Why Do Pastors And Theologians Pick On Worship Songwriters?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

Kristen Gilles leading worship at Sojourn Community Church

We put words in people's mouths

Last week two of my favorite bloggers wrote about issues they have with the lyrics of a couple songs for worship. Both incidents hold lessons for those who choose songs for congregations to sing, and for those who write worship songs.

First, Trevin Wax took issue with the word “just” in “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” (this popular slogan is also the lead line in the chorus of the gospel song “Sinner Saved By Grace”). Trevin is an author, and the managing editor of The Gospel Project from Lifeway Christian Resources. He recounts the conversation he had with his grandfather, which included:

He shook his head again – vehemently. “It’s the word ‘just.’ Don’t dishonor the Spirit!”

“What do you mean?”

“Trevin, you are not just a sinner saved by grace.” He was preaching now. “You are also a saint indwelled by the very Spirit of God!”

Then Mark Altrogge “messed with” the hymn “Come Thou Fount,” because of the line “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” Altrogge is the senior pastor of Sovereign Grace Church in Indiana, PA, and writer of many worship songs, like “I Stand In Awe” and “In The Presence.” He writes:

Though I know believers are tempted to wander and tempted to be unfaithful to Christ at times, I don’t see that Scripture says we are still “prone” to sin and wander.

He goes on to say that the indwelling Holy Spirit is the driving force in our lives, not our indwelling sin.

Both authors make good points, as do some of the commenters who defended the song lyrics. But the larger issue for worship leaders and songwriters is that we must carefully consider every word. We put words in people’s mouths, which they will sing in church services as well as their homes, cars and other places throughout the week as they worship God. If you don’t feel the weight of this responsibility, you should. You must.

If you’re a songwriter, critics may occasionally feel that one of your songs is theologically misleading or at least unclear. Sometimes they will be right, sometimes they will be wrong. And sometimes the issue is trickier than right/wrong. Words, phrases and theological terms mean different things to different people, based on their background. An example:

“All I Have Is Yours,” which I wrote with Rebecca Elliott, is one of my most widely-sung modern hymns. We wrote it for the offering portion of a church service, although many churches use it for things like baby dedications, communion and vision campaigns as well. But there is one particular line that has troubled a few pastors:

This offering is a means of grace

The phrase “means of grace” troubled them because they are Protestant pastors who grew up Catholic, or they lead many ex-Catholics who understand “means of grace” to be a way in which grace makes people more fit to receive justification from God. These “means of grace” only come to people through the ministry of the church (mostly through priests).

I wrote “means of grace” to mean, as Wayne Grudem describes in Systematic Theology:

The means of grace are any activities within the fellowship of the church that God uses to give more grace to Christians.

He goes on to explain that “means of grace are simply means of additional blessing within the Christian life, and do not add to our fitness to receive justification from God.” This definition, as it applies to offering our money, agrees with 2 Corinthians 9:6-15. And the lines in “All I Have Is Yours” which immediately follow “means of grace” clarify my definition:

The more I give, the less I need
I learn that You’ll provide for me
Was blind to this but now I see
All I Have Is Yours

Even so, I understand why it may give some leaders pause, in their setting and background. To be honest, I had no idea when I wrote “All I Have Is Yours” that “means of grace” means anything different to anyone else. I did recognize it as a theological term, so I should have studied the term more. I probably would have kept the line, but the failure to fully study a theological term in my lyrics was still a mistake I have tried not to repeat.

Songwriters, you need to develop tough skin, not merely to resist criticism but to learn from it — especially criticism from pastors and theologians. These aren’t your enemies; they are fellow travelers in the way of Christ who are skilled at interpreting and teaching the Word of God. Their criticism can be the “iron on iron” that sharpens you (Proverbs 27:17). This advice also applies to worship pastors and all ministers of music who choose songs. Even when you decide the criticism is off base, it can still help you develop your critical thinking, your attention to detail and your commitment to biblical fidelity.

No one likes to receive criticism. And in the Church we have a tendency to think that honest criticism is mean-spirited or even a “witch hunt.” But as I recently replied to a comment in Kristen’s post about the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry:

I do take issue with (the phrase) “meaningless witch-hunts” though, for two reasons:

1. The Bible commands us, in many places, to test and judge all messages, and it gives us the example of the “noble Bereans” who daily searched the scriptures when Paul preached to them, to see if the things Paul preached “were so” (Acts 17:11).

2. Literary and music criticism is a valid exercise. It sharpens the minds of art lovers and consumers, and it helps artists become better (even if the artist disagrees with a work of criticism, the act of disagreeing sharpens his critical skills and opens his mind to different ways of viewing his work).

