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The Importance of Worship Lyrics

Do you ever think about what you sing in church? Sometimes it is hard to do so. Songs have a lot of lyrics and usually (at least for me) you have to sing a song a number of times before the meaning of the lyrics truly sinks in.

Jay and I had a short conversation yesterday about the lyrics in a Hillsong song “You’ll Come.” Here is the chorus of that song:

You’ll come
Let Your glory fall as You respond to us
Spirit rain
Flood into our thirsty hearts again
You’ll come

The lyrics are what I’ll call interesting: the idea of God’s glory falling as he responds to us. I would say a proper understanding of our relationship to God would be us responding to his glory, not the other way around. I don’t know that I would call this bad theology, but definitely a little confusing for sure.

There is also a popular song in many churches (including mine) “Song of Hope” by Robbie Seay. Here are the chorus lyrics:

I will sing a song of hope
Sing along
God of heaven come down
Heaven come down
Just to know that You are near is enough
God of heaven come down, heaven come down

Is it really enough for us to know that God is near? And what does it mean that we are singing about our hope of God being near when the Holy Spirit is within those who have faith in Christ? Again, I’m not saying this is a completely wrong theology, but I would describe this one as curious.

And lastly, the one that has bugged me for a long time: Come Now is the Time to Worship (chorus):

One day every tongue will confess You are God.
One day every knee will bow.
Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose you now.

I could be wrong but this comes off as very Universalist to me (meaning that everyone is saved). If I read it with no other influences, I think it says everyone will believe in God and the earlier you decide to believe, the greater the reward in heaven.

My point in this isn’t to point out how I have a perfect understanding of theology or that my interpretation of songs lyrics is correct. Rather, I want us to think about the songs we sing and assess their message before we allow them to become anthems that our congregations sing on Sunday.

The power of lyrics and music should not be understated and I would hope we could rightly reflect God in them.

I’m not advocating for every church to stop singing songs that might have confusing lyrics but we should be spending time processing what a song says.

How important are the lyrics of worship songs to you?

(Part Two)

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  • http://twitter.com/dustinuga dustin

    great thoughts. thanks for sharing!

  • http://morethanuseless.com Tom

    I’ve got my issues with Christian music (I’ve talked about it before). I don’t wanna come across like a jerk or anything, but a lot – not all – but a lot of Christian music doesn’t do much for me.

    It’s not because the lyrics aren’t important to don’t mean anything to me, but it’s because they’ve become cliche. I like the stuff you’ve highlighted and discussed in the post, but it’s so hard to get something out of it when they are phrased in such a way that I wouldn’t say them in normal talk.

    Does that make sense?

    Bottom line: They’re important to me, but they’ve gotta be genuine. Overly Christianese or a little too cheesy detracts for me.

  • http://www.benlemery.com Ben

    I think this is why I listen to so little CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) anymore. The lyrics are shallow and don’t necessarily draw you nearer to Christ, to change but instead to good feelings. That is probably why I listen to most of the International House of Prayer’s stuff, not that they have it all but they certainly have raised the bar on lyrical quality.

    Misty Edwards songs are like poetry mixed with prophecy, you draw nearer to the love of Christ but also walk away understanding His suffering on the cross, etc.

    Another cd that has always been more contemplative but deep is Communion by John A. Schreiner, I think it is on Itunes. It is a mix of hymns, slow worship songs and really a good deep devotional cd.

    I guess I say all of that to point out that I would take lyrical quality over musical quality and most music out there simply does not provide that.

  • http://free-wallpaper-christian.com/1473/genesis-1-29-christian-wallpapers-free Trevor – Christian Wallpaper Blog

    Some of today’s Christian music seems to me a long way from the hymns of old, or say even the Psalms. There seems to be a lack of boldness in this music. Unfortunately I feel the World may have crept in, and has taken the “edge” of the true meaning that these songs should be having.

    You are right to say we need to think about the lyrics, and I think we can take it one step further, compare it to the Gospel of Christ.

    Great article, should start some great conversation. Thanks.

