I’ve reached that age when the question I get most frequently is some form of, “So, what have you learned after all these years?”
I haven’t stopped learning. But this year, I thought I’d share some of the encouraging and not so encouraging trends I’m seeing in the church when it comes to music. By “trends” I mean what many churches today either think or practice.
These observations obviously don’t apply to every church. My hope is that they’ll contribute to leading worship in song in a way that is driven more by faithfulness than fads.
Better and More Creative Words, Not As Much of the Word
I probably review a new worship album every couple weeks. Lyrics are getting better. They’re more thoughtful. More creative. More insightful. It doesn’t seem, though, that lyrics overall are more consciously driven, shaped, and informed by the Word of God. Nor do I always get the impression when people are leading that they’re dependent on the power and authority of God’s Word rather than the musical atmosphere they create (Ps. 19:7-9; 1 Thess. 2:13). Last year, I was encouraged to come across a YouTube video of an entire psalm being read passionately and thoughtfully before a song. But that tends to be the exception, not the rule. It’s still a good idea for leaders to have their Bibles with them when they lead and to actually read from them. It provides doctrinal fuel for our emotional fire and makes it clear where our authority comes from.
More Songs about God’s Love, Not As As Many About God’s Holiness
We’ve seen an outpouring of songs that remind us of God’s fatherly love, his passion for us, and that his love will never fail. We can never hear it enough. My pastor, CJ Mahaney, pointed out in a recent sermon that the most repeated phrase in the Bible is, “Your steadfast love endures forever.” But what makes God’s love so amazing is understanding how it was demonstrated and why we don’t deserve it. Actually, God’s love isn’t just underserved. It’s ill-deserved – the exact opposite of what we’d expect, given his blazing perfection and our sinfulness. But Jesus took our sins upon himself at the cross and took our punishment for every sin we would ever commit (2 Cor. 5:21; Col. 2:13-15). That’s why we can now know and experience God’s love. The church needs more songs that help us acknowledge how often we still go astray and how God’s love not only accepts us in Christ; it transforms us.
Lights Are Coming On and the Lights Are Still Out
It’s been refreshing to see musical leaders acknowledge their weaknesses, mistakes, even sins. Despite the temptations of self-promotion on social media, we’re becoming more aware there are no great worship leaders; just a great Savior who is worthy of all our affection and adoration. But common practices like turning down the lights in the congregation and over-producing can fight against that realization. The distance between the famous and the average continues to widen every time we value performance over participation, spectating over singing, celebrities over servants, and great concerts over gospel community. And those still seem to be prevalent problems.
Technology Serves us More Than Ever and Rules Us More Than Ever
Instant song access. Transposable charts. Instrumental tracks that fill out the sound of the band. Thousands of lyrics and Bible verses available at a moment’s notice. Ableton Live. Digital sound and lighting boards. Seamless communication systems. Wireless monitors, and more. Advances in technology serve us in innumerable ways. But with increased use comes increased dependence. We invest dozens of hours on technical details rather than theological precision or simply serving in other concrete ways. We tend to think our effectiveness is due more to our creativity and production skills than the faithful and compelling proclamation of the gospel. More than one leader has confessed they don’t use certain songs because instrumental tracks aren’t available. When technology overrules our theology or our pastoral inclinations, it stops being a servant and becomes an idol.
More Songs Than Any Time in History But It Can Be Hard to Tell
A majority of churches have moved on from curated hymnals and now can access thousands of songs on the world wide web – immediately. That kind of availability was science fiction just 25 years ago. That means we have no reason to lead our churches in songs that fail to feed them doctrinally and move them emotionally. But from what I’ve observed, many of us still tend to sing songs because they’re popular, easy to pick up, or at the top of the CCLI charts. We choose songs we like and songs that make us feel good. But a great song that has immediate appeal isn’t always a song that says exactly what my church needs to express on any given Sunday. Our engagement with God in song necessitates a broader vocabulary than the most popular songs can provide. Are we taking the time to find and use them?
Why I’m Encouraged
In the midst of these blessings and concerns, two things deeply encourage me.
First, an ever-expanding number of leaders throughout the world are continuing to press in to God’s Word to discover and apply what God says about the use of music in the church. People like Keith & Kristyn Getty, Matt Boswell, EMU Music, and others are contributing to that process, and thousands of unknown leaders faithfully model it every week.
Second, God is absolutely committed to glorifying his name in and through his people. He will be glorified in his bride. He uses our weakness, misguidedness, and excesses to point our hearts to his merciful, awe-inspiring, holy glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). The knowledge of his glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab. 2;14).
In 2018, may we give ourselves more consistently and passionately to that end.