Saturday, September 23, 2006

How to Evaluate Songs for Congregational Worship

Congregational worship is one of the most important things that a church does. It supersedes missions, evangelism, service, and counseling (though it could be argued that these are, in a way, forms of worship--see Hebrews 13:15-16). John Piper has said the following:

"Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be not more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.” (Let the Nations Be Glad, p. 17)

So, worship supersedes all these other activities because God is ultimate, not man, and these all exist so that other people will be brought to see the excellencies of God through His church, and will in turn become worshippers themselves. The glory of God is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “the end for which God created the world” (Romans 11:36, Isaiah 43:7, Ephesians 1:5,6,12,14, Psalm 29:1,2and Isaiah 48:11).

All churches have this privilege of worshipping God corporately, and all churches include singing as part of that worship (in obedience to the commands in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19). Singing is an expression of joy, celebration, awe, and even repentance, brokenness and contrition.

Although no specific criteria is given is Scripture for choosing songs, yet we may apply other principles to aid the decision-making process. For example, as servants of the Creator, redeemed by the death of His Son, we must strive for excellence in all we do (Colossians 3:23). We should seek to glorify God in all that we do (1 Corinthians 10:31). We must also make sure any words taught the congregation are sound in doctrine (Titus 2:1). To fail to evaluate songs for worship is to invite careless worship, and careless worship can have devastating consequences (see Leviticus 10:1-3)!

Though excellence should be our goal in every aspect of song selection, the primary emphasis is on the words. But how does a congregation, or the leadership or worship team, select songs? What criteria should be used? What follows is an attempt to answer that question. Hopefully, it will serve as a springboard for discussion related to the question, “how will we choose our church’s congregational song list?”.

Of course, few songs will meet all of the criteria listed below; however, I feel that we should strive to meet as many of them as possible; and certainly the more important criteria should always be pursued in song selection.

1. Are the words man-centered or God-centered? Do they exalt and extol the wonders of the Triune God, or do simply talk about one’s experience?

2. Similarly, are the songs about God, or about worship? Do they speak more about what I will do (“I will worship, I will praise You, I will lift my hands”), or do they speak about who God is (God, you are…)? Tim Challies calls the former ‘songs of procrastination’—focusing on acts of worship that we intend to do, but telling us nothing of the God to Whom the worship is due. It’s true that some psalms use this language, but never alone—they always go on to describe why the psalmist intends to worship God (see Psalm 63:3-4, Psalm 7:17, Psalm 9:1-4ff, Psalm 13:5-6, Psalm 89:1-2, Psalm 108:1-4, Psalm 144:9-10, et al.). So, songs that speak of our intention to worship should also explain our reason to worship.

3. In terms of the song’s substance, it’s good to ask: are the words specific, or vague and insubstantial? Do they instruct us specifically regarding scriptural truths about God, or do they reflect things that are assumed about God? Also, are the words to the song cohesive? Do they go somewhere, and do they tie together related ideas? Or, are they instead a string of unrelated “glory phrases”?

4. Additionally, are the words specifically Christian? We may sing some songs which, for example, are taken from the Psalms, and don’t speak of Christ, yet they are still in accord with Biblical revelation of who God is. Some songs, though, are so vague, that they could be sung about anybody’s god. Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and cults could sing the songs in complete agreement with us. For example, many praise songs sound much like this:

My sweet Lord
I really want to know you
I really want to see you
My sweet Lord

These words were actually taken from former Beatle George Harrison’s song “My Sweet Lord”, and were written while he was dabbling in Eastern mystical religions (later in the song, he intertwines the “Hallelujah” with “Hare Krishna”). It is usually easy to spot whether a song was written by a theologian, pastor, or mature believer (as were our most beloved hymns), or whether they were written by an immature Christian who happens to play guitar or piano really well.

5. Are the songs instructive? Do they teach us something about God’s character, His actions, or His plan of Redemption? According to Colossians 3:16, we are to “Let the word of Christ dwell in (us) richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in (our) hearts to the Lord”. So, songs to be sung to the Lord, AND instructive to one another? But aren’t these two aims contradictory? Should a song be sung to one another, or to the Lord? According to this verse, it’s not “either/or”, but “both/and”! The words of a song should inform our understanding of Who God is and what He’s done; the awareness of the truths learned should not lead us to cold contemplation, but should result in warm, heartfelt worship.

