Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Putting Popular Church Music to the Test

When I first came on at First Southern Baptist Church, I was an associate pastor with an emphasis in worship. In other words, I was the worship pastor, which is a title I didn't much care for. Technically the head teaching pastor is a worship pastor. I still lead the music, leaning mostly toward hymns, but we sing some modern tunes as well.

I try to be as careful with the music as I am with the teaching. Regarding the songs we sing, I examine the lyrics but also the writers. Those addressing the church in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16) should also be sound in their doctrine. Have you put much thought into what's being sung at your church and where it came from?

Every 6 months, CCLI releases the Top 100 praise songs sung in churches (CCLI stands for Christian Copyright Licensing International). The following is a list of the Top 10 most popular praise songs for the most recent reporting period. I'd like to offer a review of these songs, the artists who sing them, and whether or not it's a good idea for your church to be singing them. The title of the song is also a link to a video performance of the song if you'd like to hear it.

1) "This Is Amazing Grace" written by Jeremy Riddle, Josh Farro, and Phil Wickham.
The song first appeared in August of 2013 on Phil Wickham's album The Ascension. It was a number 1 hit on the Christian music charts in 2014. Another of its known performers is co-writer Jeremy Riddle who is the worship leader of Bethel Church in Redding, CA.

Good Lyrics
I like the way the song begins: "Who breaks the power of sin and darkness, whose love is mighty and so much stronger, the King of Glory, the King above all kings."

Questionable Lyrics
In the chorus is the line, "That You would take my place, that you would bear my cross." I get where the artist is coming from, another way of saying Jesus died for me. But the Bible doesn't say he bore our cross. It says that he bore our sins in his body on the cross (Isaiah 53:12, 1 Peter 2:24). Why am I being particular about that line? Because Jesus said that if we are to be his disciples, we must take up our cross daily and follow after him (Luke 9:23). There is still a cross to bear, though we have peace with God in knowing that Jesus has paid for our sins on the cross. And it's His cross, not ours (Galatians 6:14).

Another questionable line is in the second verse which begins, "Who brings our chaos back into order." I'm not real sure what that means. In Isaiah 45:7, God says, "I make well-being and create calamity. I am the Lord, who does all these things." In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says the Father "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

The line has the potential to set a person up for disappointment: "Why is my world a mess? Why is there chaos all around me? I thought following God would put everything back into order!" The Bible says that all things have been subjected to futility because of sin, and all of creation is groaning and awaiting deliverance (Romans 8:21-23). A day is coming when indeed God will restore all things, but that day is not yet. When Paul begged for his "chaos" to be taken from him, Jesus said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). We are told to rejoice in suffering (Romans 5:3).

Should the song be sung in your church?
No, it shouldn't. The lyrics are not necessarily what disqualifies the song. Bethel Church disqualifies the song. Bethel is a hodgepodge of false teaching and their gimmicks are outright lies. They pipe fog, feathers, and gold dust through their ventilation ducts and claim God is manifesting himself in their presence through "glory clouds." This is what they consider worship. Bethel should be given no credibility. There are much better songs to sing. This is not that great a song anyway, musically or lyrically. Personally I don't understand why it's number 1.

2) "10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord)" by Jonas Myrin and Matt Redman.
More commonly known as Bless the Lord, O My Soul as sung in the chorus. There are several songs with that title, so it has the more original name 10,000 Reasons as sung in the second verse. It's the title cut from an album released by Matt Redman in 2011. The tune has been a top worship song ever since.

Good Lyrics
It's hard to get that chorus out of your head: "Bless the Lord O my soul, O my soul, Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul, I'll worship Your holy name." Redman has written several songs that contain lyrics about praising the Lord in any and all circumstances to the very end of life. This is one of those songs.

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. There are many songs written by Matt Redman that I really enjoy, particularly his most popular, Blessed Be Your Name. But I'm not crazy about some of his associations. You'll find his name on Steven Furtick's books giving them his endorsement, like the ironically entitled Unqualified. He's a great artist, but his theology needs some work.

3) "Holy Spirit" by Bryan and Katie Torwalt.
From what I can tell, the song was first introduced by the Torwalts of Jesus Culture in 2013. It is most famously sung by either Kim Walker-Smith or Kari Jobe. There's also a popular radio version performed by Francesca Battistelli.

Good Lyrics
That's complicated. I like the line "Your glory God is what our hearts long for." But the whole song is rather cryptic and contains no solid theology. When put in context, it's hard for me to appreciate anything about it. With every phrase, I'm left going, "What does this mean?" and never, "That's a good line."