Draw from the example of Apollos in Acts 18:24-28. He was “eloquent” and passionate about teaching Christ, yet he “knew only the baptism of John.” Then the great husband-wife team Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

What happened next? Did he stalk away with clenched fists and gritted teeth? Did he complain as if they had insulted him?

No, he learned from them and became a great teacher in the early church, commended by Luke and Paul in their writings. This is the attitude every Christian should cultivate, but especially those who teach (through songs, sermons, or any other form of church communication). Be prepared for criticism, and ask God to help you be gracious enough to use the criticism to learn, profit and grow.


Wayne Roberts June 18, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Whenever we sing Come Thou Fount at Sojourn (I go to the 7), the verse with the words “prone to wander” always generates the most praise from the crowd. The words were written in 1758, so you have to make allowance for word meanings to have changed a bit.

Neil James June 18, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Yea I think it’s something many people can relate to and it sets up the desire for God to seal our heart for his will/kingdom. The Bible compares humans to sheep precisely because sheep are prone to wander.

Beat Attitude June 18, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Good post. Songwriters have an important duty, and must deliberate over their lyrics.

One thing that is frustrating when receiving song critiques is when the critic is unable to suggest anything better. Communication is a functional process which is often imperfect or imprecise, and songs are crafted communications. We know that there is sometimes a more clinically accurate word, but we always have to weigh up in the balance how central that word is to the whole point of the song. If the “correct” word jars the poetic flow, then it’s not correct at all.

Songs are used to cause the heart to overflow, and channel that outpouring towards God. They stir AND direct. But there’s always going to be a degree of splashiness about it, so we need to be accommodating for that. Imagine “come thou fount” had never been published, because the author wasn’t sure how “prone” would be interpreted?

Also, we have to be prepared to apply our rigorous standards to e.g. the Psalms, too, and not expect something from our hymnwriters that we don’t expect from scripture!

Practically speaking, if a sermon is about Christ’s obedience to His father, and the centrality of the glory of God, then you probably don’t want to use the “controversial” song that ends with “[you] thought of me, above all”. But it’s an affecting and effective song all the same, and when you are reflecting on the love which Christ has for us, and the John 3:16 side of the cross, then that song can be fully appropriate. The reason is that the focus of the song is the love of Christ, the self-giving sacrifice for us: that’s what people will be thinking about. Well, so long as their worship pastor hasn’t highlighted what he thinks are the song’s imperfections, causing them to get hung up on a term that previously they didn’t really notice before.

I’d say that unthinking passiveness and disconnectedness are usually much more of a problem than the occasional theological ambiguity. It’s wrong to overlook the value of the gold in our hymns, just because they might contain a little dross.

I’m speaking as someone who likes things to be accurate when it comes to doctrine and theology. I pick up on the slightest things, and challenge people about why they said this rather than that, and could it not have been put a little better. (I’ve annoyed a lot of people in my time!) But I wonder whether the lack of passion and personal engagement in our union with Christ is the log in our own eye, where the imperfections in song lyrics are the speck in our brother’s.

Much better to challenge a song which lacks any real emotional impact due to its poor use of poetry, or a bad grasp of musical form.

Holmes June 19, 2012 at 2:25 am

Beat Attitude: In general, I agree with your comments. However, it seems odd that you would suggest using “Above All” to focus on ourselves at the receiving end of Christ’s love when the whole focus of the song is the preeminence of Jesus! The central emphasis is on His great character and work. Until the last line, that is, and that is why that line is unacceptable. We sing “… to glorify, the Father above all.”

Beat Attitude June 19, 2012 at 11:10 am

My Dear Holmes (sorry couldn’t resist!) I agree that the last line is weak for that reason, but I’m saying that it helps to give writers a little poetic license for the lines and words which are not the focal point of the song. I think that the repetition of “above all” in the last line is actually just a poetic feature rather than a theological treatise.

Theologically, what is being communicated is “you absorbed the punishment of the fall out of love for me”. This is true. If the “above all” part is being used to say “your love for me was more important even than the will of your father”, then of course it is false. But I think that we’re reading too much into that, and we’re assuming that the line is a deeply subversive byproduct of the me-centred-gospel culture. But supposing we just decide it’s just a neat little bit of poetry, not designed to make you think too much, just designed to make you enjoy the song a little more, and to emphasize the main point of the song, which is theologically sound.

