Monday, August 15, 2016

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: Putting the Next 10 Popular Church Songs to the Test

According to Mark Dever's ministry 9 Marks, there is a distinct difference between a song that is written for the purpose of congregational worship, and a song that is written as a performance piece. "Performance music can focus our attention on the performers, or even the music, rather than God" and it can "wrongly encourage a culture of passivity and entertainment."

I've watched countless "worship" videos starring a young, stylish band illuminated by incredible lighting and set-design while the audience is shrouded in black with silhouetted hands in the air. If you were to mute the video, you would not be able to tell the difference between that and any secular band singing love ballads. Strictly by appearances, the attention is directed entirely on the performer. A certain atmosphere is being manufactured. And it's not perceived as an atmosphere for worshiping God as the people of God.

If those artists want to put on concerts that people pay money to go and attend, and they want to use their God-given talents to sing praises to our King, great! Buy their CDs and sing along if that's the music you like. Let it flow from a heart with a desire to praise God and you've got a great worship soundtrack. But that doesn't mean those songs belong in corporate worship. They were crafted with performance in mind or to fit the mold of what radio singles are supposed to sound like.

Some bands like Bethel Church and Jesus Culture should be avoided altogether -- whether we're talking about private or corporate worship or just being entertained. But there are sound musicians (no pun intended) who are going to write some genuinely meaningful worship songs. We must be as discerning with the music we sing in church and who's writing it as we should be with who's preaching the sermon, a point I've desired to direct hearts in understanding over the course of the last two blogs.

As 9 Marks goes on to say, "While it seems that some performed music is within the bounds of addressing one another in song (Ephesians 5:19), churches in the West today may do well to minimize performance and maximize congregational singing."

In the first blog, I reviewed CCLI's Top 10 most popular praise and worship songs sung in churches, then I responded to some comments received from that blog. This week, we're looking at the next ten songs on that list. The title of the song is a link to a video of the song if you'd like to hear it. As with that first article, we start this list with a song that has "Amazing Grace" in the title...

11) "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)" by Chris Tomlin, John Newton, and Louie Giglio.
From his 2006 album See the Morning, Tomlin took John Newton's 1779 classic and added a chorus and closing verse. The song was used to promote the film Amazing Grace, the story of William Wilberforce, a student of Newton's, who successfully led the charge to abolish slavery in England.

Good Lyrics
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." Tomlin and Giglio's chorus is just an added compliment: "My chains are gone, I've been set free. My God, my Savior, has ransomed me. And like a flood, His mercy reigns. Amazing love, amazing grace."

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Why should it not? So long as a church is not replacing the Newton classic. As great as Tomlin and Giglio's version is, there are two verses of the classic hymn that are not in My Chains Are Gone. Let them not be forgotten. There's a reason why Amazing Grace is considered by many to be the greatest hymn of all time. It was the doctrines of grace that overwhelmed a former slave ship captain, in view of God's mercy, to write his famous song. By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, you should watch the film Amazing Grace.

12) "One Thing Remains (Your Love Never Fails)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, and Jeremy Riddle.
Another from the Bethel Church catalog, the song was recorded in 2010 by Jesus Culture. It was also recorded by Passion, Louie Giglio's group, on a 2012 album entitled White Flag. It's a simple and very repetitive tune. And on and on and on and on it goes...

Good Lyrics
As with the tune Holy Spirit that I reviewed two weeks ago, there are lines that sound good, but given their context and realizing that the song is devoid of any sound theological substance, it's difficult to appreciate anything about the song.

Questionable Lyrics
Maybe not questionable, but that chorus is really obnoxious. It's 13 words repeated over and over and over again. The irony is that the song actually incorporates the line, "And on and on and on and on it goes" (hence my joke in the description of the song). There's no good reason for this song to go on for longer than 3 minutes. But there's a version that lasts for twelve.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Heavens, no. I've already said why Bethel Church and Jesus Culture songs should never be done in your church. It doesn't matter if you hear something godly in their songs -- what they're singing about isn't God. The Holy Spirit is to Jesus Culture what Jesus Christ is to Mormonism. Mormons worship a different Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, and Bethel Church sings about a different Holy Spirit. Shin-slapping worship pastor Jenn Johnson thinks he's like the Genie from Aladdin. Maybe he's voiced by Robin Williams, too.

13) "Revelation Song" by Jennie Lee Riddle.
The song made its debut in 2008 on a Gateway Worship recording, Wake Up the World, sung by Kari Jobe (I became familiar with both Jobe and Revelation Song at the same time). It received widespread acclaim when it was recorded by Phillips, Craig, and Dean in 2009, and became a hit radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first couple lines of the chorus are taken right from Revelation 4:8, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come." I also like the verse, "Filled with wonder, awestruck wonder, at the mention of Your name. Jesus Your name is power, breath, and living water, such a marvelous mystery." It's the same four-chord sequence repeated throughout and the lyrics never rhyme, but the song still manages to be powerful and catchy.

