The Empty Worship Song

The lights were dim in the auditorium. Slowly the stage lights came up and the song began, upbeat and lighthearted. As the music rose and the lights began to flash the words of the song rang out. Everyone raised their hands as the excitement rose. The response was incredible. People began jumping and shouting, clapping and singing as loud as they could. This went on for quite a while.

When the Miley Cyrus concert was over, no one forgot the performance.

Let me begin by saying I’m not here to bash any worship leader or church. Nor am I here to bash Miley Cyrus. That may sound like an odd disclaimer, and it probably is. But the importance of what I’m about to discuss is, I believe, of utmost importance to the Church.

The Words Matter

What you sing is important. The words of a song influence your theology and, consequently, your entire worldview. In fact, I would go so far as to say the foundation of the majority of the Church’s theology is laid down and propagated by the songs we sing in worship, however subconsciously it may happen. Consequently, every worship leader is a theologian.

I believe the worship leader is one of the leading theologians in your church. Their combination of music and words has a powerful effect on those around them, and the theology they sing becomes the theology of those who worship with them. Often people will walk away from a service with the words to a song running through their heads when they can’t remember the main point of the pastor’s message.

I once witnessed the unsaved mother enter a youth worship service. I was initially excited to see a parent show interest in the service. After a few minutes, I noticed she had made her way to the front. “Excellent!” I thought. Perhaps she was prompted by the Holy Spirit to make a life-change. Then she began to wave her arms back and forth, dancing around the front and trying to engage other students. Now this behavior isn’t out of the realm of propriety for most Pentecostals. But after the worship was over, she said, “That was a great concert!”

Honestly, I don’t remember the songs we sang that night. But it doesn’t really matter. If an unbeliever came into the service and thought the experience was no different than a concert, I can’t say the worship glorified God. Maybe she would have enjoyed Miley Cyrus more.

Producing Worship

It seems many churches and worship leaders enjoy the production aspect of services like this. Producing a worship experience that moves people into the presence of God through audio, visuals, and lighting can be exciting and lead to great results.

However, emotions and emotional experiences alone are easy to create. The right lighting at the right time, the right build in the music, the right expression of passion, and the right arm movements can give anyone goosebumps. But that’s not what we’re after. Any performer can do that every once in a while, the great do it every time they’re on stage.

I love a worship service that brings me into the presence of God and makes me feel his glory. For Pentecostals, there is no end to services with this focus. It seems many Pentecostal worship leaders want to lead people into the presence of God so they can receive the message of sermon and respond. Again, nothing wrong with this. I’ve enjoyed many services like this and genuinely had encounters with God. However, when I jump into these services and routinely enter into worship, I actually find myself on a bit of a spiritual roller coaster ride. The high point of my week is always the giant crescendo of the final song just before prayer time or the sermon. The low point usually occurs a few days later. Some would probably argue this roller coaster effect is due to a lack of worship during the rest of the week.

This may be true some of the time, but I think there’s more to it. Perhaps the worship lacks the depth necessary to reinforce a solid foundation that will survive the week.

Sing Songs with Deep Theology

When I read the Psalms, I can’t help but notice the consistency of David’s praise. Even when faced with death and conspiracy he praises God’s love, God’s actions in saving him, and God’s good name (Psalm 52). There’s a theological depth here that carried David through his times of trials, death, betrayal, and sin.

One of my favorite songs is “In Christ Alone.” On the Havens Theological-Depth Scale it registers at 10/10. I am not exaggerating when I say thousands of books, papers, and articles could be written about the various parts of this song. For example, one line of the song says, “And as he stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me.” In this sentence alone we have a description of Jesus’ work on the cross and subsequent resurrection, the believer’s resulting relationship to sin, and all the theological and biblical teachings that accompany these truths. This is a depth that reinforces my foundation on Jesus Christ.

I’m not saying we have to sing In Christ Alone every week. I will, however, argue the songs we sing should be theologically rich and should glorify God in such a way that everyone watching clearly understands what is happening.

The words we sing in worship matter. If a song hypothetically says, “Oh, Oh, Woah, Oh, Oh, Oh, Woah, Woah, Yeah.” in the chorus, and the verse says, “I want to worship you! I want to dance for you! I want to praise your name!” the theological foundation of the song is quite shallow. There is very little praise for specific things God has done or worship in response to who he is. Why do we want to worship? Why do we have a reason to dance? What about God’s name is praiseworthy? Specifics provide a concrete connection to God’s character and actions. Remember, what we sing informs our theology. Vague songs bring vague theology and leads to a shallow theological foundation.

Sure, Christians can have a good time and enjoy the pleasures of musical rhythm and a catchy melody. But when shallow theology in song is the norm, shallow theology becomes the norm elsewhere. A lack of well-defined thought in song becomes a lack of well-defined thought elsewhere. On the other hand, if our songs develop deep theological principles, we will begin to think about deep theological things as the songs run through our heads.

In addition, deep songs can be out of place in a worship service. For example, I enjoy the song, Hello My Name is by Matthew West. However, this would be inappropriate in a worship service. The first verse of the song personifies Regret and allows it to speak. The rest of the song is the believer’s response to these lying voices. (The bridge may be the only portion of the song that isn’t). While theologically deep, this song/conversation between Regret and the believer seems out of place in a time of worshiping the Savior.

Conclusion

The worship leader has the opportunity to provide a rich theological experience for the congregation. This isn’t always easy. There are quite a few shallow songs like the hypothetical one I mentioned above. However, this does not excuse the worship leader. Goosebump-giving productions cannot compensate for a lack of rich theology. I can go to a concert if I just want an emotional experience. Nor can catchy melodies and rhythms compensate for a shallow, vague truth.

What do you think? Worship leaders, how do you balance emotional experiences with theologically-rich songs?

 

Josh

Josh Havens is a founding member of Theology in Progress. He and his wife and son live in Springfield, MO, and love to walk with people as they become fully devoted followers of Jesus. He's also addicted to Rubik's cubes and enjoys trying to figure out any puzzle or problem put in front of him. Josh has an M.Div. with a concentration in Expository Preaching from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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4 Comments on "The Empty Worship Song"

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Michael Daugherty
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Brandon…any insight on Josh’s posts? Josh, I would consider this an opportunity to speak with worship leaders across the city to research their approach to how certain material is chosen or not chosen to address your opinion. What is needing to be accomplished in that moment for the church? What theology is the right theology for that church in that moment? Who’s responsible for communicating that theology? Do we expect unsaved people to know the difference between a concert/worship service? Should unsaved people have an understanding or expectation of deep theology that stems from a worship experience (or for that matter saved people as well)? Are familiar words always the best representation of whom we believe God to be? Is it more about connecting rather… Read more »
Michael Daugherty
Guest

I feel better now that I’m not alone in liking the older material out there. You’ve made my day Josh!

Brandon
Admin
Worship is something we could talk a lot about. I agree with Josh’s thoughts that our worship songs should be deeper. We should always be striving to go deeper in our worship, study, thoughts, commitment, etc… I think music has a lot of different roles in Christianity and the words of those songs are very important in the different aspects they are used. In talking about worship I think the songs should talk directly about or to God, whether it’s telling of Jesus’ death and resurrection like ‘In Christ Alone’ or just singing Holy or ‘I love you Lord’. I think we spend enough time focusing on ourselves that it’s important to take time and only focus on God no matter what needs we have.… Read more »
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