Humor is a way to state hard truths in a palatable fashion. It’s easier, for example, to point out all the silly aspects of modern worship choruses by satirically praising them than by constantly griping about them. Nobody wants to read a “13 Reasons Modern Worship Music is Terrible” article. What a downer. Especially because it’s not true. Only some modern worship music is terrible.
Recently I’ve been listening to This Glorious Grace put out by Austin Stone Worship. It is phenomenal. And by phenomenal I don’t just mean catchy or memorable. I mean it is what worship music ought to be, a means and method of worship.
(Austin Stone is one of a growing number of churches and church networks writing and producing their own music rather than just leaning on the offerings of A-list songwriters in the CCM world. Others include Sojourn Church, Red Mountain Church, RUF/Indelible Grace, and Sovereign Grace. There are many others too.)
What sets apart great worship music from, well, everything else? The same aspects that make a sermon strong. The best church music – be it hymn, chorus, or whatever other style – is a sermon in a song. Except it only takes four to six minutes instead of forty-six!
It says true things about God, about humans, about life. This is basic, but essential. It’s discouraging how many “worship” songs say nothing at all or even untrue things. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, this is true of sermons as well.
A lot of sermons and songs say true things, but not enough reveal deep things. The best songs and the best sermons push the worshipper to depths of reflection and learning and experience they haven’t experienced. They take truth and push it deeper into hearts than it ahs been before. Depth doesn’t mean being complicated. It means being cognizant of the bigness and of God and His work and then taking people exploring in it.
The best sermons and the best songs have a theme or a point that they express with clarity from the get-go. Nobody needs to wonder what the message is. It is unveiled early and expressed without meandering. It uses language with teeth, not meaningless truisms to make people feel better. If you leave a song or sermon feeling nice but unsure what the point was it failed.
Power and volume are not the same thing. You can whisper with power. O Sacred Head now Wounded and It Is Well are powerful hymns. Mild mannered preachers can speak with power. Power drives forward inexorably, pushing God’s truth deeper into hearts. Sometimes this is with a thumping kick drum pile driving truth into hearts and sometimes it is truth softly expressed over time to wear away a hard shell. Sometimes power explodes and sometimes it shows itself with consistency over time. But in both cases it drives and drives and drives.
Truth is best expressed in an economy of words. This means using as few words as possible to say as much as possible. The best church music is a few verses with a book’s worth of truth about God.
(Not to be confused with arts and crafts)
Build tight sentences. Use metaphor well. Paint pictures with words. Leave images embedded on minds and hearts. Make subtle (or obvious) references to other biblical truths. Craft makes truth clear and compelling. Art sets truth ablaze with emotion. Both are necessary for profound worship.
Yes repetition can be overdone, and often is both in sermons and songs. No, this is not a call for more 7/11 songs (7 words 11 times). It is acknowledging that people learn by repetition. We’re slow. We’re stubborn. We’re rebellious. We’re forgetful. Repetition gives God (and the worship leader/preacher) a chance to overcome that. It is reminds time and again of truth we need to hear. Remember the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting? (NSFW language) Repetition is part of power, it methodically massages what we need to know and feel into our minds and hearts.
You can make a bad song or sermon sound good with excellent delivery, but the effects over time are nil. But when strong delivery is matched with the characteristics above it rounds it out. Delivery has its own set of characteristics that set it apart is good, but much has to do with style and comfort level and audience and culture. I leave it to the leader to recognize what is needed in his or her context to deliver a sermon or song well. Just know that when you do it sweeps away the distractions and confusion that comes with people into worship and elevates the one about whom you are speaking or singing.