I am thankful for Elders and a worship team that believe what we sing is important and that work to make sure we are singing true and good things about God. This transcript from “Ask Pastor John” helps us all think better about lyrics in songs.
Audio Transcript of John Piper’s “Ask Pastor John”
When Song Lyrics Miss the Mark
It’s Sunday night, after a day of worship with the people of God. And musical worship is such an important part of our embodied life together. But I don’t think we’ve ever looked at the lyrics of a contemporary worship song in a question. We do today. “Hello, Pastor John! My name is Samuel, a young minister through music. My church’s worship team struggles with a new worship song — ‘What A Beautiful Name’ — a widely acclaimed song because of its musical orchestration and its reflection on God’s glory and the kingship of Christ. However, my worship team finds the lyrics of the second verse questionable: ‘You didn’t want heaven without us, so, Jesus, you brought heaven down.’ Our question is, Does saying, ‘You didn’t want heaven without us’ imply a man-centered gospel? The statement isn’t necessarily false, but the implications could be skewed. That’s our fear. Additionally, the word ‘so’ is used afterwards, implying that the following statement of ‘bringing heaven down’ was founded upon the first statement of not wanting heaven without us. Much like the word ‘therefore,’ ‘so’ implies heaven was brought down in response to God not wanting heaven without us. Do you believe these lyrics are biblically valid?”
Let me start broad and then get specific because I love the issue. I love the concern.
The first thing I want to do is praise God for a worship team that is struggling with issues of truth in song lyrics. This is really good news. It’s a good sign and I hope all worship leaders who hear this would be encouraged to do the same. One of the reasons this is really good news is that a congregation learns its theology, and takes it down into the crevices of their soul, by the songs that they sing, not just by the preaching they hear.
Historically, it’s the hymnody of the church that has, alongside preaching, been one of the most powerful means by which a church is taught. I would guess that in some churches the songs may be more decisive in the way truth is embraced because the preaching is so thin when it comes to doctrinal teaching. Of course, the songs may be very thin as well.
You can sing very thin songs that just repeat even great sentences like “his name is great.” That’s true, but does it ever say why it’s great or how the cross grounds its greatness? I say amen to the struggle, and I commend every worship team to be vigilant over the lyrics of what their people are singing.
Boatloads of Songs
The second thing I would say is that the last thirty years, maybe forty years, have been an incredibly fruitful time for writing new lyrics and new music for the church. This is a great thing. This is a great sign of life. The psalmist says five times, “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1).
“A congregation learns its theology by the songs they sing, not just by the preaching they hear.”
Jesus said, to balance things, “Every scribe” — you could say every worship leader — “who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). What this means is that, given the hundreds and hundreds of worthy, substantial, rich, deep, old hymns that speak nourishing doctrinal truth, and given the many, many, many new songs of the last thirty years that are solid and Christ exalting and gospel rich and God centered, there is no reason for any church to sing songs that are misleading or even questionable.
It’s not as though any worship team who has access to the Internet is backed into a corner not knowing what to sing or having to sing something questionable. Because there’s hundreds of glorious, rich, beautiful, contemporary and old songs. My main response to Samuel is find the old and the new, the rock solid and beautiful, and use them.
You are teachers in the church. Let this sink in. James says, “Let not many of you become worship leaders” (because you’re teachers — see James 3:1). Let not many of you become worship leaders because as teachers you will be judged more strictly. Right after the pastor comes the worship leaders who are choosing what teaching is going to happen while people are singing their hearts out and absorbing all this truth (or non-truth) that these people have put in front of them.
Now, to the specific lyrics Samuel is concerned about. There’s a thread of teaching in some songs today that seems, to me, to lack the gravity of God’s passion for the glory of God above all things. Let me say that again. There’s a thread of teaching in some songs today that seems, to me, to lack the gravity of God’s passion for his glory above all else.
My sense is that, until a congregation is devastated by the outrage and the horror of our sin as demeaning and belittling to the glory of God, accompanied by a majestic vision of God’s glory and justice and holiness and wrath—until those two realities are taught and felt deep down, the reality of grace and mercy will not be rightly known and cherished by a congregation. Which really matters to me, then, how we sing about grace.
“I commend every worship team to be vigilant over the lyrics of what their people are singing.”
It seems to me that there’s a strain or a thread of songs that tend to assume that people’s sorrows, shame, and difficulties in life are enough of a backdrop (a bad backdrop) to make the mysteries of the glory of the gospel known over against them. I don’t think so.
I don’t think the sorrows and the shame that people bring, without being taught what their real condition is, are enough to help them understand grace. In fact, people are going to distort grace if its not taught against the backdrop of the biblical bad news rather than the bad news that people bring which they think they understand to be the bad news. It’s not the bad news.
The New Testament assumes that people need to be taught what their real terrible condition is under the power of sin before grace can really be the God-exalting reality that it is. I see that in Ephesians 2:1–10 and Ephesians 1:4–6, for example.
Samuel is right that the question is not whether a statement in a song is literally true by itself but what effect it has on the people. That is, how does it fit into their view of God? It may be that the same truth will be sung one time in one context, but it will not be sung another time in another context because the whole tendency and tone of the context is going to be misleading. It’s going to confirm error in the hearts of the people.
I don’t favor the lyric he quotes. It fits too easily into a theology of a God who created because he was lonely, and then saved people for the same reason. He just can’t be happy without us.
God’s Delight in Us
To be sure, we should sing about God’s amazing delight in us as his children. Witness the father in the parable of the prodigal son throwing a party when his son comes home (Luke 15:11–32). Witness Zephaniah 3:17, where God sings over his people. What is so amazing about that is that God is not miserable and lonely without us. He’s not motivated to sing over us because we have just made up for some poor deficiencies that God has — and now, at last, his weakening deity is strengthened by our presence, and he can be happy finally. That’s not the picture of the Bible!
“There is no reason for any church to sing songs that are misleading or even questionable.”
God’s delight in us is the overflow of his fullness, not the compensation of his emptiness. Does the song help the people feel that wonder? That’s the question.
Here’s another popular lyric that we sang it in Asia recently. I wish they weren’t singing this. It’s very popular: “Like a rose, trampled on the ground. You took the fall and thought of me above all.” That’s not true. That’s not true. It’s not helpful. I’m not frankly even sure what it means. Above all what? Above all other people whom he saved? No, it can’t be that. Above all his own glory? No, not his own glory. Above all what? That was a beautiful song before it got to that line. He saved us precisely so that we could see and savor his glory as the supreme treasure of the universe above all. I’m not sure what the lyrics are trying to communicate, but it doesn’t communicate that to most people.
My conclusion is God has been at work in history, and he’s been at work wonderfully in the last thirty years to produce hundreds and hundreds of solid, gospel-rich, doctrinally faithful, Christ-exalting, big-God songs. So many that we don’t have to use the ones that seem theologically skewed and that may mislead our people.
This article can be found at http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/when-worship-lyrics-miss-the-mark