Today’s post is written by Matt Nightingale, Director of Worship Ministries at Redeemer Covenant Church in Tulsa, OK.
In the Better Together group this week, we’ve had quite a conversation going about words. One of my favorite songs is called “Language” by Suzanne Vega. In, ironically, some of her most beautiful poetry, she captures the fleeting nature of words and our seeming inability to communicate accurately. Toward the end of the song, in frustration, she sings, ”I won’t use words again. They don’t mean what I meant. They don’t say what I said. It’s just the crust of the meaning with realms underneath. Never touched, never stirred, never even moved through.”
And yet, as Covenanters, we claim to be “people of the Book.” We ask “Where is it written?” Words matter. And as confessing Christians, we proclaim that Jesus Christ is “the Word” made flesh. John 1:1-3 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” In Genesis 1, we read that God created everything through words, through the Word. He literally spoke everything into existence. Words matter.
But we are fallen. Words have the power to bring life and to create beauty, yes, but they can also be used to destroy, to enslave. Even the redeemed, those of us attempting to bring glory to God through our lives and our language, can fail miserably in this area. And if, as Chris claimed last week, “we are what we sing,” then what do our words say about who we are? What does our misuse of language in our songs of worship say about us? And what can we as worship leaders do about it?
A few days ago, one of our members posted the following comment/question:
i tend to shy away from any songs with warfare language and tend to cut out a lot of verses in old hymns that talk about “i can’t wait to leave this earth and go to heaven”. also, i try and change words to be more gender inclusive (not using the word “man” to represent both genders). does anyone else have personal preference or ministry context issues that tend to shape what themes you do and do not include in what are otherwise non-issues?
It’s a good and fair question. Here’s just a sampling of some of the responses:
- The problem with Battle Hymn is that it’s explicitly about human warfare, written in the context of the Civil War, proclaiming that God’s on our side against those rebels. I don’t see how it has any place in worship (although I love the tune. . .)
- The Bible uses warfare language in reference to our fight against evil–Ephesians 6:10-71 for example–so I think it can be effective. But some songs do cross the line by either attributing too much power to the enemy of our souls, or making believers out to be too militant.
- You’d have to leave out a lot of verses from some of our ethnic heritages (both Swedish and African-American) if you were going to avoid references to the hope of heaven. It’s really part of our language of faith, as long as it’s kept in balance and not taken to the point of escapism.
- I do usually change lyrics for gender inclusiveness. In some cases though, the solutions in the hymnal (“thy child shall I be” in “Be Thou My Vision” – Really? I’m not God’s child yet?) cause me to either go against my desire for inclusiveness or just not sing the song, both of which make me sad.
- I try to avoid songs laden with guilt and self-pity. There’s a whole genre of CCM that gets too caught up in “I’m a loser, I’m horrible, I’m an idiot, but you love me anyway.” It’s one thing to have a healthy sense of our sinfulness. But it can slide too quickly into the worship of our low self-esteem, rather than focusing on God’s grace in our lives. I also avoid songs that get too excited about all my plans and ideas to change things and do better. “I’m tired of this tepid life so I’m going to wake up tomorrow and do better.” I guess in the end I would rather focus less on telling God my emotions, and instead just worship God.
- I struggle with how many songs in our hymnal are about what God can do for me (especially about how God can fix my feelings) and how few there seem to be about following Jesus into the world (and some of the ones there are, are terrible!). “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is on my banned list – it’s quite the other way around, I think!
- I do think we need to sing songs that help us look forward to heaven. I find that older people especially gain hope from them. This world, even the church sometimes, isn’t very kind or inclusive of older people (70+). About “Thy child sall I be” – I’ve taken that to be now AND future language. Like the Kingdom of God being present now and coming in the future. Sing to the Lord a song of praise. Let us exalt His name together! Keep up the good work and be blessed!
So what do you think? Do you change the language of songs that are not theologically sound, or do you not sing them at all? How do you decide? Is it all about context? Are these teaching moments? These are important issues to work through, and I’m grateful for your encouragement and input.