The Theology of Worship Songs

by Graham Kendrick
Posted at 07:43am on 3rd February 2013

When I was in the middle of recording a new song I had written called Meekness and Majesty, I happened to show the text to a friend who holds a theological degree. Affirmative nodding of the head turned to a concerned shaking, and he muttered something to the effect that this could get me into trouble! In my search for an image to convey Christ being born as a human being, I had opted for ‘clothed in humanity’. My friend pointed out that clothes are taken off as well as put on, and this contradicted the truth that Christ became permanently human and reigns now in his resurrected and glorified human body. Furthermore the idea that Christ was made temporarily human was a well-known heresy, and did I really want to revive it! Just in time I was able to find an alternative line for the choir to sing, and I had a narrow escape from whatever the modern equivalent is of being burned at the stake.

Theology is simply the study of God, and everyone who opens their mouth to sing or speak about God, inevitably expresses an idea about God, a theology; the question is, whether it is a good one or a bad one, a true or a false one. Every song sung in Christian worship has a theology, for better or for worse. Therefore as songwriters and song selectors, our role is that of local theologians.

It is not that our existing songs are full of grievous errors though issues pop up from time to time. In my view the pressing issue is to a large degree one of balance, or rather lack of it, it is about what is missing, the subjects we never sing about because the songs either are not being written, or not being chosen. And it is about the growing dominance of a ‘default’ worship culture that only allows for certain kinds of expression, a limited range of mood and style that edits out certain subject matter. So, why does any of that matter? Here are a few reasons I can identify; though I’m sure there are many more.

God’s Glory

Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as he actually is. In the same way that we are jealous over the reputation of someone we know and love, a large part of worship’s purpose is to lovingly and accurately, richly and comprehensively, describe God’s nature and qualities. What and who we believe God to be has eternal consequences both for his glory, and for the eternal destiny of every human being. It is a cosmic battleground. The Bible presents truth as reality and its opposite, untruth, as unreality and deception. Wrong theology does not only rob God of glory, it can be a dangerous thing on a vast scale, the Crusades of the Middle Ages being just one sobering example.

So if we are to give right glory to God in our songs, we need to pursue the biggest vision of him we can. My reference bible lists 14 descriptive names and titles by which God the Father is revealed, 101 for God the Son and 23 for the Holy Spirit, each one a window to seeing more of who we worship and why. Worship is a response, and will grow or shrink in direct proportion to our view of its object.

Numerous songs enable us to worship Jesus as Saviour and Friend, how many enable us to worship him as Judge, Heir of all things, or in the context of his home town humanity, as the Nazarene. We are not short of songs about Christ’s crucifixion, but there is not so much on offer concerned with his existence with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the world was created, or after his ascension, or how the world might look under his future kingship.

The uniqueness of the Gospel.

What defines uniquely Christian worship as compared with just a bunch of Christians worshiping? The Anglican theologian N.T. Wright says: ‘The place of doctrine within Christianity is absolutely vital. Christians are not defined by skin colour, by gender, by geographical location, or even, shockingly, by their behaviour. Nor are they defined by the particular feelings they may have. They are defined in terms of the god they worship. That’s why we say the Creed at the heart of our regular liturgies: we are defined as the people who believe in this god. All other definitions of the church are open to distortion. We need theology, we need doctrine, because if we don’t have it something else will come in and take its place. And any other defining marks of the church will move us in the direction of idolatry.’ [For all God’s worth,Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.].

The New Testament epistles show us that the early church had a continuous and serious battle with false teaching and the encroachment of the worlds thinking. That battle is a fierce as ever, and perhaps more than ever, our worship songs are on the front line.

The edification of the church.

Someone once said to a church; ‘You sing me your songs and I’ll tell you your theology’. It is undeniable that songs teach, for better or for worse. Bishop Graham Cray, a leading commentator on the theology of worship and contemporary culture recently reminded a group of songwriters that: ‘Worship is the carrier of the churches story and values….what we don’t have them sing, they may never know’. There is also a need for theological understanding in the way that songs are used together with other components to shape the journey of worship.

