Worship can easily be one of the most divisive elements in church life, ranging from the preference of style, to the actual choice of songs and structure of a service. Rarely will you meet someone who has no opinion on worship in the church. In some respects, this is a good problem because God has called his people to be a worshiping people (evidenced by the numerous Psalms); the people should care about the manner in which they worship the Lord. All that to say, worship is a complicated issue, and this post is in no way intended to produce division regarding various styles, liturgical practices, or church decisions regarding worship. Rather, I want to call our churches to see the importance of worship, and furthermore—the importance of words in worship.
Words carry immense weight. We proclaim what we believe through words, “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” as the creed proclaims. In a lot of ways, words are how we commune with God, through his Holy Scriptures (albeit, not solely or independent of the Holy Spirit). The Gospel is promulgated through words, as the Apostle Paul says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28, emphasis mine). Therefore, if words carry immense weight, the selection of words in the context of congregational singing also carries immense weight.
I would argue that everything in the corporate gathering of God’s people should be structured in such a way that everything has value and purpose, even down to seemingly annoying but necessary tasks, such as announcements. Narrowing the focus specifically to the selection of songs, churches should proclaim songs that ultimately proclaim their theology. Sadly, too many churches have left theology to preaching and discipleship, while leaving theology to the wayside in the context of worship. This is not to say that worship leaders and churches are purposefully negating theology in the context of worship. Rather, churches are often simply negligent in their theological selection of songs, simply picking popular songs rather than doctrinal songs. In order to provide help alongside critique, here are three guiding principles in the selection of theological worship songs:
Simply put: does the song exalt Christ and his work? Does it proclaim his victory over sin and death through the cross and resurrection? Does it speak of his incarnation and condescension to mankind? His humility? His grace? His tenderness? In other words, does it proclaim the good news of the Gospel—that Christ has come and rescued a people who were once lost, without hope, and have saved them from both their efforts and their guilty status.
We want the words of our songs to be saturated with the words of our God. This doesn’t mean that every song has to recite verbatim from the Bible, but it does mean that biblical themes must be present in theological and doctrinal songs. Does the song use language that is common to the Bible or does it use language that is far-removed or even contrary to the Scriptures? Not only is this a great teaching tool but it also helps people ground their singing in something deeper than themselves, namely, the inspired word of God.
We want our songs to be doctrinally rich, meaning that they have substance, content and depth to them. Again, this is not to say that you should sing your systematic theology, rather your doctrine should drip from the words of your songs. Shallow songs give no bedrock foundation for believer when the storm of life hits; theological songs give us a rock to stand on, which is grounded upon Christ’s work and word. Be bold to pick songs that deal with original sin, reconciliation, adoption, union with Christ, and many more doctrinal wells that will yield substantive faith in your people.
Heed and cherish the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote one of the first Christological hymns:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” – Colossians 1:15-20