prayer, we can just say Jesus and meditate on his name. In this case, I give repetition a pass.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that we aren’t just singing some catchy song. We are using our voices to worship and bring glory to God. A God who is worthy of our best. A God who is good, and perfect. Who has created us in his image. To use our talents, gifts, inspirations, and creativity to worship him in new ways. When bringing our worship to God, it should be good first and foremost. Catchiness can come later.
Let our words be good and true. It is about pleasing God with our voices, not man. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to insult, degrade, or belittle the person of God while I am worshiping. So, consider the words you are singing the next time you are worshiping God. This especially true if you are about to lead a congregation in corporate worship. Sometimes, I really think we can do better.
Thanks for tuning in to the Critiques and Caffeine Podcast! I look forward to sharing more pet peeves with you next time. God bless.
Be sure to check out last weeks episode here: https://www.zachhaas.com/trump-is-not-jesus/