Worship/Philosophy 101: What we sing matters.

Editor's Note: this blog is part one of a series of blogs about our philosophy of worship. Stay tuned over the next few months for the rest of the series

"Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts. And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father." - Colossians 3:16-17

NERDSSSS

If you've talked to me for more than ten minutes then it should be apparent that I am a giant nerd. Like, the world's most giant nerd. My friend Robbie would disagree with me, but then again he runs a podcast that's literally called "The Nerd Cave." But we'll agree to disagree. (But seriously, if you never have before, skip to the end of this blog and read my bio #nationallyrankednerd).

If you're still reading at this point you either A.) like me a lot, or 2.) are wondering where on God's green earth I'm going with this. (So am I) Anyways, I'm a nerd about a lot of things, but one of my favorite things to nerd out over is music. And like any giant nerd who loves music, I thrived in my time as a music major in college. I was the top of my class in theory and composition and I loved learning more about the great composers that came before me. Now, if you know anything about music, you probably know that nobody can agree on who the second greatest composer of all time is. (In my opinion that's Gustav Mahler, but you probably disagree with me) There isn't much dissent, however, when it comes to the greatest of all time - the GOAT. The Tom Brady of Composers. The Mickey Mantle of Making Music. (#alliteration). That composer is, of course, the indomitable Johann Sebastian Bach.

GET OFF MY BACH, MAN

Besides being the most prolific and respected composer of the Baroque period, J.S. Bach should also be remembered as a killer worship leader. Bach didn't just write great music - he wrote great Church Music. A devoted Lutheran, Bach was fortunate to grow up after the Protestant Revolution (we celebrate it's 500th anniversary this year) and to have the chance to work in a new world that appreciated and celebrated the role of music in worship (For many years prior the Catholic Church had moved away from music in worship with the exception of chant). After having many steady composition and organ jobs throughout his career, Bach settled in Leipzig for the last 27 years of his life - he was appointed Cantor of the Thomasschule at St. Thomas Church, where he provided music for the four largest churches in his city. Its a poor comparison for a lot of reasons, but Bach was basically the Chris Tomlin of his day. He wrote worship music, he was freakishly well-known, and he did it for a lot of people. Bach approached his music with an intentionality that I greatly respect - it wasn't just music for music's sake. After having studied Bach's life and music extensively, I came to a conclusion about worship music.

Worship music can't just be a pretty melody filled with empty platitudes and overdone cliches. What we sing matters. 

What we sing matters.

On the surface that's not a revolutionary statement. But you'd be surprised how many song requests I get that try to prove that statement wrong.

POSITIVE. ENCOURAGING.

I talk a lot about K-Love (the #1 Christian radio station in the country) and honestly that talk is very rarely in a positive light. I could write an entire series of blogs about my issues with K-Love, but the issue I have here is less about them and more about the music that the Christian Music industry supplies them with. A lot of what we hear on the radio is a pretty watered-down representation of our beliefs - Many of the songs the industry supplies us with are shallow, vapid, manipulative toe-tappers that rely on using music to elicit an emotional response from you, the consumer, instead of propping up your faith with scripture and truth. (There's a formula: Vague Struggles + References to Water = CCLI Top 25. Watch this unfortunately accurate parody video.) Some of those songs are even borderline heretical (and I don't throw that word around like it's nothing). 

I spend a lot of time listening to worship music. A lot. And from my perspective, modern worship music has two large problems to reckon with. 

  1. The Christian Music industry, which produces all of what you hear on K-Love and most of the songs that make it to the CCLI top 100 (the measurement we use to find out which songs are being sung by the most churches), doesn't have the same commitment to biblical literacy and understanding that the church does. They have a commitment to the bottom line.
  2. People have been told, either directly or indirectly, that positivity is to be valued above all else. Even at the expense of truth.
  3. (Here's a bonus:) Our United Methodist Hymnal contains about 500 songs spanning nearly 500 years of church music. For hundreds of years getting new hymn books was the only way of getting new music. In comparison, there were almost certainly at least 500 songs written and released last year - all readily available to the public and marketed as the next big thing. Quality control is a real issue.

That first point is a huge issue, and the other two points are a direct result of it. If what we sing matters, why are we constantly supplied with poor songs to sing? I think that it would be unfair to characterize the songs that are being written now as objectively worse than what came before - "the great old hymns." Unfortunately, that characterization is alive and well in many churches and in the minds of many people. The hymnal, in most cases, represent the songs that stood the test of time because they were singable and contained truth. There were many more songs that haven't made it into our modern hymnals because they were poor songs. It's important to remember that the hymnal isn't infallible. There are new editions, and revisions, and songs that were once thought essential parts of our hymnody get lost to time because of shifts in theological thinking or musical style or even rhythmic emphasis. And some that stick around deserve to go. (Victory in Jesus comes to mind - but that's another blog). Today, there are many songwriters not attached to the "industry" that are writing brilliant songs that just don't get heard, and there are many songwriters in the industry whose best work doesn't pass the sniff test. 

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

All of these things are a problem for us, because again: What we sing matters. It informs what we believe. It gives us a lens, good or bad, through which to interpret scripture. It binds us together in a common train of thought and a common understanding of basic doctrine like the trinity, the resurrection, or atonement. And if we sing something that either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresents basic doctrine then we learn bad theology. My piano professor hated the phrase "practice makes perfect." She thought it was misleading, and she was right. To say it more accurately, "practice makes permanent." The first time she told me that I was floored. I thought I could just put in the time and I'd be great, but I found out that it actually matters how I went about things. I had learned bad habits through lazy practice that almost ruined my career. Imagine how much worse it is for us when we learn bad theology through lazy songwriting?

Because of this, everything we sing on Sunday morning goes through the same filter: a rubric. (I'm still a certified K-12 educator in the state of Florida. We love rubrics.) I use the rubric to answer some basic questions about a song:

- What kind of song is it, and how well does it achieve it's goal?
- How well does it deal with the trinity?
- Is it written for corporate worship (we vs I)
- how well do the lyrics "work?"
- How singable is the melody?

That's a sampling of the (admittedly ridiculous) process that songs go through before they get sung on Sunday morning. I'll admit that not every song we sing right now passes my test. But every new song we introduce does, and we're doing our best to get away from singing songs that don't. Every time someone gives me a song suggestion I put it on the list (I'm backlogged - fair warning) and work down the list vetting songs and filing them in either the "accepted" or "rejected" drawer. Both drawers are pretty full right now, to be honest.

I take the time to put things through that process because like I said before, what we sing matters. As bad as it is for us to learn bad theology through lazy songwriting, I think that part of my responsibility as your worship leader is to make sure that those things don't happen. I take it very seriously, because I love what I do. Also, I'm a nerd.

Be blessed.

-Matt


Matt Dailey serves as Worship Director at Navarre UMC, and has been at the church since 2013. When he's not leading worship and designing graphics, he enjoys baseball, comic books and team trivia (his team is nationally ranked. #micdrop). Read more about Matt here.