Sing A New Song (But Not Too Many… And Not Too Many Of Yours)

1The Bible is clear: We should be singing new songs to the Lord (Psalm 96:1 as one example of many).

What is less clear: How often should we sing new songs at our churches? I took a stab at answering this question with some practical suggestions over three years ago.

What is even less clear: How often should we sing our (or someone in our church’s) original songs? In Monday’s post I said “in extreme moderation“. Some people understood what I meant by that. Others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we should never sing original songs”. And some others thought that by “extreme moderation” I meant “we shouldn’t sing anything other than the Psalms”. It looks like my statement could use some clearing up.

Yes, the Bible is clear that we should sing new songs to the Lord. It’s less clear about how often we should sing original songs on a Sunday morning. So where can we look for guidance?

1 Corinthians 14 is one of the foremost places in scripture where we are given instructions about principles that should guide our worship gatherings. Paul deals with some tricky issues like tongues and prophecy, and in so doing, he lays out some guidelines that can help govern us as we think about using original songs.

1. Make sure the church is being built up (1 Cor  14:3-4, 12, 26)
2. Make sure what’s going on is clear to the people in the room (1 Cor 14:7-11, 33)
3. Engage both the spirit and the mind (1 Cor 14:15)
4. Try to engage outsiders (1 Cor 14:16)

So, when choosing songs for any worship gathering, some of the questions going through a worship leader’s head should be:

1. Will these songs build up my church? (i.e. build them up into Jesus)
2. Will these songs be clear/singable/accessible? 
3. Will these songs engage the minds and spirits of the people in the room?
4. Will outsiders find it too difficult to try to sing along with us?

These questions get us thinking pastorally about song selection. They guide us towards choosing songs that will serve our congregation. And they help us be objective about using our original songs. We can’t run away from these questions. We can’t run away from our responsibility to serve the people of God.

These questions point us towards balance and moderation.

Balance
– Using songs that have lasted for centuries (for a reason) and are known by Christians from all backgrounds and traditions, and even some non-Christians who may have heard them on random occasions
– Using songs from different sources, to ensure that we don’t only express things the same way, with the same wording, with the same kind of melodies and rhythms, but with a broadness and depth that using only one or two sources doesn’t get at.
– Using familiar songs that will build confidence and gain trust
– Using new songs that my church needs to learn so they can be built up even more

Moderation
– Using too many original songs might make it hard for outsiders (from other churches, visitors, non-Christians) to sing along until they’ve been around for a while
– Using too many original songs might make Sunday mornings hard work for the average singer who finds lesser-known songs to require more energy to learn
– It’s harder to think objectively about whether a song is (1) the right fit, (2) melodically and lyrically excellent, and (3) singable, when you’re the one who wrote it.
– If your church is a part of the broader Body of Christ, one principle way you can demonstrate that is by singing songs written by its different members.

To be clear:
1. The Bible clearly encourages the singing and writing of new songs (and so we should).
2. Paul’s encouragement to the New Testament church was to sing all sorts of different songs (Colossians 3:16, Ephesians 5:19) (and  so we should).
3. Paul advocates pursuing the Holy Spirit in our gatherings (and so we should).
4. Paul encourages the leaders of the gatherings to hold the building up of the body as the standard which governs what goes on during a gathering (and so we should).
5. Paul wants as many people engaged in what’s going on as possible (and so we should).

Therefore,

– Sing, sing, sing.
– Sing old songs, sing new songs, sing original songs.
– Sing songs that people can sing along to.
– Point to Jesus 

Oh sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
(Psalm 96:1-2 ESV)

Know Your Destination

1Occasionally my wife and I will get in the car (i.e. minivan), with all three kids successfully fastened into their car seats, with the diaper bag appropriately packed with snacks, drinks, diapers, wipes, back-up clothes, etc., and the correct shoes on the correct feet, and have absolutely no idea where we’re going.

I’ll back out of the driveway and Catherine will ask me something like “where are we going?” I’ll respond “I don’t know“. And then we’ll proceed to decide if we want to go to Starbucks, or the grocery store, or the mall, or to a playground, or some other errand. We knew we wanted to get out of the house before we all went crazy, but we hadn’t quite figured out where we were going to go. Minor detail.

I think worship leaders can foolishly approach service planning like this sometimes. We get to the service with songs picked and rehearsed, a band/choir arranged and ready, a service outline printed out and ready to be followed, and the congregation coming to fill the seats. But we have absolutely no idea where we’re going.

I’ve heard preachers say that they know they’re in trouble when they can’t tell their spouse in one sentence what their sermon is going to communicate. I think the same is true for worship leaders. If we can’t articulate in one sentence what our songs (and whole service) is going to communicate, then we’re in trouble.

I’ve talked a lot about this idea in recent months. I used the example of the writers of the TV series LOST who obviously had no idea where the narrative was heading and just started throwing in nonsense. And last week I talked about how, when planning a service, you can approach it from the perspective of a core and an angle.