Absolute Must

So, it’s not just a nice little thing to know the theological basis of the songs you select for your church services. Doctrinally accurate worship songs are absolutely necessary. Yet, in writing songs it is all-too-easy to bypass this mandate, sometimes due to our search for the perfect rhyme or simply not making the effort to of digging into the metaphors we use. Today we are at a juncture where that is possibly truer than ever before. How has this situation arisen? I suggest these may be among a number of possible causes.

Engagement with the World

If you think the world is not interested in theology, think again. The word may not actually be used but questions and ideas about God or gods, spirituality, making sense of the world, grappling with the problem of evil, the future of the planet etc, crop up regularly in films books and internet sites. What does the Christian faith have to say about these things that occupy the thoughts of millions? If the songs they hear us singing bring no medicine of truth and hope to the world, or if they do so but are so coded in the language of our subculture that they are unintelligible, why should we complain if they regard us as irrelevant?

A narrow view of what public worship is

Have we come to view worship primarily an experience to be had, and an interior individualistic one at that, rather than a service that we offer to God in the context of building one another up in the faith? Even great gatherings for worship, can actually be a celebration of mass individuality, rather than something that is genuinely interpersonal and therefore a radical sign to people who long to belong somewhere. Where this is the case, songs that are about God and us, as opposed to God and me, or songs with rich content that stretch the mind, can seem to get in the way of the experience. This means that even when good songs are written on a neglected subject, if they don’t fit the expected mood ethos or style of experiential worship, they get bumped off the song list. Yet Jesus endorsed the first commandment, which specifically includes worship with the mind. So why doesn’t it sit right today? Someone described theological study as worshipping God with your mind, and surely it is time to rediscover this dimension of worship.

The culture of the singer-songwriter

The age of the orator has given way to the age of the artist, the day of the song text written by preacher-poet-theologians [whose work was then set by composers, often by several until the best tune prevailed], has given way to the singer-songwriter-worship leader, and many of us have no training in theology or biblical exposition, or even outstanding poetic skills. This is simply a fact of our times and this phenomenon has many strengths within our present culture. However we would be unwise to overlook the inherent weaknesses. In fact there are some excellent hymn text writers at work today, but because they tend to write to standard meters, their words are not married to the free-flowing song structures of popular worship culture. Needless to say, more collaborations between composer and lyricist could give the church the best of both worlds.

Worship Poets

Do not underestimate the value of maintaining basic spiritual disciplines which can unlock inspiration, enrich content and invite anointing, such as reading and studying the scriptures, singing the scriptures (especially the psalms) in your private devotions, maintaining a teachable attitude and personal integrity, having seasons of prayer and fasting.

The first person described in the Bible as filled with the Holy Spirit was an artist, a gifted designer and craftsman. His name was Bezelel, the man chosen to take the raw materials of his trade and turn God’s ‘blueprint’ of the Tabernacle into reality. Everything about that tent; dimensions, choice of materials, construction, geography, the symbolism of the colours and emblems through to the smallest utensil, was to be a revelation of God and of how to worship him, a ‘theology’ that impacted all the senses, a poetry of truth in motion. Yet working to that divine and holy specification God trusted a skilled artisan to use his ability, creativity, imagination, and experience [probably gained in Egypt, but that’s another angle to explore!], as well as trust his character to work with others and finish the task. I have no doubt that Bezelel’s unique style was recognisable in the finished work. How honoured he must have felt when finally the Shekinah glory filled it! Let’s be Holy Spirit filled artists, giving “right glory’ to God, by crafting, choosing and using wisely, songs that so reveal his nature, and the many faceted wonders of his grace, that He reveals that glory as they are sung.

Songs and songwriters need theology, but they also have something to offer to theology. I have heard theologians say that some theological truths are so profound that they can only be expressed in poetry. Let's be those poets.

Often referred to as 'the father of modern worship music', Graham is a prolific songwriter and performer.