Why talk about songs on a theology blog, one might ask. But a theology blog is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. That’s because the reason the New Testament gives us for singing in church is primarily about theology.
The New Testament Reason for Singing in Church
As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree has ably exegeted it in his journal article in Integrity), the reason we sing to each other in church is primarily to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, copiously in the people of God.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16, nkjv).
The reason for worship songs in the new covenant church is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (nouthetountes: to counsel, warn, encourage, or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we sing with grace, or thanks, in our hearts, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). I’ve been emphasizing that recently with my class on Christian Worship at Welch College: The content of our worship music should very carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing songs in church.
Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures that the people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” of Eph. 5:19). It ensures that the teaching and admonishing function of a song is front and center. It ensures that the edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. It ensures that the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. It ensures that God gets all the glory, not musical performers. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the end, purpose, or telos of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.
If our heart’s desire is to have an apostolically shaped worship service, one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired apostles and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace that the Spirit has appointed in His all-sufficient Word shine brightly and guide and structure our worship, then we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims and trends of a handful of people in the music industry who make multiple millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads every year.
Theologically Rich Texts
Key to developing the kind of worship services I’m talking about is choosing worship songs with theologically rich texts. And it’s wonderful that we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. There is now an abundance of material that either presents freshly written songs that have newly written, theologically rich lyrics, or traditional hymns with which we’re now unfamiliar, set to new music.
I was reminded of this recently when my son Matthew reintroduced me to a new song by my friend Nathan Clark George. The song is entitled “Calm Content.” When Matthew played me this song, I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led us in this song in Welch College chapel a few years ago.”
If you are a pastor or music minister who’s interested in new music that features theologically rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts that have been reset to freshly written music that he has composed. Often he will write a new chorus or an additional verse to go with an older hymn text. Sometimes he writes the text himself. (And sometimes he just sings great songs that aren’t really meant for worship, just for fun—for example, his recent “ode to the Carter Family,” Happy with You.)
In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful old text from the eighteenth-century hymnwriter William Cowper (most famous for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time: Its subject matter is not only doctrinal, but also very practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.
Resources for New, Theologically Rich Worship Music
I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George and his friend Gregory Wilbur. They are a part of a growing band of “new hymnodists” who are bringing theologically rich, gospel-drenched song back into the worship life of the evangelical church.
Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, Indelible Grace Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend Music, Sojourn Music, and many other similar ministries. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the top half-dozen labels that top the CCLI charts. In fact, many of them provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!
I thank God for this explosion of theologically rich song for the twenty-first-century church, and I pray that it will help evangelical churches recapture their historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblically intend purposes of teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!