I did not grow up in church. The only times I really went to church when I was a kid were when someone died, or at Christmas, or if Mom got on a kick to hit church for a bit. It was boring, and I am reasonably sure I fell asleep every time I went. When I started going for real, I was 18, and I went to a really conservative church with my fiancé. I vividly remember being in church and standing to sing the hymns each Sunday morning, and not knowing any of them. I mean, I probably knew that a song called Amazing Grace existed, but I wouldn’t have known it if I heard it. After a month or so, I started to recognize a few of the songs. One day, I was coming home from playing basketball, and I heard a church bell arrangement of a song, and I knew it!
Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me.
At this moment I felt like I might be getting a handle on this whole church thing. That hymn was a favorite of mine from that moment forward.
Fast-forward a few years, I was in seminary studying the idea of God’s sovereignty, that a God who was to be worshiped and that I would devote my life to, was by necessity a sovereign Lord. He had to be in charge, and powerful. If He wasn’t, what kind of God was He? I remembered this song, and the second verse, the one where Jesus is described as a school girl pining over a boyfriend who won’t come to her and do what she wants. Jesus pleading, with the implication that He isn’t powerful enough to get what He wants accomplished. I had a real struggle at that moment to believe the Bible (which I believe teaches God’s sovereignty), or this song that I had sung and enjoyed for years.
Music is a powerful tool for the glory of God. It helps make God tangible, and experiential. We are able to connect to God in a way that many of us do not experience apart from the musical expression of worship. The worship gathering is enhanced exponentially by the inclusion of music. However, we also have to be very careful, because music can be insidious. If the songs that are sung in worship teach or suggest a theme contrary to Scripture, we may set our congregants up for failure at rightly discerning truth. There are a lot of songs out there that have a great beat, have great lyrics, but have heretical undertones (or outright heretical lyrics). Too often we see these songs show up on the church playlist, and the words and themes make their way into our minds, corrupting the Bible’s teachings. Music, like anything else, can be an idol that we love more than God. Even music that is supposedly about Him! True worship music should be pleasing to the ear, stirring to the soul, but also must reflect what the Bible teaches.
I am personally at a quandary with much of what we see in the modern American church. We exalt form over substance, we exalt catchy over transformational, and we exalt “sings good” over “soul good.” When I think about my old song Softly and Tenderly I don’t really want to throw out the whole song, because I really love it. It was something that I could latch onto as a non-believer, a foot in the door to the church magisterium if you will. At the same time, I know that I don’t want people thinking that Jesus isn’t powerful enough to take care of their needs, and that we mortals can thwart the plans of an Almighty God. What do we do? How do we bridge the gap between form and substance? There is a tension between good poetry, good life experience, and sound theology. I tend to think that there isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a negotiation. You see I know what the author of my hymn is trying to communicate: the deep love and care that Jesus has for His people. How much freedom do I give him to do that, to connect life experience to catch people’s attention? I have usually erred on the side of freedom in this area in my ministry, trusting that I can explain or address unresolved tension in the words of songs and sound biblical teaching. Lately though, I hear the words of 2 Timothy 4:1-5 constantly, and I wonder if we need to be way more selective in our relevancy when it comes to the musical beast. What a great and powerful gift, but we have to be so careful with!
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.