[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:
- “Arise, My Soul, Arise” by Charles Wesley (traditional hymn)
- “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.