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
It's a good song. I've met Mrs. Riddle. She was a nice lady. I don't know much about her theology or what church she attends. It seems she writes songs for whoever will sing them. A song's worth can't always be measured by who's sung it. Though it was made famous by Phillips, Craig, and Dean, a trio of heretical pastors who deny the Trinity, they didn't write it. No Christian radio station should be playing PC&D. There are plenty of other versions of Revelation Song out there.

14) "Forever Reign" by Jason Ingram and Reuben Morgan.
The song made its debut in 2010 on three different albums by two different bands. Though it's most well-known as a Hillsong tune (Morgan is one of their worship pastors), it was first recorded and performed by Ingram's band, One Sonic Society.

Good Lyrics
The song opens, "You are good, You are good, and there's nothing good in me." Yeah, I love it. That's me. (Interesting to note that One Sonic Society's version is "and there's nothing good in me," while Hillsong's is, "when there's nothing good in me.") There are other good lines in the verses like, "You are truth, even in my wandering" and "You are life, in You death has lost its sting." The end of the second verse drives it home: "You are God, of all else I'm letting go." The bridge is one of the catchiest parts: "My heart will sing, no other name, Jesus, Jesus."

Questionable Lyrics
That chorus gets into romantic-Jesus-song territory: "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms, the riches of your love will always be enough. Nothing compares to your embrace." But I suppose it's resolved with the last part: "Light of the world, forever reign." Apart from the very opening line, the song doesn't have a lot of theological richness to it.

Should the song be sung in your church?
My honest opinion: No. I think the song falls more in the realm of performance piece rather than congregational worship. It's fine and it's worshipful. I've sung it in church before, though it's been a few years. I like the song. But it's a radio single. Stick to singing it in your car. Your church service will not be missing anything because you're not singing "I'm running to your arms, I'm running to your arms" on Sunday morning.

15) "Blessed Be Your Name" by Matt and Beth Redman.
The song was first recorded in 2002 on Redman's album Where Angels Fear to Tread, but it was made famous by South African band Tree63 released on their 2003 album The Answer to the Question. It was from that album Blessed Be Your Name was made a radio single.

Good Lyrics
The first verse begins "Blessed be your name, in the land that is plentiful, where your streams of abundance flow, blessed be your name." That's contrasted with the next part: "Blessed be your name, when I'm found in the desert place, though I walk through the wilderness, blessed be your name." The song does a masterful job of presenting times of blessing and times of struggle, and yet still being able to praise the name of the Lord. This is fully summarized in the bridge: "You give and take away, you give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name."

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
We do. It's an easy go-to for me when I need an opening song to get everyone in the sanctuary and into their seats. When I consider our modern worship era, if more songs were like Blessed Be Your Name, it would be a lot more difficult to argue that such songs aren't meaningful enough to fit in a church service. In a time when modern praise songs are thrown together more often than you're aware (consider the number of writers on the next song), this is a well-thought-out song. Whether you are in the greatest of moods or the deepest of dumps, Blessed Be Your Name is a heartfelt expression of worshiping God in all circumstances.

16) "Forever (We Sing Hallelujah)" by Brian Johnson, Christa Black Gifford, Gabriel Wilson, Jenn Johnson, Joel Taylor, Kari Jobe.
A fairly recent tune, the song made its first appearance in 2014 on Jobe's live album Majestic. Because it's a Kari Jobe song, you can find versions of it that exceed twelve minutes. There are also versions of it recorded by Bethel Church and Hillsong.

Good Lyrics
In the first verse, I like the line, "His body on the cross, his blood poured out for us. The weight of every curse upon him." I think of Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is writen, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.'" The song builds through the pre-chorus and breaks out in the chorus: "Forever He is glorified. Forever He is lifted high. Forever He is risen. He is alive, He is alive!" It's a triumphant song.

Questionable Lyrics
Edit: I previously said, "none," but someone brought this interview to my attention. Jobe says that for her, the focus of the song was Jesus's time in hell. So when the song goes, "A battle in the grave, the war on death was waged, the power of hell forever broken," it's not being merely poetic. The song is about Jesus going to hell. That never happened. When he said, "It is finished," he meant it (John 19:30). When he told the thief next to him, "Today you will be with me in paradise," that's what happened (Luke 23:43). He did not go to hell. It's a false teaching.