  • http://the-welcome-matt.blogspot.com Matt C

    Heh. I’ve long had issues with many worship songs:

    Come Now is the Time to Worship — “now” is the time? Not any other time? Is the Holy Spirit only working right now? Is the Praise Acceptance Dept. upstairs closed in a little bit?

    How Firm a Foundation — this hymn has a line “what more can he say than to you he has said?” So we really do believe God is silent now then? That he sent Jesus and then said, “Well, that’s it. Signing off!”

    There’s a Charlie Hall song that says, “All of life comes down to just one thing: to know you and make you known.” Ummm…. that’s two things. Not to mention the chorus which says “one thing I ask” and then lists to gaze upon your beauty, to seek your face, to know you, and to follow you. Christians evidently can’t count.

    There’s way more that I’m sure I’ll think of throughout the day. Being on a worship team certainly lends itself to some “HUH?!?” moments as we play.

    • dk

      Re: the Charlie Hall song- Hilarious!

      And you don’t need to be on the worship team to have those “HUH?” moments.

  • dk

    For me, content (lyrics) is way more important presentation (musial style). I would much rather sing a deeply rich theological song a capella then sing a superficial one with full orchestra.

    Here are some lyrics that bother me theologically (or at least need to be teased out more):

    “Your grace is enough for me”- Chris Tomlin

    Enough for what? Certainly grace is enough for salvation, but what getting through the trials of life? Isn’t that why God gave us the church? I think in extreme circumstances of persecution and isolation grace is enough, but for those of us that aren’t called to that we also need koinonia.

    “Your altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me”

    The part that bothers me is the “to me”. What is the lyricist trying to say here? That God is lovely, worthy, wonderful in his opinion? Or that He is lovely, worthy and wonderful because He is good to us? My contention is that even without us, God is still lovely, worthy and wonderful. It has nothing to do with us.

    In conclusion, none of this would be a problem if God had given us examples of suitable lyrics for worship. (That’s sarcasm, btw, if you’re wondering).

    • http://www.contentunderpressure.net Josh

      @dk

      “Your grace is enough” has never struck me as curious, as I see it coming from 2 Corinthians 12:9- “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

      I’m not saying I know it all by any means, but I do think (lyrically) that song is pretty solid.

      • dk

        Touche. Thanks.

    • http://www.manofdepravity.com Tyler

      One thing that is surprising to me, especially in light of your comment on “Your Grace is Enough,” is that many people will complain about a song written in the first person (grace is enough for me), while saying that hymns are so much better. But really the most popular hymn of all time is similar (Amazing Grace, “saved a wretch like me”). I don’t think first person worship songs are bad or wrong, as long as they aren’t the only literary style we sing in.

      • dk

        First person shouldn’t be a problem for anyone. A lot of the psalms are in the first person.

    • http://dennarr.com Dennis

      The one aspect of “Your Grace is Enough” that has always bugged me is the bridge:

      So remember Your people
      Remember Your children
      Remember Your promise O God

      I know it’s based on David’s cry (and Maher’s if you’ve heard the song story), but I just have a hard time singing the lyrics myself with the full knowledge and assurance that God won’t forget me and definitely won’t forget His promises.

      I actually have not plugged it in at my church because of that – maybe that’s a WL being presumptuous, but it’s my heart as a leader and shepherd.

      (Tyler – I’ll comment on your overall post below…)

  • http://seth.heasley.net/blog Seth

    The “You’ll Come” lyrics struck me immediately the first time I sang them. But I’m not sure it’s an either/or thing, and we shouldn’t assume God doesn’t respond to us at all.

    Actually, I think one thing that prevents lyrics from sinking in is the fact that we put them up on the screen. People can just vacantly recite the lyrics without brain engagement. I’d love to see a weekend where we do songs we’ve done for a long time, but without lyrics on the screen. Maybe folks would actually connect with the songs and with the worship leaders if they weren’t glued to the screen.

    One point of clarification is that the “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” lyric is more Universalist than Unitarian. The difference being that Christians can be Universalist, believing that all will eventually recognize Christ’s Lordship and be saved, while Unitarians don’t seem to look to Christ to salvation at all.

