A Heart for Excellence: Thinking Biblically about Skill in Singing

sven-read-4yZGWYCul-w-unsplashSing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
— Psalm 33:3 —

They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. 7 The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was 288.
— 1 Chronicles 25:6–7 —

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
— 1 Corinthians 10:31 —

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
— 1 Corinthians 12:7 —

Music is a gift from God. And in the church, those gifted in song are given by Christ to build up his body. To that end, those who lead the church in song should serve with true faith, pure hearts, and skilled hands. For various reasons, the combination of head, heart, and hands is not always easy. But it is something we should pray for and work towards

To that end, I offer the following eight points on the place of skill in song. These eight points summarize a larger article on the biblical necessity of excellence in music. (You can read that article here: True Worship Includes a Heart for Excellence.) Let me know what you think of these eight points, and/or what you would add or improve. Continue reading

Rhythms of Grace: Three Reflections on Worship

sarah-noltner-F5-Z1H7lJaA-unsplash.jpg[This post is written by Matt Wood with a little help from me. Matt is a member at Occoquan Bible Church, where you will often find him engrossed in discussion about theology and leading our congregation in song.]

Do you find yourself in God’s gospel story week to week?

How does the gospel inform worship?

What should we include and exclude in our Sunday morning services?

These are just a couple of the questions Mike Cosper answers in his book, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church’s Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel. Written by a pastor who has led music in the church for decades, his book is fantastic for all worshipers in the church. In what follows, we will see three points about worship from Cosper’s illuminating book. Continue reading

The Hole In Our Praise (and Lamentation) and Worship

chuttersnap-6jkiVl4mwws-unsplashOn my shelf I have a Celebration Hymnal: Songs and Hymns for Worship. It was published in 1997, foreworded by Jack Hayford (Pastor of The Church on the Way), and intended to provide “tools for ‘blended worship'” (from the Preface). Consisting of 865 selections, it combines new songs and old hymns, Scripture readings, and even various calls to worship.

Yet, what is strikingly absent are songs or Scriptures devoted to lament or confession. Instead The Celebration Hymnal celebrates all that the triune God has done. But it’s consistent tenor only highlights the good news of God, without considering the bad news of sin and he reason why humanity needs salvation.

For instance, the opening section of “Songs and hymns for worship” are categorized under nine headings:

  • Praise the Lord
  • Exalt the Lord
  • Bless the Lord
  • Adore the Lord
  • Glorify the Lord
  • Magnify the Lord
  • Worship the Lord
  • Give Thanks to the Lord
  • The Family at Worship

These stunningly positive categories of song are inter-leafed with Scripture readings to make up the first 201 selections. Likewise, under the category “Walking with God,” we find 12 categories:

  • Faith and Hope
  • Aspiration and Consecration
  • Assurance and Trust
  • Commitment and Obedience
  • Comfort and Encouragement
  • Prayer and Devotion
  • Purity and Holiness
  • Stewardship and Service
  • Guidance and Care
  • Provision and Deliverance
  • Spiritual Conflict and Victory
  • Peace and Joy

These sections compose more than 200 songs and Scriptures (526–752), and provide a well-rounded corpus of songs dedicated to different areas of faith, hope, love, and holiness. Yet, what remains absent is any mention of lamentation, sorrow, or pain, as well as any explicit mention of sin and confession.

Songs of “repentance and forgiveness” find four spaces under the category “New Life in Christ.” But these four songs are overshadowed by the ten songs of “invitation and acceptance” and eleven songs of “witness and and praise” in the same category.

To be fair, these themes are addressed in various songs throughout the hymnal. I confess, I haven’t read the whole book. But what I am interested in does not require a full reading but a look at the organization which the publishers supplied.

It is instructive that lamentation and confession did not make it into the arrangement of The Celebration Hymnal. While lamentation is a key biblical theme, only two Psalms of Lament are even cited in The Celebration Hymnal. And tellingly, those selections are from the vows of praise. Nothing comes close to the cries of dereliction or the screams for salvation that are found in Psalm 13, 22, 88, or 89. Continue reading

Above All, Who Did Christ Die For?

crossCrucified / Laid behind a stone
You lived to die/ Rejected and alone
Like a rose / Trampled on the ground
You took the fall/ And thought of me
Above all


These words, the chorus of the song “Above All,” have echoed in evangelical churches far and wide. On the whole I like the song, it’s first two stanzas testify to the universal sovereignty of God. However, as it enters the chorus, the sweeping sovereignty of God appears to be displaced by a form of sentimentalized love that is all too common in our self-exalting century.

The theological problem that some have with this song comes at its climax, the point that the whole song drives towards. In that final line, “Above All” ostensibly leaves the high ground of God’s sovereignty (“above all kingdoms / above all thrones / above all wonders the world has ever known”) to frolic in the marshes of ego-boosting self-esteem (God “thought of me above all”).

Intended to express breadth, length, height, and depth of God’s unfathomable love, Michael W. Smith’s lyrics come close to severing the root of God’s love by leading the chorus to sing that God in his love thought about me “above all.”  I say close, instead of actually committing the act, because I think upon closer inspection “above all” in the chorus should be delimited by the earlier “all” statements.

