A Plea for Discernment in Music
Grant Mortenson | For the Clarion
THE FOLLOWING IS AN OPINION PIECE AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE CLARION, ITS STAFF OR THE INSTITUTION. IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO SUBMIT A RESPONSE OR AN OPINION PIECE OF YOUR OWN, PLEASE CONTACT EDITOR IN CHIEF JARED NELSON AT JAN83277@BETHEL.EDU.
What is the goal of singing? Are we singing for our enjoyment or could there be a higher purpose to our melody? When we make music in chapel, vespers, church, or Christian concerts, we are singing to God, not to ourselves. That should inform our criteria for music. I want to pose some questions for you, as well as some suggested principles that I have found to be personally helpful.
But before I go any further, it is important to know that music, in and of itself, is not worship, but an expression of worship.
If you love the Lord, are you sure you are doing what he said when it comes to worship?
Consider John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” What has been commanded in the area of worship? “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.” (Psalm 29:2) “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them;” (Deut. 11:16)
I would suggest that what we see commanded in the area of worship is to worship God in spirit and truth, remaining grounded in the truth of God’s Word, and that our worship should primarily be a proclamation of God’s profound greatness. Also, the Psalms make it clear that when we sing, we are to sing to God. “Sing to him a new song;” (33:3) “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” (40:3) “Sing to the LORD a new song;” (96:1, 98:1, 149:1) “I will sing a new song to you, O God;” (144:9), etc.
In that vein, Jesus said not to use meaningless repetition in our prayers. (Matt.6:7) If God does not want meaningless repetition when praying to him, how much more would he not want it when singing to him? If you went to the Bethel Music concert on April 2, you will remember that there was a lot of repetition, both in the singing and in the chanting. Considering what you know now, does that seem Biblical to you? If yes, what is your Scriptural basis?
What does loving God look like? Is it primarily emotional? Is it all about jumping around in a dark room while a band rolls out a guitar riff? Does real worship have to cause our eyes to tear up? Does repeating a four-line long chorus six times enable you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength? (Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27, Matt. 22:37) Jesus commands us to love God with our whole life! When we sing, do we worship God with everything, or just our lips? In other words, how can we engage not only the heart and soul, but also the mind and strength, and so worship in truth, not just spirit (John 4:24)?
I’d like to suggest three principles for determining what songs we should use in worship, keeping in mind the above questions and Biblical support.
- Lyrics should be clearly Biblical and not vague or questionable.
If there is anything in a song that could give people the wrong impression, then we probably shouldn’t be singing that song, because it won’t allow for full engagement in God’s truth, but in confusion.
Consider Gabriel; he has long, flowing, red hair. If Monica starts talking about how much she admires Gabriel’s short, wavy, black hair, then you would know that she’s not talking about the Gabriel you know.
In the same way, if people have the wrong understanding of who Jesus is, then they’re not singing about the real Jesus. (cf. the Mormon Jesus) For example, Jesus is not our boyfriend; he is the King of Kings (Rev. 19:16), so we should avoid singing songs that sound romantic, such as “You Won’t Relent” by Jesus Culture, which includes these lines: I don’t want to talk about you / Like you’re not in the room / I want to look right at you / I want to sing right to you. Imagine, if you would, singing that to your significant other. It fits pretty well doesn’t it? Songs with vague lyrics like these can easily cause confusion about God, and therefore can prevent us worshipping in truth and engaging our mind.
- The artist must be orthodox in teaching and practice.
I don’t mean the Eastern Orthodox Church here. Orthodoxy means “correct teaching”, so the artist who wrote the song should have right theology before we sing their songs. Why is this important? Curiosity. When you hear a song on the radio that you’ve never heard before, and you like it, what do you want to know? “Who wrote that song? What do their other songs sound like?” Your curiosity about them is piqued.
If an artist isn’t orthodox, then you might be listening to (or worse, singing) the doxology of a false theology. Many of the songs they write may be just fine, but then people can be led to believe a false teaching is actually true because, hey, so-and-so believes it, and he wrote that one song which was really, really good, right? Therefore we should not only examine the songs, but also the character and theology of the artist so that we don’t fall into an unbiblical doctrine.
- Since these songs are for corporate worship, they should be conducive to that end.
Why is it that many men do not sing in chapel or vespers? Consider the hymns of old; many of them will have a similar rhythm to them. They were literally designed to be sung corporately, whether by a choir or by the entire congregation.
These days, songs tend to be more breathy and sexy and are designed to be sung by the singer in a band. They can be great to listen to, assuming they’re biblical, of course, but they’re difficult for most people to sing. For all of us to join in praise to God, we all need to be able to sing the song. That wasn’t a challenge 400 years ago, so why is it now? Perhaps those old dead guys knew something that we don’t.
“Oceans” by Hillsong United, for example, sounds very different from “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Martin Luther. The former is in a key and breathing pattern that is unnatural for many men, so unless they have a reckless abandon equivalent to that of a streaker at the World Cup, they’re not going to sing.
“10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman, on the other hand, comes straight out of Psalm 103 and there aren’t any known problems with Matt Redman’s theology. In this case, the song can be put into a moderate key that people are capable of singing so that all of us can love God with all our strength.
Unfortunately, too many mainstream songs are great for the radio, but horrendous for worship. There are, however, groups that focus on writing “modern hymns”, if you will. Sovereign Grace Music (Behold Our God), Keith and Kristyn Getty (In Christ Alone), Matt Papa (Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery), Matt Redman (Blessed Be Your Name), and others write songs that are not only theologically sound, but also very conducive to corporate singing by design.
I urge you to consider that singing should be a meaningful “thank you” to a majestic King for the marvelously merciful act of saving us. I pray that you will come to a similar conclusion that I have, so that we can all love God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength.