What’s Up With All the Roaring?

African Lion Roaring Animal Model

Maybe it’s just me, but every so often, it seems like a particular word or phrase becomes “trendy” in contemporary Christian worship music. For instance, 10-15 years ago, it was variations on the phrase “wings like eagles”(see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for examples of chart topping songs that came out between about 2001 and 2008). Don’t get me wrong… most of those are great songs that I’ve sung and led many times, and there’s nothing wrong with the phrase “wings like eagles”. It’s a biblical phrase, and we should sing it! But by 2008 I was pretty much ready for a break from feeling like I sang it all the time.

Today, I’m getting the same vibe from the words “roar” and “roaring.” It’s everywhere right now! Is it a biblical word? Absolutely.

So I get it… there’s a lot of roaring in the Bible, and there’s nothing at all wrong with using that term in our worship music. But until recently, that wasn’t a word I sang very often. Some notable exceptions being The Lamb is a Lion by Michael Card (1988); Shout to the Lord by Hillsong (1994); Holy Roar by Christy Nockels/Passion (1996); and She Must and Shall Go Free by Derek Webb (2002).

But lately, there’s been a lot more roaring on the radio and in our sanctuaries. It seems the trend began around 2009 with Daniel Bashta’s song Like a Lion:

The song’s popularity really began to take off when David Crowder covered the song during the 2010 Passion Conference (an annual trend-setting event). Two years later, it was covered by the Newsboys, which is the version that hit the radio ad nauseum, especially after the movie God’s Not Dead came out.

In 2012, Hillsong carried the growing “roaring” trend to the other end of the world with their song Glorious Ruins:

Once Hillsong and Passion have both used a phrase with great success, you can bet it starts working its way into more and more new songs! Sure enough, Chris Tomlin began roaring that same year with White Flag (though he also had a preliminary roar back in 2006 with Let God Arise). By 2014, Tomlin was all in with The Roar:

Here’s who else got in on the action in recent years:

I Am Yours, Lauren Daigle (2014)

Praise the King, Corey Voss (2014)

O Praise the Name, Hillsong (2015)

Jesus, Chris Tomlin (2016); see also All Yours from the same album

Lion and the Lamb, Bethel/Leeland (2016); also covered by Big Daddy Weave

What a Beautiful Name, Hillsong (2016); some lesser known roaring songs also by Hillsong: End of Days (2013); Love on the Line (2015); Prince of Peace (2015)

None of this is criticism, by the way, just observation. Again, most of these are good songs (and the blame doesn’t lie with the word “roar” in the ones that aren’t). And since I’m not a song writer, I’m not really in a position to criticize anyway. But as a lover of language and variety, I do sort of hope we’ll be coming out of this “roaring” phase soon…

Teaching Sound Theology

keithatpiano

A few weeks ago I bookmarked an article to read, and finally got to it this afternoon. In “Sound Theology: Teaching Your People Through Music”, Bob Smietana interviews Keith Getty about the importance of congregational singing. I hope you’ll take the time to read through the entire article, but I’d like to highlight just a few things here as well.

First of all, there are few men living whom I admire as much as Keith Getty. His insistence on pairing beautiful, singable melodies with doctrinally rich lyrics has made his music an invaluable resource for today’s churches. And his emphasis on the value of teaching our congregations through music is one I share—which is why I had originally launched my other writing project (which I hope to also resurrect soon!), Systematic Hymnology. I deeply value the work of the Gettys, and commend to you all of their albums, particularly the latest: Facing a Task Unfinished.

It starts with the Bible

In Smietana’s interview, note Getty’s observation that the mandate for instructional singing is biblical. He mentions the song of Moses from Exodus 15, also a particular favorite of mine (one of the song studies on my other blog is based on Aaron Keyes’ modern musical adaptation of this biblical text, which we’ve recently begun singing at FBC Powell). Scripture is full of examples of music being used educationally, and of exhortations to sing songs like this.

We have a long way to go

Getty shares an anecdote about Irish hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, who composed a book of Hymns for Children in the mid-19th century, to help children learn the doctrines of the faith. He laments the extent to which modern evangelical churches have lost our patience with songs which eschew musical novelty in exchange for lyrical depth:

You take these hymns, shortened down to five or six verses, and they’d still be considered “unsingable” in many large, modern evangelical churches, because there are too many words. Yet these songs were written for 8-year-olds.

If we’re going to build a generation of people who think deep thoughts about God, who have rich prayer lives, and who are the culture makers of the next generation, we need to be teaching them songs with theological depth.

Isn’t that sad? I’m grateful to serve in a church which celebrates these type of songs, but am simultaneously convicted that I don’t sing enough songs like this, either in church or at home with my own children.

Sing great songs

This can’t be said too often! The Internet is full of articles lamenting the lack of congregational participation in singing in our churches. Everyone seems to have advice on how to correct the problem: Turn the lights down, turn the lights up, find a more dynamic worship leader, grow your choir larger, etc. Yet it seems to me that Keith Getty’s solution—by far the simplest, cheapest suggested remedy, and one which can be immediately implemented in churches of any size and budget—makes the most sense.

When we evaluate our worship services, we must always ask the question, how did our congregation sing? If the answer is, as it seems so often to be, that they did not sing much or at all, we must then ask ourselves whether the songs we sang were great. There are plenty of good songs out there, but as T. David Gordon writes in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (my review), there is no reason to settle for merely good songs when there are so many great songs available to us. And so Getty is right: “Great songs sing well. Bad songs do not. So sing great songs.”

Again, please hop over to Lifeway’s “Facts & Trends” blog to read the full interview here. It’s so good! Just makes me that much more exciting for the upcoming release of Getty’s first book, Sing!: Why and How We Should Worship, which you can pre-order here. (I’ve written asking for an advanced reading copy for review… so hopefully you’ll see a review here ahead of its September release!)

Who Is Like Yahweh? Encountering God in the Songs of Moses

The first song recorded in Scripture is the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, written after the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel. Moses also wrote a second song—this one dictated by God himself—just before the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. These songs give fascinating insight into the character and attributes of God, and have an enduring relevance to the people of God. So enduring, in fact, that Revelation 15 depicts the redeemed singing the Song of Moses in heaven!

I chose these songs as the topic of a paper for my Old Testament survey class. I realize that posting seminary papers is a little out-of-the-ordinary for a blog, but I enjoyed writing this one and thought it might benefit others who have a similar interest in Old Testament worship. If you’d like to check it out, here it is: Who Is Like Yahweh? The God of the Old and New Testaments Revealed in the Songs of Moses. No word yet on what my grade is…

Three of the books I referenced in the paper are particularly excellent, so if you’re interested in learning more about the Old Testament in general or Old Testament songs in particular, these are a great place to start:

Now that this paper (and the rest of my homework for this semester’s classes) is out of the way, I should finally be able to get back to blogging consistently… at least until my next round of classes starts up in June!

Whose Hymns?

Typically, when people use the term “worship wars” they are referring to arguments over the style/genre of music used in worship services.  I, for one, hope that those who have made the declaration in recent years that the worship wars have ended (or at least reached a truce) are correct. Of course I have stylistic preferences of my own, but this has never been a high priority for me in choosing where to worship, or what songs I select when I lead worship. There are much more important considerations! See, for example, these comments from Ed Stetzer and Mike Harland and this blog post by Jason Helopolous.

Today I’m going to let you in on a related question that has me a bit puzzled, because there probably isn’t a “right” answer. If there is, I certainly don’t have it! But here’s the question:

To what extent should the personal beliefs or conduct of a hymn writer weigh into the decision to use a hymn in corporate worship?

In other words, should the personal life of the composer of song be a factor in our evaluation of its appropriateness for worship, or do we simply evaluate the work on its own merits? How much theological unity should we have with those who write the songs we sing? Does conduct matter?

There are two main Scripture passages that I keep going over in my mind as I think about this. The first is Colossians 3:16 — “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The second is Philippians 4:8-9 — “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Here’s what I know for sure: all “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” are not created equal. There are some that are truer, purer, lovelier, and more worthy of commendation than others. I believe there is room for different interpretations of what the standard should be, but this is something worth thinking about. Philippians 4:8 leads me to want to accept or reject songs for corporate worship based on their own merit. Does a hymn fill my mind with the Truth of God? Does it inspire me to worship? Is it beautiful? Then let’s use it.

But in verse 9, Paul follows up his exhortation to think about the excellence of things by telling the Philippians to follow his example. They were to learn how to discern which things were excellent by following a trusted leader. The New Testament writers frequently connect the authority to teach and lead a congregation with the conduct of the leader.

The passage from Colossians 3 identifies corporate singing as a primary component of the teaching ministry of the church. So here’s where the water gets a little murky for me. Who exactly is teaching the congregation when we sing a song? The Holy Spirit, of course, and the song leader. But what about the song writer? Assuming he/she has at least some role in teaching through the lyrics we sing, is there a standard by which we should judge hymn writers before using their music to teach our congregations?

This question has been a little heavier on my mind recently, in light of my recent review of Robert Morris’ book The God I Never Knew. His book contains some blatantly heretical teachings — in addition to the standard charismatic doctrines with which I so strongly disagree — yet our church frequently sings songs written by members of his church’s worship team. I’ve selected many of them myself. Is this a problem? Are we implicitly endorsing the teaching of Gateway Church when we sing songs by Gateway Worship (or other Pentecostal/Charismatic churches like Hillsong and New Life)?

I lean toward saying no. I think by nearly any objective standard, many of their songs (and certainly most of the ones we have used at Stevens Street) are perfectly acceptable. Many of them are simply Scripture songs or tasteful re-arrangements of older hymns. Still, I want to be cautious about relying too much on songs from Charismatic writers, lest their teaching on the areas in which we find agreement lead us to uncritically accept their teaching on the areas in which there are serious differences.

