Some of the most well-known worship songs today come out of certain movements. Overseas (and now in New York) we have Hillsong; here in the States we have Bethel. Some of you reading go, “Who?” But, believe me, a generation of Christians is not going “Who?” Hillsong could well be the most globally-recognized church “brand” right now (other than Catholicism). They are zealous for the gospel and seeing people know Jesus—a constant source of encouragement and personal challenge to me. I am grateful for what God does through them.
However, at times (and because of the global-ness of the movement), we hear about weird things coming from them. Things such as pastors faking cancer, or perhaps leaders teaching youth stupid things about God—like googling your theology or that angels have farting contests (no, really, watch the video).
These types of things cause me to pause and reflect on whether or not to use songs coming from these movements in our services; but I am also aware that a song doesn’t define a person or a movement (some of you from a different generation may recognize that same thing about Keith Green). So, rather than just think about that alone, I’ve asked my worship pastor friends to give me their thoughts. I put this question to them: How do you approach song selection when songs may come from movements that have unorthodox (or even heretical) teaching? Here are their (brief) thoughts. (I asked for 100-200 words. Fike and Kevin didn’t obey.)
Every budding worship leader has artists or movements that they are drawn to, whether sonically, lyrically, or both. When one comes along that is just explosive or connects to a huge audience, we all have a tendency to just hop on the bandwagon. One thing I try to impress upon younger worship leaders that I train is to engage each song on its own terms. Don’t treat artists as if they can’t do wrong. Always engage the song theologically, lyrically, musically, and contextually.
If someone asks me about popular movements like Bethel, which has some killer songs, I invariably say something to the effect of, “I like a lot of their songs. Like many charismatic churches, they have some bad teaching, and I disagree with their theology. But there are some great, biblical songs by them that I think connect to our congregation and help them worship.”
The simple fact that there are songs in which the gospel still rises to the top even in contexts where theology and teaching are at best inadequate or careless and at worst erroneous and heretical is actually encouraging to me as much as it is problematic.
200 words exactly, including this sentence.
The reality is, much of the great, Godward music that is being sung in many churches today is coming out of churches whose theology and teaching don’t live up to their song lyrics. In fact, some are the very churches & teachings that, as an Elder, I would want to protect our people from.
So, should we use their music? While I don’t think there’s necessarily one right answer, I think there are a few guiding principles for us to consider:
- We should be aware of the theological weaknesses of particular artists/churches, so that in choosing songs we are weeding out junk and aren’t bringing bad theology with us.
- We should hold our own writing to the same standards of expression and theology that we do theirs.
- We should do our best to not endorse those we would deem unsafe. This means:
- We don’t bring in those artists for concerts and don’t encourage people going to their churches, concerts, etc.
- When people ask about such an artist or ministry, we should be sure to warn them about the content of the teaching/theology they could encounter.
- It may even be wise to avoid using music by local artists/churches, whose teachings our people might find more accessible.
- Lastly, if your conscience tells you that doing a particular song isn’t good for you to do, don’t do it. Personally, I think if any of the churches are flatly denying primary points of orthodoxy—trinity, deity of Jesus, substitutionary atonement—I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing their songs.
In all, this conversation makes me thankful for churches that are preaching a God-centered, Jesus-exalting gospel, while also encouraging and cultivating artists who actually write good music with lyrics which speak rightly about Jesus.
Hope that is helpful.
Chris Tomlin is every bit as capable of writing a heretical song as Brian Johnson is, or for that matter, Richie Fike.
For my part, I submitted all of my songs for the Fike records to my elder board at Vanguard. I wanted them to pore through the lyrics and approve of the content, continuity and culture of the songs, because I wanted our songs to be reflective of who we are, both as a church and as a member of the ‘big C’ church.
Paul Baloche got into some controversy a few years ago with his song, “Above All,” because the lyric rubbed against ‘high sovereignty’ theology.
But, his pastor at his church had no problem with its implications. The image of Jesus thinking of the individuals His death would affect didn’t fly in the face of his theology. So, that song was very useful to his church, and to the Church at large.
Each church’s worship culture has a gatekeeper—the person that either writes or selects the songs that his church will sing to its Savior. Some gatekeepers might throw the baby out with the bathwater—disregarding all music from every dysfunctional expression of faith.
Reality Check: If a song has to come out of an infallible environment to be useful to the Bride of Christ, we’d have no songs.
I believe, as our church’s gatekeeper, I can listen/analyze a song ‘on an island’ and decipher its content and theological implications and decide whether it is useful/helpful/appropriate for the body I’m responsible to serve.
Calvin was known as a murderer who lacked mercy and grace. Luther believed that Jewish homes and synagogues should be destroyed. Spurgeon was a huge fan of whiskey and cigars (ok maybe not a bad thing). You get the point. Even the wisest of wise make stupid decisions/comments, yet their contributions to the faith aren’t diminished. Truth is, every teaching has a bit of heresy weaved into it because of our humanity. We don’t have a full understanding of who God is, nor will we have it until we’re standing face to face with Him in heaven.
With that said, I have to believe that if I’ve been called to serve as a worship pastor, then I’ve also been equipped by the Holy Spirit to discern the lyrical content of a song. Everything has to pass through three filters: my community’s heart, mission and doctrinal stance. If a song lines up with all three of these things and I sense the Holy Spirit is on board with it, I’ll use the song. Unless the writer/movement is directly contradicting doctrine, not theology (there’s a difference), he or she will have little to do with my decision.
If you have things to add or subtracts, I’d love to hear them.