‘Worship is formative. The songs we sing are formative, one way or the other.’
This observation by Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace music has been buzzing round my head like a bluebottle fly for the past few weeks.
Is there a ‘type’ of song that it is better to sing?
There is no doubt in my mind that, as the quote above states, the songs we sing in church have a massive impact on us. Whether we notice it or not, the words are teaching us- shaping what we think our God is like and how the Christian life is to be lived. That’s a big deal. So how should that influence what I sing? And how should that impact what I think about what it is that I’m singing?
I guess there’s an opportunity here to delight in some richly-worded songs. As I’ve listened to beautiful old hymns like ‘I Asked the Lord‘ and ‘Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul’ I’ve been awe-struck at the depth and wisdom they contain – they’ve brought me to tears, summed up how I feel in better words than I can describe, deepened my sense of joy and thankfulness towards the Lord and presented God in his kindness to me. For these things, I am extremely glad. I do sometimes find myself wishing we sang songs that have this kind of weight to them more often in the Christian circles I find myself in. It’s good to appreciate these great hymns and songs, I think. But there’s a danger that I become very narrow-minded on this matter – because for the international student visiting my church, or even someone who just doesn’t have as much of a love of words as I do, these hymns can seem alienating, difficult to understand, and therefore not the joy to sing and to hear as I find them to be. For them, there’s no sense of identification with what they’re singing, and no greater joy in Jesus as a result. So where does that leave me?
I suppose another opportunity is, then, to enjoy singing songs that are more immediately accessible – either because of the language they are written in, or because of the style and structure of the song. I’ve had the joy of singing some wonderful songs like this at church, written with choruses or verses in different languages, with a simple but clear message that everyone should be able to understand and appreciate. It is exciting to glimpse a tiny picture of that vision in Revelation 7 when people whom Jesus has loved and rescued from every language, nation and tribe will celebrate him together! And other kinds of songs, where lines are repeated and themes are very straightforward can be a great way to reflect more on the truth they contain – I’m not at all opposed to this – I recognise the fact that I’m often slow to believe, and creating space those truths that I’m struggling to grasp onto to sink in has been a really significant thing for me. Returning to my original questions, though, the actual content of what I’m singing must contain true things about who God is and what it’s like to know him to do us good. And I think that includes the slightly trickier question of how those truths are expressed – it must be in a way that helps me to understand them. Simple phrases taken out of context can be easily misunderstood, and this, I think, is the risk with simpler songs – we’re left to interpret the lyrics much more independently, and all can be influenced by all sorts of assumptions without even realising it.
Here’s one example – these lyrics are taken from a song I heard this week by Ben Cantelon, called ‘Worth It All’. I picked this song because I’ve been really enjoying it recently, and it’s not a ‘simple song’ in the sense I described above, but if worship is formative, leading us and shaping our thoughts in one way or another, then this song can act as a case study. I’ll finish with some questions I’m pondering over as I listen to it – what impression of the Christian life is given here? How is Jesus portrayed? What are we left thinking about? What is the song pressing us towards?
I let go of all I have just to have all of You,
And no matter what the cost I will follow You
Jesus, everything I’ve lost I have found in You
When I finally reach the end I’ll say
You are worth it all.
Here’s the full song for you to enjoy…