Of course, churches have a long history of incorporating hymns written by those with whom they disagree. It’s not uncommon to see hymns by Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts in the same hymnal, and they had vastly different understandings of salvation. Augustus Toplady (who called John Wesley “the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this Island“) wrote “Rock of Ages” as an explicit condemnation of Arminian theology, yet the hymn is beloved by Wesleyans and Methodists everywhere. Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has even begun appearing in some Catholic hymnals!

So I think it’s relatively safe to say that we don’t hold songwriters to the same standard as we hold elders. We can sing a hymn written by someone we wouldn’t let preach in our church. Perhaps of greater concern, though, are hymn writers who have fallen into sin. Do extramarital affairs, fraud, and other moral failures disqualify the works of hymn writers? Perhaps two recent incidents will illustrate the point.

The hit song “Healer” was written by Michael Guglielmucci, an Assemblies of God pastor in the Hillsong network of churches in Australia. He wrote it as an anthem expressing his faith that God would heal him from cancer. The problem? He never had cancer. (Here’s a news report of the story.) The entire thing was a fraud (like many Pentecostal “healing” ministries), yet many Christians continue to use the song, accepting it despite its author’s dubious intentions in writing it.

The second example is singer/songwriter Steve Fee. His band stopped touring suddenly in 2010 when his four-year affair came to light. Basically, he was involved in sexual immorality for pretty much his entire performing career. What are we to do with the songs written during that period?

Two points from Scripture come to mind. First, Philippians 1:18 — “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul seems to say that it is possible for Christ to be proclaimed and glorified even when the motive behind the proclamation may be only pretense.

The second — and more obvious — point is that the primary author of Scripture’s hymn book was an adulterer and murderer, not to mention his profound failures as a father. Are the situations different?

Both Guglielmucci and Fee, like King David, have expressed repentance for their sins, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of that repentance. (Incidentally, I would be very interested to see one of them write something like the equivalent of Psalm 51; we don’t see many Penitential hymns being written today!) But what are we to do with the songs they wrote in the midst of their sin?

All I can think to do at this point is to examine the songs themselves. This task is relatively simple, at least. Unlike many songs from those with major doctrinal differences, the works of Fee and Guglielmucci don’t have much going for them. I was on record long before learning of Fee’s adultery as finding his songs lyrically trite and musically bland. And while the lyrics to “Healer” may not be wrong per se, I could never use that song in worship knowing what he (and his church) believes and teaches about healing. When Pentecostals use that word, it means something very different from how I use it (and how the Bible uses it), which is enough for me to stay away.

Thankfully, this is one of the benefits of preferring older hymns, which I do. It isn’t at all about stylistic preferences; in fact, most of the arrangements I choose or write when leading worship are stylistically very contemporary, though the lyrics are often centuries old. We have the benefit today of a long history of discernment by Christians who have come before. The songs that last are the ones that have been affirmed over and over again. They are the “best” of their era. All are written by sinners, of course, but these “best” hymns tend to have been written by men (and women) whose faithfulness and purity were evident throughout the course of their lives. There is probably not a direct cause here, but there is certainly a correlation.

There are some hymns being written today that will still be sung in 100 years. Most will be forgotten. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any worth, but I try to intentionally choose songs with more objective merit. For this I rely heavily on my own discernment, but when I can rely on the discernment of a few hundred years’ worth of Christians, it’s even better!

So after all that writing, I’m still basically where I was at the beginning. What do we do with all this? I have no idea. What say you? Am I overthinking this? Are these legitimate concerns?

Messing With “Come Thou Fount”

An interesting blog discussion happened this week about a line in the lyrics of the 18th century hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson. Mark Altrogge, a pastor and hymnwriter, questions the lyric “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love“. Are Christians really prone to wander, and to leave God?

Read his article here.

Tim Challies wrote a very good response, seconding a commenter from Altrogge’s original post defending the original lyric, while expounding on some very valid points that Altrogge made.

Read the Challies article here.

I commend both articles to you. While I agree with Challies on this one, I am grateful to Altrogge for asking the question in the first place. I love when Christians take hymn lyrics seriously enough to insist on their truthfulness!

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

New Album from Sovereign Grace Music

I’m a HUGE fan of the hymn albums produced by Sovereign Grace Music. We’ve sung many of them in our church. Whether original hymns (like All I Have Is Christ and I Will Glory in My Redeemer) or re-written older hymns (like Before the Throne of God Above and Oh the Deep Deep Love), they are always lyrically rich and congregationally accessible.

Their next album releases on April 10, but until then, you can pre-order it for only $5! Here’s a sample track from the new album:

Anybody else picking up on an “Adele” vibe with this one? Either way, I like it a lot!