Worship Music and Being Slower to Judge Other Churches

It’s probably a small minority of Christians, but it seems to me there are still quite a few out there who find purpose in being the worship music police. Therefore, I wish more people thought like this:

“I can easily sing How Deep the Father’s Love for Us with a clear theological conscience. Always have. What do I do when I get to the line, ‘the Father turns his face away?’ I instinctively interpret it charitably, in the high-trust environment of my local church. Does this line from the 1990 song drift too close to suggesting that Father & Son are separable, at odds, broken up? A bit. But if I’ve heard good Trinitarian theology at church, I know in advance not to hear the line that way. The line wraps trinitarian language (Father-Son) around a biblical image (turning away a face) in order to interpret the moment of crucifixion.”

Fred Sanders

Instead, I know many will be quick to condemn a song because it has, to them, unbiblical lyrics. Or it’s not as rich as the old hymns. Or it was produced by some heretical group1.

To be clear, as a pastor who picks my church’s worship music every week, I have zero issues with people having these strong opinions at their church. Where I find myself annoyed and willing to speak out is when these people try to make their opinions law for other churches as well.

I don’t even care that people judge worship music. We should be discerning. What we do not do, to allude to the quote above, is interpret things as charitably as possible. And, we are not slow to judge. I will discuss a couple of the three areas.

We can’t sing that; it’s unbiblical!

Here’s an example of what I mean:

The tweet is in response to the Keller quote, but this also comes up with the worship song “Reckless Love”. People have lambasted it for being an outrageous statement about our sovereign God who is never “reckless”. But this assumes the word reckless always means out of control or careless. It does not.

Just a few months ago I was a guest at a worship service where the music leader led the congregation in this song. And he explained that the word can mean, “to not care about the consequences of an action”. And in that sense, I do think God’s love can be described as reckless. It just requires a little charity on my part in interpretation.

Here’s another:

I spoke to this one on Facebook this week, to preview this article. So I won’t repeat too much of what I wrote there. Except to say that I don’t find this phrase unbiblical at all. Because the Holy Spirit does seem in Acts to move outside of just residing in the hearts of individual believers. And commands in the Bible are not always to tell God to do something, but to show humility and dependence. As in Revelation 22:20: “Jesus, come quickly.” (See also Psalm 4:1 and 5:1.)

We can interpret the phrase charitably, and even if we don’t like it, we can refrain from telling everyone else to not use it.

Here are a few more examples:

The Academic Dean of Moody Seminary where I attended did not like the phrase “emptied himself of all but love” from the Charles Wesley hymn “And Can It Be?” Because that is not what Philippians 2 means about Christ’s “emptying”.

Years ago I heard a worship leader say someone in their congregation had complained about singing the MercyMe song “Greater”. Because of the lyric “There’ll be days I lose the battle, Grace says that it doesn’t matter”. Presumably, because it sounds like cheap grace.

Another person who leads worship music told me once they were working under a different worship leader. This new leader asked them to recommend some songs for the next service. And they recommended “Heart of Worship” by Matt Redmond. It was rejected. The first person didn’t ask for an explanation, so I cannot be sure of the reason. But knowing the situation I am fairly certain it was about the song’s content.

These types of lyric-questioning moments have been extremely common in my 25 years working in the church. In some cases, as with “And Can It Be?” the person objecting was mature and charitable enough to not throw out the whole song just because of one line that seemed off. But other times, Christians have been ruthless and refused to sing or even allow some pretty orthodox songs to be sung in their services.

I have often felt this was an excessive reaction. But that is their prerogative. When people try to dictate the same to me and my church, that is when I feel the need to speak out.

More Hymns!

A second type of example of this issue is the belief that churches must sing older hymns.

Granted, I will be clear that at my church I pick older hymns every week. Like many churches, we have blended old and new. The reasoning is simple: outside of the lyrics being biblical and the songs being congregationally singable, my biggest priority with worship music is “Are these songs that are meaningful for my people, so they will sing, loud and bold?” As such, we gladly do “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “The Solid Rock” regularly.

Yet for the sake of argument let’s say I planted a church to reach only unchurched people. In theory, I could have a worship music lineup that looks like this:

Week 1:
The Creed (This I Believe)
Give Us Clean Hands
Is He Worthy?
King of Kings

Week 2:
In Christ Alone
You Are God Alone
Psalm 73 (Sovereign Grace Music)
God of Wonders

Week 3:
Anastasis (O Praise The Name)
Awesome God
Better Is One Day
Everlasting God

I cannot imagine thinking that I’m missing something from my worship because all of those songs are from 1990 or after. They all are overtly biblical. Several are taken directly from psalms and add little to nothing to the Scriptural hymns. The Gospel is clear and dominant. Every important doctrine we need to teach new Christians is there. And they can all be easily sung by a crowd.

Yet, if I understand some voices on social media, they would immediately cry “Why are there no hymns?” My question in response is “Why does there have to be?” This seems like a preference or conviction thing people make into an absolute truth.

Let me be clear: Many older hymns are biblically-based and are often wise to use because of context. But they are not necessary. That’s what I want people to say. “We sing hymns at my church but if you do not that is OK.” Of course, if a church is singing new songs that are weak theologically, that should be called out. But the answer does not have to be to sing old hymns. It could be. Or the church could correct by singing biblical new songs.

