'I'm not singing this!'

Updated 11:30AM, Wednesday May 23rd, 2012 by Sam Hailes, Christian.co.uk 12 comments seperator

"Christians don't tell lies - they just go to church and sing them." It’s a sentence that I put on my Facebook page yesterday.

Singing from the hymnbook

copyright Recovering Vagabond creative commons

My non-Christian friends immediately assumed someone had hacked into my Facebook account and published it. The idea that I as a Christian would pass on such a quote was laughable to them.

The truth is the words were not mine, but that of the legendary pastor and author A.W Tozer.

The quote can be easily misunderstood. Tozer wasn’t talking about us singing lyrics such as “Jesus is alive” or “God is good”. So what was he getting at?

Although Tozer died in the 60s, many others have since written critically about some of the songs we sing in church.

Nick Page has written over 70 Christian books, including one on worship called And Now Let’s Move Into A Time of Nonsense. It’s a title I can imagine Tozer smiling at.

I met Nick recently and asked him about the book.

“With so many worship songs, they do this thing I call: ‘I can’t believe it’s not the Bible’, where you think it’s scripture, but it isn’t scripture. Or they take this bit of scripture and mangle it and force it and put it on a false diet so that it will fit vaguely into the melody and they think that’s enough. That isn’t enough. If you’re going to worship you have to have your mind fed in terms of being inspired to worship.”

Keith Getty, co writer of 'In Christ Alone', also said something similar recently: “If you look at the psalms, even the short psalms are very substantial. We have all the hymns from the beginning of the Old Testament were not written to stir ecstasy in people, they were written to remind people of the character of God and the goodness of God.”

Tozer was concerned with the truthfulness of our language, Page wants us to be scriptural, and Getty wants us to avoid ecstasy for the sake of ecstasy. It seems all three of these vital pointers on worship lyrics need to be heard today more than ever.

Hundreds of worship albums are released every year. Many of them are inspiring and full of truth. Stuart Townend’s new Greatest Hits release is a prime example. Ben Cantelon’s Everything In Colour also has some fantastic new songs on it.

But sometimes worship songs don’t quite hit the mark, and we should be free to talk openly about this.

All this brings me neatly onto a song that has swept much of the church in recent years. It’s a powerful declaration of God’s love for us. Few could argue with the chorus, but the verses? That’s another matter entirely.

“I am a tree bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy”.

I don’t know about you, but in the middle of that song it’s easy to get carried away in the emotion and sing pretty much whatever appears on the screen/OHP/hymnbook.

Sometimes we need to stop and have another read of the lyrics we’re singing.

Related News

“I am a tree.” Seriously? Even when viewed in the context of the full verse, it’s still a difficult lyric for me to sing.

Ironically, one of the worship leaders that helped popularise 'How He Loves', Jesus Culture’s Kim Walker agrees we shouldn’t sing songs we don’t believe in.

Kim Walker made a small lyrical change to Delirious? 'Rain Down' so she was able to mean the words she was singing (see here).

Worship leaders shouldn’t shy away from or be embarrassed about doing this. We have a duty to worship God in spirit and in truth.

So if you feel like a tree bending beneath God’s mercy, then go ahead and sing it. But if you don’t, then why bother?


Writer, Christian.co.uk


Sam writes news, features and reviews exclusively for Christian.co.uk. The job involves meeting influential and interesting Christians from across the country and beyond. Most importantly, he never talks about himself in the third person.

This article was written and published by Sam Hailes for Christian.co.uk


'I'm not singing this!' Discussion

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Rachel said...
May 23rd, 2012 at 2:01PM • Reply

Yes to this. I've read Nick Page's book, it's very good, he makes some excellent points, and I have indeed often felt like this in church. To be fair, in the case of 'How he loves', I think the 'I am a tree' is meant to be part of a metaphor: 'Love's like a hurricane [in which] I am a tree; bending beneath the weight of his love and mercy'. In that circumstance, I am happy to sing it, as it speaks of how huge God's love for us is, that if we could grasp its full extent we would be overwhelmed. It makes a change from the usual metaphors used in worship songs I think.

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Ben Jack
Ben Jack said...
May 23rd, 2012 at 3:53PM • Reply

Sam you raise a very important issue here, so thanks. However, your example may slightly miss the overall point, for the problem for the church (and the point Tozer and so many other Christian commentators have made) is not that we sing lyrics that we don't understand artistically - i.e. we don't grasp the metaphor (and there are many many examples of this in the bible) but that we sing songs that are simply not true to our walk with Christ. For example, whilst I may not think the metaphor of the tree bending is a particularly great piece of lyricism, I can understand the point the writer is making, especially in the context of the whole verse as Rachel has said in her post.