    Christian Universalists would, I believe, hold to differing levels of reward in Heaven. But Jesus seemed to indicate this, too.

    • http://www.manofdepravity.com Tyler

      Good call on the Unitarian/Universalist. This is why I shouldn’t write late at night. Though they do have a lot of similarities…you are right on the difference in how I used it. Changing it now.

      • http://seth.heasley.net/blog Seth

        Unitarian can also just mean non-Trinitarian. Depending on who you ask, they might still be referred to as Christian.

        • Ruth

          Well, actually, I think “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is pretty solid, myself. “Now” is the time, because it’s always “now.” You can’t relive what’s “before” and by the time “soon” gets here it’s turned into “now.” :) 2 Corinthians 6:2 says, “now is the day of salvation.” Same thing. We’re in the “now.”

          And as far as the “One day every tongue will confess You are God/One day every knee will bow/Still the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose You now” lyric, that’s from a passage in Philippians 2 that says that at the Name of Jesus “every knee will bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” But Paul is talking here about the day of final judgment. One day, yes, everyone will acknowledge Christ’s Lordship, but for some it will be too late. That’s why “the greatest treasure remains for those who gladly choose You now” – because when we choose Him in this life we receive salvation. I agree that some contemporary songs have pretty weak lyrics, but I don’t think this is one of them. :)

  • http://thoughtsaboutnothing.com Kyle Reed

    I have a problem with lyrics when they focus more on self then they do the community of believers worshiping God

  • http://religionsucketh.com Jonathan Jones

    Couldn’t agree more. I actually posted something along the same lines on my blog a few months back. Funny thing is, I used to look down on hymns as being out of date (until I heard artists like those at Mars Hill Seattle rearrange several a few years back) and yet I can’t say I’ve come across a hymn yet whose lyrics I had to question, whereas I find myself scratching my head over the lyrics of many contemporary worship songs.

  • http://jakebelder.com Jake Belder

    I’ve been critical of much of today’s worship music for a while now, especially since I’ve been part of a church with a “contemporary” bent. You’ve highlighted some good examples of some of the problems with the modern choruses here.

    There’s one big point to consider with worship music: The church confesses what it sings.

    Music has always been a major player in propaganda and advertising, why? Because it sticks. People here a chorus and they remember it. That should have significant implications for us when we’re choosing music for our worship.

    Trevor, above, said there is a lack of boldness in today’s music. I’d agree with that, and I’d also agree with what some of the others are hinting at; namely that there is a lack of care and precision in crafting the lyrics for worship music. A lot of the older hymns (and certainly the Psalms!) are borne out of significant struggle, or moments of rejoicing, and so on, moments when the lyricists saw (or perhaps couldn’t see) God’s hand at work in their lives and in the world. I don’t get that with today’s music. A lot of it feels like it is just thrown together, cliched phrases strung together to rhyme with each other. Seriously, how many of the lyrics would get a passing grade in a 8th grade grammar class?

    I’m starting to rant, so let me just say that I’m not one of these guys who thinks we have to go back and only sing the traditional music. What I think we need is people to write music today with musical arrangements that are artistic and singable, and lyrics that are meaningful, Scriptural, and cohesive (and not all written in the 1st person–we’re singing praise to God!).

    That’s my two cents.

    • http://seth.heasley.net/blog Seth

      =The church confesses what it sings.

      Love that quote.

    • http://www.manofdepravity.com Tyler

      I think one thing that might help in the whole area of worship music today is losing the promotional, marketing, business side of it. It is an industry that brings in a lot of money now. So these popular artists are almost forced to come out with new albums as often as possible. What results is that they need to write 12 songs every year, rather than honing in to write a few great songs every few years.

    • http://www.contentunderpressure.net Josh

      I agree whole-heartedly. I believe the focus has shifted on the sound versus the substance. I don’t see why they can’t co-exist. I know for any song I’ve written, it has to come down to whether or not it’s Scriptural and not about rhyming. Songs can get into trouble when it’s just about rhyming, and I think we’re all seeing that. (not all the time, IMO)

  • Eric

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • http://rcgale.com Ross Gale

    Christians love to sing about themselves and how they feel. It’s one of the reasons worship services are hard for me. Lyrics really need to be looked at critiqued before sung. So that they really are quality worship songs and not trash. Great post!