Tomorrow, I will show how I think “Above All” can serve as a God-exalting worship song, but today let me unpack the theological truth that has led many to take issue with this song, namely that the highest purpose of the cross is not directed towards man, but towards God himself. Continue reading

Matt Papa’s Prophetic Take on Christian Radio

Christian singer-songwriter, Matt Papa, has begun a series of posts on Christian radio that will be worth watching.

Since my earliest Christian memories have DC Talk’s Jesus Freak and Smalltown Poets Prophet, Priest, and King playing as background music, I will be very interested in what he has to say.  With Mr. Papa, I am one who is frequently sickened by the shallow, trite, and godless banter that fills Christian radio.

Just this week I heard a K-Love disc jockey preach a gospel of self-salvation: “When I encounter hard times, I remember all that I gone through before and I endure.”  What kind of non-Christian non-sense is that?  It would make Paul stand up and say, “Oh, you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?!”  Or perhaps, it would incite a conversation like this, imagined by Matt Papa:

Imagine with me: The apostle Paul, John the Baptist, the prophet Isaiah, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Hudson Taylor all sitting in a room together.  The year is 2012, and they’re listening to a mainstream christian radio station.  After listening for an hour, someone finally speaks up:

Isaiah:  um….

Paul:  wow.


Augustine:  Did that song just say ‘God you are super neat’?!?

Taylor:  Haven’t heard a song about the cross yet.

John:  This is embarrassing.  (bites into a bug)

 Over the next month or so, I’ll be writing a series of posts about the current state of the christian music industry, more specifically, the current state of that which spearheads it, namely christian radio. . . .

Mr. Papa continues,

As you might have gleaned from the title, what will follow will be a hard, honest, word of rebuke.  I have no idea if anything I say in these posts will mean anything for the sake of change, but someone has to say it:  Mainstream christian radio is altogether banal and shallow in both a musical sense and a spiritual sense.  The songs are man-centered and the DJ’s and radio programmers are man-pleasers…..they play the songs that will attract the most listeners to their station, period.  Christian radio is like Joel Osteen in musical form….safe, happy, and untruthful.  It is the TBN of music…a large-scale, embarrassing presentation of Christianity to the world.

After this, he lists seven caveats that promise to make his posts not simply angry rants, but thoughtful examinations of a broken system.  See his seven reflections.

I look forward to seeing what Mr. Papa will say, and what will be said in return.  I am sure it will ruffle feathers, but I pray for good.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

From Jubal to the Jukebox to Jesus: You Were Made to Sing

[This article was originally featured in our hometown newspaper, The Seymour Tribune]

You were created to sing. But you already knew that because you are likely already listening to something, if only the jingle that is stuck in your head. Whatever your preference, music is a defining element in our lives. It’s always been this way. Before the invasion of rock, the invention of rap or the instrumentation of classical, people were making instruments and song.

In Genesis 4, when Adam’s children began to multiply, Moses says that Jubal “was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” Within two verses, Scripture records its first song, the “Song of the Sword.” Six millennia before Carrie Underwood took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights, songs about sex and violence were already on the jukebox.

However, Scripture does not simply recount the lustful lyrics of Lamech. It redeems the whole enterprise of song. While mankind, made in God’s image, sings, only those who know God’s redeeming love can sing the eternal song (Revelation 5:9-10).

Indeed, one of God’s greatest gifts is music, and the whole world enjoys it. However, God gives us more than music. For those who have ears to hear, God himself sings a song of redemption. Zephaniah 3:17 says, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

What a song that must be! God serenading those who have believed in the saving love of Jesus Christ (John 3:16). Of all songs, his is the Song of Songs. It fills the heart with joy, satisfying us with God’s eternal pleasures (Psalm 16:11). Better than sex, drugs and rock and roll, God’s song promises freedom, love and life in Jesus. And better still — God’s song doesn’t wear out and he will sing it to anyone who asks.


Singing the Psalms

Do you sing the Psalms? If not, why not?

Joe Holland makes a strong argument for including the Psalms in our corporate worship and daily lives. His blog on “Rediscovering the Psalms” makes a case for the value and vitality of finding a good Psalter and singing God’s word.

He writes of an encounter with a Peruvian minister who challenged his thinking in the way he intentionally chose the Psalms as an instrument for renewing minds of his congregation with the biblical, theological, and missional content of the Psalms. He writes of the Peruvian pastor:

First, he was convicted that psalm singing was the biblical pattern of New Testament worship. Second, he was fighting heresy in his churches. False teaching slipped into his churches through folk songs slightly adjusted for worship. Psalm singing was his attempt to guard his people from heresy sung to a familiar tune. Third, he said, “I sing psalms because they are militant.” He wanted to teach his people that Christians daily engage in spiritual warfare. The psalms provided a war-time mentality to his young churches.

From there Holland goes on to give eight reasons why we ought to sing the Psalms. Here are his points:

1. When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
2. When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
3. When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
4. When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
5. When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions.
6. When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
7. When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare.
8. When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints.

May we considered his exhortations, find a good Psalter, and sing praises to our king, sing praises (Ps. 47:6).

(HT: Justin Taylor)