Art has an element of imperfection and subjectivity about it…This is often what makes it beautiful: a recognition of the chaos out of which beauty and order was formed. It’s the beauty of contrast. As writers, we should not be required to explain every brush stroke, or why we chose to highlight one subject over another. We need to be careful not to foster an environment where no-one feels encouraged to create.

it’s perfectly possible to pick at every piece of art until we expose the failings or inadequacies of the writer. If we’re going to do that, it has to be done with a constructive end in mind, and often we’re not too concerned with making something better as we are about strangling that which we don’t think is good enough.

Now I’m not a huge fan of “Above All”, so I’m not trying to defend it as being as good as the best of them…but as a hymnwriter, even one with a thick skin, I still worry about how my songs will be publicly critiqued because they are an extension of myself…they are the outpouring of a broken soul.

Jesus does not break a bruised reed, and it is so good to practise encouragement and affirmation as well as discernment. As a musician, I know how easy it is to want to make myself feel better by picking out the flaws in other musicians. So that’s all I’m really saying…it’s important to cut creative people a little slack!

by the way, my own hymns are at soundcloud.com/newscottisharts 🙂

Holmes June 19, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Beat Attitude: Thanks for a good response (I did laugh over the “My Dear Holmes” reference 🙂 I absolutely agree with what you say about the “art” aspect of our songs. The songwriters of the Church do not claim be writing new Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit! We most definitely should be careful about squealching the artistic flow as people pour out their hearts to the Lord.
However, sometimes we have to draw the line. Words mean things and theology matters. I am, actually, a big fan of the song “Above All” and Paul Baloche songs in general. Perhaps Paul did not anticipate the many people who would grab on to that last line and run with that one thought “above all” of the rest of the song – such a beautiful picture of Christ’s preeminence.
Interesting thing: After we changed the line (“… to glorify, the Father above all”) the complaints that I heard were always something about that by changing the line we gutted the song of it’s deepest meaning. That being, of course, the “me-centered Gospel”. Those people could not even hear what the rest of the song was saying! They would just mumble something like “It just means so much to me that Jesus was thinking about me at the time of His death.” Even if Jesus was thinking of “me”, personally, at that time (hard to make a Biblical case for that), He certainly was not thinking of me above His Father.
What it comes down to is that point at which the outpouring of the artist’s heart (always imprecise and subjective) intersects with the perception of the “hearer”. I believe that the artist has some responsibility to think through how theology might be twisted if the words are not crafted well. That said, it is a subjective thing and therefore the debate will probably never be settled this side of heaven.
Thanks for the good conversation. If we sat down to discuss this over coffee I think we would find that we are actually very close in our thinking.

Beat Attitude June 21, 2012 at 1:31 am

I think so too 🙂 We’re not necessarily disagreeing, just finding balance.

My objection to the edit “to glorify, the Father above all” is that the meter sucks. But that’s the thing isn’t it…if you pick away at the last line, the form of the whole song starts to unravel. It’s extremely hard to find something that scans as well as the original line there, I’d wager (having given a full 2 minutes of my time to the task). It’s one of those little imperfections or conundrums that serves perhaps to humble us.
People rightly decry so much of the wholesale butchery that goes on in the name of “modernising” traditional hymns. The layers of finely balanced poetry within a song are not always immediately understood by hymnbook edition editors looking to change e.g. archaic language. Their motive is functional rather than aesthetic. And I think that in our functional pursuit of right doctrine, we ought to remain respectful to the value and fragility of art as a reflection of God’s creative grace.

Bobby June 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Very helpful post Bobby. Appreciate your wisdom here and benefit greatly from your blog. Thank you for serving the church this way. I have a question for you along the lines of this article.
Some people in our church have asked me about the line in “There is a Peace” that says “bring blessings and offerings and then you will see.” Some see that as having the “order of grace” a bit wrong. I am in love with the song and don’t necessarily see a problem with the line but was wondering what you thought of that line and how you talk through it with people. Thanks!

Bobby Gilles June 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Hi Bobby, thanks for the comment. “There Is A Peace” was written by a Sojourn member named Charlie Richardson, and I’ve never talked with him about that line so I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I know that we’ve said (in intros) that the only acceptable offering for an unredeemed sinner to bring is repentance, and the confession that we need Jesus to save us.

5stringjeff July 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I like the “Prone to wander” line, because I think each of us can relate to our own wandering hearts, even as we are being continually sanctified day by day through the Holy Spirit.

The line that bugs me the most is “The Darling of heaven, crucified” from “Worthy is the Lamb.” The word “darling” sounds like something a mother calls her baby – not a proper way to address the Son of God. I would change that line to “The High King of heaven crucified,” which fits in better with the rest of the chorus (“Worthy is the lamb, seated on the throne/Crown you now with many crowns, you reign victorious/High and lifted up, Jesus, Son of God”).

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