In a certain circle of thinkers, the topic of modern worship musicworship music and its problems has been thoroughly examined and debated. Because of that, I’m quite hesitant to throw my thoughts in, but since I have not yet heard anyone address the topic in precisely the way I’m about to, I feel compelled to write anyway. If someone else has approached the problem from the following perspective, please let me know so that I can give them credit.
When I say that I think that modern worship music often fails to worship God in spirit and in truth, I am speaking from my own experience. Every week, when I go to church and hear the worship music, I struggle with my spirit to understand, believe, and mean the words that I am singing. I see “Worthy is the Lamb” projected on the screen for me to sing with everyone else, but the words are utterly meaningless to me as I sing; however, should I read those same words in the Bible or in a work of theology, the actual denotive and connotive meanings of “worthy” and “Lamb” are called to my mind. The difference is that since I have grown up in the church, I have heard the same set of words used in the same context, setting, (and often the same musical key), thousands of times. Holy, wonderful, love, peace, grace, righteousness, cross, sin, blood, crown, beautiful, pierce, Christ, Jesus, God, Spirit, Son, Lamb…this isn’t a complete list, but it does include some of the most overly used words in worship songs. The consequence of confining ourselves within the same idiom for decades is that the words in the idiom have become empty symbols (there’s a deconstructionist reading here somewhere. Perhaps Mr. Edwards could help find it?). While the words projected on the screen and leaving our mouths mean “holiness,” our minds possess no thought that resembles the definition of holiness.
If I am correct in my assertion that the language of worship has become a dead language, then what is the songwriter to do in order to create music which sincerely worships God in spirit and in truth with artistic excellence? Is it possible to write worship music without ever speaking of Christ by His name? The solution to this problem is balance, discernment, and unpacking meaning. There are some words that must be used in worship music, at least occasionally. For those words, like the name of God and Christ, the important thing is to balance their use and to know when to use them for the greatest effect. Someone, a blogger whose name escapes me right now, once suggested that we take the Lord’s name in vain when we sing it twenty times in the same song. While I’m not sure I would completely agree with this statement, I do believe that he was correct in pointing to the fact that repetition diminishes power and meaning. If a secular song about a relationship repeated the word “love” fifty times, you wouldn’t believe that the singer loved someone more than a singer who sang the word “love” only once after spending most of the song detailing what that love meant. It is very important for worship songwriters to balance their use of specific words and to discern where to place them so that others will best grasp the meaning and purpose of the word in context.
Let me give an example to explain what I mean by unpacking meaning. When the poet uses language to express himself, he will use very specific words. One word in a poem holds within it a spectrum of meanings, both connotive and denotive. Instead of writing three lines of poetry to express something, a good poet often chooses one word that evokes the same meaning. In modern worship music, this same thing has occurred. The word “holy” has within it a wide array of meanings: set apart, sacred, righteous, pure, untainted, otherworldly, good, etc…By using such dense language, the songwriter can write lyrics that are full of complexity and depth; thus better expressing the theme of the song. But, as we have seen, in modern worship these words have lost their spectrum of meaning. When we sing holy, not only do we not think of the many meanings of the word, we rarely think of even the dictionary definition. Instead of one word standing in for ten thoughts or words, it now stands in for nothing; all that is left is the written symbol and the sound of the word. I believe that the solution to this problem is that worship songwriters must unpack the meaning of the words that they typically use. Thus, instead of using holiness, spend a line or two in the song describing God’s holiness. This accomplishes two things: first, it reduces the overuse of the worship song idiom, which will eventually lead to a time when people can hear the word “holy” in a song and again call to mind all the meanings attached to it; and second, it will be easier for those who sing along to focus on the meaning of the lyrics because the words will be outside the standard idiom.
As I said, I am speaking from my own experience and therefore what I am suggesting might only apply to myself. Please let me know if you experience something similar or different when you worship, or if you think the solution I’ve spelled out here (balancing the use of specific words, discerning where those words should be placed in a song for the greatest impact, and unpacking words in the worship idiom to revitalize meaning) is insufficient or misguided.