My 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.
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.
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.