Mark Altrogge puts it well when he says “the church needs a full-orbed diet of worship songs. We need songs about:
1) The cross
2) The attributes of God – e.g. immanence and transcendence, sovereignty, faithfulness
3) Trinitarian worship songs
4) Songs about the great doctrines of our faith: the incarnation, the resurrection, redemption, justification, election, reconciliation, adoption, the preservation of the saints
5) Songs for times of suffering
6) Songs that are prayers, e.g. songs requesting more passion, etc.”

6. Are the songs cross-centered? Many of our songs should reflect the goal of God’s redemptive plan for all of history. This should never cease as a reason for us to sing and worship. In fact, Revelation 5 tells us that, in heaven, even then, we will not get over the cross. It’s not, “the cross was in the past; what do you have for me now?”; rather, the substitutionary death of our Savior for our sins should be the theme of our worship now, just as it will be for all of eternity: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ ” (see also v. 12). Even in eternity, we will not get over the cross!

Also, care should be given not to include too many songs which omit the reason we are able to approach God in worship. Bob Kauflin puts it well:

“Through our songs, we can (erroneously) communicate or convey the impression that worship is unmediated… that we just worship, as though it required nothing unusual, nothing spectacular, nothing amazing for us to stand before God and honor Him. But we can’t do that by ourselves; we would be consumed if we sought to do that in our own strength, with the accomplishment or the benefit or the merit of our own works. We can’t do it! So we must boast in something else; we have to boast in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Through Him (Christ) then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God (Hebrews 13:15).

7. Do the songs exalt the character and actions of God?

A study of the early church hymns quoted in the New Testament shows the criteria from # 5 and #6— cross-centeredness and/or a focus on God’s attributes or actions — were the emphasis of the songs sung by the early church. See Php 2:6-11, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Tim 6:15-16.

8. Are the songs theologically sound? Since leaders in the church are to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and since songs have an instructional element in worship (Col 3:16), all songs should be evaluated as to theological accuracy. It does not glorify God to speak things about Him that are not true.

9. Do the songs promote affection in the heart for the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit? Or do the words present true doctrine in an unemotional, unaffected tone? Good worship songs should promote warmth of heart and love for God as they are sung. The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs, in teaching on the great doctrine of our reconciliation to God, warned his readers, “I fear lest, while I am treating (this doctrine), you would not apprehend the excellency of it, and not relish the sweetness of it” (Gospel Reconciliation, p. 12). In the same way, singing, which by its very nature promotes emotional responses, should cause us to “relish the sweetness” of the truths of which we are singing.

On the practical side, further criteria should be:

10. Are the notes of the song too high to be sung well by the whole congregation? (Bob Kauflin says that the songs should be in a range between a low A and a
high D.)

11. Is the melody of the song relatively easy to learn and easy to sing? Some songs sound great when sung by a trained singer, but when sung by the congregation, the result is obvious struggling to find the melody. This distracts from worship rather than facilitating it.

12. Songs should not be chosen simply because they’re popular, or because they have a good melody, or because they’re fun to sing; neither should songs be selected because they will be most attractive to visitors. Songs are not for the utilitarian purpose of growing our church, or because they foster an emotional aesthetic experience. Songs are to promote the glory of God by putting His excellencies on display, that we joyfully respond with adoration and praise. Following our worship services, people should not respond by saying, “I love that church’s songs”, but “I love that church’s God”. The response to the singing portion of the service should not be “What a great song!”, but “What a great God!”.

13. It is equally important to ask: is there a compatibility between the melody or rhythm, and the truth being sung? As an extreme example, singing “Be still and know He is God” to a punk beat or with death metal guitar parts is simply not a good match! As we see the greatness and holiness of God through the words of a song, it may highlight our sinfulness and create a sober mood; we may be broken, repentant, and tearful when singing such songs. Other songs are more joyful and celebratory, depending on the words being sung. The melody and beat, therefore should match the subject matter.

