If you think back through your years of attending church services, shuffling through the archives of hymns and melodies, you can probably identify several songs that were general crowd-pleasers. These were the songs that people loved to sing, and they were often selected for Sunday worship two or three weeks out of every month. Sometimes the songs were upbeat and energizing, other times the songs were morose and convicting. Oftentimes, the songs were loved for their melodies and overall feel—not as much for their theological proclamations. Yet these songs are the songs that stay with us; these songs are deeply engrained in us, imprinting on our concepts of God and creation more than we probably realize.
The truth is that the songs we sing on Sunday shape our theology far more than the words of a typical sermon. But I’m not so convinced that we select our songs of worship with the same level of thoughtfulness that we use when composing a sermon. Certainly somebody could make the case that in general, older hymns articulated more robust theologies, while newer songs lack theological depth. Such generalizations may not be helpful for what I want to promote in this post, and I don’t think that reverting back to the “good ole days” will fix our problem. What I want to argue here is that in order to look after the wellbeing of our faith communities, we must promote sound and intentional theology in our worship. We need a fresh articulation of coherent theology in our worship that will guide our congregations into an appropriate understanding of God and God’s creation.
With this being said, there is absolutely an important place in our worship for theologically ambiguous and palatable songs. We need songs every now and then that unify an otherwise polyphonous gathering of sincere believers under an umbrella of loose but safe descriptors. However, if the songs we sing shape our theology, then we need to think carefully about the theology we are promoting in our Sunday liturgy. Currently many of our churches sing a ragtag collection of loveable songs that would make most systematic theologians pull out their hair. I realize that by voicing a critique of these songs, I run the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon. So let me hop over to the other side of the fence for a moment and offer a defense for all of these loveable, sometimes theologically muddled songs that we sing.
I was a musician before I was ever a theologian. I began reading music around the same time that I began reading sentences. My whole life revolved around classical piano training, vocal instruction, and a multiplicity of string and percussion instruments that have often been my most loyal companions. What I know to be true of music is this: melody, harmony, timbre, and tempo compose a language of their own; no words are necessary to communicate even the most complex messages of human experience. Therefore, I do believe it is possible for a beautiful song with wishy-washy theology to transport somebody spiritually to a very appropriate place. I believe music has the power to put us in postures of spiritual openness, humility, and gratitude, beyond the power of words. In this sense, there is tremendous value in the songs we love, despite the lyrics.
And yet, these beautiful and emotional movements of the spirit are often narrated by a strange assortment of theological proposals that often do not function together in a cohesive system of belief. For example, on any given Sunday you might sing one song that articulates a distinctly Reformed theology, followed by a song that articulates a hint of Eastern Orthodoxy, followed by a song that blends Evangelicalism with a substantial dose of what I can best describe as the “self-help gospel.” I am not suggesting that everyone in the church must agree on every matter of doctrine. That will probably never happen, and honestly, I don’t think it should happen. I think a little bit of theological and doctrinal diversity is healthy and normal. I am, however, suggesting that the wildly incongruent theologies that are promoted all at once result in an irresolute and confusing portrait of God. Our lack of intentionality testifies to our lack of concern; our hodgepodge of songs communicates to God and to others that we do not take theology seriously.
At best, these medleys of songs usher the congregation into a hopeful and anticipatory posture of worship, which is a beautiful and good outcome. At worst, our congregants never think twice about these conflicting views of God and salvation. “What’s at risk?” you might wonder. The actions that follow Monday through Saturday are at risk. The pictures of God that are painted by our lives for others are at risk. My inability to articulate what I know to be true of God will become startlingly obvious in the inconsistency of my ethics, my values, my view of self, and my view of the world. With a theology loosely held together by a patchwork of feel-good songs, I just might lack the theological foundation needed in order for me to be the person God is calling me to be in all seasons of life.
So how do we move forward? I think it is relatively simple, actually. Those of you who lead worship, and those of you who volunteer in your worship ministry, take it upon yourselves to think carefully about the theology you are promoting. Perhaps ask your elders and ministers to partner with you in assessing the standard canon of songs for Sunday morning. Crack open a book or two and dig deep. How does your church want to articulate theology? How does your church want to pronounce what occurred through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ? What does your church want to communicate about heaven and hell? How do you want your church to think about sin and death? What important parts of the Christian story are missing from your liturgy, and how can you reclaim them? Rely heavily on theologians who have come before you, and do not hesitate to reach out to your local theologians as well. If you have been called to guide the flock into worship, you have been invited to a tremendous and weighty task. Fear not—God will give you the strength to navigate this work. But for the sake of the life of the church, be mindful and tenacious. Resist nonsense. Embark on the special task of helping the church to conceptualize God and creation appropriately.