Our first guest post of Open Mic Week is brought to us by Ryan Pugh. Ryan (@ryanjpugh) is a husband, friend, mentor, and youth pastor living in Boise, Idaho, with his wife Rachael and labradoodle, Ellie. He is passionate about the Church being the living presence of Christ in the world. Ryan is the author of The Money Experiment: A Community Practice in Financial Simplicity, published by The House Studio. He enjoys reading and playing basketball and blogs at ryanjpugh.com.
Worship songs frustrate me sometimes. Well, if I’m honest, worship songs frustrate me quite a bit. Maybe that’s not what you want to be hearing from a Christian. Or a youth pastor. But it’s true.
It’s not because I can’t sing worth a penny or because I gave up on guitar not much longer than ten minutes in to my first lesson. Whether I’m at a Sunday service, school chapel, or special worship gathering, I’m frustrated by so much of what we sing because I just don’t think that a majority of the songs we sing are really that useful. Even more than that, some of the songs we sing seem antithetical to the gospel itself.
This is more than a simple distaste for a certain style or preference of music. It’s more than the usual “worship wars” that so many churches have battled and split over. I’m really not concerned with whether there’s an organ (I actually love the organ), an acoustic set (I actually love the acoustic set), or a rock set (ok, I’ll admit I don’t like the rock concert worship show). My thoughts run much deeper than the classic
conversations debates about what style of music is better.
A full blog series could be done on the poor and shallow theology of specific worship songs that are popular among churches. I think that series could go on for weeks. But I think it’s more important to think about what we’re singing in general before looking at particular songs.
So… three things on my mind when it comes to singing in worship.
Song Theology > Sermon Theology
You might think I’m crazy, but the theology of the songs we sing is more important than the theology in sermons. If you aren’t with me on this, that’s ok. But think about it: Do you ever go away from a service humming the words of the preacher’s message? Do you bounce out of the sanctuary with scripture ringing in your ears? Chances are you don’t go away “humming” anything, because in most churches you can come with your cup of coffee, stare at the back of someone’s head (or angry birds flying through the air), and leave an hour later without a clue of what just happened. BUT, if you do leave the service with something fresh in your mind and heart, it’s likely the words of a song, not the words of the sermon.
Sermons just aren’t very memorable. We might remember how they made us feel, but, as my Facebook feed shows, worships songs are much more quotable than any sermon, even the best sermon.
Most contemporary worship songs are so shallow in theology, it’s no wonder so many of us Christians are shallow and biblically-illiterate. We have focused almost wholly on sound and being “attractive” that we’ve neglected having any real theological depth to the songs. We don’t sing about the kingdom Jesus came to establish. We don’t sing about the goodness of creation and God’s plan to restore the world – instead we proclaim that the world sucks and I can’t wait for the day I get to fly away to heaven. We surely don’t enter into the messiness that life actually is. Nothing about our doubts. Nothing about searching for God in the midst of suffering. There’s no room for crying out in frustration, lament, and even anger when God seems nowhere to be found.
Does theology matter? Yes! It shapes how we live and view the world. Do we have to get it right all the time? No. And getting it “right” is often dependent on interpretation so we won’t always get it right and we won’t always agree. Is it important to focus on Christ despite the lyrics of a song? Yes. But if it’s true that songs are what we remember more than anything, shouldn’t we pay much more attention to what we are proclaiming as we sing?
Community > Individualism
Most Christians I know are ready to leave behind the hyper-individualistic faith that has characterized Christianity for the last couple centuries. We recognize that faith is much more than just me and God. We are ready for the Church to actually be the community of the people of God who share life together. We’re ready to counter the message of the world that says it’s all about looking out for number one: me, myself, and I.
But you wouldn’t know it by looking at our worship songs.
The message of most of our songs are that’s it all about my relationship with God. It’s all about God’s love for me. Thank you, Jesus, for dying on the cross for me. I will sing to and worship the King. You are mine.
Is there a personal aspect to faith? Of course. But there is nothing personal about living the Christian life. You cannot be a Christian and not be part of the Church. You cannot be a Christian and not be involved in the community of faith, gathered around the table.
How much more formational would songs be for our communities if we sang about our love for God, God’s love for us, our need for God’s grace and mercy, and the grace that we need. Wouldn’t we start to be more community-minded if we simply changed our songs from me-focused to us-focused? Do simple pronouns matter? I think so.
Hands Stretched Out > Hands Stretched Up
I hate, I despise your religious festivals. Your assemblies are a stench to me. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to your music. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! – God, Amos 5
Everything about theology and pronouns in worship songs can go out the window if our lives don’t reflect the love, justice, mercy, and compassion of the kingdom of God. We can have all the right theology and say all the right words, but if we aren’t feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, setting the oppressed free, and having compassion on the poor, it’s all for nothing.
Can we stretch up our hands and sing on Sunday and call it worship if our hands aren’t stretched out in love for the least of these? Can we strum a guitar and call it worship if justice isn’t “rolling on like a river” in our lives? We can sing with all our might and lead worship with the best of the best, but God doesn’t hear our music if we aren’t gathering as a community to serve the least of these.
Maybe instead of gathered worship having to be a service, we should starting considering that gathered service to the least of these is worship – the kind of worship that pleases God.