However, think of a song like 'I surrender' where we declare that we will surrender ALL to Christ. Yet how many of us have actually surrendered ALL, every area of our lives to Christ? We are of course sinners.

So the question then becomes, how do I sing these songs? Do I sing it as a declaration of intent? "I intend to surrender all, but I may come unstuck somewhere down the road" is a bit of a mouthful for a song...

We must not restrict the artistry of lyricists who want to provide songs for the Church - and goodness knows we don't need any more bland and often borderline blasphemous Jesus is my boyfriend songs - Creativity of the highest calibre is essential for the church, but I am interested in hearing personal songs that we can sing together in community not because they are our DIRECT experiences, but because we can empathise with them, see God revealed through them. I am also interested in hearing localised songs sung in local churches, that bear relevance to the people singing them more deeply than these global songs which are the be all and end all of so much corporate worship. Name checking local streets, schools, businesses, situations would be a great way to bring immediacy to our songs.

A song writer writes a worship song about his struggle with the death of his wife, the distance he feels from God, a song of lament. I am not going through this situation and yet I can sing this song with my brother in Christ within the community of the church. The lyrics may not ring true for me at this time in my life (although hopefully like the lament of the psalms the song will climax with a declaration of God's love, power and goodness which I can identify with!) but singing them with my brother is an act of love, of authenticity, of fellowship. I'm sure there was a book or two called songs of fellowship... not sure I heard too many lament songs though ;-)

We should be discerning in what we sing, the teaching we apply, theological accuracy etc. If it is an outright lie to sing the words of a song, don't sing it. If you don't understand the words of a song, use it as an inspiration to dig deep and find out more. Let us crave and encourage diversity in song writing, style, and content for our shared and sung worship. Let us diversify beyond music into other area's that create new opportunities for people to be authentic and open. Let us remember that it is our heart that God is most interested in, that the expression of our worship will be filled with lies if it is not first and foremost expressed in how we live (again, the overriding point that Tozer was making). My words mean nothing to God if they are not born from a life of love, faithfulness and obedience. Let us keep talking about these things so we can grow together in a way which keeps Him central, and blesses all who would share in it, for His glory.

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Phil Steer
Phil Steer said...
May 26th, 2012 at 11:51AM • Reply

I agree with much of this. Certainly there are times when I do not sing songs (or parts of songs), either because because I have some misgivings about the theology or (more often) because I can not sing them with any integrity ("I surrender all", which Ben Jack refers to, being a case in point).
Having said this, I do think that we (or at least I) need to be careful not to get too hung up about it. If I might be permitted to quote from my book "As a Child: God's Call to Littleness":
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "The true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks." But the word "truth" means so much more than doctrinally correct. Jesus came "full of grace and truth" to be "the way and the truth and the life". Everything that he said, everything that he did, everything that he was demonstrated the way that things are meant to be; this is the meaning of "truth" in its fullest sense. And so, if we are to praise God "in spirit and in truth" then we must do so with the right attitude and without pretence; for God does not look at the outward appearance, he looks at the heart. Indeed, it is not bad doctrine in song that causes God to reject our praise, but rather a lack of "truth" in our lives.
The words of the prophet Amos should serve as a warning to us whenever we are tempted to become too self-satisfied and self-absorbed with our praise: "I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies ... Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Praise and worship that is not offered "in spirit and in truth" will not be acceptable to God, regardless of how theologically sound it might be; whilst, conversely, the occasional doctrinal digression is unlikely to be cause for too much concern. The great "I AM" does not need us to remind him who he is; he knows that full well.
Indeed, it is perhaps we ourselves who suffer most from singing songs containing poor theology. These can reinforce in us misapprehensions of just who God is and what he does, and this is turn can affect how we relate to God and how we seek to live our lives in him. This being the case, I can imagine Jesus graciously accepting such praise, whilst at the same time drawing alongside us and gently seeking to lead us into more of his truth.

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davythree said...
May 27th, 2012 at 11:58AM • Reply

The bible is full of parables, why not songs? If you're talking about youself then great, perhaps you can be the example for others to follow. Some songs don't make sense to me, just like many parables didn't(and don't) but that won't stop me singing them just like it didn't stop me from reading the bible. I enjoyed reading what you said, thanks.

