by Ken Puls
How well do you know the music your church sings in worship? Can you think, for example, of a song that teaches that sin corrupts and deceives the heart? Or a song that unfolds the work of the Trinity in our salvation? If you were to measure the depth of doctrine and the breadth of truth in your church’s music for worship, what would you find?
In my last post we began considering ways that worship leaders can best prepare for the task of selecting music for worship. My first encouragement was know the Word. The first and best way to prepare for the task is to be regularly and diligently in God’s Word.
But second, and closely tied to the first, those who lead music in the church must know theology. Music is tied to theology—our songs instruct us. Music gives us voice to rehearse and remember the truth. It helps us rightly respond and rejoice in the truth.
Except for the preaching of the Word, no other ministry in the church has such a profound impact on shaping our understanding of truth than music. The music we sing helps us declare what is true about God, ourselves, and the world around us. And it embeds that truth in our thinking and in our lives. Paul makes the connection between music and truth in Colossians 3:16. He instructs us:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16, ESV).
We want to sing and celebrate what is true. We want our music to support and undergird the teaching and preaching ministry of the church. For this to happen we must be wise and discerning in what we choose to sing. We must know the truth and be able to recognize lyrics that are rich in truth, lyrics that are light on truth, and lyrics that stray from the truth.
So commit yourself to study theology. Read sound, theological books. Learn to think theologically about your church’s music. Peruse and evaluate the lyrics of music you are using or considering for use in worship. Along with looking for quotes, allusions, and connections to specific Scripture references in each song, ask yourself: What theological truths does this song teach?
One of the methods I have used to help me think theologically about music is to compile a Theological Index of Church Music. I started the index twenty years ago as a project for one of my PhD seminars in seminary. I created both an outline of theological topics and a list of song titles (psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs) that we were singing at the church where I was leading worship. Then I created the index by working through the lyrics of each song, line by line, listing the song title under each entry in the outline that was stated or affirmed in the song. The resulting index provided a valuable resource, not just for selecting songs by theological topic, but for evaluating the scope and content of our church’s music.
You can find the Theological Outline here along with a list of some of the books I used to compile the outline.
I have resisted (for now) posting my full Theological Index of Church Music. I recognize that each church will have its own compilation of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that it knows and sings well. I have also discovered that much of the benefit in having the list is the time spent creating it—thinking through lyrics and evaluating strengths and weaknesses.
Here, however, are a few entries from my opening questions:
Songs that teach that sin corrupts and deceives the heart
Songs that unfold the work of the Trinity in our salvation
by Ken Puls
Leading God’s people in song is a great joy. It is a rewarding responsibility to sing and play psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in praise to God. But like other aspects of worship—reading and preaching God’s Word, lifting up prayers in behalf of the congregation—with the joy comes labor. It takes time to plan and prepare music for worship. This is especially evident given the reality that the task of worship is ongoing. Week by week, music must be selected, ordered and rehearsed. There is always a service coming.
So what is the best way to plan music for worship? How can worship leaders, given the task each week to select music for the services, make the best use of their time and efforts? How can they avoid the ruts of simply resorting to favorites or choosing what’s trendy? How can they guard against weariness and wearing out over time?
There is no simple solution to finding the right songs for the right service, but there are some vital ways that worship leaders can prepare themselves to be ready for the task. Those who give direction to the music of the church must learn to be students, and not just students of the music itself—giving attention to tunes, lyrics and arrangements. In the next several posts, I will explore three areas of study that every worship leader should seek to master:
My first encouragement to those who lead music in the church is know the Word. This of course applies to all worship leaders—to those who read and preach God’s Word, to those who lift up prayers in behalf of the congregation, as well as to those who lead in singing God’s praise. We must immerse ourselves in Scripture. The first and best way to prepare for the task of selecting music for worship is to be regularly and diligently in God’s Word.
In John 4 Jesus taught on the essence of true worship:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him (John 4:23).
