A Weakness of Theologically Deep Worship Music

December 20, 2011 — 16 Comments

[This post is part of the Revamping Christian Worship series]

A couple of days ago over at Parchment and Pen, Lisa Robinson posted some thoughts critiquing how people critique worship music. In her post, she linked to my post on how to worship when you think the songs suck. If you haven’t read her post, head over there and check it out. The majority of you reading this post though are probably here because Tim Challies and Trevin Wax linked to Lisa’s post and well, now here you are.

Because of her post and the interest in my post, I began to revisit some of the ideas. Thanks to an article by Paxson Jeancake in Speaking the Truth in Love: The Theology of John M. Frame, my attention was drawn to an issue that I think we all have overlooked.

In Jeancake’s article, he is interacting with Frame’s thoughts from Contemporary Worship Music. Frame wanted to ensure that the worship music sung in churches was intelligible, specifically to visitors and unbelievers. Because of this, he “came to appreciate contemporary worship music, in part, because he realized that it spoke in a language that was relevant and accessible to the people he and his church were trying to reach” (p. 744).

Working with the principle that “an effective teacher speaks the present language of his students,” Frame did an analysis on two songs:

  1. “Arise, My Soul, Arise” by Charles Wesley (traditional hymn)
  2. “Father God, I Wonder” by Ian Smale (contemporary worship song)

In a single verse of Wesley’s song, there at least 15 different theological points. Or, in other words, we are in the theological deep end if we’re singing this one on Sunday morning. By contrast, Smale’s song only highlights 1 point, adoption, which also happened to be in Wesley’s song. By comparison, this would make Smale’s song seem shallow.

So, what’s the problem here?

Think of it like this. How well would you remember your pastor’s sermon if he had 15 subpoints in the first main point of his message? Probably not very well. We have a hard time even remembering 3 main point unless we’re taking notes, and since most people don’t take notes when they’re singing worship songs in church, songs that present that many point are not likely to stick with the worshiper long after the service is over.

Not that it was that long ago, but when I was taking my preaching classes at Dallas Seminary, our messages were supposed to have one main point to them. And not only that, it was supposed to be put in the most memorable way possible. As Frame points out with Wesley’s song, any one of the 15 points could be the subject matter of an entire sermon or even a series of sermons. He acknowledges the hymn teaches much theology, but it’s at the expense of being memorable:

I have sung it a hundred times or so, and I still have to open the hymnal to get the words right. The traditional tunes used for the hymn are not much help. None of them, in my judgment, is a very good means to impress these truths on the hearts of modern worshipers (p. 103 in CWM)

In other words, “theologically deep” is not a bad thing, but if the theology presented in a single song is too deep and too varied, it loses some of its impact. Just the like the sermon that dives to great theological depths but lacks a clear focus is easily forgotten by Monday afternoon, the worship song that covers much theological ground but is bulky lyrically and melodically is not going to be hummed by the congregation as they go about their weekly business.

In the examples above, Wesley makes 15 different theological points in a single verse, Smale makes one theological point in the entire song and does so to a memorable tune. Because of that, while Wesley’s song is certainly the one with more food for thought and theological depth, Smale’s song is more likely to lodge itself in the listener’s heart and mind. It may on the surface seem shallow, but that is what allows it to sink in easier.

The weakness of shallow worship music is that sometimes it doesn’t say much of anything. The weakness of theologically deep worship music is that it can say too much in a single song. If it’s too wordy, people will be able to sing it in the service, but they may be concentrating more on getting all the words right rather than actually focusing on praising God. And if that’s the case, they may be singing deep theologically with their lips, but their hearts may well be far from worshiping.

I don’t want to throw the theologically deep baby out with the bathwater, but I just thought this might be something to keep in mind next time you feel like criticizing a song for being shallow even though it may still be theologically faithful. In reality, it is probably that “shallow” song that you’re humming throughout the week, or if pressed could sing from memory because you know the words so well.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

16 responses to A Weakness of Theologically Deep Worship Music

  1. Darel Finkbeiner December 20, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Can’t we have both? Memorable, likable, “hummable” tune with theologically deep (and equally memorable) words? Isn’t this what we are really trying to voice when we critique? Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that’s, sort of, kind of, maybe exactly and precisely their job (that is the artists’ jobs).

  2. I like your thoughts alot.

    I just hopped over here from Lisa’s post so the engines are still running. One thing I noticed is that your useage of theologically ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ aren’t the way I’ve used them (nor have I assumed others have used it in similar discussions) perhaps that’s my bad.