I just want to add that, just like on a successful trip in the car requires that you know where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, what turns to take, and what route is best, an effective worship leader will know where he or she is going, how they’re going to get there, what turns to take, and what route is best. Choosing songs without knowing how they make sense in the larger narrative of your service will result in you driving around aimlessly for a while and burning lots of gas.

Know your destination! Your passengers will thank you.

When You’re Out of Ideas

dryWhat do you do as a worship leader when you’re all of ideas? Particularly when picking songs for yet another service seems to be next to impossible? Here are some suggestions:

Take a vacation
One sign of burn-out is mental fatigue. Take a break. Take one or two Sundays off in a row. Do whatever you have to do to get away. Visit a good church. Or (gasp) sleep in.

Buy a bunch of new worship CDs
Have you listened to Matt Redman’s “Your Grace Finds Me“, or The Gospel Coalition’s “Songs from the Book of Luke” or Keith and Kristyn Getty’s new live album, or Dustin Kensrue’s “The Water and the Blood“, or Sovereign Grace’s “Grace Has Come” or Indelible Grace’s “Joy Beyond the Sorrow” (from last year), or Paul Baloche’s “The Same Love“? Even if you listen to all of these and only take away 2 songs you could teach your congregation, you’ll still have a lot of new arrangement ideas, and melodies floating around in your head that help you feel more fresh.

Find time for personal worship
When I’m feeling all out of ideas, many times that means I need to sit down with my guitar or at a piano and just begin to play music and articulate praise to God. Your public ministry has to be an overflow from your private life or else you’ll be operating on fumes.

See/hear/ask what other churches are doing
If you know other worship leaders at different churches, send them a note and ask them what they’ve done recently (songs, or other ideas) that’s really clicked with their congregations. Maybe it’s a terrible idea. But maybe it’s a good one. And you should’t be ashamed to use it and adapt it in your setting.

Stretch your brain
Go to a conference, read a theological book, or take a seminary class (there are a bunch of options online if you don’t live near a good one). Ask if your church will pay for this out of their continuing education budget. They should! You being out of ideas is an invitation to fill your brain and your heart with a new supply of concepts, techniques, history, terminology, and bible.

Lean on your team
Invite your worship team over to your house for a half-day retreat on a Saturday. Feed them breakfast and then come together for a couple of hours before adjourning at lunch. Laugh, worship, and pray together, and then put some huge white paper up on the walls. Have a group conversation about where your worship ministry has been, where it is now, where it’s going, and what God is saying. You’ll get some tangents and some random comments, but you’ll also get a lot of good insight from people who are a bit more able to look at things from a 50,000 foot view than you.

Take a deep breath
An awful lot of worship leaders feel a pressure to perform, to be super creative, to be edgy, to be relevant, to be hipster, to be up on all the new stuff, to be musically inventive, and to get results on Sunday mornings. It’s not that being any of those is bad, or that hoping for fruitful worship leading is wrong, but when we allow the pursuit of creativity or ingenuity to have power over us, then we’ve gone too far. Focus on being faithful to Jesus, faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel, and faithful to your congregation. Sometimes when you think you’re out of ideas all you actually need to do is keep drawing from the same well again and again and again.

Ten Worship Leading Non-Negotiables

1There is so much good and helpful advice for worship leaders out there that I thought I’d try my hand at condensing it all down into 10 non-negotiables.

  1. You are not the center.
  2. You make Jesus the center.
  3. Your priority is helping the congregation sing with faith.
  4. You support your pastor.
  5. You choose songs that are full of truth.
  6. You use musicians who are gifted and have soft hearts toward Jesus.
  7. You tailor the keys and arrangements of songs to serve the people in the room.
  8. Your family comes first.
  9. You’re never alone with someone of the opposite sex who isn’t your spouse.
  10. You won’t ever compromise numbers 1-9.

May we be worship leaders who, at our core, love Jesus, love our congregations, and love our families.

We Believe Our God is Jesus?

1What do you do when one word introduces theological imprecision to an otherwise good song? This is the dilemma in which we find ourselves with a song titled “Once and For All” featured on the new Passion album “Let the Future Begin”, written by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram and Matt Maher. It’s a great song written by great worship leaders, but I want to highlight how one word can present a problem.

The first verse, second verse, and bridge have solid lyrics and a memorable melody. They say:

Verse 1:
Once and for all, the Father’s love
He is the light in the darkness
He took on flesh and took our place
The weight of the world on his shoulders

Verse 2:
Once and for all, our debt is paid
There on the cross it is finished
The Lamb of God for us was slain
Up from the grave he is risen

Bridge:
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
You are our salvation
Jesus, Jesus, God from God, Light from Light
Your Kingdom is forever

Nothing is the matter so far. The verses and bridge all point to the person and work of Jesus, him being the demonstration of the Father’s love, the one who secured our salvation once and for all, and the one who is very God and the light of the world. Great stuff.