Further, songs, being written for God’s glory, should reflect (in some measure) the excellence and creativity of the God who is both the subject and the source of the songs. Great words with a poorly written melody may take away from worshipping God through song, rather than being helpful.

14. The words to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs should not be too cryptic. Worship songs are not poems. Poems can use heavily symbolic language, and rely on metaphors. The meaning does not always need to be clear on the first reading. By contrast, the basic meaning of worship songs should be evident the first time it is sung (although enough content may be packed into a song that the one singing may discover new truths after several times singing it which weren‘t noticed the first time). Symbolism may be used, but only when its meaning is evidently apparent, or when the meaning is explained within the song itself. Songs which are too cryptic will be in danger of either being sung rotely and without thought, or else result the singer spending the time trying to “de-codify” the song rather than worshipping the Savior.

15. A word about complexity vs. simplicity: While some criticize simple songs as being “7/11” songs (songs with 7 words, repeated 11 times), singing simple truths can be beneficial. Some of Scriptures simplest truths are the most profound, and are the ones which move us the most emotionally. There is nothing wrong with simple truth! One of my favorite songs has only four lines; yet listen to the beauty of its truth:

Holy God in love became
Perfect man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin
By His death I live again

Having said that, it is probably not a good idea to have the main diet of a church’s songs to be choruses with minimal words. Remember, if the singing of songs is viewed as an extension of a church’s teaching ministry which results in praise to God, then enough songs with some theological depth should be present to promote this. If the people do not go down in depth, their worship cannot go very high in praise. As one author has said, the of simple songs in a worship service should be like dessert at a meal: used sparingly, it can enhance the savor of it; used alone, it can lead to malnutrition.

16. Are the songs too complex for the musicians in your church to play well?

17. Does the song selection reflect the Scriptural principle of caring for the weaker brother? (See Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10). Many church divisions have occurred when someone, zealous to change a church’s music style to “do worship like such-and-such a church does it”, make the change too drastically and suddenly. Many, in good conscience, believe certain musical styles are not helpful in worship, and to force them to sing along with these styles may be to cause them to go against conscience. Granted, there are those who will resist anything, and who will unreasonably resist any change in music style or instrumentation; however, our concern here should be to be sensitive to those who are not like us.

Another example of insensitivity to others in song selection is not thinking through the implications of the words on current life situations facing the church’s members. For instance, if we know someone in the congregation who has just this past week lost a loved one to cancer, we should probably show concern for them and not sing about “the God who heals my diseases”. Or, if the congregation has been impacted by a sudden tragedy, songs should be selected which reflect God’s comfort and sovereignty, rather than songs that may appear, in the context of the situation, seem to speak flippantly about how happy we are in God.

18. It may be a good idea to select songs on a weekly basis which underscore truths related to the sermon, or to a certain theme (a particular attribute of God, for example), rather than a loose association of multiple songs (although the latter can be done, and still have the result of good, God-honoring worship service, since a broad spectrum of God’s excellencies have been paraded before the people to admire in aggregate).

19. Care should be taken, especially if an individual generally selects the songs, to avoid “doing this song because it’s one of my favorites”. True, it may be your favorite because it is a great song and is a great help to you in your private worship. However, this may show insensitivity to the preferences of others. It may also reflect one’s musical preference (perhaps the song has a great melody, or is fun for guitar players to play, but isn’t the best choice to inform the congregation about God). There may also be a temptation to do the song so frequently that the words fail to impact the people. “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

In summary, when selecting songs for corporate worship, we should strive for glorifying God, for a humble heart which is willing not to get its own way, and for a concern for the needs of others.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

God and Family

Text: Malachi 2:13-16 -- “13 And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord's altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

Malachi was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah (between 458 and 433 BC). It was written for Israelites who thought that, in terms of their relationship with God, they were OK. After all, they were performing religious duties, they were offering sacrifices, their priests were teaching-- yet inwardly they were corrupt. They adopted a form of religiosity, but their hearts were far from Him. They were offering blind animals for sacrifices, as if to say, “We don’t need this one; we’ll give it to God”.

Further, Israel’s men had left their wives and intermarried with foreign women (2:11). So, besides violating personal trusts, they were guilty of divorce and marriage to women who could lead them into idolatry.

Now, there are two points to draw from the passage we read earlier; the first ist this:
Point 1: The state of your marriage impacts the acceptability of your worship (vs. 13-15a, 15c-16a).

Now, you may be tempted to think, “That doesn’t apply to me; I’ve never been unfaithful to my spouse, and I’ve never divorced. I’m off the hook!” But remember Christ’s words in Matthew 5:27-28-- It’s not just actual unfaithfulness to your wives, but letting your mind be carried away with desire for another. This reveals a discontent heart, which begins when you are failing to cherish and treasure her.

Proverbs 5:18 tells husbands to "rejoice in the wife of your youth". Matthew Henry said, “She is the wife of thy youth, who had thy affections when they were at the strongest, was thy first choice, and with whom thou hast lived long. Let not the darling of thy youth be the scorn and loathing of thy age.”

To divorce is to commit an act of violence, of hate (v. 16, ESV). Divorce reveals a heart of hate, and of discontentment, which is sin. Therefore, it’s not just the divorce, but the heart conditions of hate and discontentment that precede the act that are sin: anger/rage/fury, which are fleeting forms of hate, or resentment/bitterness/failure to forgive, which are more long-term forms of hate. Perhaps you see your spouse as a “dream-squasher”. Early on in your relationship, you had all kinds of ideas regarding what your life would be like. They did not come about, and so you blame your spouse. You need to forgive, and to realize that you are where you are now by God’s sovereign design. Perhaps it was for your protection that those dreams didn’t pan out, or perhaps it was more needful for you to learn patience, humility, or forgiveness.
So, these attitudes of hate are where the sins of which Malachi spoke begin.
Do not think you can offer acceptable worship to God if any of these attitudes are present in your marriage.

Matthew 5:23-24 informs us that we are to lay our gift at the altar, make it right with our brother or sister in Christ first, and then and only then will God accept our worship.

I know of a church that was celebrating the Lord’s Supper. One elder had just served the elements, and the congregation was quietly reflecting on the Lord’s death on our behalf. Just then, a church member hastened up front, put his hand on the shoulder of the elder serving the elements. The elder smiled, and nodded his head. You see, that church member felt that he had offended the elder, and, in obedience to this command, hastened to make it right before he felt he could offer worship to the Lord. What a great example of how we must make our relationships with one another right before thinking we can be in fellowship with God. And certainly we should make things right with our spouse before worshipping (even private worship).

1 Peter 3:7 says that if you, the husband, fail to honor and understand your wife (horizontal relationship), your prayers will be hindered (vertical relationship).

Two other thoughts are present in this first point: First, The husband must be faithful to his wife because she is his companion. (v. 14b). As Matthew Henry says, “She is thy companion; she has long been an equal sharer with thee in thy cares, and griefs, and joys." The wife is to be looked upon, not as a servant, but as a companion to the husband, with whom he should freely converse and take sweet counsel, as with a friend, and in whose company he should take delight more than in any other's; for is she not appointed to be thy companion?”

Second, God hates divorce because it is a breaking of a covenant (v. 14a,c). It is not just a covenant between you and your spouse, but before the Lord; with Him as witness. When I wed my wife, I said these words: “I, Phil, take you Sara, to be my lawfully wedded wife… before God and these witnesses.”

Point 2: God has given us children, not primarily for our enjoyment, but for His glory.

God says, “The reason I gave marriage was because I wanted more godly ones. I wanted more ones just like Me, to be a light to this dark world. That was Israel’s task in producing offspring, and it’s ours, too. The command, “be fruitful and multiply”, was not given because God wanted the world filled with sinners; rather this command was given to His children, to fill the earth with godly ones, His children.

We give much thought to evangelism, but often fail to realize that the gospel should also be spread through the rearing of godly children. God wants to glorify Himself through godly children, who become godly parents and produce more goldy children.

This is why we were created: In Isaiah 43:7, God speaks of those “Whom I created for My glory”. A Christmas Tree in a Red Skelton skit was fond of asking, “What’s my purpose for being here?” Our purpose for being here is to bring glory to God--to increase and enhance His reputation in the world (see Malachi 1:11, 1:14, 2:1, and 2:5). Puritan Jonathan Edwards said that God’s glory is “the end (or ‘purpose‘) for which God created the world”, and both parents and children have the privilege of living out that purpose. Let this one purpose be the purpose that drives you!

