This is the first part of Asking Tough Worship Music Questions, a (hopefully) long-running series of interviews with worship leaders from around the world. Thank you very much to Chris Llewellyn of Rend Collective for his time and graciousness in response.
It is my strong belief that worship is one of the church’s greatest dividing lines – and I genuinely feel that it is so because it is one of the most important aspects of our Christian life, and therefore Satan targets it directly, profusely, and without ceasing. He increases the passion of those who dislike “modern music” and squashes the concerns of those who want reverent and Biblical lyrics. He encourages the ignorant and condemns the wise; He preys on the apathy of the uninclined and enlarges the fear of the passionate few.
Yet, the Bible is undaunted in its call: “Come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come to him with thanksgiving. Let us sing psalms of praise to him.” (Psalm 95:1-2)
God’s Scriptures are all we should need to quell human-made fires in the church today, but instead of just one point of view, I wanted to reach out and learn from a number of worship leaders around the world, and have them teach us, through answering a few questions. These questions are intended to be a little blunt and contentious, but do not reflect any one view of what worship can or should be.
Chris Llewellyn is the lead vocalist for Rend Collective, based out of Northern Ireland, and he took a few moments to answer some tough questions about worship.
Question One: Why do we repeat lyrics?
I think the reason we do this is for emphasis and because we don’t really get it the first time! There is actually a ton of scriptural precedent for repetition. Psalm 136 for example, uses the expression, “His love endures forever!” 26 times in a a 52 line song … which by modern worship standards would probably be considered overkill!
We also think of the songs of angels, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty”. The repetition in this case reflects the Hebrew approach to poetry in which the ‘stacking’ of an expression intensifies it. In this case the result of the repetition is to state that he is perfectly Holy.
The issue isn’t so much whether or not it’s okay to repeat lyrics but rather whether or not the lyrics in question are worth repeating. That’s how we avoid vain repetition.
Question Two: Who should our songs be directed to? Should they be songs about God, to God, or of God? To God or Jesus? About Jesus?
Theologically all of these and more are a good idea! The psalmists’ collective approach seems to be that if it’s a part of life and faith, then we can and should sing about it. The Psalms sing about God and to God, sometimes within the same song. The New Testament letters contain hymn fragments that are songs to Jesus. Our creative God gives us very few rigid, technical rules for our worship, beyond that it should be “In Spirit and Truth”.
Question Three: Why do we sometimes sing sounds, not words, in praise?
Again this has its roots in scripture. The Psalms speak of “making a joyful noise” and refers shouts of praise without any indication of content – just volume!
In our case, we’ve seen that this can be an access point for people who may not necessarily believe in God yet, but who want to sing with his people which is awesome. It can also be a great way to worship when we just don’t have the words to express our emotions, through sorrow for example. It can help us begin to reach out in worship before we can articulate ourselves .
Question Four: Why do we sometimes sing about ourselves – singing about how we react and respond to God?
The best template I’ve ever been given for writing worship songs is to make sure they are a balance of revelation and response. That they speak about God, revealing His character and inherent glory, and then they lead us to a place where we the worshipper can respond to that information in praise or action of some kind. When we sing songs without putting ourselves in the picture at all, it might initially seem noble, but it reduces God to an abstract and informational concept. The best songs show us who God is and then give us a way to engage with Him.
Question Five: Should we raise our hands, clap our hands, and dance, when we sing to God?
We certainly are free to do any of those things. The Psalms in particular mention all of the above as appropriate for worship. There is great creative license given to us to worship in all kinds of ways, as long as it falls within the generous and wide bracket of “In Spirit and Truth”.
Question Six: What role should spontaneity in speech and song have in worship?
There is certainly nothing inherently more ‘spiritual’ about spontaneity in and of itself versus a planned time of worship. Often the excitement of improvisation is interpreted as being “spirit led” when it’s actually just more engaging for the musician. The spirit leads through planning and preparation as much as through spontaneous prompting. A sensible balance of methodically considered worship and openness to go off script seems to yield the best results.
Question Seven: How theologically and Biblically deep should song lyrics be?
This is really a matter of context – what is the purpose and occasion for the song? In church worship the songs should be deeply grounded in scripture as this is a time of learning and focusing on the character and person of God. If it’s a pop song written by a Christian, I don’t think it needs to be rigorously checked against scripture but might want to try to at least fall into the category of “good news”.