Cut the song some slack

Tuesday’s post provoked(?) responses–all of them good–but I thought the feedback from our music pastor was particularly helpful in pushing the conversation forward.

It’s a lot easier to preach on a scripture passage than it is to sing a song that is a scripture passage. A song is usually about 4 minutes max. I understand where you are coming from with these two songs but I see nothing wrong with the songs. Most every song gives scripture but it cannot give you the context and background from where it comes within the song. Amazing Grace is a song we have been singing for years and if you look at this verse The Lord has promised good to me/His word my hope secures/He will my shield and portion be/as long as life endures.“As long as life endures” does this mean that believers will only be protected when we are living on earth or that life may come to an end? Scripture tells me that believers will have eternal life. The point I’m trying to make is that there are a lot of songs that kind of leave us wondering when you look deeper into them because they are only 4 minutes long or may only have a portion of scripture in them….if the songwriter was here in front of us to defend it, we would have a clearer picture but that’s not the case. I’m sure we could criticize every song out there but I am just glad those two songs mentioned are based out of scripture and not just a love song that never mentions God or His word once.

1) 4min song vs. 40min sermon — The typical praise song is definitely at a disadvantage. Four minutes don’t leave a lot of room for nuance (neither does a 400-word blog post SO HOW ABOUT CUTTING ME SOME SLACK {easy Merritt, pull yourself together…serenity now, serenity now…}). Where was I? Oh yes, nuance. No doubt some songs are more nuanced and handle brevity better than others. So if some songs are better than others maybe we could consider two options: (i) edit our song book so that our selection is limited to the “better” end of the praise song spectrum (ii) tweak our music portfolio so that we begin to invest a little more in hymnody as a way to make up for our discarded praise songs. I think conscientious music leaders are constantly doing (i) but I wonder if some might feel hesitant in (ii).

We might also consider that the perceived weakness of certain songs may have something to do with its genre. It strikes me that the two examples from Tuesday’s post–“Overcome” & “I’m Trading My Sorrows”–would both be classified as praise choruses. Songs of this genre are typically shorter (unless you repeat 50x!) & simpler which can be both a blessing & a curse. I think we need to be careful that we don’t allow the admitted weakness of a genre to serve as an excuse for a lackluster message. [This isn’t to imply that songs from the hymn book are universally impeccable. It’s just that the praise chorus & hymn differ in their points of weakness. Read the lyrics to “He Lives” with 1Cor 15:1-8 and tell me Paul doesn’t roll over in his grave every time he hears bright-eyed Christians sing You ask me how I know He lives/He lives within my heart. Good grief–whatever happened to “according to the Scriptures”, 500+ eyewitnesses, & the historical record?]

2) songs can leave us wondering — Ambiguity can be an effective tool in writing (whether prose, poetry, or lyric song) and is itself something of an artistic skill that is useful in drawing the reader/hearer in. But in our case the question is not so much whether ambiguity is a useful tool but whether ambiguity is a useful tool for teaching. Again, I think it’s helpful to consider that we are to strive to do in our corporate singing what the preacher does in his preaching–that is, to clearly and convincingly impart God’s revelation into hearts & minds by the use of words. If we agree on this point then we will probably agree that we would want to minimize ambiguity in our singing and in our preaching.

But when a song contains some measure of (unwanted) ambiguity we need not reject it out of hand. Maybe the music leader could introduce the song in its proper context, or clarify a part of the message that might be too vague, or read & comment on the Scripture behind the chorus to be sung. [we’re fortunate to have a music pastor who practices these techniques on a regular basis] This might even be a way to “redeem” some songs which have real potential but languish under a messaging haze.

3) at least the songs are based on Scripture & not just a love song that never mentions God or His word — Yes, a sincere effort at incorporating Scripture is better than offering a song so shallow as to be worthless. Nevertheless, this allowance can only go so far. I’m better off wrestling with a passage of Scripture even when I mangle it than I would be in setting Oprah’s “theology” to music, but hopefully we’re in the process of raising the bar as we grow in the Word by His Spirit.

I guess that would be a good note to end on: the realization that as we talk this through we need to allow our churches room to grow in their practice of teaching and admonishing one another through song. To that end we graciously meet each other where we are even as we call for increasing maturity in all things.

speaking [and singing!] the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph 4:15).

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

3 thoughts on “Cut the song some slack”

  1. I didn’t jump in the fray of the first blog post, but I will pose a question on this one. Is it necessary for me to agree with every nuanced theological point that a song has in it to be beneficial? I have heard plenty of sermons in my lifetime where I do not agree with 100% of what has been said either in the exegesis of the Scripture or in the application of the Scripture. But does that mean I should scratch those sermons altogether? And stop listening to that pastor?

    I guess I am just wondering: if you are stating we should throw out songs with lines of theology that is not how you would interpret whatever passage it is drawing from, would you do the same for a pastor who preaches a sermon that communicates a theology you disagree with? (*note: I am assuming we are not singing songs that are heretical.)

    1. Is it necessary to agree with every nuanced point? Not necessarily. I don’t think (and hope I didn’t imply) that I/we need to be in full-throated agreement with every jot & tittle of a song, but we can’t deny that the songs we sing should be in general agreement with our biblical convictions. How much agreement is necessary requires discernment–we have to draw the line somewhere. Even though our discernment isn’t perfect that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it.

  2. Very well put brother! I agree with you man. This post has challenged me to do a better job of digging in deeper to songs as the Lord places them on my heart. Making sure they are Biblically sound. A good way to do this is simply reading the words of the song instead of singing it. Alot of songs are appealing because they have a catchy melody but may not be edifiying to God at all. Thanks again Jonathan! What a mighty God we serve who deserves our very best!!

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