Church · Heart

What We’re Talking About When We Sing Christian Songs

Worship

When I was in college, I was part of an on-campus Christian organization. As we grew we did a lot of things, but the way we got started was through a weekly evening of worship at one of the fraternity houses, of all places. (Actually, it was the one with the worst reputation. Isn’t is just like God to reach into a place of darkness and shine brilliant light?)

Eventually, we had this idea to bring in Christian artists and host a concert for them, giving them all of the proceeds, if they would agree to come and lead our worship night, where anyone could attend free of charge.

Thinking back on this as an adult, I am astounded we got anyone to come. I can’t imagine those concerts were very lucrative for these artists. We were a small school and our biggest auditorium didn’t hold much of an audience to speak of, especially not if these artists were used to playing in big arena.

But they must have seen our hearts or something, because some people came anyway, and led worship for us like we had asked.

One of those nights, Todd Agnew came. I had heard his songs on the radio and was excited to hear him play for us, both at the concert and at our worship night, which was first. I had a really full schedule that semester, and hadn’t been around when some of my friends picked him up at the airport and got him settled at our school’s bed-and-breakfast-type inn. We had decided to have the worship night at the old cathedral on campus, because we were expecting a larger crowd than we typically had on an average Monday at the fraternity house.

I had come from work and got there just as it was starting. I expected to see Todd Agnew up on stage, but the only stage lights that had been turned on were the ones behind him, outlining only a vague silhouette of a man on a guitar.

“Tonight isn’t about me,” he said. “It’s about the Lord.”

And he proceeded to teach us about worship. He pointed to Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4, where Jesus tells her that the kind of worshipers the Lord seeks are those who worship in spirit and in truth. Todd challenged us: how often do we sing words we don’t understand or words we don’t mean? If God wants people worshiping Him in truth, are we doing that?

Those questions have stuck with me all these years, and I return to them often, evaluating the way I sing when I sing to the Lord and the lyrics of the songs I’m singing to Him. My favorite songs contain rich imagery and language taken directly from the Bible. But I also love songs that force me to stop and ask, “Do I really mean that?” Is God’s grace alone really enough for me? Would I really follow Him anywhere? Do I even know what I’m asking when I ask to see God’s face?

Lately it seems a lot of other people have been asking those same questions, particularly as it applies to the Hillsong United song, “Oceans.” The lyrics to the bridge of this song say, “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders/Let me walk upon the waters/Wherever you would call me/Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander/And my faith will be made stronger/In the presence of my Savior.”

That is a big thing to ask. And a lot of other people in Christian circles have been pointing this out, and asking us, do we mean it? (I would contend, that if we are call Jesus Lord, we should be praying these things. There is no way to follow Him halfway, but that’s another post for another day.) I am glad that “Oceans” has sparked those questions for people

But “Oceans” isn’t the only song we should be applying those questions towards. We should be asking questions of every song we profess to sing to God. We should be asking:

  • What does it mean?
  • Is it biblical?
  • Do I mean it?

I can’t answer that last question for you, but I can help with the first two. Studying worship lyrics has always fascinated me. As a teenager, I loved reading a passage of scripture and realizing it was the inspiration for a song I liked. And as I’ve gotten older, I have intentionally sought out the history and meanings behind songs that are a part of our tradition, from the most contemporary worship songs to the oldest hymns.

I want to start sharing some of that information here. It’s so easy to get caught up in lyrics that sound good, or that are set to a nice melody. I’m guilty of that as much as the next person. So I thought we could spend a little time together examining the things we say in Christian songs, and what it really means to say to those words to our Lord, so stay tuned.

But in the meantime, would you do this with me? Next time you go to church and sing worship songs, would you read the lyrics before you start singing–I mean really read them? Start asking yourself the questions above. What do these words mean? Do these words line up with the truth in the Bible, to the best of your knowledge? And most importantly, do you mean them?

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