So, this is God’s design for families; this is why He created the parent-child relationship. He could’ve just had each generation created like Adam from the ground. But He didn’t!
How do children bring God glory? To answer that question, just think about what God communicates to us about Himself by creating the parent-child relationship: Fatherly care/protection/provision (as well as motherly nurture) on His part, and total dependency on another on our part. It teaches us His Fatherly wisdom and our childlike naïveté. It further teaches us that Grander purposes exist (which we can’t always comprehend) for the difficult times we encounter--just as an earthly Father may rap a toddler on the hand to prevent him from sticking his finger in an electrical outlet, so God may allow difficult things in our lives, but always does so out of love, for our good, and for His glory.

We could continue to make these comparisons, but the point is: parent-child relationships are a means used of God to instruct us regarding Himself. It’s similar to the analogy Paul makes in Ephesians 5 between the husband-wife relationship, and the relationship Christ has with His church. Did Paul simply look around for a human comparison to describe Christ’s relationship with His church? Or could it be that God designed marriage for this very purpose: to instruct His people regarding His ways with them. So it is with the parent-child relationship. Remember God’s sovereignty, and that there is no happenstance with Him; He is purposeful in all He does.
The Exhortation--vs. 15c, 16b: “guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
(repeated). Be on guard; be vigilant, against:

1) The enemy, who prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter5:8)
2) The world, which seeks to conform us to its pattern (Romans 12:2), and
3) Our flesh, since we sin when we are carried away and entice by our own lusts (James 1:14).

If you think you have built walls sufficient to keep out the enticements of the devil and the world, you may have neglected this one vitally important fact: there is, as Puritan John Owen has said, “an enemy within”. That’s why it’s so important to ask God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there by any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24). Yes, examine yourself-- but also be aware of your capacity for self-deception.

For the children: If God has given you godly parents (sinners, yes, as you well know; yet they do tell you about Jesus, they pray with you, and they take you to church). He has done this that you may glorify Him by becoming a God-lover yourself, who is grateful for what Jesus did for you, and who never gets over this.

Think about it: God could have had you born in an alcoholic family where Christ’s name is used as a swear word, rather than being adored.

If you do not come from a godly family, here is your opportunity for thankfulness: that, though you did not have the advantage that others had, and though it seemed very unlikely that you should ever hear the good news of the gospel of Christ, yet God had had mercy on you. Marvel at His sovereign design, that God easily overcame such earthly obstacles so He could adopt you as one of His own.

Whatever your situation, do not waste this opportunity God has given you. By bringing you to a place where you can hear the gospel of Christ, He’s given you a great advantage others do not have. You get one life: it’s like a dollar bill: spend it as you will, but you only get one. “Your life is a vapor” (James 4:14).

Can you imagine if, during the Olympics, an athlete was running in a relay race, with his team in the lead, and the moment the baton was handed to him he stops running, looks at the baton, hurls it into the stands, and walks over to centerfield to play in the grass? We would think it ridiculous to even imagine that someone would squander such an opportunity to be a part of history and to bring great honor to his country. Yet people do this in the spiritual realm all the time. Their parents have given them a baton of a godly heritage, and they chuck it away to play with the world’s trifles.

What do I do when I blow it?

-Confess it to God (1 John 1:9)

-Ask the Savior for strength to not repeat the folly (Hebrews 2:18, 4:16).

-Run to the cross. This is perhaps the most neglected step. We will blow it; we’re sinners. Let that serve as a reminder to you about why the Sinless Savior died. 1Jn 1:8-2:1 tells us: Don't sin; but if you do, we have an Advocate with the Father! We have a defense attorney Whom the Judge always listens to, always believes, and always rules in His favor! And His case is this: “They’re not guilty of the crime, because I’ve already done the time! What they’ve done is a capital offense, and deserves capital punishment, the death penalty; but I, their attorney, have already been executed in their place! Let’s use our failures to thrust us into thankfulness for the Savior’s payment of the penalty of our sin!

So, glorify God in these relationships He has put you in. Guard yourselves, and do not be faithless!