Questionable Lyrics
The song begins, "There's nothing worth more that will ever come close. Nothing can compare, you're our living hope, your presence, Lord." Huh? What's not worth more or will ever come close? His presence? It goes on, "I've tasted and seen of the sweetest loves, where my heart becomes free and my shame is undone, your presence Lord." Again, is it his presence that's the sweetest love? I don't get what it's saying. When you actually listen to the song, it's no less confusing. Someone might say what the song means to them, but that doesn't make it a good song. It makes it ambiguous.

The chorus is catchy but theologically off: "Holy Spirit you are welcome here, Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere. Your glory God is what our hearts long for, to be overcome by Your presence Lord." This was written out of the mentality that the more we summon the Holy Spirit the more he fills a place. We invite the Holy Spirit into our presence. The Bible says nothing of the sort.

I happen to have been studying John 6 today. Jesus said, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me--not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life" (John 6:37, 45-47). It is to them are given the Holy Spirit (John 3:34). The Holy Spirit does not respond to invitation.

Should the song be sung in your church?
No. The lyrics contain nothing of any biblical value. But the song should also not be sung for the same reason This Is Amazing Grace shouldn't be. The song comes from Jesus Culture, a youth outreach ministry formed out of Bethel Church. When they sing about the presence of God, they're singing about "glory clouds" piped through the air ducts. Kim Walker-Smith is a mess theologically, claiming that Jesus appears to her and that she's seen God the Father, whom the Bible says no one but Christ has seen (John 1:18, 6:46).

4) "Lord I Need You" by Christy Nockels, Daniel Carson, Jesse Reeves, Kristian Stanfill, and Matt Maher.
The song is most famously performed by Matt Maher from his album All the People Said Amen released in 2013. Some of the song is clearly inspired by Annie Hawks and Robert Lowry's I Need Thee Every Hour. The first half of the chorus is almost exactly like the famous hymn. But they didn't get a writing credit. I guess five names was enough.

Good Lyrics
I really like the song. The chorus is very catchy, again reminiscent of Hawks and Lowry's old hymn. But I think the second verse is my favorite part: "Where sin runs deep your grace is more. Where grace is found is where you are. And where you are, Lord, I am free. Holiness is Christ in me."

Questionable Lyrics
None. Though if I really wanted to be nitpicky, it would be in the bridge where Maher sings, "And when I cannot stand I'll fall on you. Jesus, you're my hope and stay." We should be dependent upon Christ whether we stand or fall. But alright, I digress.

Should the song be sung in your church?
The song is solid, but you must know that Matt Maher is a Roman Catholic (also Audrey Assad, the female vocalist singing with him in the radio version). He comes from a completely different doctrinal base, one that is incompatible with the Scriptures. Not all of the song's writers are Catholic, but what's the point of being protestant if we can worship with the Catholic church? Just sing I Need Thee Every Hour instead.

5) "Cornerstone" by Edward Mote, Eric Liljero, Jonas Myrin, Reuben Morgan, William Batchelder Bradbury.
The song was recorded live in October of 2011 by Hillsong. It's basically the old hymn The Solid Rock (aka, My Hope Is Built) by Edward Mote and William Bradbury with a modern chorus thrown in. And for some reason, those four lines of that chorus took three more writers.

Good Lyrics
I love The Solid Rock. It's one of my favorite hymns: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but holy lean on Jesus's name." The next part you probably know as "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand." That part isn't in Cornerstone, replaced with a chorus that isn't better.

Questionable Lyrics
None. Though the song loses points for removing the refrain of The Solid Rock and inserting its own chorus. That's not a good swap.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I've sung the song before, but I didn't know it was a Hillsong tune. And when I sang it, I rebelled and sang the refrain of The Solid Rock at the end. I've stopped singing Hillsong in our church. With gay worship performers, appearances by Austin Powers and the Naked Cowboy, and a scandalous rendition of Silent Night, they're just way too worldly to think of their worship music as genuine. Why not just sing The Solid Rock? It's a much better song. It's more up-tempo (unless you want to sing it slow) and available in the public domain. And it contains fewer writers.

6) "How Great is Our God" by Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, and Jesse Reeves
Who doesn't know this song? It was first released in September of 2004 on Tomlin's album Arriving. It's a rather simple song lyrically and very easy to sing along with. Perhaps it's that simplicity in the lyrics combined with the hook in the melody that make it stand out.

Good Lyrics
I like the Trinitarian doctrine presented and sung about in the second verse: "The Godhead Three in One, Father Spirit Son." There aren't too many Trinitarian songs, particularly modern songs. As if the chorus "How great is our God" wasn't enough of a hook, there's also that great bridge: "Name above all names, you are worthy of our praise. My heart will sing how great is our God."

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I think it's a great song. I was a little annoyed with it when I was in Christian radio. The moment I heard it, I knew how popular it was going to become and I was going to hear it over and over again. But it's a solid song. When future generations examine the praise and worship era that we're in now and weed out all the terrible songs it produced, I think How Great Is Our God is a song that will continue to be sung.