I honestly think God in Heaven cares if our worship music has biblical lyrics, and is biblically carried out (led and organized with excellence, not tainted by hypocrisy, etc.). Everything else is negotiable. Everything.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I strongly advocate for more Christians to say “I don’t like that” instead of “That is wrong” more often. There can be some gray even between those two statements. But overall, I think Christians need a good dose of the Fred Sanders quote from the top of this article. Filter things with charity. Not everything has to be a soap box, especially when it’s not your church or group. May we all manifest a little deferential humility on secondary issues, like worship music.

  1. I wrote about why my church still sings songs by Hillsong and Bethel last year, so I won’t bring that up again. I will add since I have had a year of perspective and had many healthy conversations as a result of that article, that the one counterargument I find strong is that it is not good for us to support these churches financially. Which we do when we sing their songs, because of Christian licensing. This isn’t enough to stop me from singing them in my church, but I respect that point. I do NOT respect the argument that Hillsong has weak music. Anyone who has heard “King of Kings,” “O Praise The Name” or “The Creed” knows these songs are robust theologically.

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

9 thoughts on “Worship Music and Being Slower to Judge Other Churches

  • July 21, 2022 at 4:02 pm
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    Amén! Well-reasoned, and presented with grace.

    Reply
  • July 21, 2022 at 4:29 pm
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    Good thoughts here. Another question I have that these discussions often raises for me is: what constitutes a “hymn”? Perhaps I’ve just missed that discussion elsewhere, but I think some believe that a song is a hymn if it is in their printed hymnal or if it is of a certain age. That shouldn’t be the definition, though, as the Gettys (for example) write “new hymns” while some songs found in older hymnals do not have nearly the theological soundness as theirs. I don’t believe age or printed status is the definition being implied here, but I do wonder what passes the test for “hymnhood” for many people.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • July 22, 2022 at 4:42 pm
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      That’s a great question, Marcus, and I suppose for simplicity’s sake I used “hymns” for the older worship songs. People do that, and I agree it’s not correct as a category name, and they do the same by classifying new music as “praise and worship”.

      I do know that prominent voices out there (on in particular but I didn’t get into naming names) are clamoring for “more hymns” in worship services and they definitely mean older songs. But that’s a bad habit I think Americans have developed. “How Deep The Father’s Love” is definitely a hymn.

      Reply
  • July 22, 2022 at 11:46 am
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    Songs catechize listeners. So we must be vigilant in both corporate worship and personal entertainment because music affects our minds.

    I agree with the sentiment of charitable interpretation in corporate worship. But I will never personally choose to listen to songs that have lines such as “get my worship on.” 🙂

    Reply
    • July 22, 2022 at 4:43 pm
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      Ha!! Same, my friend, same. I know I have heard a song that has that phrase and I can’t place it and I also can’t place whether it was sincere or a parody. Because the overlap of reality and parody in America these last 7 years has become a Venn Diagram circle.

      Reply
  • July 30, 2022 at 5:14 pm
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    How dare you encourage us to be charitable towards other Christians! I can’t imagine the Bible ever telling us to do that.

    JK, good reminder. I know it can be hard to be slow to anger about songs we feel strongly are poor songs for the church to sing. Thank you Gowdy for sharing!

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    • July 31, 2022 at 6:23 pm
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      Thank you!

      Reply
  • August 9, 2022 at 3:35 am
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    If it’s any consolation, one of the co-writers of O Praise the Name was in our church’s youth group growing up. Grew up to be a fine man from a good family with good biblical knowledge and understanding.

    My understanding of a hymn is typically a multiple replicated verse (or verse/chorus) structure without a standalone bridge, eg V1, V2, V3, V4, or V1, Chorus, V2, Chorus, V3, Chorus, as opposed to for example V1, Ch, V2, Ch x 2, Bridge x 2, V3, Ch x3 (key change) Ch x 2, tag x 3. Under that form, I’d accept O Praise the Name and How Deep the Father’s Love For Us as a hymn. Heart of Worship, I’d take as a chorus, based on the frequent repetition of “I’ll bring you more than a song, more than a song” bridge section. Some churches don’t bother with that section and do it more as a hymn format.

    But I really appreciate your perspective on giving a bit of grace. I don’t understand how certain people are moved by certain songs that leave me cold, but then some songs will break my heart while other people can’t figure out what (for me) makes that song great. Art is art. (Side story – I have a previously unchurched friend who was looking for Led Zep, Jethro Tull etc. on Youtube and somehow came across “Raise a Hallelujah” – don’t ask me how, the algorithm must have moved in really mysterious ways – but it was the catalyst for a full conversion and he is now a committed Christian in our church.)

    Reply
    • August 9, 2022 at 9:34 am
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      Thanks for the comment! That is very cool about your former youth group friend. I would say that my church’s Mt. Rushmore of favorite worship songs are In Christ Alone, The Creed, King of Kings and O Praise The Name. And if I had to pick one that was most loved, I’d pick O Praise The Name. My church is baptist, conservative, etc., and yet that song causes people to shout our and raise their hands and such. I wrote about it in one of the linked comments above last year. One thing about all four songs my church loves (that is a church that still deeply loves older hymns as well) is that they all tell the Passion Week story, or at least the most crucial parts. That is special to us.

      Reply

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