If we are to worship God rightly, we need to preach, sing, and pray the truths of the Bible and we need the life-giving work of God’s Spirit quickening our spirits that we might understand, embrace and apply those truths to our lives. So as we plan for worship, our two greatest priorities should be to 1) saturate our services with the Word of God, and 2) pray earnestly for the power of God’s Spirit to illumine His truth that we might walk in its light.
Paul echoes this emphasis of spirit and truth when he teaches the church about music. In Ephesians 5 he exhorts the church to:
…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18–19).
In a parallel passage in Colossians 3 he says:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
It is essential that our music be rooted in the truth of God’s Word and in the work of His Spirit. As we preview the lyrics of songs, we should look for quotes, allusions, and connections to God’s Word. If we are to sing in a way that lets the word of Christ dwell in us richly, we need to:
Consider, for example, the hymn How Firm a Foundation. One of the reasons this hymn has endured the test of time is its faithfulness to Scripture. The opening verse speaks of the value of resting our faith in God’s “excellent Word.” The remaining verses then rehearse several promises from the Bible. Read through the lyrics and see how many passages come to mind.
How Firm a Foundation
(from John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787)
1. How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
2. In every condition—in sickness, in health,
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home, or abroad, on land, on the sea,
"As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be."
3. "Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
For I am Thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand."
4. "When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."
5. "When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
May grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine."
6. "E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne."
7. "The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake."
(Click here to see the lyrics of hymn with the passages of Scripture listed)
We want to select and sing music in the church that will let God’s Word dwell in us richly. We want songs that are biblically sound, songs that will teach and edify, not amuse and entertain. We want to recognize and cast aside songs that are in error or are lacking in truth. We want to identify and keep songs that will help us interpret, verbalize, and respond to truth, songs that will serve and undergird the preaching and teaching ministry of the church.
But in order to recognize such music, and find fitting places for that music in the life of the church, we need to know the Word of God. So commit yourself to being a student of God’s Word. Be in the Bible every day. Read it, study it, memorize it. Take notes as you read. Look for connections between the lyrics of your church’s songs and the verses of Scripture. Note where those connections are lacking. Highlight where those connections are strong. As a worship leader and musician, aim to be well-rehearsed, not just in the music you plan to sing, but in the Scriptures you intend to teach, proclaim and celebrate. Know the Word!
In the last several posts I have addressed the question: How can we best prepare for times of gathered worship? How can we be ready, as members of the church family, to take full advantage of the opportunities we have together to serve in the House of God. So far we have considered our need to:
Come to Christ—resting in Him and upon His promises.
Put on love, which is the bond of perfection.
Pray for the work of God’s Spirit among us.
Come expectantly, ready to meet with God.
Be intentional in making time for worship—making gathered worship a priority.
Watch both heart and life.
But there is one more way to prepare that must be noted. We prepare for worship by worshipping! Worship is not something confined to the Lord’s Day or to a building. Though gathered worship provides a venue for us to center on God corporately as His church, God should be at the center of our lives continually.
We must be in communion with God all throughout the week, turning to Him in times of need and times of joy, making time for Him in private devotion and family worship. The more we delight in worshipping God through the week, the more our desire for worshipping Him together on the Lord’s Day will be kindled and stoked and fanned into flame. Gathered worship is an inextricable overflow from a life of worship—a joy that can cannot be contained, praise that must be shared.
In Romans 12:1, Paul exhorts us:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)
We are to count our lives each day as an act of worship, offered in obedience to God! We must live like worshippers.
Many of the elements that comprise gathered worship are elements that should define our lives. They are means of grace designed by God to strengthen and nurture our souls, not just in a corporate setting, but day by day. We are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). We are to daily read and study and meditate on the Word of God:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
We are to sing and give God praise:
My mouth is filled with your praise,
and with your glory all the day.
I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
We are to fellowship with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ:
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).
