“Music is the universal language of mankind,” or so claimed Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Martin Luther stated, “As long as we live, there is never enough singing.” He would go on to say that “Music is the art of the prophets and the gift of God.” Music and singing have been a part of every culture from the dawn of human existence. Music resonates with us on a level that surpasses other forms of verbal expression and logic. If you stop to think about it, the way music and singing affect us is not just remarkable; it’s pretty strange—even mystical.
It’s no wonder that music plays a fundamental role in worship. The sacred text to both Jews and Christians contains an entire book devoted to worship songs. At critical moments in the biblical narrative, characters spontaneously burst into song. At other times, their despair is so great that they cannot sing. All they can muster are curses upon the offspring of their captors.
Within my own Christian tradition, music (or rather the appropriate form of music) was so important that it resulted in a split within the Restorationist Movement in America that continues to this day. Side note: The “real” issue wasn’t so much acapella vs. instrumental music but tensions between northern and southern churches after the American civil war. This schism is just one of many examples where our culture and social context determine how we interpret Scripture, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Music has a prominent—even dominant role in American Christian churches. From my experience, here’s a rough breakdown of how we allocate worship time. A typical service is approximately 60-90 minutes. Sermons typically last 20–30 minutes. Announcements and Prayers may take 5-10 minutes. The eucharist/communion service gets (a paltry) 5-10 minutes (less post-COVID). The remaining time (30–40 minutes) is devoted to worship through song. That’s roughly 50% of the entire worship service. While studying in Israel, I sometimes worshipped at a Messianic Jewish synagogue. The breakdown of that very Jewish service held to a similar time breakdown.
My point in providing this breakdown is not to criticize the time we spend worshiping in song but to point out the vital role it plays in our expression and worship of God. One criticism I do have is that the communion/eucharist deserves FAR more time than we give it. On this point, our orthodox (eastern and western) brothers and sisters could teach us much about the importance of the Lord’s supper, but that, too, is a discussion for another time.
Since music and singing are so crucial to our worship expression, what we sing is worthy of serious examination. Recently, Dr. Michael J. Rhodes (Old Testament Lecturer at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand) published an article in Christianity Today where he analyzed the Top 25 songs sung in churches according to CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International, the organization that provides access to and manages copyright licensing for Christian music worldwide). Dr. Rhodes compared the themes of these popular Christian worship songs with those found in the Psalms.
Dr. Rhodes states, “Psalms is obsessed with the Lord’s liberating justice for the oppressed.” He notes that the psalms are not merely concerned with how to think about justice but provide “scripts to practice shouting and singing about it.” The Book of Psalms expresses the cry for injustice in ways that might make many of us uncomfortable. The psalms don’t simply encourage us to seek justice; they often question—even rage at God, asking when he will correct the injustice suffered by God’s people. As Dr. Rhodes observes, the psalms and worship provide a safe space for the full range of human emotions in the face of suffering and victimization.
So, how did CCLI’s Top 25 most commonly sung worship songs compare with the psalms? Here’s a summary of Dr. Rhodes’ findings:
- Only one passing reference to “justice” was in the Top 25.
- There were no references to the poor or poverty.
- There was no mention of the widow, refugee, or oppressed.
- References to enemies were rare, and then only in the spiritual sense.
- There was not a single question posed to God.
For Rhodes, this last point was the most devastating. The Psalms are filled with questions to God. In the face of injustice, the people of God beg God to intercede on their behalf. Yet, apparently, we don’t feel comfortable questioning God—or perhaps we are no longer oppressed.
Singing Lies in Church
Because Rhodes focused his comparison with the psalms, he does not discuss another problematic aspect of some worship songs: an errant view of the Trinity. Quite a few contemporary Christian songs assign attributes of God (the father) to Jesus Christ. More specifically, they tend to elevate Christ to the position of God (the father). At other times, they seem to lack any distinction between the two. Josh Baldwin’s “My King Forever” is one example. The chorus is
And all praise to the Lord most high
All praise to the One who saved my life
All praise to Jesus Christ
High King of Heaven
My King forever
I’ll admit the melody is contagious. But equating Jesus Christ with the “High King of Heaven” blurs the Trinity in problematic ways. Not surprisingly, other songs are steeped in the questionable doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). The second verse of “In Christ Alone” includes the lines: “Till on that cross as Jesus died; The wrath of God was satisfied.” While Penal Substitutionary Atonement is foundational to Reformed/Calvinist theology, it does not align with the witness of Scripture.
Perhaps some of you are thinking this is just one more problem with these new-fangled worship songs. Well, it’s not. While Dr. Rhodes focused on CCLI 25 most sung worship songs, he notes that our traditional hymnals are not much better. There are very few songs of lament in the major hymnals of mainline and evangelical churches, as well as the lectionary. In his book, New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, Dr. J. Richard Middleton picks up on a similar theme. He entitled a section of his introductory chapter, “Singing Lies in Church.” Middleton notes the numerous traditional hymns that don’t reflect a biblical view of the age to come. For Middleton, this is problematic because he views songs as the primary means by which most Christians get their theology, rightly or wrongly. Rhodes and Middleton would agree that Christians should pay better attention to what songs we sing.
Who’s to Blame?
So, who’s to blame for this situation? As with most things related to the Bible, it’s complicated. I’ve joked with people in our church that we should not get our theology from worship leaders. Being able to sing, play, or even write good music does not make one a theologian. At the same time, most theologians would make terrible songwriters.
I don’t lay blame on the worship leaders. Recently, I had a conversation with a worship leader friend who expressed frustration at the pressure he faced from his church leadership to incorporate certain songs into worship, even though he felt their theology was problematic. I know from personal experience that no selection of worship songs ever pleases the entire congregation. No matter what songs you include in a service, someone will complain about it. Most worship leaders I know take great care in selecting songs that coordinate a theme with the overall worship. As easy as it might appear from the pew, I can assure you that a great deal of thought and preparation goes into the development of a worship service. At the same time, there is pressure to respond to the congregation’s desires when selecting songs.
The songwriters are the easy target. After all, they wrote the problematic songs. But I don’t blame them either. Their songs aren’t popular because they wrote them; they are popular because we sing them. In truth, the songwriters are the products of our churches and the theology we teach. If churches had better theology, we would cultivate songwriters who write theologically sound songs.
Ultimately, we (the church) are the common denominator in this problem. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. If we were teaching a coherent view of the Trinity and a biblical message about a loving God deeply concerned with social injustice, we would sing about it. If we had a heart for the poor and oppressed, we would begin to develop worship music that encouraged us to carry out our obligations to the helpless in society. Ultimately, our worship songs reflect what we value in the biblical message. Our values drive the songwriters and worship leaders to deliver what we will consume.
Brothers and Sisters, What Shall We Do?
Is there a fix to this problem? Rhodes recognizes the challenges and long-term nature of any solution. He proposes that the best first step in fixing this problem is to return to the psalter. He calls for making the psalms a part of our singing and prayers. At the same time, he recommends evaluating our hymns and songs against “the measuring stick of the psalter itself.” I think that’s a decent first step. Churches should examine their worship songs with a more critical eye toward their inherent theology and teachings.
This post might seem like nitpicking. But, as Middleton points out, it’s essential because our songs are the primary means by which most people get their theology—for better or worse.