Should Worship Songs Focus On Objective Truth Or Your Heart’s Response?

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Panoramic landscape photo by Sojourn Communications Intern Chelsey ScottOne argument against using old hymns in modern worship is that they focus on objective truth to the exclusion of subjective response. That is, they are all head and no heart, offering the worshiper dry doctrinal statements but providing no expression of emotion.

Kevin Twit has heard this argument. Twit is a pastor in Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), the college campus ministry of the Presbyterian Churches in America. He is also the founder of Indelible Grace, a movement to bring forgotten hymns into the church. Twit and Indelible Grace artists like Sandra McCracken, Matthew Perryman Jones and Matthew Smith have written new music and arrangements for hundreds of hymns, creating a series of worship records and an RUF Hymnbook.

When I asked him (in a recent My Song In The Night interview) if our hymn writing forebears went too far in writing theologically deep but emotionless lyrics, he said,

“It depends on the hymns. There are hymns (and psalms) that directly address God, and also ones that are more of an exhortation to other believers. I believe the best hymns have a good marriage between objective truth and subjective response.

“When I Survey The Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts is a great example. In the first half of every stanza you get doctrinal truth, but in the 2nd half of the stanza you get the subjective response. But in the last verse all four lines are response.”

“My concern with some praise choruses is they are almost completely response without any preaching of the gospel to our hearts. But I also believe even these songs can be used judiciously in a service as long as there are songs giving us solid meat to chew on as well.”

Worship service planners and songwriters don’t have to choose between old texts and new material, nor between songs that declare the truths of God’s Word and songs that give voice to our response. Mars Hill Worship Pastor Joe Day told me,

“I do try to write from what moves me because I think if I can’t sing it in such a way that I’m not moved, then I’m not sure anybody else will follow me when I lead. Our hearts have to pour out to God in our songs for them to be convincing.”

Do the songs you are writing and the songs you’re leading balance the revelation of God’s truth with your heartfelt response? It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.


Bobby Gilles August 13, 2012 at 7:24 pm

A few additional thoughts, based on some feedback on Twitter:

1. I agree with Joe Day and Kevin Twit, and don’t think their comments are opposed to each other.
2. The question itself is a bad one inasmuch as it implies a “yes” to one and “no” to the other, which was my reason for the post. I’ve been asked this question many times. In short, my answer is that your songs should present and accurately reflect the truth of the Bible, and should also be your heartfelt response to God. We sing these songs as we dwell richly in the Word of Christ, with thankfulness in our hearts to God.

Kevin Twit August 15, 2012 at 2:03 pm

One of the things I love about the older hymn texts that I see less often in modern songs is the use of metaphor and paradox that stir the imagination – and I believe the imagination is more important than many realize. I want to have Christ displayed in worship so that He is seen with the eyes of faith in the fullness of who He has revealed Himself to be – in Word and sacrament and I want the songs to thoughtfully contribute to this. The songs are not just the “opening act” for the preaching, nor should they carry the full weight of all that is happening in worship. I’ve seen worship models that I thought veered toward these 2 extremes.

James K.A. Smith August 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm

I appreciate the reflection here, and I’m an unabashed fan of what Kevin and others are doing with “retuned” hymns. At the very least, I tell my kids we learn to sing hymns so that we can share the faith with those seniors in the nursing home–for some of them, the language of the hymns is all that’s left for them.

But I do worry that we’re framing the question in terms of a false dichotomy. Or at the very least, the question doesn’t admit the nuance we need to be really intentional about worship.

For example, the “head” is not necessarily “objective;” and “the heart” is not necessarily subjective. Furthermore, I don’t think we want to restrict “truth” to what you’re calling “objective” truth (I say a bit more about this in my forthcoming book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works). As Pascal said, the heart has REASONS of which Reason knows nothing. One could even talk about emotional truth–and in that case, some of our emotional responses to worship music might actually be UN-true vis-a-vis the Gospel. (Not all emotional responses are Christ-honoring, not even heart-felt ones.)

I think worship planning and leading would be well-served by spending some time thinking more carefully about the nature of truth and the formation/evaluation of emotion.

But hey, your post obviously started that conversation! So thanks for that.

Adam Ranck August 13, 2012 at 10:04 pm

Yes, going with this idea would add a deeper level to planning and leading. I appreciate your perspective on this, and agree that “heart” and “truth” aren’t both limited to “subjective” and “objective”. I’m trying to think how your idea would look practically though. How would you teach a worship leader to plan and lead in thinking this way? How would it be different than what Bobby is saying here?

Bobby Gilles August 14, 2012 at 12:17 am

Thanks so much for your response; I’m honored you visited our blog and contributed these helpful insights. I’m currently reading your “Desiring The Kingdom,” and finding it very useful.

I probably should have put the phrase “all head and no heart” in quote marks to indicate I was borrowing a colloquial expression that I’ve heard used by people who mean “dry facts but no emotion.” I don’t think it’s either a true or helpful expression — just one that people use.

I don’t want to put words in Kevin’s mouth but I used “objective truth” to mean that which is true regardless of opinion, and “subjective response” to simply mean the response of the subject to the object (of worship). I’m greatly looking forward to reading your “Imagining the Kingdom” and delving more into this.

I agree that not all heartfelt emotional responses are Christ-honoring, and that we should think carefully about the nature of truth and the formation/evaluation of emotion. I would still say (or perhaps, “this is what I’m trying to say”) that the lyrics of our songs for worship can/should
1. express the truths of scripture
2. express our appropriate, thankful response to God’s revelation of Himself, and our salvation through Christ’s work.

We shouldn’t choose between either “our lyrics should teach” or “our lyrics should be thankful responses to to God.”

Thanks again for your wisdom!

Adam Ranck August 14, 2012 at 4:26 am

yes definitely. I wonder where the line was drawn that people started focusing so much on just one of the aspects instead of equally on both?

I really appreciated one part that Bob Kauflin shares in his book “Worship Matters”. “Magnifying God’s greatness begins with the proclamation of objective, biblical truths about God, but it ends with the expression of deep and holy affections toward God” (page 65). To respond to God, we first are engaged by Him and who He is.

It doesn’t mean that we always have to start our gatherings with the truth ABOUT God (teach), as God is already sharing Himself and is at work in our lives before we come. But we often need reminders of who God is and who we are which reminds us what God is deserving (thankful responses to God) and help us to express that to Him.

Jacob Tilton August 15, 2012 at 6:25 pm

I think a similar false dichotomy occurs when we try to separate our enjoyment of the actual “music” in worship from the content. I find myself dealing with this when I am in a service with black gospel music. I enjoy the style so much that I start to think that I am ONLY enjoying the music. Sadly, I am guilty of sometimes judging others as only getting into the “groove” as well and not thinking about the content.

I think that we would do well to better see the marriage of content and vehicle in order to enjoy the “truth” that is contained in both. There is beauty in a Bach chorale as well as in a funky groove. We should be free to enjoy them both as vessels of truth and content.

Joe Day August 14, 2012 at 12:20 am

I love Pascal’s quote. I also love Tim Keller’s reminding that before the Gospel is anything else, it is news. Our God is alive, and the good news is that, as the hymn goes, “In tenderness He sought me, weary and sick with sin.” The songs are more than just language, and more than just response, they contain the best news our hearts could ever encounter, that is, when what they contain is the gospel. So, whether they are old or new, my prayer is that we we both hear the good news and then respond to it like it’s good news. In that place is the mystery of the reasons of the heart colliding with the clear reasoning of the head.

Chad August 14, 2012 at 4:44 pm

I love this conversation as I’m also concerned with the response-heavy emphasis in contemporary worship hymnody, with a light emphasis on revelation. There is no dichotomy here, but as it has been mentioned here, we all need reminders of the objective truths of the gospel message. Rick Warren tweeted recently that human nature typically forgets what matters most, and this is what keeps preachers in demand. (Or something along those lines).
I believe it’s the same for those who are leading our gathered worship – we need to constantly rehearse the story of God together – for many reasons.

I think one important reason to rehearse the objective story together is so that we can respond together.
When I’m at worship alone, I don’t necessarily need to focus on the objective truths of the gospel as my mind and heart have been doing that as an individual throughout my days. So I can respond as my heart will in any moment.
But as a gathered corporate expression, it is helpful if we can respond together to some objective truth/revelation of God by focusing on that together.

I believe there’s ground to be gained (in my context) towards community worship rather than individualized worship.

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