Music is a funny thing. In a utilitarian sense, it’s not very useful, but it holds enormous power over our human species.
In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks rightly claims that music is auditory, emotional, and motoric, meaning that we listen to it with our whole bodies including our muscles. Even the tone-deaf among us are drawn to music in ways they can’t explain because music goes beyond what we hear and touches us in our core. Human engagement with music is among the most sophisticated phenomena in the world. Of course, we should pay close attention to lyrics, but we shouldn’t talk about songs as if they are merely the sum of their lyrics.
Music cannot be divorced from what’s happening in us and to us while we’re hearing it.
No one listens to music – or comes to church – in a vacuum. The inherent power of music certainly won’t supersede or override poor theology, but rather it amplifies the dynamics present when congregations gather for worship. And then as Christians, we show up to worship a living God who’s active in our midst.
So when God’s people gather to worship the following factors are immediately present: the content of the lyrics being sung, the music carrying the lyrics, the mental and emotional space that each congregant enters with, and the active Holy Spirit who is moving in and through all of it.
Good and bad. It’s complicated.
In 2015 my wife and I walked through the traumatic event of losing a child followed by a six-month string of a litany of other tragedies in their own right.
At the time I was in full-time ministry and, without entering into full-blown “deconstruction,” I was forced to unlearn and relearn much of what I knew about God and life with God in the world. Not long into my process I was in a worship gathering and heard King of My Heart being sung for the first time. Frankly, I was appalled at the idea that anyone who had been alive for more than ten minutes could honestly sing the line “You’re never gonna let me down” with a straight face.
Before moving any further, the objective of this post (and any subsequent post around this topic) is not to determine whether songs are inherently “good or bad” or “true or untrue,” but rather to examine how songs can be heard, how they might be sung faithfully, and what we can do as worship leaders to lead in ways that open people up to God’s work in their lives.
So after this long introduction we should ask: what are our songs supposed to do, anyways?
It’s quite a massive question, but an important one nonetheless. It seems to me that our corporate singing functions primarily to teach us.
James K.A. Smith has written a wonderful little book, You Are What You Love, about how our worship shapes us and forms us, and how the most important question then becomes into whose image are we being formed?
Our songs teach and train us in the path of discipleship, but how they do so can vary greatly.
For instance, songs like This I Believe and Holy, Holy, Holy teach us by putting doctrine to music in a fairly straightforward manner. Others like Living Hope and Forever teach through the art of storytelling and others teach indirectly through guided expression and provocation. Songs that are largely responsive expression (Jesus, We Love You; I Exalt Thee) are guiding us into right thinking about and right response to God. And then there are songs that provoke our imaginations to see God and his work in new and profound ways (So Will I, Oceans). These are all functions of teaching.
One of the major mistakes we can make is to assume that all of our “worship songs” are intended to teach doctrine in a clear and cogent way. With that in mind, what do we do with “You’re never gonna let me down”?
What makes this particularly difficult is that we use the phrase “let me down” colloquially when someone or something doesn’t meet our expectations. Most of us use (or hear others use) that phrase quite regularly, and – I’d bet – almost always in the same context.
If I say that a friend has “let me down” it means that I am disappointed as a result of some unmet expectations in the relationship. When I first heard the song I heard it as a claim that if God is my King I won’t ever be disappointed with Him, implying that God would always show up when I need him in ways that I expect. We all know that this is untrue, but it’s also dangerous.
Fortunately, that’s not the only way to hear that phrase. How we understand it depends on what exactly is being let down.
If it’s our expectations, then, as mentioned above, that’s sure to happen regardless of how much we shout or proclaim that it won’t. But if the claim is heard as a way of saying that God will carry and sustain us eschatologically and providentially, then we can sing that with full confidence.
What do those big theological words mean?
Eschatologically, that claim would mean that in the end, when all is said and done and Christ has returned, we will see that God himself and all that he has in store for us is better than we imagined. Therefore, in the end, we will not be let down (Rom. 8:18; 2 Tim. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; 2 Cor. 4:17).
Providentially, it would mean that God will sustain us in – not keep us from – all the ups and downs in life to bring us to that day. He will give us all that we need to make it until the end. This may sound intuitive to you, but it didn’t to me for a long time (Eph. 3:20; Phil. 1:6, 2:13; Col. 1:29.
Which brings me to my final thought.
When we come across difficult, obscure, or troubling lyrics, before we throw them out altogether, we should think about what we think they are saying – how we hear them – as well as how we think our people might hear them. We can never know how each person will interpret a phrase, but the more in touch we are with the people within our communities the more we can discern how they might hear a phrase and how we might guide them into faithful understanding and singing.
When we lost our son, suddenly I was attuned to all of the pains and disappointments of the people around me.
I couldn’t help but hear every song, every sermon, and every exhortation in light of the suffering within me and around me. Knowing all that I’ve written above it’s still quite difficult for me to sing that bridge.
If I were leading King of My Heart in my congregation I would take a moment either prior to the song or right before the bridge and guide people away from thinking about God “letting us down” in the way that we typically use the phrase and would challenge them to trust that God is present in whatever they may be facing sustaining them in the midst of their doubt, frustration, and pain.
Whether you sing that particular song or not isn’t that important in the grand scheme of life. You shouldn’t be surprised if there are people in your congregation that find that song problematic or just don’t want to sing it altogether.
What is important is that we learn to know God as He is and not as we want him to be.
You may also be interested in these related posts!
- What Image of God Do Your Worship Sets Paint?
- “Worship Leader” or “Worship Pastor”? Our Language Tells on Us
- Why Should Worship Leaders Even Care About Theology?
- 5 Things Volunteers Do that Annoy their Worship Pastors More than Anything
- Over 150 Ways to Improve as a Worship Musician, Worship Vocalist, & Worship Pastor!
- Grow Your Worship Team with these 6 Proven Recruitment Strategies (Post-Quarantine)