Abstract Worship Songs: Enough Already

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Rubens, Christus am Kreuz - Peter Paul Rubens, Christ on the Cross artwork

Only one Person ever did this for you ...

One reason people love classic and modern hymns is that many of them feature sound theology and clear expressions of praise (who is to be praised and why he is to be praised, along with specific injunctions to praise him). Kristen and I attempted to do this with our modern hymn My Song In The Night, which you can download for free in the column on your right (we won’t give out your email address or spam your inbox). Last week I wrote this, in an article about how abstract language robs personal testimonies of their power.:

Abstractions run amuck in bad writing and bland public speaking. Abstractions are weak-kneed, slack-jawed pansies that infest second-rate poetry (as demonstrated here), songs, sermons, stories and personal testimonies – even stories of redemption, healing and salvation.

But what about the praise and worship songs we sing on Sunday?

In the early days of our church, Sojourn Community, the late Chip Stam paid Sojourn a visit. Chip was a professor of church music and worship at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the founding director of the Institute For Christian Worship.

After the service our Worship & Arts Pastor Mike Cosper asked Chip his opinion of the worship song set list. Mike says:

Chip told me, “Well, it sounded very good. But you could do those same songs in a mosque or a synagogue and not offend anyone.”

This forever changed the course of worship at Sojourn. If you have listened to our albums like Before The Throne, Over The Grave or The Water And The Blood, you know that our original songs and our re-imagined hymns and psalms are unmistakably Christian, exalting our crucified and risen Lord. If there is one way in which we most hope to affect Christian music, it’s not:

  • Encouraging more artists to do old hymns
  • Encouraging a certain sound or style of playing
  • Encouraging more churches to record original music
These are all fine, but the top goal is to preach Christ, transmitting the gospel that we have received so we can adequately:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

— Colossians 3:16 (NASB)

Songwriters: look at the lyrics to your worship songs and ask yourself these things:

  • If someone knew nothing about God, our fallen nature, the only way to redemption, the meaning of life and the future of this world, what could they discover about these things through my songs?
  • Is the God of my songs the God of the Bible? Is the God of my songs distinct from the false gods of this world?
Mona Lisa painting by Da Vinci

When Nat King Cole sang "Mona Lisa," we all knew exactly which girl he was crooning for ...

The canon of contemporary praise and worship songs has plenty of tunes about Common Grace (the blessings that the Lord rains down on believer and unbeliever alike, every day). It has plenty of songs that offer unspecific praise for being “Lord of earth and sky.”

And it has more than enough songs saying “I love you so much, I just want to be with you, I want to feel you inside me, I want to know you better, I want to sing and sing and sing about you,” sung in such a way that an unbeliever (and sometimes even a Christian) would have no idea you weren’t just singing about the cute girl in science class if they didn’t know you were a “Christian band.”

Each of these kinds of songs has their place — even love songs to God that use romantic imagery and metaphors. But let’s say you’ve written ten worship songs. Look at them. Are most of them abstract in their description of the God who saves? Are most of them abstract in their declaration of praise, repentance, longing or dedication? Then you may have a problem.

In fact you might even have a problem if you were writing love songs to a girl, which simply said “I love you, I love you, I love you” over and over, never describing why you love her, never detailing any specific thing she’s ever done, and never painting a picture of her with your words that would prove you wrote the song just for her, rather than having recycled the generic love song you wrote for your last girlfriend, and the one before that, and the one before that.

Specificity is your friend.

Writing Assignment:

Write a modern hymn, worship song or personal psalm to Jesus that anyone with even a passing knowledge of Christianity would recognize as being about him (but you can’t say the name “Jesus” in your song — that would make this exercise too easy).

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