This is part five 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 Jake Espy, Worship Ministry Leader at Red Rocks Church, Arvada, and member of Red Rocks Worship, for his time and graciousness in response.
Question One: Why do we repeat lyrics?
I think that there’s a few different facets to this answer. Some of the reasons are more practical, and some of them are more spiritual.
On the practical side of things, from experience I think people are oftentimes more engaged in worshipping Jesus with a song they have some familiarity with. It’s not always the case, but it often is.
What I’ve found is that one of the quickest and best ways to build familiarity is through repetition. It’s the same reasons that we recited our times tables in grade school. Repetition breeds familiarity. Familiarity breeds understanding. And if we can’t understand what we’re saying when we’re worshipping, then we’re not really worshipping… We’re singing.
Spiritually, if we consider the Bible to be God’s perfected word to us, we can find some answers to this question. If we believe that both what God said in the Bible and how He said it are a part of that perfection, then we sort of learn some things about ourselves and the ways God communicates to us.
One thing that’s clear is that God chose to communicate often to us through the use of repetition. God repeats phrases all through the Bible for emphasis. My Bible professors in college used to say that when God repeats himself He is telling us to “pay attention”. The repetition that God uses when he communicates to us adds emphasis so that we don’t miss it. Therefore since God knows us intimately He knows the best ways to communicate to us, and one of those ways is through repetition. I think it’s OK for us to communicate that way as well to each other, and back to Him when we’re worshipping.
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?
I think all of the above are great. I don’t think there’s any set rule that says we need to refer to God strictly as God, or Jesus, or Adonai, or whatever, when we worship Him. His names have power and they often describe different elements of His character. Ultimately, God exists in three persons, what we know as “The Trinity.” God the Father, Holy Spirit, and Son. All of them are one, and yet different. The Trinity is one of the mysteries of scripture. How could God truly be three distinct beings, but one at the same time? I don’t think we as humans fully understand this concept concretely, but we embrace this tension and it adds to the mystery and awe we feel towards God.
Songs addressing Father, Spirit, or Son are oftentimes helpful because they help draw lines between the different characteristics of each. God as a loving and good Father perhaps, or a warrior. Jesus as a Saviour and friend. The Spirit as a source of power and presence. Again, it’s subtle, but over time we begin to associate words with each facet of God’s character through the Trinity because of these songs that address Him as such. It helps us know Him more.
Question Three: Why do we sometimes sing sounds, not words, in praise?
As with most things relating to God, this one for me comes down to the condition of our hearts, and looking at how we’re ascribing meaning to it. Are we singing (whether words or sounds) for God’s glory, or merely for the sake of being ritualistic?
I’d submit that God knows the desires of our heart whether or not we verbalise it with words. The act of singing words is just as valid and powerful as singing utterances, or humming, or singing “whoa’s” or whatever. BUT only IF our hearts are fixed on responding and communicating with Him. I don’t think singing “whoa’s” just for the sake of singing is inherently worshipful. But with the right posture, singing “whoa’s” certainly can be. In the same way, we can sing the lyrics to “Amazing Grace”, and if our hearts aren’t in a posture of worship, then it’s not worshipful. The ultimate litmus test is where is our heart at, and what is the intention behind it?
I don’t believe that God needs complete sentences that rhyme on the second and fourth line in order to be worshipped. There’s power and unity in a collective group singing the same sound. There’s power in a thousand people in a room singing something completely different at the same time. Remember that worship exists between our heart and God. So if our heart is set on Him, communicating with Him, we could be singing the ABC’s and it could be worshipful.
Question Four: Why do we sometimes sing about ourselves – singing about how we react and respond to God?
I don’t think there’s anything unholy or sacrilegious in taking an inventory about where we stand in relation to what God is doing. One of the most powerful tools we have as believers is the power of testimony. God took me from darkness to light. A to B. I think the reason there’s so much power in that is so many times we relate better when other people’s struggles and experiences mirror our own, and watching how God worked things together for our good.