But then we have the chorus. And in the chorus is one word that presents a dilemma.

Chorus:
We believe our God is Jesus
We believe that he is Lord
We believe that he has saved us
From sin and death once and for all

Did you catch it? It’s in the very first line of the chorus. The other lines are good and strong, but the first line, “we believe our God is Jesus” is the issue. You might think I’m being incredibly picky. Maybe I am. OK, I probably am. But let me try to explain:

To be clear: we do certainly believe that Jesus is God. There were early Church fathers who spent their lives defending this doctrine. Jesus is fully man, and he is fully God, and this is a clear and foundational doctrine of our faith. 

But to be just as clear: we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We worship a God who is one in being yet distinct in three persons. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit is any more or less “God” than the other “person”. It’s a mind-boggling truth, but it’s one we embrace, and it’s one that this good song, in one little line, makes unnecessarily fuzzy. And the fact that it’s the first line of the chorus makes it a prominent fuzziness.

To say “we believe our God is Jesus” should feel just as odd to sing as it would be to sing “we believe our God is Spirit”. Your reaction should be “well, yes he is, but he’s also Father and Son”. To say that “our God” is only one person of the Trinity is a bit of shame, particularly in a song that will be downloaded and purchased hundreds of thousands of times, be incorporated into thousands of churches’ repertoire, and inwardly digested by the people singing the words on Sunday mornings all over the world.

When I heard this song for the first time, I wondered whether anyone else thought it was odd to say “our God is Jesus”. As I looked at reviews of the album online (which, I have to say, is a really great CD and has some wonderful songs on it and I recommend it) no one raised any concerns.

I did read one review that mentioned this song and said, interestingly, that it “…is a remediation of the Nicene Creed, and… proclaims the attributes, character, and mission of Christ”.

Not quite to the first part of that statement. The Nicene Creed is a robustly Trinitarian statement of faith which begins: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…” continuing with: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light…” and concluding by saying that: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life…”

So while this song does feature the phrase “We believe…” and “God from God, Light from Light”, it could hardly be called a “remediation of the Nicene Creed”.  But I agree that it proclaims Jesus’ “attributes, character, and mission”.

I really do like the song! Just not the first line of the chorus and I wish they had changed the one word to avoid all of this confusion. If the line said “we believe our King is Jesus”, I think that would be an improvement.

I asked Dr. Lester Ruth, Research Professor of Christian Worship at Duke Divinity School, whether he thought I was being unreasonable in my criticism of this line in the song. He kindly responded and said:

Great question. You hit the nail right on the head. If our God is Jesus, then one has to wonder who the Father is in “The Father’s love” and who the God is of “Lamb of God”. Does this just mean “Jesus of Jesus”? Of course not…

I don’t think that single line (“…our God is Jesus…”) should disqualify the song, particularly if you can couple it with other liturgical items that bring out a more Trinitarian, New Testament way of speaking. Put the song in a good, strong, more balanced context. The line is not wrong per se but it is not the best way to express things.

I thought that was very helpful feedback.

I also asked Simon Ponsonby, the Pastor of Theology at St. Aldates Church in Oxford, for his thoughts. He said:

In an age when so many worship songs are little more than self-centered emoting, void of theology and a vision of God’s glory, I am grateful for song writers who are attempting to write in a modern idiom, biblical, theologically robust songs, that exalt God. This song is just such an attempt by a gifted song writer.  The question for me is not so much about the phrase “we believe our God is Jesus”  – though the sentence does sound unusual to my ears –  rather, in a song that echoes the Nicean Creed, I personally would have liked to see a similar Trinitarian completeness.  The statement “we believe our God is Jesus” without reference to Christian belief also in God as Father and Spirit, might appear to some observers to reduce God to Jesus per se.  And that is not what I believe.

So from all of this, there seem to be 5 takeaways:

  1. To say/sing “We believe our God is Jesus” is not technically wrong, but misleadingly incomplete.
  2. This line doesn’t disqualify this otherwise good song, but raises the stakes of completing its theology with the other songs/liturgy surrounding it.
  3. If the song really were a remediation of the Nicene Creed, it would have been more careful.
  4. One word can make a huge difference in a song.
  5. I need to use the phrase “per se” more often in my writing.

I’m grateful to God for worship songwriters like Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jason Ingram, Matt Maher, and so many others who seek to serve the church by providing it with fresh, congregational songs of praise to the glory of God. It’s harder than it looks to write good worship songs, and these guys consistently do a good job and I am one of millions who have been blessed and edified by their work.

In this instance, I think this line slipped past some theological editing that would have made the song a lot better. My hope is that this post will convey my thankfulness to these songwriters for their work, and encourage all of us to be careful in what words we put on our congregations’ lips.