My view of the singer was obscured by a thick wave of fog. A man with a headset notified the production director to set “phasers to stun.” The music began with the triumphant march of drums beating to the rhythm of Top 40 hits. The leader listed off several incoherent invitations in an attempt to solicit the presence of God. Shouting, “We want your presence” over the pulsing meter of the music while the young, energetic musicians danced to flashing lights. Standing amidst this, I could not help but wonder, “How did we get here?” What began as antiphonically chanting gibberish was now accompanied by click tracks and auto-tune. Looking left and right, I couldn’t help but wonder how this experience was forming these individuals. The musicianship was excellent, but the words were something between Twitter takes and meme-level theology. Have we elevated technique and musicianship over basic discipleship? How was this advancing or stalling our mission to make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that God commanded?
If a mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew, the same is true of the songs we choose and sing congregationally. How does this song build up the body of Christ? How does this song edify a seasoned saint? How does this jingle build up the newly-born believer? How does this worship leader understand his role and responsibility? We must take seriously the theological development of the individuals we call worship leaders because they are disciples too.
Human beings are worshippers. We always make valuations and assign worth to what we encounter. Most of the time, the valuation occurs in the subterranean levels of the mind and heart—split-second decisions about what is good, better, or best. One thing broadly accepted but rarely articulated is that we (modern folk) value what “works.” Techniques are what we crave. Techniques are the air we breathe. Not all techniques are bad, but some are more deceptive than others. If the congregation sings simple, theologically thin songs louder, then we give them more of what they want. If higher decibels and lower lights affect the vibe, then push the faders and drop the blinds. But if you try to disciple the congregation with off-brand versions of the greatest hits of the 80s, 90s, and today, that technique may illicit response but not result in the formation you seek. Trending music may provoke loud noise, but when the excitement fades, what’s left? After all, there may be a technique that seems right to a man but, in the end, leads to death.
In Ephesians 5:19, Paul writes that life in the Spirit involves singing. But he does not give us an exhaustive list of songs that should be in rotation in our respective churches. Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs are distinctive yet overlapping types of songs. No particular type of song, instrument, or genre is mandated in the Scriptures. However, if our songbook does not resemble the Psalm book, we need to ask some serious questions of our singing. The objective of singing corporately is to build up or edify the body of Christ (Eph. 4:13–16). The words on our hearts and on our lips matter more than their illicit response.1 The manner in which we go about singing matters because we are formed by singing.
“If our songbook does not resemble the Psalm book, we need to ask some serious questions of our singing.”—Andrew Lovette
From the earliest ages, we learn words and phrases quicker by song than by rote memorization. When my youngest daughter begins to belt with all the force her small lungs can muster, “Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.” Her hands get busy while she repeats the refrain. She sings and does what she sings. The same should be true of the songs we sing. Songs catechize us not only doctrinally but ethically. Bob Kaughlin rightly describes the songs we sing in corporate worship as “take-home theology.” If singing crawls inside our heads and hearts in this way, we should think long and hard about training those who choose the songs and those who lead singing in our churches. But how responsible are they?
An old friend, whom I’ve never met but occasionally speaks to me from beyond the grave in written form, taught me this. His name is Martin Luther, the ol’ German reformer himself. Luther was known for his nail-and-hammer work, sparking the Reformation in the sixteenth century. He is less well-known for being a prolific musician and songwriter. A man of deep conviction, he held that a pastor who could not sing was not fit for the ministry, writing that we should not even “ordain young men as preachers, unless they have been well exercised in music.”2 He taught that the preaching of the Word and the singing of the Word were both ministrations of the word. We pray the Word, preach the Word, and sing the Word. Both prayer and preaching are disciplines the pastor practices and must give great attention to. According to Luther, the songs we sing are worthy of equal consideration and ought to be made plain in the language of the people. But the centrality of singing as a “ministry of the word” raises the bar from whoever can simply sing well to someone who knows the truth of the Gospel and skillfully uses music to make disciples.
With the rise of “worship music” as a category, a culture has formed around those who lead songs and those who select the songs we sing. They are labeled “worship pastors” and given the authority to catechize the congregation weekly. They are engaged in a ministry where the power of music brings words to the head and heart. A song can lift the truths of the gospel over the barriers of fear and doubt and place them in the affections. Luther was aware of the power of music and advocated for this use.
Some may object that Luther’s times were wildly different from our own, but they would be wrong. At the turn of the millennium through the day of Luther, the Roman Catholic Church was increasingly marked by professionalism. Professionals would cue the pope-presenter, singers would perform elaborate orchestrations in Latin, and platform cultivation among the clergy was rampant. Luther spoke out against these elements, as should we.
Because those who lead music in our churches are responsible for a teaching ministry, we should make sure they are growing as disciples (μαθητής, mathitís) and not merely technical musicians—or worse, as performers. Their voices matter to the extent that they are filled with the Spirit and truths of the Gospel. Due to the responsibility that worship leaders have in giving the congregation take-home theology, as pastors, we must think twice about appointing leaders to this task without an ongoing plan to form them theologically. Further, and especially if they are gifted musicians, their character must outpace their perfect pitch. Love of God and neighbor must empower the leaders or technique and performance will prevail, and congregations will drown in an ocean of catchy, self-centered hooks.