I think it’s OK for us to do that with worship songs as well. To tell a story about how God saved ME, or took ME to a better place. How good God is to US. I think if you look at the heart of it, those songs usually don’t ultimately point the attention to us, or glorify our name. Instead it shows that God takes an active role in our lives. That he came through for us because He is a good and loving Father.
I know the usual culprit to this line of questioning is “How He Loves” by John Mark McMillan. I’ve heard a lot of people throw shade at that song because it shifts some of the focuses back to us. But our teaching pastor said this, and I love it: “If my kid was running around the house saying, “how my daddy loves me… oh how he loves me!!” Do you have any idea how happy that would make me? How praised I would feel that they understand my heart for them?” So for me it’s a heart thing.
Another thing is, take it back to Psalms. Many of the psalms are written from a first person perspective relating to what the psalmist is going through and how God comes through for us. “The lord is MY Shepard… I will fear no evil… Though I walk through the valley” The psalms aren’t exactly worship songs, but they are a cannon that points back to God’s glory in the midst of our life experiences. Many worship songs are based on Psalms. So I don’t think it’s un-biblical to put God’s love for us into the context of our lives and sing about it.
Question Five: Should we raise our hands, clap our hands, and dance, when we sing to God?
Yes. If it’s genuine.
Obviously we have all heard that the bible calls us to make a joyful noise; to raise shouts of praise to the Lord. I believe God wants us to have fun in worship! Many people feel closer to God when they involve their whole body, and when they approach the throne completely unburdened.
But I also don’t think there is a “superior” form or posture of worship. Dancing, clapping, etc, does not inherently make you a “better worshipper” or “more connected to God”. I’ve known people who intimately worship God by standing still, and not singing. But allowing the words and music to wash over them.
So again, it comes down to, what works for you? What’s the condition of your heart? Raising hands, and clapping is merely a distraction if it’s done with the wrong intentions. With the right intentions it’s a beautiful act and expression of worship.
Question Six: What role should spontaneity in speech and song have in worship?
I think it’s important to leave room for the Spirit to move. Not to pre-program every aspect of a set so that it becomes routine. I’m guilty of this from time to time, and it’s something I’m working on! It’s more comfortable to know exactly where we’re headed, and there’s often fewer errors when it’s all planned out. But you do sort of shut off what God might want to do through a song or a moment. Finding ways to leave room to speak or sing something that God puts on your heart is really critical to communicating and effectively leading worship.
Question Seven: How theologically and Biblically deep should song lyrics be?
I think there’s a difference between theologically “deep” and theologically “complex” — but they’re often used interchangeably. Depth has a richness to it. Many hymns are “deep” and they’re beautiful AND worshipful. I think what you’re getting at is theological complexity however.
I believe that congregational worship songs should be theologically and biblically “sound” not necessarily theologically “complex”. They can be deep, but I tend to lean more towards leading 7-11 type songs personally (even though I think that phrase is sort of pejorative).
At the end of the day, I believe it’s our number one job as worship leaders, songwriters, or facilitators of praise to help usher people into His presence. If we miss that, we really miss the mark. All of the theological complexity, lights, and production can’t help us if we’re skipping the heart of worship.
So with that said, I know that some people really want a song that gives them some theological thoughts to chew on. That’s great. In my prayer time, or in the car I LOVE those types of songs. They reshape how we think about God and worship. Personally however, that’s not for me when I’m approaching congregational worship leading. I’m much more inclined to lead songs that are theologically sound, but that the average congregant can hear and connect with immediately. And I don’t think that means our worship songs have to be vanilla or passé. But I do think we lose something if we’re causing our congregations to stop and try to understand every single lyric as we’re worshipping. Mostly because I think it pulls them out of just worshipping Him. Ultimately, let’s not allow lyrics to become a barrier to entry as we’re worshipping God.
For me it goes back to the concept that we need to understand what we’re saying in order to say it with conviction. I could probably sing a song in Spanish if I had to, but since I don’t speak the language well, it wouldn’t mean as much to me as a song in English. That’s strictly because I wouldn’t understand the depth of what I’m saying. The same thing goes for some of the “deeper” or more “complex” songs. I just truly can’t worship if I don’t understand the depth of what I’m saying in the moment.