I received this question from Evers:
I’ve at times received well-intentioned
“suggestions” from folks who’ve enjoyed one song or another while visiting other churches (perhaps on vacation). While occasionally these are nice songs, I’ve often felt that many of the songs simply lack Biblical substance but are musically very catchy…How might you respond to members of a congregation (particularly small churches) who enthusiastically ask for you to play songs that you otherwise feel lacking in substance, or are perhaps even overly man-centered and poorly written?
If you think God cares about what we sing in the church, then you’ll eventually face this problem.
First, check your heart. I know this can sound redundant, but I have too much indwelling sin still hanging around to bypass a heart-check. I’m not the ultimate authority on worship songs, and shouldn’t view myself as the “pontiff of praise,” as one of my friends mockingly referred to me at a conference. I’ve often assumed that someone suggesting a song means they’re unsatisfied with the songs we’ve been doing. That’s sinful judgment. Whatever my response, I want to speak graciously, humbly, and clearly.
Second, thank them for taking the time to suggest a song to sing. It’s great when people in the congregation actually care enough to offer an opinion. They’ve apparently encountered God in some way while singing a song, and they want others to have the same opportunity.
Third, ask the person what they liked about the song. It may be that a particular line addressed a specific situation they’re going through. The song might have have given them words to express what was in their heart. It’s possible that they were unaware of a problematic line or a general lack of content. They also might have just enjoyed the sound of the band or the catchiness of the melody. We don’t know unless we ask.
If I haven’t heard the song, I’d get a copy and listen to it, and tell them I’d get back to them. It might be good to get some other opinions as well. Once I know the song, I’d commend what I can about it. Then I’d attempt to explain why I don’t think it would be a good choice for us (unless my thoughts had changed). I try not to say these kinds of things hesitantly or apologetically. I want to focus on goals we agree on. We both want to see God glorified, Jesus Christ exalted, and God’s people affected with his splendor and majesty. If I don’t think a particular song does that well, I need to explain why. I don’t want to simply dismiss a song because “I don’t like it.” There have been numerous songs I don’t particularly like that God has used to minister to people. However, just because a song is popular doesn’t mean it’s good or the best song for us to use (more thoughts on this).
Let me give you a real-life example, using the song Above All, by Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc. Great song overall, but when asked to do it, I’ve said:
There are a number of things about this song I really like. The melody is enjoyable to sing and easy to remember. It does a great job emphasizing God’s sovereign rule over all, and focusing on the sacrifice of Christ. The poetic images are engaging and the harmonic progression is creative. But two parts bother me, both near the end of the song. The first is the line “you took the fall.” It seems like an understated way of describing what Jesus did. Not wrong, but not the best. The other problem is the line, “and thought of me above all.” I have no question that Jesus loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20). But he didn’t think of me “above all.” Jesus went to the cross to satisfy God’s righteous judgment against a sinful humanity. He thought of his Father’s holiness, justice, and glory above all. It may seem like a theological nuance, but it’s the difference between our faith being man-centered and God-centered. I don’t think that’s what the writers intended, but I think it could cause some confusion in people’s minds. Besides, I think we have other songs that better articulate Jesus died for because he loved us and for his Father’s glory. But, thanks for suggesting it, and please let me know if you have any other thoughts!
My point in using Above All isn’t to persuade you of my viewpoint, but to give you an idea of how I might think through this issue. Other elements that might cause me to shy away from using a song include choruses that don’t say much but are sung repeatedly, lack of clarity, lack of originality in music or lyric (the church shouldn’t have to sing dull songs), or content that seems scattered. At times, I’ve changed my mind on using a particular song (like Enough by Chris Tomlin), because it seemed appropriate to use it in a specific context.
I’m sure I’ll make some wrong decisions in choosing what songs we shouldn’t sing. But if my goal is always to sing songs that exalt God’s glory in Christ in people’s hearts and minds in the clearest and best ways, I don’t think I’ll ever have any regrets.
This song has been translated into Spanish, sung by many people.
The last line “you thought of me above all” has been translated “You did all this, all for love.”
A much richer theological statement if you ask me.
I’m curious, what had been your difficulty with Tomlin’s “Enough”, and what changed? Not having it in front of me, I’m having trouble thinking of anything problematic in that lyric.
I fully agree with carefully thinking through the songs that we sing at church. But isn’t there a point where we can get to picky. If a song is mostly good but may have one thing that’s not just perfectly just right (like your example of Above All), does that mean it doesn’t have value? Does it have to be perfect? God certainly uses us when we aren’t perfect. Do you apply this same standard to scripture readings? There are certainly passages in the Bible that have parts that are difficult or don’t seem to portray just the perfect picture – are they inelligeble for use in worship too?
We need to have standards – yes.
We need to be aware that some people might be blessed by things that others are not. As worship leaders we need to help everyone in the congregation worship. That might mean that not every song is perfectly performed or have an exactly perfect theological statement of beliefs.
