What’s in a song?

I am a member of a Facebook group that discusses theology among other things. I don’t get to get on there very much, but it seems like every time I do, I see a pattern. Very often people get into debates about certain popular worship songs. One of the typical threads goes something like this. “I was just at a church that sang _______. It sounded like shallow, man centered drivel to me, what do you people think?” What follows are a bunch comments by people who jump on the train of criticism, with a few dissenters. I m not sure how these conversations usually end up because I get so frustrated with the critical, and seemingly (in my expert puffed up opinion) puffed up opinions that I stop reading. Sometimes I chime in with my two cents, but eventually I get tired of it, and move on. Now that my critical drivel is done, let me move on to my thoughts.
While those conversations frustrate me, they have also caused me to think often about the purpose of a single song in the context of a worship service. Also, the futility of critiquing a worship service, or a church itself based on the use of a single song in a worship service. Pondering that led me to think I might be able to clarify my own thoughts on the matter. So I write this for myself, my Church, and maybe some of my friends in that group. There are many other thoughts I have about this, but I have tried to keep this a short summary of what has been going on in my mind on this subject.
First of all, I believe very strongly that one of the greatest areas of teaching in the Sunday worship is the singing portion of the service. More often we remember songs before we remember sermon points, no matter how well alliterated they are. Our minds are more “in-tune” (see what I did there) with words set to music than just words by themselves. We remember poetry more easily than prose. For that reason I believe that every song we sing should be theologically sound and scripturally accurate. However, I don’t believe that it should be more all encompassing than the place it holds in the service. Which leads me to my main point. Worship services are a journey, they take us from point A to point B.
When people arrive at church on Sunday morning, they come from all different places. Some from serious joy, some from places of significant pain and turmoil. Some are there on fire, and some are there to check a box. When I construct a service order, or a worship set, the goal is to take people where they are, and show them a bigger picture of God. To take them on a journey of sorts, plumbing the depths of who God is in various forms so that by God’s grace and through the work of the spirit, they will see that God is the only source for all their needs. That journey needs various steps to get to that place, just like a journey has many turns and miles of driving to get to where you want to be. Now, in a journey, you cant just take the same turn over and over, you wouldn’t get anywhere, you also cannot look at one or two steps of directions and analyze the entire journey. Furthermore you cannot expect one turn in the journey to encapsulate every aspect of the trip. I believe the same is true about worship.
A wise and discerning pastor (I’m claiming to be neither) is taking the congregation on a journey each Sunday. It may be related to the sermon text, or it may be related to a topic of the day. I believe if he is very organized and thoughtful, it will take the people from where he left off last week, to where He hopes the Lord is leading them this week. Connecting the application of the previous weeks sermon to the beginning songs of worship, and using the scripture readings, prayers and other songs to bring out aspects that will be focussed on in the sermon for that Sunday. When I used to lead worship at a different church my question for the preacher wasn’t “What are you preaching on?” it was “Where do you want people to be when you begin your sermon?” If we only sang songs that were all about the main point of the message, I may have said all that things he wanted to bring out. On the other hand, if the Lord used the songs sung to bring them to a place in the time of singing that had their hearts prepped to hear the truth that was being preached, they are more likely to be engaged by the word being brought. To use a very worn out cliche, it is like a mosaic, putting together many pieces of various colors, shapes and sizes that when alone aren’t as clear, but when brought together make a picture that is clear, and vivid and beautiful. Each piece should do its own part in the process, not another piece’s part. (insert tangent on the body and is members)
What gets on my self righteous nerves is that some people seem to expect that every song used in every service should encapsulate all the elements of a worship service without regard to its usefulness in the journey. To me that seems very two dimensional, and frankly outright boring. If that is the case, and every song had everything that was meant to be in the service, why don’t we just sing one song for an hour (or however long your service goes) and we will have sung everything we need to take us on the journey for the week. For instance, there should be songs that focus on attributes of who God is, and aspects of His character, to point us to him (Holy, Holy Holy). There should be songs that speak of our sinfulness in view of His Holiness (alas, and Did My Savior Bleed). There should also be songs  of response that echo the psalms in their personal expressions (I need You). All of those used together can direct a person’s heart in a way that singing all the same type of songs cannot. You need them all. You should use them all, and incorporate them based on where they take people in the journey.
So, my plea to you pastors, worship leaders, smart theologically minded people is this. Before criticizing a song, or a church for using a song, consider the journey, consider the context, consider is place in a broader picture of a worship service. You might find that it is a crucial step in the process of seeing God more for who He is.
Humbly (hopefully) submitted,
Bryan

Tell me your thoughts: Are worship services a journey, or should we be standing in one place the whole time? (metaphorically speaking) Am I totally off base here? Comment if you agree, or don’t.

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