Celebrating Faith with Songs
No, I haven’t forgotten how to spell.
My title is intended to be a clever device, what theologians call a “pun,” to get and hold your attention for a minute or two. So far it is working, right?
I am not advocating the lower men’s vocal range in an SATB choir piece. Neither am I mourning the lack of bass in the 3-part Gospel Choir sound. I agree that bass doesn’t really work in the basses-on-the-melody worship team sound. (On the other hand, if you have ever sung in an 8-part a cappella choir—SSAATTBB with two bass parts!—you know what a rich sound that is!)
I am not dealing with musical aspects of worship music at all; my concern is for the subjects of our songs. This will not be a critique of the content of contemporary worship songs. Choosing the music for the congregation to sing in worship is a solemn responsibility that every good worship leader approaches prayerfully with a pure heart.
Every Spirituality Has a Base.
The late Dr. Robert E. Webber famously stated that all spiritualties are based on a grand story; he called it the meta-narrative. This is the story we hold in common: who God is, who we are, how the world came to be, what we are here for, and what happens when we die. The music of worship springs from this base. When we summarize our core beliefs, we can see what should be the subject of our worship and therefore of our songs.
Here Is an Example.
I will demonstrate this by examining the spirituality in which I grew up and the one I continue to celebrate in worship. My group is a Pentecostal one, the Assemblies of God. We define our base as a 4-fold understanding of who Jesus is:
- Jesus Is Our Savior.
- Jesus Is Our Healer.
- Jesus Is Our Baptizer in the Spirit.
- Jesus Is Our Soon-coming King.
This 4-fold vision of Jesus provides us with our Four Cardinal Doctrines:
- Salvation comes by faith in Jesus and not by works we do.
- Divine Healing is in the Atonement.
- The Baptism in the Holy Spirit is the Promise of the Father to all Believers.
- Jesus is Coming Soon.
Here’s What I Mean.
If I am leading worship in an Assemblies of God church and the pastor’s vision agrees with this, I should sing songs that celebrate:
- Salvation in Jesus,
- The promise and expectation of Divine Healing,
- The Ministry of the Holy Spirit, and
- The “Blessed Hope of the Church” the soon return of Jesus.
I am not talking about in every service of course, but as the Spirit leads. I need to lead my congregation in singing the base. These subjects hold a greater importance than the age or sound of the music we choose.
The Bible Calls for Songs that Teach.
In two places, the New Testament calls upon us to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. In Ephesians this music is linked to staying filled with the Holy Spirit. In Colossians, the music is linked to learning the Word of God and experiencing the working of the Word in our hearts.
Colossians 3:16 NKJV
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
There is nothing vague or ambiguous here: a function of worship music is teaching doctrine and encouraging discipleship.
It Has Always Been this Way.
For most of my young life, I played my clarinet during the song services so I knew the tunes better than I did the words. When I went to college I started leading the singing because there was no one else to do it. At the same time, I was answering the call of God on my life to preach the gospel. I was learning the Bible, specifically what we believed. My Bible study and the words of the songs I knew so well suddenly merged one Sunday morning. I had read that week about the resurrection, “The seed sown in weakness shall be raised in power.” (1 Cor 15: 42-43) I heard myself singing this:
“O the seed that was sown in weakness shall then be raised in power.”
(“Changed in the Twinkling of an Eye” Fanny Crosby and William Kirkpatrick)
I realized in that moment something that I continue to realize to this day almost 50 years later—Great worship songs teach what we believe! I knew what we believed because I had been singing about Jesus as Savior, Healer, Baptizer and Soon-coming King all my life! I don’t know if our pastor and song leader set out to do this but I know it was the ministry of the Holy Spirit to do it! Teaching has always been a function of worship music. Look at the Psalms; you will find them full of history lessons, doctrinal admonitions, solemn warnings and spiritual exhortations.
It Is Time for Someone to Sing the Base Again!
Whatever brand of Christian spirituality lies at the base of what you and your church believes, it needs to be celebrated in song. This is one of the main ways faith is transferred from one generation to the next. On a few occasions I have led worship in churches that did not share my four base theologies. What did I do? I celebrated the ones we shared. You may be in that situation—find areas of agreement between your heart and the heart of your church and celebrate them in song.
The problem becomes this: where can you find the songs that do this? The same place you find all your songs: the established songs of the church and the new songs God’s songwriters are producing today. If you are a worship leader this is the work you must do! Let it be a joyful creative challenge. Songwriters–help us out! Write songs about what you believe. If you want to write songs that many people will use, start writing about what many people believe.
Worship Is More than Feelings
Worship should feel great—sometimes it is the greatness of joy and sometimes it is the solemn greatness of the mission before us. But as great as this is, there is more to worship than feelings; there is the working of the Word of God in us, “richly,” the Bible says. We take away more than the memory of a feeling. We take away words, fixed in our minds by songs, that inform and inspire us long after the “Amen” has sounded.
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved