A few months ago I was talking with Jonathan Jackson, a member of Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville who has also led worship in song on a few Sundays this past year. He was telling me how he was noticing a difference in how he approached leading and that the songs we sang were a large part of that. I asked him to write up a few thoughts about what he had been experiencing. He wrote:
As a church culture I believe we have strayed away from singing songs that we deem “wordy” or “too deep” and have settled for songs that have one or two basic ideas about who God is or what He has done for us. We go for an experience that is much closer to mysticism than true Biblical worship.
My heart is prone to wander towards an experience and a feeling. So when I primarily lead songs that only speak of my feelings about God and talk about God in vague and culturally appealing metaphors I tend to be drawn inward. But when I choose songs that focus on proclaiming who God is as revealed in scripture, I can trust that my emotions and the emotions of those that I am leading will flow outward as a response to who God is and what He has done.
As a worship leader, I have found it much easier to “disappear” on stage when singing songs that go deeper than just expressing my feelings about God. Leading songs such as “All I Have Is Christ” and “Before The Throne of God Above” are effortless because the church is not focused on my performance as a musician but instead are drawn in to the truths that they are singing. What pours out from their hearts are emotions and feelings that are being affected by hearing and proclaiming God’s Word. Songs that dive into deep theological truths and the mystery of the Gospel will stir and move the heart and churches that sing these songs will be affected by the truth of the Gospel regardless of age, education and cultural background.
Leading worship at Sovereign Grace and singing these songs have truly transformed my understanding of the power of singing songs that are rich with truth. When these songs are sung, I am no longer looking to deliver a “rock star” performance to help people feel and emote to songs that may be popular but are weak in Biblical content. I’m looking to deliver songs that lead themselves because of the depth of Biblical truth that they contain and that point people to a glorious and risen Savior.
Looking for “songs that lead themselves” is a great goal. Those kinds of songs aren’t only musically accessible. They present biblical truth in a way that will capture people’s thoughts, stir their souls, and transform their lives.
The temptation to move people with music more than biblical truth is a temptation every congregational worship leader faces, but especially this time of year. There are plenty of songs we can sing that are long on Christmas feeling and short on gospel clarity (e.g., O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels We Have Heard on High, I Saw Three Ships, Silent Night). It doesn’t mean it’s wrong to sing them. We just want to make sure that we’re aiming to do more than give people warm feelings and pleasant Christmas experiences. Sing songs “that lead themselves” like Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and Joy to the World. Take time to explain what it means that Jesus was “born to give them second birth,” and that, “He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.” Work in non-seasonal songs like In Christ Alone that reference the incarnation but go on to clearly explain why Jesus was born in the first place!
In other words, sing songs that seek to give people truth experiences. Because the truth is amazing. Draw our attention and affections to the living Word who came as a baby to redeem us but who will one day return as the triumphant King to reign forever and ever.
Seek to dazzle people not with music, but with the glory of Jesus Christ.