“We are humankind, not stones.” – John Calvin
Humans are made in the image of God who Himself has emotions, and few things capture our experiences and emotions like songs. Everyone has songs that remind us of particular times, places, events, experiences, and people. Some are good, some are bad. Some helped us through a hard time and others helped capture what it was we were actually feeling. Some gave us a way to celebrate and others a way to mourn. The psalmists capture the entire breadth of human experience in Scripture’s song book. And these multi-faceted songs, written by multi-faceted people, from multi-faceted perspectives were used by the people of God in worship.
They corporately celebrated. They corporately mourned and questioned. The corporately remembered.
David engaged with God, and God engaged with him, in real time, in the midst of his anxiety (Psalm 131). David poured out his heart to God and remembered and looked to better days in the midst of His despair (Psalm 42-43). David engaged God with brutal honestly and contrition, and begged God for mercy amidst his sin (Psalm 32, 51). The psalmist cried out for God’s justice amidst abuse and oppression (Psalm 10). David rejoiced in God’s protection, presence, and real time interaction with him (Psalm 16, 27). The sons of Korah cried out in desperation, wondering where God was and why darkness was a closer friend than God (Psalm 88). God’s people delighted in the mighty works of God to deliver them in the past to boost their confidence for what is to come (Psalm 107).
The Kaleidoscope of a Congregation
Every single time the people of God gather there are a kaleidoscope of experiences and emotions represented. People walking through miscarriage, adultery, adoption, graduations, depression, addiction, pornography, new marriages, promotions, etc. are all standing in front of you every single time you set foot on stage to lead worship, and they need to know and experience God. Worship leaders have the unique opportunity to put words in the mouths of the congregation that give voice to the full depth of human experience, and how God meets them in the midst of it.
There are songs that celebrating people need to sing. Songs that speak of the God who provides for our needs, who gives us victory, who gladdens our hearts with good gifts and with the gift of His presence. Celebrating people, who need to rejoice because God has given them freedom from that sin that has afflicted them for years. This is a good and right thing.
There are songs that doubting and despairing people need to sing. They need to sing about the valleys, the storms, the sufferings of life and how Jesus Himself can empathize with our weakness and has borne our sorrows and grief. They need to engage their heartache and be honest with God about it. They need others to sing over them when they can’t find the strength to sing. They need to have people sit in the dirt with them and not just quote Romans 8 to them. This is a good and right thing.
So, if this is true, how do we know what songs to choose to sing on a Sunday?
The Necessity of Biblical Literacy
In order to lead your people well, you must dig deeply into the Word to see all of the ways that God engages with happy, hurting, struggling, and celebrating people. What part of His character is on display amidst the struggles of people? By the words you say and the songs you sing, you can point people to the character of the God they need.
Always be on the lookout for songs with good, biblical lyrics. Songs that point to the character of God, the truthfulness and reliability of the His word, the grace of Jesus, the hope of the new creation and the Holy Spirit empowering us to keep going in the meantime.
What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that you need every song to sound like Grudem wrote Systematic Theology in iambic pentameter. Good doctrine is essential, but not all people resonate with songs that sound like a term paper. We should search for songs with deep theology, that communicate it in a way that is deeply comprehensible, and that will connect to our particular congregations, both cognitively and emotionally.
Theologically right lyrics that our people do not understand or are presented to them in a cold, aesthetically unpleasant way, serve to inform the mind, but do not engage the heart. This can create dispassionate, robotic, singing. On the other hand, aesthetic beauty that communicates things that are unclear at best, or untrue at worst, engage the heart but lead away from what is true about God. We want our songs to communicate what is true, good and beautiful, in a way that is honest (true), good, and beautiful.
We Must Know Our People
The congregation to which I belong is likely in a different place in terms of maturity, needs, challenges, pains, ethnicity, socioeconomics, education, etc. compared to yours, at least in terms of the emphasis or prominence of a particular need or demographic. Perhaps your church is walking through a season like mine did several years ago, where we had multiple families experience miscarriages within a few short weeks. There was a sense of mourning that marked us for a time, and we sang songs that reflected that.
Perhaps your church is in a season where there is pronounced maturity and growth, where people are experiencing victory that they have long prayed for. Sing songs that reflect that.
But in order to know what songs to sing, you must know your people. Take them to coffee, buy them a meal, invite them to your home, serve your community with them, visit them in the hospital, counsel them. Make an intentional point to spend meaningful time with the people God has called you to love and serve.
Worship leader, you have a chance to deeply and meaningfully minister to your people and allow them the opportunity to minister to one another as they "teach and admonish one another by singing". (Col. 3:16) Do the songs that you sing reflect and help people amidst the seasons of life they find themselves in? Would the songs that you choose to sing be a balm to the heart of the 35-year-old, same-sex attracted women who feels isolated, alone, and unseen? Would the songs you sing encourage the alcoholic in your church who "fell off the wagon" on Wednesday? Would the songs you sing give voice to the joys of new parents?
Maybe you won’t engage with all of these issues every week in the songs you sing, but we do well to engage them often. The psalmists captured the complexities of the human experience while still making their songs about God. We can too, as we seek to know the Scriptures, know our people, and point them to Jesus who knows how scary it is to be like us, but triumphed over all that plagues us, to give us hope.
Are these things that you consider as you plan? The cold communication of doctrine is insufficient, as is the warm and fuzzies of beautiful music that lack theological depth. We, as people with emotions and with minds, need to be engaged on these levels.
Questions for Reflection
- Which are you more prone to overemphasize, accurate lyric or aesthetic presentation? Why do you think that is?
- What steps will you take to move towards moving toward having both deep theology and aesthetic beauty?
- Do you have a negative evaluation of a theological stream or church near you because they emphasize something different then you? What good can you look for in what they do and seek to apply some of it to your ministry?