7) "Our God" by Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, Jonas Myrin, and Matt Redman.
The song has been around since 2010, the first track on Tomlin's album And If Our God Is for Us... Surprisingly there are only two Chris Tomlin songs in this Top 10 list. Jesse Reeves, the song's co-writer and a worship leader himself, appears on this list more than Tomlin does.

Good Lyrics
The bridge is definitely the best part: "And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us. And if our God is with us, then what can stand against?" Like How Great Is Our God, it's a pretty simple song.

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. It's not terribly deep, but it's fine. Jonas Myrin, one of the co-writers, used to sing with Hillsong, but he's primarily known for his work with Matt Redman. He was also the co-writer of 10,000 Reasons. The reason why you see a lot of the same names among the most popular church songs is because church music has become a lot like Christian radio. It's an industry, and these are the guys at the top.

8) "In Christ Alone" by Keith Getty and Stuwart Townend.
The song was first introduced in the UK in 2001, the first collaboration between Townend who wrote the lyrics and Getty who did the music. It has been recorded by many artists, but is perhaps best attributed to worship leaders Keith and Kristyn Getty.

Good Lyrics
It's all good, right from the beginning: "In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm." The lyric that perhaps stands out the most is in the second verse: "Til on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied. For every sin on Him was laid. Here in the death of Christ I live."

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I think this is the one of the greatest modern hymns to come out of our era. I'd consider it the best song on this list, and has been disruptive in the modern church. The Presbyterian Church USA wanted to publish the song in their hymnal, but they wanted to change the line "the wrath of God was satisfied" to "the love of God was magnified." Getty and Townend refused the change. They gave up increased royalties to keep the doctrine of substitutionary atonement sung about in the second verse. Whenever the song is recorded and a verse gets omitted, that's usually the one that gets cut (as in Owl City's cover of the song).

9) "Mighty to Save" by Ben Fielding and Reuben Morgan.
Another from the Hillsong repertoire, the song was introduced in 2006 and has since been covered by many well-knowns including Michael W. Smith, Jeremy Camp, and the Newsboys. There was a time it was the most popular worship song in the world.

Good Lyrics
Isaiah 63:1 says that God speaks in righteousness and is mighty to save. So for me, the chorus is the best part: "Savior, he can move the mountains. My God is mighty to save, He is mighty to save forever, author of salvation. He rose and conquered the grave. Jesus conquered the grave."

Questionable Lyrics
The weakest part of the song is the second verse: "So take me as you find me, all my fears and failures. Fill my life again. I give my life to follow everything I believe in. Now I surrender." That's really soft and rather self-serving. Doesn't everyone give their lives to follow what they believe in, whether or not what they follow is God? There's no sense of confession in the song. Christ indeed is mighty to save us from the grave, but he also saves us from our sin and the wrath of God.

Should the song be sung in your church?
I must admit, I wept when I first heard the song. But I heard it while I was coming out of some false teaching and beginning to embrace more solid and gospel-centered doctrine. I was singing that God was mighty to save while I was examining my sin in light of his holiness. It wasn't until years later that I realized the song isn't really about that. That's what I was singing about even though it's not what the song is about. I'd consider that the song shouldn't be sung in your church for the same reasons I gave above regarding Hillsong.

10) "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)" by Joel Houston, Matt Crocker, and Salomon Ligthelm.
This is the third Hillsong tune in the Top 10. It was first released in 2013 and is sung at just about every Christian conference there is. Just about. I've heard the song referred to as the praise anthem for my generation. Meh.

Good Lyrics
The song never really grabs me until the second verse: "Your grace abounds in deepest waters. Your sovereign hand will be my guide. Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me, you've never failed and you won't start now."

Questionable Lyrics
None. But the song is not terribly significant. It's not rich in theological truth or deep in meaning (ironic since it's called Oceans). It sounds like a CCM radio single, and that's probably where it should stay. It's a "sing it in your car" song. I don't think it really has a good place as a worship song in church.

Like Mighty to Save, this is another tune where "fears" are addressed. But Hillsong sings about fears as uncertainty. The Bible talks about fear another way: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18). Fear has to do with judgment, which we have no reason to fear if we are in Christ for he has taken our record of debt and nailed it to the cross (Colossians 2:14).

Should the song be sung in your church?
Man, Shane & Shane covered it, and I like Shane & Shane, so how can I tell you not to sing this song? Well, I think I've given my reasons. There are some really, really good songs out there -- from the history of the church to the present day. You can have some very deep teaching songs or very moving and heartfelt choruses without ever touching Hillsong or Jesus Culture. Be as discerning about the songs that you sing in church as you should be about the teaching. Test everything, the Scriptures tell us. That includes our worship music.

Read part 2, reviewing the next 10 songs on the CCLI list by clicking here!