Be intentional and deliberate in making time each day to make use of these means of grace. Don’t wait for Sunday to worship God. Praise Him! Pray to Him! Sing to Him! Preach His Word! Walk with Him each day—at home, at your workplace, at school. Acknowledge Him as your priority. Our worship throughout the week is food for our souls that fills us and primes us for life and service together in the house of God.
See a Table of Contents (thus far) for this series: Gathered Worship in the House of God
(Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)
The conversations tend to go like this: “I like my church. My pastor preaches the Word. There are some wonderful people in the church. But something is wrong. There’s no life together. People don’t seem to really care for each other. Conversations are superficial. I’m not sure that people even know one another in our church.”
Have you had those conversations? Maybe you have even said the same thing to someone out of concern for your church. That seems to be a good starting point for doing some thinking about what it means to have a healthy church.
Many of you reading this post have found help in Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. Dever identifies nine essential characteristics of healthy churches: expositional preaching, biblical theology, biblical understanding of conversion, biblical understanding of evangelism, biblical understanding of church membership, biblical church discipline, concern for discipleship and growth, and biblical church leadership. While we might add to that list, e.g. biblical understanding of mission, we would not subtract anything from that list to characterize healthy churches.
Yet how does a church get out of the starting block toward a healthy condition? Obviously, it starts with expositional preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit. It would be impossible to institute biblical church membership or biblical church discipline or biblical church leadership without first laying a solid foundation in the church’s understanding through expositional preaching. Otherwise, any attempt to do so will result in either a church split or a short pastorate.
But here is where I want to offer one thought to consider in the process toward establishing a healthy church. Teach and preach about the nature of the church. I know that seems obvious, or should, but it appears to be presumed by pastors and leaders. We can think that a church surely knows what it is as the people of God, the pillar and support of the truth, the body of Christ, the temple of God corporately indwelled by the Spirit, et al. We can presume that one who consciously joins a church at least understands what the church is.
However, may I suggest that we delete that presumption from our memory banks? Over and over in conversations with both members and leaders from one church to another, I’m brought to the stark reality. Church members, as a rule, do not understand what the church is. They do not understand the price of its existence through the bloody death of Christ. They do not grasp its corporate standing before God and corporate functioning as the people of God in community with one another. They do not see that they have responsibility for one another to love, exhort, serve, forgive, be kind to, encourage, bear burdens, and accept. They fail to see that the church is the focus of the redemptive work of Christ rather than merely the individual. They are more influenced by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in their thinking than Jesus, John, and Paul. They think individually rather than as a family of believers in covenant with one another to live out the gospel.
So, in the journey toward church health, please don’t neglect intensive teaching, preaching, and training in what the church is. That understanding and practice won’t happen overnight or in a year or two, in all likelihood. It takes much patience to set forth that essential foundation for church health. And it must be constantly repeated, rehearsed, and gloried in. It cannot be programmed into existence. As a matter of fact, understanding the nature of the church takes the work of the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of a congregation to understand the clear teaching of Holy Scripture.
But our gracious God kindly opens eyes and transforms understanding about the church. Let’s be faithful, not presumptuous, in laying the foundation for the church to know what it is in Christ.
Founders Ministries exists to work for the recovery of the gospel and the biblical re-formation of local churches. They have a myriad of ministries that are given to that two-pronged effort, including a church planting network, an online study center, a publishing house, a quarterly journal, regional conferences and events, minister search list, friends list, and church list. In addition to this their website is populated with loads of resources for pastors, students, church leaders and serious Christians.
Contributers to the blog:
Dr. Tom Ascol, Senior Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, FL
Dr. Tom Hicks, Pastor of Discipleship, Morningview Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL (Tom is the team leader of the blog).
Dr. Fred Malone, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Clinton, LA
Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY
Dr. Phil Newton, Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, TN
Dr. Kenneth Puls, Director of Publications and the Study Center for Founders Ministries, Cape Coral, FL
Dr. Jeff Robinson, Pastor, Philadelphia Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
Jon English Lee, Ph.D. Student, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY