If you walked into a contemporary evangelical church in the early 2000’s, you would likely be greeted by the familiar sound of a worship team playing songs from the latest WOW worship CDs. Each WOW worship CD claimed to contain “Today’s 30 Most Powerful Worship Songs,” and these songs seemed to be played everywhere for over a decade. But oddly enough, most of the songs on those albums have been left behind with our WWJD bracelets. Many of the songs I grew up singing are non-existent in the corporate worship of those same churches.
Why Do Some Songs Stay While Others Pass Away?
What is it that makes some songs stand the test of time, and others fade? How is it that ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘It is Well’ have retained their relevance and impact for centuries? Why do some contemporary songs like ‘In Christ Alone’ and ‘Before the Throne’ find a lasting place in our churches? While there are various factors we could cite such as melody and history, I propose that above all it is this – doctrinal depth and poetic power.
This should be no surprise. Any casual glance at the Psalms reveals the power and necessity of poetry to convey the depths of God’s dealings with His people. To describe God as infinite and incomprehensible exhausts the limits of human vocabulary. The Psalmists were by necessity theological wordsmiths – they had a deep and abiding grasp of God’s attributes and workings in history, and they could reflect on it in a way that penetrates the soul.
Why Poetry and Theology Need Each Other
Poetry apart from theology is empty, but poetry can increase the effect and the depth of theology. This must be the pursuit of every would-be song writer – presenting deep truths in ways that resonate with the mind and captivate the heart to draw God’s people to worship. In an age where catechisms are non-existent in most evangelical churches and doctrinal Sunday schools have nearly vanished, resurrecting and writing doctrinally sound and gospel-centered hymns has never been so crucial to the health and vitality of our churches.
There are two simple but profound reasons for this:
Poetry Makes Theology Personal
I have seen two ever-present dangers in the Christian mindset towards theology. One is the mindset that deep theology is reserved for intellectuals and is irrelevant and impractical for the average believer. The other is that we can pursue theology without doxology – it is all too common for our debates about doctrine to fuel our egos more than our worship. Theologically rich songs provide a powerful avenue to bridge these two destructive gaps between the head and the heart. They teach the soul to connect these realities so they do not seem distant or theoretical.
Songs with image-rich, gospel-centered lyrics drive theology home in a way that many other means cannot. Think for a moment, what resonates with you more? Hearing someone say, “God will take care of all of your needs,” or hearing the first lines of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” The imagery and poetry of that Psalm helps our dull hearts to feel and believe the truths we have likely already heard.
I’ll never forget watching a family at our church clutching each other through tears singing “when peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll.” They had just witnessed the death of a friend, and in that moment the reality of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness resonated with their hearts in a unique and powerful way. When poetry and theology meet it helps us understand the height and depth of Christ’s love for us more fully.
Poetry Makes Theology Memorable
Singing has always had a central role in helping God’s people celebrate and remember that He has done. There are many notable instances of this – when the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea they burst into song reflecting God’s deliverance; when David returned the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem, he gathered all of Israel in joyful worship; and even on the night of the Passover we are told that Jesus sang Psalms with his disciples, a moment that would no doubt be etched deeply in their minds. When sound theology is placed within our worship, we engrave truth upon our hearts in a real and lasting way.
During seminary I often found myself ditching cue-cards in favor of singing the Hebrew alphabet to the tune of the familiar ABC song. Singing allows us to effortlessly memorize ideas we would otherwise struggle with. This is a powerful tool that can be harnessed to increase the impact of our weekly worship. Choosing and writing songs that complement the message of the sermon or a series will allow people to continue to hum and sing the truths they’ve learned long after the three points have been forgotten.
Singing On Our Deathbeds
Several times each year I lead a group of youth to provide a worship service in a local nursing home. Many of the residents suffer from memory loss and other disabilities that make normal conversation nearly impossible. My ten minute message is often accompanied by the not-so-subtle snoring of the attendees. Yet, when we pull out their hymnals, it seems that they come back to life as they chant out in an unashamedly off-key chorus, “O precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow.” It is clear that singing this poetic portrayal of the gospel for decades has left an in-erasable imprint upon their minds and hearts.
Our churches need that.
We need songs that impact our hearts with the truth, we need songs that remind us of Christ’s redemption, and we need songs that are worth singing on our deathbeds.