Punctuation Pleas

Warning: Somebody’s fixin’ to get on a soapbox here…

When most people talk about “worship wars”, they’re talking about differences over the genre or style of music used in a corporate worship service. Sometimes the argument is fixated around whether a church uses printed music (e.g., hymnals and songbooks) or projects lyrics onto a screen. But what really gets my goat is a lack of proper punctuation in the lyrics of church music!

While there are many reasons why I might personally prefer to hold a hymnal when I sing, I really have no qualms at all about lyric projection. Punctuation, however, is often a problem whether lyrics are printed or projected.

Why am I such a punctuation snob?

One of the primary reasons that we sing songs corporately during our worship services is to “teach one another” (Colossians 3:16). In order to best accomplish this mandate, we need to be certain that we comprehend what it is we are singing! Plain and simple: Proper punctuation makes it easier to make sense of what we are saying as we sing.

* At this point it is worth pointing out that, yes, I am quite aware of the irony of making this argument when the entire Bible was written in languages that did not use any punctuation at all. Some modern innovations are for our benefit, though, so stick with me!

As an example, let’s use the Ben Fielding & Reuben Morgan song Mighty to Save, currently listed as the #1 most commonly used song in American churches over the last six months. Here is the bridge, printed as it most commonly is without punctuation:

Shine your light
And let the whole world see
We’re singing for the glory
Of the risen King Jesus
Shine your light
And let the whole world see
We’re singing for the glory
Of the risen King

Without getting into the separate issues relating to the merits of singing repetitive songs, how does the lack of punctuation affect this bridge? Well, for one, the issue of who is being addressed might be ambiguous, particularly when lyrics are often projected one line at a time, making it difficult to connect complete thoughts. This is compounded by the fact that in this song the verses seem to switch between speaking “about” and speaking “to” Christ. So we could punctuate this bridge a couple different ways. For instance,

We’re singing for the glory of the risen King: Jesus. Shine your light…

In this instance, we are instructing one another to shine a light for the world, and identifying the King about whom we are singing.

We’re singing for the glory of the risen King. Jesus, shine your light…

In this instance, we are asking Jesus to shine a light to let the whole world see. The phrasing and musical structure of the bridge doesn’t give us much help in determining which it should be, and it could probably be interpreted either way and still make sense.

Admittedly, this particular example is not going to make any earth-shattering differences in someone’s theology or understanding of the gospel. But a lack of punctuation that leaves ambiguity in the meaning of the lyrics of our songs is probably not a habit that lends itself to viewing the singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs as an essential portion of the teaching ministry of the Church. Sometimes, lack of punctuation makes a much bigger difference.

For example, one of our recent church services included the hymn “Jesus Loves Me”. Seems pretty innocuous, right? Not so! The lack of punctuation in one of the lesser-known verses leaves open two possible interpretations that are on opposite sides of one of the largest theological divides in the history of Christianity!

Here is how the lyric was projected onto the screen:

If I love him when I die
He will take me home on high

Comma placement makes all the difference! How do we interpret this? It could be:

If I love him, when I die he will take me home on high. (Calvinist)

Or,

If I love him when I die, he will take me home on high. (Arminian)

I told you this would get serious! Is your mind blown yet? Let me share one last example of why I crave punctuation during corporate worship.

Punctuation is often used in poetry and hymns to emphasize something which the writer wants to be certain to communicate to the reader. Often, this may be the most important teaching moment of the entire work! Here is a lyric from one of my favorite hymns of all time, without punctuation:

My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord praise the Lord oh my soul

Written this way — or worse, projected just one line at a time — this verse becomes one big run-on sentence that we tend to sing out of reflex without fully grasping what Horatio Spafford was saying. With the punctuation added, though, the full weight of glory in Christ’s atonement for sin comes to bear on my soul as the words achieve their desired impact. Spafford was so overcome by God’s grace that he could barely even spit the words out! See what a difference it makes when read this way:

My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin — not in part but the whole —
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Now THAT is what I’m talkin’ about!

Maybe I’ve made too much of an issue of this. This entire post has been at least halfway tongue-in-cheek. In the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal, and certainly not a hill I’m going to die on. I just wanted to take the opportunity to publicize this request on the World Wide Web:

Punctuation, please!

/soapbox

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