    I am all for having both types of songs of which you have described, and would tend to lean towards a song which has fewer theological themes. But to me, I don’t clasify this as shallow. My understanding of ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ has more to do with what the song does about that subject.

    If the theme of a song is the love of Christ then I want to see how deep that goes. There is a vast difference between “Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so” and “O the deep deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!” One is theologically ‘deeper’ than the other. It doesn’t mean there’s not a time and place for “Jesus Loves Me” but there’s no denying a difference.

    And yet, I’d have a hard time calling “Jesus Loves Me” shallow. When I think of shallow I think of platitudes, musical overcompensation, and misunderstood/misapplied theology.

    So I understand what you mean by the ‘weakness of theologically deep worship music’, I just have always understood ‘deep’ and ‘shallow’ in a different way I guess.

    thanks for your thoughts!

    • Rich,

      I think your perspective on “deep” and “shallow” might be more mainstream than the way I was using them. I tend to see “depth” involving a wider view, as in, if you were a scuba diver you would not only see things at a deeper level, you’d see more down there you can from the surface.

      I guess our perspectives then compliment each other.

      I think throughout this post I used “deep” to mean “complex” and “shallow” to mean “simple” mainly to target that as an inaccurate criticism of a song.

      Hope that clarifies, but I think you got the gist of what I was saying anyway!

  3. This is when someone needs to take Wesley’s song and put a new tune to it. New tunes to old hymns is why I like Sojourn Music and Indelible Grace Music so much. That way I have the best of both. How ’bout that?

  4. Wait, Indelible Grace does have a new version of “Arise, my Soul Arise”! Check it out!

    • I’ll have to look into it, I’m familiar with Sojourn Music (a good friend goes to church there) but I haven’t heard of Indelible Grace. I’m actually not familiar with Arise my Soul Arise, even though I used it as an example in this post.

      I think you’re right though and I tend to like hymns that have been stylized to sound more contemporary and singable!

  5. Good stuff man. One thought. Do you think a theologically deep song could be sung on Sunday morning for sanctifying purposes that plant seeds in individuals in the congregation?

    For example, when we sing Before the Throne of God Above, and we sing:

    Before the throne of God above
    I have a strong, a perfect plea:
    A great High Priest, whose name is Love,
    Who ever lives and pleads for me

    Is it possible that while this song won’t be remembered word for word throughout the week, that people singing Jesus as High Priest could be the beginning of a seed that pushes them to Scripture throughout the week? Maybe they spend the week in Hebrews and after seeking the Scriptures, the song then becomes memorable because it’s attachment to Scripture is solidified in the believer?

    I guess what I’m processing outloud (sorry) is that, could the root of the problem you’ve adressed in this post be the lack of leading and pastoring on part of the worship leader? I know when we do heavy songs, I try to offer some guidance for the song using Scripture (especially if it’s after the call to worship.)

    So my real question, (finally) is, “How responsible is the worship pastor, for the songs on Sunday mornings to be memorable whether they are traditional hymns, which are wordy and deep; or contemporary songs, which are catchy and more surface level?”

    • I’m way behind on responding to things on the internet, but to get to your question…

      To the first, yes.

      I think a weakness of theologically deep worship songs (but not necessarily a problem) is that more information is not always better. However, the depths of a song allow different parts to strike a chord in different people. So you’re right, they may not remember it all, but maybe a key part sticks with them through the week.

      A root problem might be lack of leading/pastoring. Certainly a “deeper” song could use more unpacking on the front end to make sure people understand it and it communicates clearly. I’m more targeting here people who consider anything simple to be a minor league praise song and all things deep are the big leagues that real Christians sing on Sundays. I just don’t think that’s the case.

      I think you do a great job in the call to worship to help frame the songs we’re singing.

      So, for the real question, I think the worship pastor is responsible to unpack the songs in the same way the teaching pastor is responsible to unpack the text. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive, but it needs to be a focused communication/unpacking exercise that helps the song more effectively take root in the congregations hearts. Different parts will take root in different hearts, so there isn’t a need to touch every aspect of a deeper song, but maybe more explanation goes with heavier/deeper songs.

      How’s that sound?

  6. excellent points, especially about what people take away, more or less.

