This is part four of Asking Tough Worship Music Questions, a (hopefully) long-running series of interviews with worship leaders, pastors, and teachers from around the world. Thank you very much to Derek Johnson, a singer-songwriter with Jesus Culture, and worship leader at Jesus Culture Sacramento, for his time and graciousness in response.
Question One: Why do we repeat lyrics?
Take a look at Psalm 96. It’s one of the great examples of worship in scripture. Filled with incredible instructions of praise. On the surface you can quickly see the use of repetition. I think most deep understanding happens over time. We all have moments where certain truths in scripture all of a sudden appear to become very clear. I think often times repeatedly hearing, reading and singing about certain truths, help to bring understanding and revelation. So in worship we could find ourselves singing a simple line like “HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD” over and over again. One week you may find yourself singing that and have a sudden revelation of just HOW GREAT God truly is. So repetition is important in giving things time to really marinate and sink in.
Question Two: Who should our songs be directed to? Should they be song about God, to God, or of God? To God or Jesus? About Jesus?
This is a great question. The simple answer is yes to everyone of those. As a worship leader and songwriter I find that I very naturally write from each one of these positions. Some songs are written directly to God. To minster to Him. Other songs may communicate what He’s done for me and maybe another what He has done for all of us. Again to reference the Psalms you will find several different perspectives in those writings. Sometimes the Psalmist is speaking about what the Lord has done for the nation, and other times, what the Lord has done for them personally.
Question Three: Why do we sometimes sing sounds, not words, in praise?
I think this is much more practical than we even make it sometimes. Our voices are actually instruments. You can sing a melody just like you can play it on an instrument. Here in Psalm 98 you see a very practical instruction to sing and make a joyful noise. We can actually praise the Lord with even the melody of our voices. I’ve been in times of worship where a Cello player began to play a beautiful melody to Lord, and it was so deeply worshipful. Of course an instrument is just an instrument, but an instrument in the hands of someone desiring to minister to the Lord, is a powerful expression of worship. The same outcome is certainly possible with even just the sound of our voices used as instruments of praise.
“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!” — Psalm 98:4-6
Question Four: Why do we sometimes sing about ourselves – singing about how we react and respond to God?
Again to reference the Psalms, we see that this is a very natural and authentic way to express our love, adoration, and worship to the Lord. Not just singing or writing about what we’ve HEARD the Lord do, but actually celebrating what we have SEEN Him do in our own lives. I write about God’s faithfulness not simply because I’ve read about it in scripture, but also because I’ve experienced it first hand. Both reflect the same truth. God is faithful.
Question Five: Should we raise our hands, clap our hands, and dance, when we sing to God?
There are actually 7 different words in Hebrew for praise. Lets look at two of them. Yadah — Yadah is a verb with a root meaning, “the extended hand, to throw out the hand, therefore to worship with extended hand.” Halal — Halal is a primary Hebrew root word for praise. Our word “hallelujah” comes from this base word. It means “to be clear, to shine, to boast, show, to rave, celebrate, to be clamorously foolish.”
It’s clear that praise actually looks like something. It should go without saying that the outward expression is meant to happen in tandem with an internal, heartfelt response to the goodness and glory of God. In other words, hands raised are just an extension of a surrendered heart that’s yielded to worship the Lord.
Question Six: What role should spontaneity in speech and song have in worship?
We obviously want to be yielded to the Spirit of God. We want to be a conduit for the Lord to move the way He desires in our lives, and especially in our meetings and times of worship. Preparation is extremely necessary, but there are times when a moment requires us to step outside of the plan. Learning how to navigate those moments are important. Some of the most impacting moments I’ve experienced in worship have been when the leaders allow themselves to take a detour from the plan. Not for spontaneity’s sake, but in obedience to the Spirt of the Lord in a moment.
Question Seven: How theologically and Biblically deep should song lyrics be?
There is probably no greater responsibility for song writers than this. We don’t want to just write what sounds beautiful and catchy. We want to write what is true about the Lord. We find that truth in scripture. The issue of depth is subjective though. I say that because the simple fact is something like GOD LOVES YOU could be the most important theological truth you ever hear. There is an extreme amount of depth in that one revelation. So the hope is that our songs are filled with truth. Truth in itself is filled with depth