Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 24, 2008

Let’s Be Clear!

I recently returned from our district’s pastoral conference, this year held in the Phoenix area.  It seems that every other year, the conference agenda includes a paper that has something to do with the topic of worship.  Here’s how the scenario typically plays out.  The presenter encourages a liturgical approach in his paper.  Then the post-presentation discussion begins, and the two “sides” come out with their arguments–the liturgy side, and the “contemporary worship” side.  (I put “contemporary worship” in quotation marks because it’s a stylistic term, not a term that defines the substance of the service, although its popular use it tends to refer to the substance).  Well, like clockwork, such was the case again at this recent conference.  The paper was read, the sides were drawn, and agreement was elusive.

One facet of the discussion had to do with the texts of “praise songs” (in quotation marks here because the term is popularly used to refer to style; after all, plenty of hymns could be called praise songs in a technical sense).  The presenter cited one example of a popular praise song which doesn’t speak a very clear message.  It was the kind of song that is ambiguous enough that a Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Mormon, Muslim, or Jehovah’s Witness could agree to in their own way.  I have often heard the argument that “we can understand the words correctly,” but frankly, that’s not good enough.  The standard we ought to strive for in worship is to be so clear as to not be misunderstood.

To make this point, let’s take music out of the discussion for a moment.  In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ).  After centuries of disagreement, it appeared that (liberal) Lutherans and Rome had agreed on the key issue that separated these churches since the Reformation.  Both parties agreed to the statement that we are saved “by grace alone, through faith” in Jesus Christ.

Progress?  Maybe not.  You see, one word was left out that would have kept Rome from signing the JDDJ.  The word?  “Alone.”  Had the JDDJ said that we are saved “by grace alone, through faith alone” in Jesus, that would have been the deal-breaker.  The Roman Catholic Church agrees that it is solely by God’s grace we are saved (i.e. had God not sent Jesus out of love, we’d have no hope).  But the RCC cannot say we are saved by faith alone, because good works are also necessary from Rome’s perspective.  Lutherans, of course, are not against good works, but we agree with Scripture that they do not contribute to our salvation.

Here’s the crux of the matter.  A Lutheran theologian hears that we are saved “by grace alone, through faith” in Jesus, and thinks that the statement means “through faith alone.”  A Catholic theologian (depending on the angle he is coming from) hears that we are saved “by grace alone, through faith” in Jesus, and thinks that the statement means that faith is one reason, but works are an unmentioned second reason for salvation.  So JDDJ brought about agreement in terminology, but not agreement in actual teaching.  This begs the question–what good is agreement in terminology if there is no agreement in what we believe, teach, and confess?

Now let’s put music back in the discussion. What we sing is a direct reflection of what we believe. Hymnals go through quite a test before publication, because church bodies want hymns that reflect their theology.  Lutherans don’t sing Ave Maria nor the stanza of Amazing Grace that speaks of “the hour I first believed,” because neither text jibes with Lutheran theology.  The songs that we sing in worship are as much of a confession of faith as the Nicene Creed is when we recite it in worship. (Please repeat that sentence to yourself out loud several times before you read on!)

So what about ambiguous texts?  What about songs that could be understood correctly, but also understood in a different manner?  What about songs that are to music what JDDJ is as a theological statement?

If you have the opportunity, read through the pastoral epistles in the New Testament (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus).  Notice how often Paul is concerned with the proper proclamation of the Word of God.  The apostle Paul certainly would not have condoned ambiguous preaching or teaching.  He encouraged his young pastoral colleagues to sound a clear message in their ministry.

Do our hymn and song texts deserve any less clarity?  In a world where theological precision is going in the opposite direction of St. Paul’s directives, should we tolerate texts that could bring parties together like JDDJ did–agreement with words, while there is no agreement in what we believe, teach, and confess?  Given the Scripture’s concern about clear proclamation, should our songs be any less clear in their proclamation than our sermons?  (Please don’t confuse clarity with complexity; you can be clear without using fancy theological technospeak).  And since there are so many wonderful hymns and songs available for our use–whether simple or complex, whether new or old, in a wide array of fitting musical styles–is there any reason to settle for anything less than a clear and unambiguous message when we choose our songs for worship?

Bottom line: When it comes to our weekly musical confessions of faith, let’s be clear!



  1. I agree with everything that you’ve stated here. One thing that happens often is that Pastors and theologians always try to compare hymns to contemporary music and you can’t do that. They aren’t the same thing. It’s like comparing apples to oranges. Hymns teach doctrine, contemporary songs do not, hymns cover a broad range of scripture, contemporary music does not, hymns teach theology, contemporary music does not, and hymns are like self-contained mini-sermons while contemporary music is not. Our hymns are such a priceless treasure. Just consider how long some of them have survived. “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel” was written over 700 years ago and it sounds fresh enough to be on FM radio today. Through time, the bad hymns have been weeded out and we are left with timeless, priceless, sound, god-pleasing gems.

    One thing that we have found at our church is that people can easily relate to contemporary music but that their minds drift when singing hymns due to the quantity of words, the language used, the theological terms and the sometimes droning rhythms. I suppose that this is one advantage of using contemporary music (which we do on occasion) but more importantly, it makes a point for emphasizing and drawing attention to our hymns. We need to spend more time and energy on our hymns. We need to make them more interesting and vibrant.

    Some of the things that we do is to have the Pastor tell the story behind the hymn, or the hymn writer before singing the hymn. Many of these treasures have incredible histories behind their writing. We also sometimes use more contemporary instruments and arrangements to the hymns. Congregations can also use the descants and sing the hymns in four part harmonies to add even more interest. We have even fashioned entire worship services centered on one hymn.

    In Col3:16 we read that we are to:
    16Let the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.
    I emphasized richly, teach and admonish because these are attributes associated with hymns that again, contemporary music just doesn’t excel at.
    At our church, we like to “have our cake and eat it too.” We strive to use the best of both worlds, because God deserves our best. Music does not need to be decisive; in fact, it needs to be a unifying part of our worship. Anyway, all of our music and all of our worship offerings are but filthy rags before our Glorious King.


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