    I would add that apples and oranges comparisons are a little bit to blame here for the contrast you’re making: were the theologically dense hymn verses expected to be memorized? Another goal would fit in better with them: their come-back-to ability! Even if we have to re-read them! Rock of Ages, for example, does that for me, in its “be of sin the double cure” line. And, when or if something like a theologically dense (hopefully, also correct!) hymn gets memorized, all the better! The whole church can vouchsafe for memorizing, say, Romans or as much of it as we can chip away at getting memorized, and the benefit of that!

  7. Good stuff. I love the theologically rich songs and hymns for the deep truths and the testimonies in the lyrics. But although I typically don’t write “Worship Music” as in the genre (all music in my opinion should be worshipful to some extent), I myself do prefer worship songs to be A. At least consistent with good theology and B. Seasoned with deep truths (be it about Love, Truth, etc… Too much seasoning tends to ruin the broth in a sense. Music isn’t really theology, but is more of an art while theology is more of a science. More to say about this but will stop here.

  8. Patty Redwood June 1, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    Well, I’m glad you managed to touch on the actual issue of singing Theologically “deep” worship songs. I do find alot of contemporary christian music to be shallow, both in content and sincerity. Unfortunately, the truly good contemporary songs are usually the ones without so much fanfare, little if any media coverage on the radio, and sung by people who actually have a ministry as opposed to those leaders hoping for a music contract, or at least a strong following on the interest.

    Still, the point of a hymn is to tell a story – “the” story – of the gospel. The fact that it’s too much information speaks to the attention span of a generation, not the intention of a time when people who sang these songs, also “read” the bible, and “listened” to the Pastor. Sure, this truth may not have applied to the whole congregation, but clearly it was true enough that music from people like Crosby was in great demand at the time, and not just in her hometown. Most of these people knew what was being sung about, because they weren’t distracted by the world. It would seem that given the level of distractions in the world today, people here might do well to focus a bit more on music with “spiritual meat” in it.

    The relationship between the Pastor and the worship leader should always be strong in communication and accountability when it comes to music in the church. A worship leader should know enough about music and the needs of the Pastor, so that when he tells or sends a copy of his sermon outline to him, he can pull up the songs that best reflect that outline, understanding the sermon will-in and of itself- unpack the hymn/songs being sung. When those sungs are sent to the Pastor to approve – and you’d be surprised how many worship leaders still aren’t required to send their song list in for approval – that Pastor reads (should, anyway)every single word of each song.
    When it’s practiced this way, the Pastor usually finds a passage in the hymn to share either before or after, as a footnote for the congregation to take with them.

    Here’s my point: Hymns are not too deep. It’s us – the 20th and 21st century Christian who has grown woefully shallow. Oh, one more thing: any missionary will tell you that when working in areas where their lives are on the line – yeah, me – we can’t hold on to songs where the chorus is the main thing of song. “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” may work when in a traffic jam, but I promise you, in Kenya, when standing in the face of someone who does not understand your language and views your intention as an evil influence,- not so much. It is during those times, when the rubber meets the road, and all that’s left you is your faith that we want to be able to recall in verse and in song the reason why we are in a particular situation. That was and continues to be the reason for hymns – To guard our minds and hearts when coming up against the enemy.

    Real or imagined, when most of those hymns were written, they recognized the bible as speaking to those dangers, and wrote those songs as a weapon against them. Who are we to assume that those dangers are no longer a concern? Oh, just because it’s 2012, and the danger seems to be outside our country? I would rethink that, for sure.
    Heaven help the Christian who has to rely on the kind of music churned out today in order to get by in a ‘real’ situation, where the thin line life and death is more than an accident, but a great potential for those of us who walk as strangers in countries of unimaginable danger. That’s when “our” faith kicks in, using every tool available to us to keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ. Music is one of those tools. Hymns are high on the list of what we use the most to encourage, support and defend those of us who know its true value on the missionary field. Voice of the Martyrs is a good read of those who died with a hymn on their lips, and some of them were only 20 years of age.
    And the truth is, in the United States, people could use a bit more spiritual ammunition, too.

  9. Brian Dougherty August 14, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    I think it’s really funny that someone suggested revamping the Wesley tune. Kind of missing the point about too many theological ideas present in the song. Changing the style won’t help that bro!! I totally agree and think that we should press our pastors to do the same with their sermons!! I can’t take any more CS Lewis quotes either. The songs are fine!!!! Give it a rest-just sing the somgs already!!! Too many critics… Not enough worshippers

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