Should the song be sung in your church?
As I wrote about in the last blog, whom we worship with matters. Because I know something about the writers and their theology, I would not be able in good conscience to lead my congregation in this song. Kari Jobe is more a performance artist than a worship leader, though that's her title at Gateway Church. She has a beautiful voice and a great stage presence, but she's a performer. Jobe keeps associations with Bethel Church and Jesus Culture, and has also led worship at Joyce Meyer and Beth Moore conferences. She's not theologically sound. Following Jobe and whom she fellowships with would lead a person away from the word of Christ and into speculations and false teaching.

17) "Everlasting God" by Brenton Brown and Ken Riley.
The song is the title cut of the debut album by Brenton Brown, released in 2006. The song is more widely known as Lincoln Brewster's from his album Let the Praises Ring released that same year. It's also a well-known song in the libraries of Chris Tomlin and Jeremy Camp.

Good Lyrics
"You are the everlasting God," which is repeated multiple times. I also like, "Our God, you reign forever. Our hope, our strong deliverer." Not a deep song, but its words are true.

Questionable Lyrics
The end of the chorus seems somewhat self-serving: "You're the defender of the weak, you comfort those in need, you lift us up on wings like eagles."

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure, if you can tolerate it being such a repetitive song. There's only one verse sung twice, and it contains 18 words repeated over and over again. Our God is a great God who is everlasting, doesn't faint or grow weary, and gives comfort and strength to those who wait on him. There's the whole song in one sentence. I think there are better songs you can pick from, but it's alright.

18) "Great Are You Lord" by Jason Ingram, David Leonard, and Leslie Jordan.
Wait, not Deb and Michael W. Smith? Oh, that would be Great Is the Lord. My bad. This song was written and recorded in 2013 by All Sons and Daughters (Lenoard, Jordan). There's also a version recorded by One Sonic Society (Ingram) which I prefer to the All Sons and Daughters version.

Good Lyrics
The very breath of God has been given to us who are created in his image. So I like the chorus, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise." All Sons and Daughters like to sing those two-phrase repetitive choruses, so you get to sing "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise" a lot. I'm not sure why the title of the song isn't, "It's your breath in our lungs so we pour out our praise."

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. I don't have anything else to add, so let me throw in a random story. There's a band on this list I got to sit in on a writing session with in 2012 at a church in Franklin, TN. They didn't know me; I was just at a certain place at the right time. We started out by reading Psalm 13, and I even threw out a suggestion for a line, but I don't remember what song they were writing to know if they used it and if I need to demand residuals (joke).

19) "This I Believe (The Creed)" by Ben Fielding and Matt Crocker.
This is one of the newer songs in CCLI's Top 20, debuting in July 2014 on Hillsong's album No Other Name. The song was never released as a radio single, so it was only last year that it began to take off. It's since received airplay and therefore has been a hit with many churches.

Good Lyrics
Solid chorus: "I believe in God our Father, I believe in Christ the Son, I believe in the Holy Spirit, our God is three in one. I believe in the resurrection, that we will rise again, for I believe in the name of Jesus." The song continues with affirmations of basic doctrinal truths.

Questionable Lyrics
None.

Should this song be sung in your church?
Nope. As I said the first time around, nothing from Hillsong or Bethel should be sung in your church. We might share some basic doctrinal beliefs, but everything else that Hillsong teaches is far from a biblical foundation. Furthermore, when their events include a sleazy version of Silent Night, an appearance by Austin Powers, and a youth pastor imitating the Naked Cowboy, they are very poor witnesses of whatever biblical beliefs they might hold.

20) "Here I Am to Worship" by Tim Hughes.
You know this song. This is one of the pioneer songs of the praise and worship movement that exploded at the turn of the millennium. It debuted in 2001 on Hughes's album of the same name. When he wrote the song, he was inspired by the hymn of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11.

Good Lyrics
It's a solid song exalting of our Lord God, and humbly submits in the chorus, "Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you're my God. You're altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me."

Questionable Lyrics
In the second verse, we sing, "Humbly you came to the earth you created, all for love's sake became poor." Knowing that Hughes was inspired by Philippians 2, "all for love's sake" is rather vague. Philippians 2:11 specifically says Christ did all he did to the glory of God the Father. I'm being nit-picky because I know where the inspiration for the song came from.

Should the song be sung in your church?
Sure. Hughes's theology is probably not great, as is the case of many of the modern praise and worship artists. But the song is alright. The lyrics direct the singer to the Lord, backed by a very simple melody that's easy to sing along with. Like How Great Is Our God, this is a song we'll probably be singing for a while.

Thank you for joining me for these reviews, and I hope they were beneficial to you. Later this week, I'll be reviewing Ben-Hur, the epic film from 1959 starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler. I'll then follow that up with a review of the new Ben-Hur remake, produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett of The Bible mini-series fame, hitting theaters this weekend.