The Useless Sound of an Indistinct Bugle

1My almost 2-year-old, Emma, is starting to talk. It’s super cute and fun, and we are loving it. The only problem is that no one else can understand what in the world she’s actually saying.

For example: “goke” can mean “milk” or “broken”. Or “shah” means “straw”. Or “gang gang” means “candy cane”.

She’s talking alright. But it’s indistinct. What she’s saying isn’t clear enough for most people to understand.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul spends some time giving them instructions on corporate worship. Apparently some of them are getting together and having a wonderful time using the gifts of the Spirit, but no one else who walks into the room has any idea what’s going on.

He says to them, in one of his more wonderfully pointed moments:

…if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:8-9)

The specific thing he’s talking about is the use of the gift of tongues, but the principle applies much more broadly. The principle is this: when you get together as Christians, make sure what’s going on is as clear as possible.

Imagine the uselessness of an indistinct bugle. You hear it off in the distance and you think it’s calling you to battle. But the person next to you disagrees completely. He says it’s announcing the arrival of royalty. Someone behind you speaks up and says you both have it wrong. It’s the sound of a musician playing a ballad for his lover.

Total confusion.

So imagine the uselessness of indistinct message in our songs. You hear it and you think it’s talking about Jesus’ second coming. Your friend hears it and says it’s about the trials we face. You get an email from someone thanking you for that very same song that she says is talking about her loved one who’s in heaven.

Huh?

It’s comforting that God knows our hearts completely, regardless of whether we use the right words. We don’t have to articulate ourselves to him perfectly for him to get the picture.

But if the Apostle Paul were to walk into your service this Sunday and sing the songs you pick, would he say you were “uttering speech that was not intelligible” or that you were “speaking into the air”? That wouldn’t be a good thing.

As worship leaders we should aim for clarity and distinction in our proclamation of the good news of the Gospel so that everyone who comes in, and who has ears to hear, can hear. And understand what in the world you’re actually saying.

5 thoughts on “The Useless Sound of an Indistinct Bugle

  1. peterktan January 16, 2013 / 8:23 pm

    Were you thinking of a particular song when you described those reactions? Not too long ago, I had pencilled in Robin Mark’s ‘Days of Elijah’ for a service, but after reading the reactions of some people as to the meaning of the song I pulled it out. I still wonder too. In poetry, it’s often thought as a good thing for it to be a little open-ended to allow for some interpretive leeway, but this might not be a good thing for worship songs.

    • Jen Frey January 18, 2013 / 2:18 pm

      Good point about poetry….I’d be interested in Jamie’s thoughts?

      BTW, Jamie, thank you for being faithful to your blog in the midst of your other responsibilities. It’s both encouraging and exhorting!

    • Jamie Brown January 29, 2013 / 1:41 pm

      Hi Peter. I wasn’t thinking of a particular song, but it doesn’t take me long to think of some. “Days of Elijah” is one example. Another example would be “Mighty to Save”. On the second verse: “I give my life to follow everything I believe in now I surrender”. Am I saying that I give my life to follow everything I believe in? Or am I saying that I give my life to follow God (but the word God isn’t there so you’re assuming it) and that I surrender all that I believe in? Or am I surrendering to the one I want to follow? I don’t get it. And I don’t get the bridge. Who’s light is shining? Ours? Jesus’? I don’t know what the writer meant. So I have to guess.

      I don’t want people to have to guess. So if I choose a poem or a song with poetic qualities in its interpretive leeway, I might follow it with a song that makes the point clear, or in the introduction say a few sentences to explain what it means. Leaving things up for people to interpret on their own will result murky murkiness.

  2. Catherine January 16, 2013 / 9:14 pm

    Can I add that Emma ends almost every word with “uh” and says “qu” instead of “s” or “st” on the beginning of a lot of words. It does make translation a little challenging unless you know the rules! 🙂

  3. Sarah February 8, 2013 / 7:01 am

    Jamie, I appreciate the care you take to weed out songs like the ones you describe. I find that many songwriters who have lyrics that are unclear compensate with melodies/arrangements that are emotionally manipulative, and that can disguise the “murky murkiness” (haha) of the words. I’m thinking of a lot of Hillsong writers especially. It kind of ruins worship for me when I feel like the songwriter, instead of drawing me in, is yanking my heart around to make me have an emotional experience that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the words we’re singing.

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