Matthew R. Perry

What Makes Music Christian?

In Church Life, Theology on April 6, 2006 at 5:50 pm

My good friend Mark Combs and I recently discussed our desire to help reform Christian worship in our churches.  This reform certainly does not entail anything drastic such as ripping out the piano and organ in lieu of a praise band or orchestra.  In fact, we avoided such triviality. 

Our desire is to help make all of our worship God-centered and Word-centered (these terms are synonymous, by the way).  Many of our songs that we sing are not God-centered.  Tim Challies in a recent article noted that we sing songs in a Christian context and accept them as such, but if they were sung in, say, a bar or nightclub they would fit in just as well.  Another called these types of songs "Jesus Is My Boyfriend" songs. 

I am not saying that all of our songs have to be singable systematic theologies.  I'm saying that they must not be devoid of theology at all — not devoid of declaring the attributes and the workings of God.  Sadly, many of our songs are simply telling others of what we are going to do in worship rather than extolling the One to be worshipped. 

This is surely not limited to choruses — hymns are just as able to proclaim God's glories and just as culpable in conveying trite and insipid sentimentality.   For example, In the Garden by C. Austin Miles goes as follows:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

He speaks and the sound of his voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that he gave to me
Within my heart is ringing

And he walks with me
And he talks with me
And he tells me I am his own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

When Jesus speaks, it is soft on occasion, but on occasion it is not (Revelation 1:9-20).  And the joy that Christians have is shared — not simply exclusive to one particular Christian.  But this song is truly devoid of any Scriptural or biblical theology — yet is loved by millions. 

My desire as a leader and pastor in the church is to prayerfully consider what we do and why we do what we do in corporate worship.  Is it biblical?  Is it conveying truth? 

I also recommend the latest interview in the 9 Marks Interview Series with Dr. Philip Graham Ryken.  Priceless!  It deals with many of these issues we've discussed as well. 

  1. You’re nitpicking that song needlessly. It’s a bit light compared to some of the songs in the hymnal, but it speaks of the intimacy between the believer and the savior. I don’t think the writer meant that joy is exclusive, but the song is from the viewpoint of an individual. Do you not ever experience joy by yourself while praying or meditating on scripture? Further, the flowery phrasings are more characteristic of the time in which the song was written than anything else.

    The song is highly poetic and figurative, perhaps moreso than some, but the Bible contains poetic language in some places and it doesn’t in others.

    “He makes grass grow for the cattle,
    and plants for people to cultivate—
    bringing forth food from the earth:
    wine that gladdens human hearts,
    oil to make their faces shine,
    and bread that sustains their hearts.
    The trees of the Lord are well watered,
    the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
    There the birds make their nests;
    the stork has its home in the junipers.
    The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
    the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.”
    (Psa 104:14-18 TNIV)

    Is the above passage any less devoid of theology than “In the Garden”?

    I have fond memories of my father going about his chores singing this song when I was very young. It was meaningful to him, and that makes it meaningful to me. It’s a song of joy, of happiness. If we as believers can’t express that, what can we do?

  2. In the context of corporate worship, I do not believe I am “nitpicking needlessly.” Why sing songs about individuals in a time of corporate worship? Every example you gave deals with individuals and their individual experiences.

    And I appreciate the quote from Psalm 104. But the entire Psalm (even your quote) exalts Him, not the exclusive experience of one person where it seems the experience is exalted above all else. But keep it in context with the entire Psalm:

    1Bless the LORD, O my soul!
    O LORD my God, you are very great!
    You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
    2covering yourself with light as with a garment,
    stretching out the heavens like a tent.
    3He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
    he makes the clouds his chariot;
    he rides on the wings of the wind;
    4he makes his messengers winds,
    his ministers a flaming fire.

    The quote you gave is in the context of giving some great theological content about the characteristics and attributes of God — something that is totally absent in “In the Garden” and many other sentimental songs that exalt our experiences over God. It is far too subjective, because some may not have those experiences and are asked to sing about them. We need in our times of worship to sing more of the objective attributes of God and begin there — not simply take it for granted.

    Just my thoughts.

  3. What about Psalm 27? It’s from the viewpoint of the invividual and it’s been used in corporate worship for millennia.

    Just playing advocate for someone…not necessarily the devil 🙂

  4. Psalm 27 makes personal the attributes and character of God that have been on display in His Word and among His people since time began — and before. It actually has something to say about God where He is the focus. “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (v. 1). Yes, personal, but God is the focus, the subject!

  5. Again, I could say some of the same things about “In the Garden.” It has something to say where God is the focus about the writer’s joy in his relationship with God. I’ll grant you that it’s not the most theological weighty song in the hymnbook. I just didn’t see it as bad as you did.

    I will commend you on this, Matt… I’m glad you’re thinking on these things. We would agree that much of the newer songs written are much more shallow. I don’t think it has to be like this. There’s nothing inherent even about a contemporary sound, or the use of particular instruments that says the content of our words in worship has to be light. But it will take songwriters focusing on this issue to change things. And if worship leaders will pay attention to the songs for their content and not just how “cool” they sound, our worship will be more meaningful.

    I’ve actually had similar discussions with our worship minister, and I’m glad to say that he take the content of the words in songs very seriously.

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