So far in our series of “Writing Songs That…” we’ve explored “Writing Songs That Teach” and “Writing Songs That Encourage”. Now we come to one of the most obvious topics that is so often misunderstood or misapplied. That topic is: Worshiping songwriters should write songs that worship.
That seems so obvious. So why state it? Well, before I explain, let me share another picture. Over there, on the right. After discovering the power of royalty free stock photos, I began creating a library to use on this blog and in my church’s online services. When I was planning this article I downloaded this picture (formally titled grayscale-photo-of-people-raising-their-hands-1666816) to be the featured image. What better way to show that this article is about worship than to show people in the act of worshiping. Right?
But as you can see, I didn’t go with “grayscale-photo-of-people-raising-their-hands-1666816”. Instead, I realized I needed to focus on the cross. I share this rather insignificant decision making process because it illustrates the great challenge we face when it comes to writing songs that worship. That challenge is to answer the question “what are we worshiping?”.
Before we dive in, lets define “worship”. According to Google, worship (as a verb) is to “show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites”. That’s fine, but scroll down a bit and there’s a definition that I like a little more. The archaic definition is “honor given to someone in recognition of their merit”. I like this definition because it separates the act of giving honor to the one being worshiped from their inherent worth. The one being worshiped does not gain merit or value because they are worshiped. Instead, we, the worshipers, acknowledge what is praiseworthy and render an appropriate response.
This does two things for us as worshipers. First, it forces us to know the one we are worshiping. With this definition, we cannot recognize merit if we have no knowledge of that merit. Second, this leads us to examine our own act of worship. If worship is “honor given in recognition of merit”, and we understand the merits of the one we are worshiping, then it is only natural to compare the honor we give with the value of the merits. Do we do justice to the merits with our honor or do we belittle our God with what we offer? Here I am forced to look at my own life and ask “Do I give more praise, enthusiasm, and honor to the things of this world than I do to God?” Or perhaps this self probing question, “How will my praise for my lunch after the service compare with my praise during the service?”. If those praises, those levels of enthusiasm or gratitude, are even comparable then I have a major problem. Either I do not know God’s merits or I am willfully honoring Him as much as I honor a cheese burger.
But perhaps you have started on your journey of knowing God and you have correctly recognized that you will never be able to fully grasp the depths of His merits. He is so wonderful, holy, loving, just, and good, that we could spend all of eternity trying to know Him and still just begin to scratch the surface of who He is. If that is the case, how would you render appropriate honor for who He is and what He’s done?
Well, simply put, you can’t.
You and me, us fallen, created beings, will never be able to appropriately worship a good and holy God. Nothing we offer ever come close to accurately reflecting His worth. No religious tradition (Isaiah 29:13), no vibrant singing (Amos 5:21-24), no flood of tears (Malachi 2:13), no cascade of dollars in the plate (Mark 12:41-44), will worship God. In fact, those references show certain times that God condemns all of these actions. Now within true worship there is a place for traditions, and for singing, and emotional responses, and generous giving, but outside of true worship God finds these acts detestable. Instead of worshiping Him, these acts become a shallow mockery of His character.
True and proper worship is to offer our entire life as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Why is this? Because when we place our faith in Christ we acknowledge that the only sacrifice that can accurately honor God’s merits is God Himself. Then, our only appropriate response is to be transformed into His image. True worship is placing faith in Christ and loving God (and your neighbor) with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Anything less fails to give appropriate honor to God and transforms our acts of worship into hypocritical mockery.
So in order to have songs that worship, we need songs that encourage us live a holy life. We need songs that lead us to be transformed into the image of Christ. We need songs that help us love our neighbor as ourselves. But don’t stop there. Because in order to worship we also need to know God’s merits. We need songs that teach us who God is and what He’s done.
And here we come to the major conflict.
When we are singing our worship songs are we focused on who God is and what He has done or are we focused on the worshiper’s experience? Do we praise God for His gifts while ignoring the Giver? There is a place in worship music for singing about our relationship with God but if that is all we sing about then our spiritual diet will be greatly lacking.
There have been many songs written throughout the history of the church that glorify the worshiper’s experience more than they glorify the God who gives those experiences. Also, there have been many Christians who claim that if they are not “feeling it” then they are not worshiping. In this scenario, worship is reduced to an emotional state that is brought on by a culturally appropriate harmonic progression and beat (I say culturally appropriate because each culture responds to specific harmonies and beats differently. That tritone may sound sweet and jazzy to us but our spiritual ancestors would have called it the devil’s tone). Here, the worshiper is more important than the one being worshiped.
And here’s the major problem with this.
If we worship the experience instead of the one who gives those experiences then we equate the feeling we get with the presence of God. Then what happens when we don’t feel it any more? We have to ask “Where is my god?”. Or perhaps we’ll go to a secular concert and discover that we can get the same feeling from their music. Then perhaps, even worse, we begin to say “I want my worship experience to be more like that secular experience”. Then what happens to God’s holiness, or His wrath against evil, or the way He condemns sin? Well, those topics don’t really lend themselves to that experience so we better focus on love!
When we focus on the worshiper’s experience we inevitably sacrifice the knowledge of God.
Then, if we are no longer concerned with singing songs that lead us to know God, how can we accurately worship Him? Perhaps you might say “well, there’s a sermon. I’ll get to know God better in the sermon” but if we are at church for the preaching of the Word why do we need to get pumped up to receive it? Shouldn’t we be as hungry and excited for the Word as we are for lunch? And again, if we are at church for the preaching of the Word, why would we be satisfied with music that does not teach the Word?
I’ve critiqued specific songs before but I don’t want to do that here. Everyone is at a different stage in their Spiritual journey. One person needs Spiritual milk while another needs Spiritual meat. Those who eat Spiritual meat may find the milky songs to be lacking and those that require milk may find the meaty songs to be ineffective and inaccessible. This does not mean that one is more valuable than the other. It just means that certain songs will minister to certain people in different ways throughout their lives. There may even be a time when a meat eater hears what they thought was a milky song and the truth of the song pierces them to their heart. In that moment, instead of scoffing, they fall to their knees to remember what they have forgotten. On the other hand, someone who enjoys Spiritual milk may one day find that their appetite has increased to the point that it can only be satisfied by something more substantial than their current diet.
Set aside whatever songs have come to your mind as you have been reading this. Categorizing specifics is not the point of this article. Instead, this is a plea, for all worshiping songwriters, to write songs that worship God and not the worship experience. Write songs that accurately reflect God’s character. Write songs that teach the Word. Write songs that encourage the body of Christ to act like the body of Christ.
Remember those two pictures at the top of the article? The crosses and “grayscale-photo-of-people-raising-their-hands-1666816”? Write songs that lead people to the cross and not to themselves. Then may we respond to the revelation of who God is and what He has done with holy reverence, sincere repentance, and unfettered joy.
3 “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent…John 17:3, From Jesus’ prayer for His disciples
May our songs worship God by leading those who sing them into a deeper knowledge of Him and His Son.
My fellow worshiping songwriters, lead your singers to the cross.
This is only a cursory glance at writing songs that worship. There is so much that goes into worship that it would be impossible to cover it all in one article. If you have thoughts or questions on the topic feel free to leave a comment or visit The Worshiping Songwriter on social media. As always, thank you for reading.