I love this blog. If you can, I would love it if you gave “song reviews” once in a while. I have thought many times about Above All and the things I would change, but I would also love seeing your insight into songs you find most helpful for leading worship. If you plate is too full for this, it will suffice for me to say that I am incredibly thankful for your thoughtfulness in worship and I am anxiously anticipating your book.
Bob, I appreciate your comments here–especially the way you model a gracious but solid response in your “Above All” example. Though in his original question Evers mentions only those who have heard songs while visiting other churches, I think there is another element to consider in this discussion. Since worship music is such a huge industry right now, many in our congregations are consuming lots of it–meaning that they are buying worship CDs and listening to them at home, at work, and in the car. While I have no problem with that, in my experience many churchgoers see the worship music industry almost as an ecclesiastical authority that should determine the worship diet of the Church. I doubt anyone would express it in those terms, but I do think that people tend to assume that churches should be keeping up with the worship “hits” (as you discussed a few weeks ago). I think there is also a general assumption that, if a church consistently incorporates a large percentage of the current worship top 40 into its corporate worship times, it is a church that cares more about worship.
What I’m getting at is this: I get the sense that folks in our congregations increasingly tend to accept the pastoral authority of the Christian media industry (artists, record label executives, publishers, and authors) more than they trust the pastoral care of their own pastors. That, I think, is why frequently such requests for popular worship hits are delivered in such an indignant tone, as if we as worship leaders are delinquent in our pastoral duties for not following the worship industry’s cues in choosing our church’s worship diet. I’d be interested to know what other WorshipMatters readers think about this.
You asked, “If a song is mostly good but may have one thing that’s not just perfectly just right (like your example of Above All), does that mean it doesn’t have value? Does it have to be perfect?”
Thanks for the question. No, we aren’t looking for “perfect” songs. But we have the responsibility to look for songs that won’t confuse people, won’t potentially lead them astray doctrinally, and that magnify the greatness of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. With all the songs that are available to us, our standard for using a song has to be higher than “it ministered to someone.” I’m sure that people are affected by many songs that I might choose not to do. But my goal is to use songs that have the greatest potential for helping every person sing with deep emotion rooted in a biblical view of the Savior.
An important aspect in all of this is skilled leadership. I’ve seen leaders make an otherwise average song more effective by adding or directing our attention to things that are right in a particular song.
I think we can be too picky at times when we don’t allow for poetic license or when we expect every song to read like systematic theology. That being said, when we don’t understand or disagree with some part of a song, or think the music is ineffective, there’s no reason to do it. There are plenty of other songs available to us.
When I first heard “Enough” I felt it expressed God’s greatness in terms of my capacity. “All of you is more than enough for all of me.” That’s true, but he’s infinitely more than what I even know I need. I’m sensitive to songs that can unintentionally diminish God’s greatness by describing it in terms of what we can handle, take in, or desire. We’re not the standard of God’s greatness and glory – He is. another example is, “No one else will do.” It can almost sound like I’m making a choice about who I’m going to worship, and I haven’t found anyone better than God. I know that’s not what the author intends, but again, the songs we sing teach people how to speak to and think about God. After thinking more about Enough, though, and considering the verses (“more awesome than I know”), I changed my mind. The song works especially well for us after a message on desiring God or seeking him above all other things.
Hope that’s helpful.
“I get the sense that folks in our congregations increasingly tend to accept the pastoral authority of the Christian media industry (artists, record label executives, publishers, and authors) more than they trust the pastoral care of their own pastors.”
Brilliant point. Couldn’t agree more.
I have also thought the same things about Above All. But, in responding to others regarding worship, I have to admit I do not respond in love and humility – which Eph 4 says is the first trait of walking worthy of our calling.
Very well said. Thanks for the great blog!
Hi Bob, once again a truly insightful article, at a time when I was beginning to feel alone. I know many have mentioned ‘Above all’, and I truly see both points of view, which as I think you indicated with ‘Enough’, doesn’t totally exclude it from my songlist, but makes me stop and think some more before I add it.
I am particularly troubled by the chorus of one song Great music! Verses – Excellent! Chorus – What are we saying?? “Above all else, give me yourself”. Well He did! Or did I miss something in what the songwriter is saying. Well, I looked and looked, and I still don’t get it. Yet we expect the church to sing it?
Lastly, I’ve long held the opinion that particularly in music, the church is following the world! We are making idols of worship leaders and songwriters. Sure, I enjoy the style of a particular worship leader, and they may minister to me on various CD’s. I enjoy particular songwriters too. But dare I say, in fear of being accused of heresy, even among the ‘top’ artists, not all of their songs are necessarily that good. Just because it was written by “so-and-so”, doesn’t immediately qualify it for next Sunday’s songlist. We have to be careful, listen to it and weigh it up prayerfully, make sure that it measures up. I have written songs where I have cut corners, and it shows!! I have also found the same among popular songwriters. We have to be truthfully discerning in choosing our worship songs. He [God] alone is worthy of our worship, and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth.
Thanks for this excellent advice, Bob. My first reaction is usually toward sinful pride and defending my repertoire, so “check your heart” is advice I can’t hear enough.
