I’m not a casualty of the Christian Worship Wars, but I’ve definitely been wounded. Music is potent. And therefore can be controversial in every genre and among every people. Seeing as how the American church divides over things like the color of the carpet, it does not surprise that we argue about what we sing.
In my circles for the last 25 years, the main topic has been older hymns vs. contemporary music. Thankfully, most churches I know blend them. Which is typically the easy but also mature solution. Unity matters. Yet I still have known those who strongly favored one over the other. Usually, those who love older hymns. And they have often been ready to verbalize and debate it.
Those debates still exist, though I encounter them less frequently these days. The rage in church music based on my social media feed has transitioned to a specific category of contemporary Christian music: songs published by groups like Hillsong and Bethel. I read articles and posts about this with interest because I want to be informed.
And I get the concern with the beliefs of certain churches and pastors. There are false prophets with huge followings, and terrible theology that is popular. Even knowing this, I have decided that my church will not avoid everything by groups like Hillsong and Bethel. Here are my reasonings as to why:
1. My Primary Goal For Church Music Is to Sing the Bible
Despite whatever theological failings the churches may have, Hillsong and Bethel’s musicians have produced scripturally sound songs with overtly biblical lyrics. They perfectly complement my sermons. Consider “This I Believe (The Creed)”. Based entirely on the Apostle’s Creed, it communicates the most essential truths Christianity offers about Jesus, The Trinity, The Resurrection, and more. These beliefs separate Christianity from other religions. They show how wholly distinct (i.e., holy) our God is. And historically, Christians have died for believing them.
Similar are “O Praise The Name (Anástasis),” “Goodness of God,” and “I Am Who You Say I Am”. I can easily cite the biblical basis for nearly every line in them. As such, they are part of the regular rotation of songs at my church.
Whatever false teachings are out there by the churches, they do not show up in these songs. My people only stand to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ by singing them.
One teenage girl at my church chose “The Creed” for her National Competition song this year. One day, when she sees her faith tested through suffering or opposition, I pray the words to this song ring in her ears and soul.
2. My Secondary Goal For Church Music Is To Sing Songs That Are Meaningful To Them
Singing the Bible reigns supreme. But, right behind that, I want my church to sing songs that matter to them. I want them to sing songs that they love singing. I want songs they can and will sing at the top of their voice. Emotion is not the goal but should often be a result. When my church sings “O Praise The Name (Anástasis),” and we get to the lyric,
Then on the third at break of dawn
The Son of heaven rose again
O trampled death where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King
people in my congregation have shouted out in joy before. I love that! Similarly, there are times someone may be singing one of these songs as a special. When our people are seated. And the truth of the song will cause someone to spontaneously stand up. Then others follow. And soon the church is standing in honor of the worship of the King of Kings! Glory!
Let me be real. Two things I cannot stand in church musical worship are 1) When people are singing and going through the motions, emotionally dead and 2) When a service is filled with songs the people barely know and have to rely too much on the lyrics on the screen, making it awkward1. So I’m thankful for the gift of songs like “Goodness of God”. Not only are they biblical, but my people (especially the younger generation I desperately want to disciple) treasure them deeply. And can sing them in their sleep. My wife has even written about this particular song and how its lyrics have helped us navigate the journey of our 2-year old son having a brain tumor.
Years ago I heard MercyMe’s Bart Millard speak of attending a Garth Brooks concert. How all 20,000 people there were singing “Friends In Low Places” together. He said even though the song is about an indecent lifestyle, there was something magical about that many people crying out together with one voice. How much more powerful is it when it is God’s truth that people are singing passionately in mass? That is what I want to hear on Sundays.
3. Evaluating Source Material For Worship Music Is Convoluted
A classic example of how hairy it is to study authors of our worship songs is H.G. Spafford. You may know that he wrote “It Is Well With My Soul,” in 1873 after his daughters died. It remains a mega-popular hymn of lament and hope in the English-speaking world. Yet by the end of his life, Spafford began espousing unbiblical views on important topics. Should we stop singing his song?
I’m positive if I could comb through the hymn book (I won’t) and do a deep dive on every author of the popular entries, I’d find more disturbing information. It is just the nature of humanity. Some even claim that John Newton wrote Amazing Grace while still invested in the slave trade.
Another issue is that by singing the songs from groups like Hillsong and Bethel is that we are supporting them. I get that. Yet I think the prior points are too important to the health of my church to allow this to be a dealbreaker. Also, it causes me to think of Paul’s words in Philippians 1:
"It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry...[They] preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice."
The Gospel is preached when anyone sings the aforementioned songs. Furthermore, I don’t know that I want to go down the road of trying to figure out the morality of everyone I support, within the church or not. I mean, if I pay a mechanic to do good work on my car and he uses that money to go get drunk on Saturday night, what do I do? This is similar to why I’ve rarely boycotted anything.
Thankfully, some of the articles I have read that talk about not using Bethel or Hillsong music have said it was a personal decision. Not intended to be an absolute truth issue. That is my aim as well. If churches or individuals boycott music from these groups, I understand. I just want to make disciples. Do I need these songs to accomplish that? No. I do not. But they help immensely. And my people adore singing them, just as they do “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “The Solid Rock”.
So I advocate, as typical for Rambling Ever On, for discernment on an individual level. Feedback is always welcomed. Notably in the comment section below.
- Of course, we learn new songs periodically and this can’t be avoided then. But on principle, I want our service to be mostly songs our people are going to sing loudly and earnestly. ↩