I remind my children and my students often that words are our friends and that words matter. While many of us speak ineffectively and shallowly, there are no throw-away words. Every word communicates something, be it our biases, our ideas, or our ignorance. Words talk. Someone’s listening.
The same principle is true of our worship and the songs we sing. As Christians, we gather with great expectation to worship our God and Savior. We should do so joyfully. However, joy should not be guided by willful ignorance. Too often we don’t think about what we’re singing. We act as though the words don’t matter, but they do because it is the Gospel that’s at stake.
I grew up, so to speak, in a church where the Gospel according to Fanny Crosby was the Gospel truth. If a song wasn’t written by Fanny or one of her immediate successors, the song probably wasn’t worth singing. If Fanny or one of her friends wrote the song, the song was accepted as a lyrical presentation of biblical truth.
Rarely would a worship service not include at least one of the Fanny favorites. We sang those songs without ever thinking about the words. The tunes were familiar, the lyrics sacrosanct. One would never dare question the content of those songs or their value. To do so would bring cold stares and instant questions concerning your salvation. Such blind allegiance to our pied pipers of evangelicalism isn’t necessarily good.
Don’t hear me wrongly. I like Fanny Crosby and many of her songs. I’m not opposed to the music of revivalism or the modern era though my own preferences lean to songs written by 17th and 18th century evangelicals. What I am saying, and remember words matter, is that we shouldn’t sing any song without giving serious thought to the words, their meaning, and the message that we proclaim to those who’ve happened upon our worship hour.
Let me give you just one example of a beloved tune, a classic, and a perennial favorite. I’m sure to alienate someone here. But, for the sake of the exercise, let’s ask, “What do the words mean? And, do I agree with them?” The song in question … “In the Garden.”
“I came to the garden alone” — what garden? Surely not the Garden of Eden. The garden of Gethsemane? The garden in my backyard? If it doesn’t matter, why are we saying it? So, since these words are adiaphora (things indifferent), I'll give them a tentative, “I agree.”
“While the dew is still on the roses.” Okay, so it’s a rose garden. So what? I’ll take these words at face value and assume that they’re meant to paint a word picture to set the stage for the message of the song.
“He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me that I am his own.” Certainly those words are reassuring. Sounds like Adam in the Garden with God. I can’t complain here.
“And the joy we share as we tarry there …” Amen. Our relationship with Christ is one of joy inexpressible.
“None other has ever known.” Whoa! Wait a minute! Am I the only Christian? Has no one ever felt the joy of knowing Christ personally? How can we sing this song corporately, if no one other than me has known this joy? Is my Christian experience that different from everyone else? Should it be? Is this Christian individualism at its best or worst? This thought, it seems to me, is unbiblical at worst and unclear at best. Thus, with these words I can’t agree.
If I were to sing words like these or others that I have trouble with, I give tacit approval to their meaning. When my church sings these words, I hit the mute button. Does anyone else know? Probably not. Is my reasoning self-evident? No. But, I’m not worried about what my neighbor thinks. I’m worried about what God thinks and I want to make sure my words match up with His. Remember, (theological) caution is the better part of valor.
So, all that to say, let’s listen to the words once in a while. I’m not arguing for some sanctimonious hyper-criticism. I’m not calling for a lyric board of inquisition. I am calling, however, for contemplative worship that contemplates the words in our songs. I am asking that all Christians do their duty, to test the spirits, and ask those tough questions of the songs we sing: What do the words mean? Do I agree with them? If not, quit singing. If so, sing all the louder as you sing your theology, as you sing your faith.
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About Peter Beck
Peter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
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