I had such an interesting first reaction to that song “Above All” when I heard it visiting another church (where I often hear good songs). I turned to my wife during the chorus and smiled my “we can use this one” smile and then came to that last line. Wow, I thought, we can’t sing this!
Another worship leader introduced it at our church and then we discussed our problems with it (I know, wrong order). We tried an alternative ending that worked, only to decide later that it would be a copyright infringement. So now we don’t use the song.
I hope we learned a lot from that process and I appreciate your gracious and pastoral advice in how to steer the conversation with a church member. I will try to take it to heart!
Again, thanks for a great blog! Interesting that you used the song “Above All” as an example. Several people in our congregation wanted us to sing that song, but I felt just as uncomfortable with the lyrics as you. Our solution was to change the lyrics (for example, the last line now reads “and you rose again, above all”). Our understanding via CCLI is that this isn’t copyright infringement at all.
The situation seemed to provide us with a great opportunity to discuss the importance of lyrics, and seemed to help our entire congregation to a greater appreciation of God’s love.
Thanks for such a thoughtful response to my question!
I wanted to provide some information regarding Bob’s question above, and John’s info regarding song editing. The CCLI website indicates that this is actually contrary to the terms of the license:
The following activities are prohibited under the terms of the license agreement: altering or changing the lyrics, melody or fundamental character of any song covered under the Church Copyright License.
For my part, I think it’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as a “sacred song” — at least, apart from inspired Scripture itself. If a song can’t be sung with clear conscience without modification that requires breaking the law — which should affect our consciences — then it seems to be it would be better to skip the song altogether, and find others that express comparable truths comparably with no such concerns.
There have been several centuries of excellent hymns that we tend to skim over in favor of more “accessible” contemporary music. I’d highly recommend, for example, the Trinity Hymnal as a source for rich, Biblically thought through hymns. One of my favorites, “How Sweet and Awesome [Awful] Is the Place,” was discovered there and in few other modern hymnals.
Thanks for a great discussion. The ending we have used for “Above All” is:
“You paid the price in sacrifice
once and for all.”
Evers, I completely agree that it would probably be wiser to skip the song altogether if it has problematic lyrics. I also completely agree that there is no shortage of great lyrics for Christian worship, if we are willing to move beyond what big media corporations are selling us.
Why does the decision to omit a popular song seem so extreme and drastic to us? Is it because we feel the pressure to mirror what is happening on the top 10 wall at our local Christian bookstore? Are our worship bands becoming top 40 bands that specialize in the “worship” genre?
I think many have frankly lost perspective on the place of music in the overall life of the church. What is a wonderful gift from God to his church to honor him, has instead because the object of worship.
As for the place of popularity in worship music, I commend you to this post from Tim Challies:
He quotes, among other things, a satire on modern worship songs, which fittingly includes the following lyrics:
I’ll never be the same
Holy holy worthy worthy
something something something something
That rhymes with Jesus’ name
Its so interesting that you addressed this particular song here. We did it this past Sunday in church, and, as usual, I found myself uncomfortable with the last line. In seeking to be humble and submitted to the leadership of our worship leader, I thought of two scriptures that enabled me to sing the line without judging it: John 3:16 and Luke 23:34. Perhaps its a bit of a stretch, but it was how I found the grace to let go of my discomfort in favor of submission and humility.
My question for you is this: how best would you suggest handling it when you are not the worship leader, but you’re playing on the worship team when a song like this (which you have convictions about) is on the song list? PLUS, you are a woman, the leader is a man, and you’re trying to be sensitive to the directive not to give doctrinal or theological instruction? HELP! :-)
Don’t let your gender ever keep you from asking theological questions about a song you’re singing! That’s completely different from teaching and leading the church corporately. I’d express my concerns and ask the leader if there’s another way the song could be understood. If you do that humbly, which it sounds like you would, I think both of you will be helped in the process.
I agree that if a song is
That said, I shall be deemed another “pontiff” as I do not allow our congregation to sing Lord I Lift Your Name on High without modification.
To show the Way is not an accurate statement. It could easily imply a moral atonement or that Jesus was an enlightened guru who was the pioneer of a new way. He IS the Way. I know for a fact that the author did NOT have that intent and believes in substitutionary atonement, but as I serve in a Church with a large group of people coming from Buddhism, Atheism, etc. I cannot make the assumption that they will know that the author intended it. We had changed the line to “You are the Way” but you just informed me this is illegal. Guess we’ll just have to flush it and Brewster’s version was sooo nice.
just a thought …
would it be possible to approach the authors (or is it writers) of some of these ‘questionable’ songs and ask them to consider rewriting them?
or is that too rude? (not being a songwriter myself i don’t know the protocol on this).
but it does seem to me that if so many people have issues with one particular song that can be ‘fixed’ quite easily, why not make some suggestions?
Often when a church learns a song, it’s already been recorded. So to ask them to change it then might cause some problems. But, other times, people give permission to change lyrics to a song for local use. Never hurts to ask.