  • Matt McMorris

    Most of the hymns were written by those who theologians first. In fact, many who wrote the hymns were not even musicians. The hymn was put to music many times long after the text was written. There was no marketing or meeting of deadlines taking place. It was Spirit-filled Christians writing “out of the abundance of the heart.”

    Much of today’s music is written with a “top the charts” or a “win an award” mentality. We must get back to theology. The music should not dictate the lyric, but rather the lyric should dictate the music.

    So many of us spend more time with our guitars and our bands and so little time in the Word. We find “Christian” music in the pages of scripture and not the notes on a page.

  • http://www.pberryweb.com Paul Berry

    Tyler, good stuff. I am so often appreciative of your work, and this is again the case.

    I don’t want to be too critical, because song writing is hard work. It’s hard to create something, it’s even harder to watch people work your stuff over.

    At the same time, most of the songs in my church are about how great I am as an individual. We stand in the midst of hundreds of people and sing along that, “I am free to run, I am free to dance, I am free to live for you” “I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about you” (even though the rest of the song isn’t) or my personal favorite for corporate worship “It’s just you and me here now. Only you and me here now.”

    Maybe it’s a semantics issue for me. I don’t buy homemade cheesecake at Old Chicago because it wasn’t made in anyone’s home. When worship doesn’t worship God, it’s hard to call it worship. Unless you’re worshiping something else.

  • http://dennarr.com Dennis

    Great post – thanks for making us think! Lyrics are actually at the heart of my prayerful service planning each week. I agree that some songs are just too light on truth or doctrine and I have actually have opted to not intro songs because of a single phrase. I think it is key as the worship leader to make those discerning choices. I know some at my church don’t agree…thankfully, my pastor does.

    One thing to consider, with respect to the heartfelt lyrics that are out there (and the lyricists who wrote them), is that some songs are really personal prayers that may not be appropriate for congregational worship – maybe good for personal worship. I’m not excusing poor theology; but to me, the purpose of our gathered worship is to proclaim the Gospel – the powerful, life-saving, and life-changing truth of the Gospel of Jesus – in a way that is biblically accurate and clear. The key to that goal is sound lyrical content.

    Here’s an older example from when I lead worship in high school. It was popular, but I just couldn’t lead it…

    Open our eyes Lord
    We want to see Jesus
    To reach out and touch Him…

  • Darin

    First, let me say that hymns are not better than modern worship songs. There are way too many of them and most of them are not that good. Let’s not romanticize the Old days.”
    Next, I agree that there are many contemporary worship songs that are not very good. However, most of them pull the lyrics from scripture. Whether the applications are accurate or not is debatable.
    Songs written in the first person are common as they are in the Psalms. Are they a stretch for corporate worship? Perhaps, but we are not a collective. We are individuals gathered for a common purpose, but not to lose our self identities. Worship, ultimately, is very personal. That’s why some songs speak to me on some days, but not on others. Some songs never speak to me (just as some sermons), but they speak to other people regularly. I can’t explain it. It’s personal.
    Finally, I appreciate those who write music and lyrics. I cannot write music, so I could not create a new song to express my praise. I need people to take what I feel and put it into words and music. Sometimes I relate to a song as if it were written from my life. Other times, I’m clueless as to where the songwriter is coming from (ie, days of elijah).
    The bottom line is that we should do the work to sort through the thousands of songs to find the few that work, then sing those.

  • http://erikcederberg.bandcamp.com/ Erik Cederberg

    Part of the problem is with the songwriting process. I highly doubt many of these songs are being submitted to friends, mentors, etc, for open critique and revision. Moreso, I think the worship leader is writing the song, getting excited (as I often do), and quickly leading it for their congregations. If they have some “pop” sensibilities, people will probably like them, and after a few times the song is essentially stuck.

    A website run by Tim Hughes and Al Gordon has a good songwriting submission forum – http://www.worshipcentral.org/ – its a good place to get feedback.

    • http://www.manofdepravity.com Tyler

      Tim Hughes is an incredible writer of worship songs.

      • http://erikcederberg.bandcamp.com/ Erik Cederberg

        Yes he is. It should also be noted that he is the only songwriter who has ever gotten me to use the phrase “altogether”.

  • Yonas

    I either whistle or sing in Indonesian, so none of you can nitpick what I’m singing :)

  • Yonas

    (or chinese, or Swahili, or Russian)

  • jay

    I’ve been following your blog for a while now but this is my first time posting!!
    thanks for this post…i currently am a worship team member(vocalist) and i tend to be a heart worshipper where i like to mean the words that i sing and there are way too many times when some lyrics just don’t make any sense to me.Now, it becomes a struggle for me because being on stage helping lead people in worship requires me to fully engage and connect with the songs and there have been moments where I’ve just had to not sing some lines…but i cant do this most of the time!I pray that churches would begin to think through the words that we sing and not let the musicality override the content.

  • http://www.stretchmarkmama.com Stretch Mark Mama (@stretchmarkmama)

    It’s the mushy love songs to Jesus that take me right outta worship and back to the 80s dance floor. “Jesus, I am so in love with you…”

    I haven’t been able to listen to CCM on the radio for a few years now. Fortunately I have a worship leader who RAWKS and picks great songs (ht: @janakid). *smile*

    Sara Groves is my go-to gal when I need a little Jesus-music in my life.

    I don’t get into the whole hymns-choruses debate (thank you 1990s era when hubs was a worship pastor), but I will say that one of my fave songs is Holy, Holy, Holy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-liS9e2IY8

    • http://erikcederberg.bandcamp.com/ Erik Cederberg

      Love Sufjan.

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  • Yonas

    So I’m curious of those who have shared their opinion on current lyrics…

    Mind sharing what songs you’ve written?

  • http://emilysutherland.wordpress.com Emily

    I SO LOVE this conversation. I often feel critical when, as a worshipper I’m reading through lyrics going, “Really??” Currently, the church where I serve does a great job of choosing strong songs but there is a lot of “iffie” stuff to be had if we’re not careful.

    Raising up a new generation of great songwriters is to raise a generation that is immersed in more than just “spiritualish feelings” but a deep and rich understanding of HIM first, then of great songwriting. Great old hymns aren’t great because they’re old… they’re old because they’re great. Let’s write some more songs that hold enough water to be sung a hundred years from now.

  • http://ash-nits.blogspot.com ash

    i’m not a big fan of songs that say “come, lord jesus.” why? well, um, isn’t he already there? isn’t he already everywhere? why do i have to ask him to “come” if he’s living IN me? eh, just a thought. thing is: i’m a writer, so semantics often matter to me, but i can’t really hold it against the person who writes them as i have no idea where their heart may be during such composition. shrug.

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  • James McLaren

    This is a good and reasonable critique. Taking up Darin’s point, there are undoubtedly some truly dreadful old hymns out there – but they never get sung, and as time goes by they don’t make the hymnbooks. The same will eventually be true of a lot of the modern stuff: but already we can identify some of the hymns/songs that will be around in 50 or 100 years from now.

    My issue a lot of the time is less with the lyrics, but with the fact that hymns were designed to be sung together. Far too much of the current crop of music is designed to sound good if Matt Redman or whoever (yes, I’m British) is singing it: try it with a congregation and it’s a terrible struggle. Combine that with the first person lyric and the first-person, how-I-feel-about-it sort of lyric becomes much more of an issue than when you are in the midst of a group singing Amazing Grace or Cwm Rhondda (or to select something much newer, Stuart Townsend’s In Christ Alone) and the music can carry you along.

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  • Jonno

    Ps 27:4 One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.

    Hey David that’s three things! How unscriptural. :-)

  • Drew

    Great post – I am a songwriter and worship team member so lyrics are absolutely non-negotiable in my book. Tim Hughes once pointed that we need to remember is that the modern chuchgoer may forget the sermon but will leave singing the songs. Therefore we have a tremendous responsibility to be singing and writing truth, unpacking in a way that honours Christ but also teaches the church.

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