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Fuzzy Anglican
Fuzzy Anglican said...
June 3rd, 2012 at 7:06PM • Reply

I don't like most "worship songs", I like traditional hymns. There's only one hymn I truly don't like, and it's "This is our God, the Servant King." Gaaah. This being said some well loved hymns are theologically slightly dodgy (Veiled in flesh the Godhead see? Really?) but I'll sing them anyway, as God I'm sure is happy to accept the worship.

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Jeremy Legg
Jeremy Legg said...
August 30th, 2012 at 2:00PM • Reply

Interesting point, but "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see" may not be as far off-beam as you make out, given that Jesus said "He who has seen me has seen the Father".

I always thought of "The Servant King" as a telling and accurate portrayal of the significance of Jesus' sacrifice, but each to his own. :o)

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Elizabeth Nunn
Elizabeth Nunn said...
June 4th, 2012 at 1:22AM • Reply

We have sometimes sung a song which contains the phrase 'outrageous Grace', but if you look up the dictionary definition of outrageous and the context in which it is almost always used, you see that the writer has twisted the word in the same way as young people have for example, used the word wicked. I don't want to be legalistic but it pains me to see outrageous used to describe our wonderful Lord. I substitute the word 'amazing' when we sing that song. I know the author of that song is much acclaimed, but I think he is just as responsible as you or me for using the English language correctly in the context of worship.

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Sam said...
June 6th, 2012 at 10:07AM • Reply

Hi everyone, thanks for your comments. Rachel - Nick is great look out for our interview with him coming to the site soon.

I realise that much of the song uses metaphorical language, and I have no problem with that. I just think sometimes the metaphor is distracting and in this case misused.

Ben - Yes thanks for your point about the original meaning of Tozer's words. I was very careful not to put words in Tozer's mouth. The question "what was Tozer getting at?" arguably remains unanswered. Rather I chose more contemporary people to reference and used all of their thoughts to draw my own conclusions. I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm speaking for Tozer - mainly for the reasons you point out.

Phil - Thanks for you comments, lots of good stuff in there. I agree we musn't get too hung up about it. The article has attracted a lot more attention than I would have predicted - but I think that's because many people do inwardly despair with what they are singing but don't dare verbalise it. I'm not trying to get people hung up about it, but rather be honest with each other and have those difficult discussions about what we are singing and what we should be singing.

Davey - Yes, some parables are difficult to understand, but surely the difference is you work to find out what they mean. I think we should have the same attitude of songs - understanding what we're singing before opening our mouths. Otherwise it's empty.

Fuzzy - I'd never thought about that lyric (and yes that's the problem!!) but now you mention it, it does seem strange. Anyone else care to offer an interpretation?

Elizabeth - We have an interview with the writer of that song coming to the site soon, and he answers your point about 'wicked' so look out for that! :)

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Jeremy Legg
Jeremy Legg said...
August 30th, 2012 at 2:08PM • Reply

Sam, I kind of half-replied to your query re Fuzzy's point above:
"Veiled in flesh the Godhead see" may not be as far off-beam as you make out, given that Jesus said "He who has seen me has seen the Father".

But to expand: Taken in context, this verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels..." is, for my money at least, an accurate, succinct and almost enchanting depiction of the incarnation. "Take a look!" he is saying. "We can behold God in the flesh!" I think it's worth cutting Charles Wesley some slack, given that the hymn is almost 300 years old, but at the same time maybe we need to look beyond our rather flat use of language in the 21st century and get into the meat (pun barely intended) of what's being said here.

IMHO some songs repay a bit of study and meditation, and this is one.

Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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DMB said...
July 11th, 2012 at 12:07PM • Reply

It must be very difficult to find a song that pleases everyone, but so long as it confirms what the Lord says about himself, then it will be edifying, surely. If I find words I disagree with, then I just keep the tune the same but start singing in tongues so I know the Holy Spirit is saying all the right things - problem solved. I think also, that the scripture about 'blessed are those who beleive but don't see' can include singing in faith words that have yet to come to fulfilment in us, such as 'I surrender all' but which will one day be true - like praying in faith for what you cannot yet see. Because life and death is in the power of the tongue and its like singing what you want to happen; the good things. EG I never sing things like 'my anxious heart' because that gives anxiety a way in - my heart is not anxious because it's in Christ and he took my anxiety on the Cross so I won't sing that it is.

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Rich Atterton
Rich Atterton said...
August 13th, 2012 at 3:54PM • Reply

A thoughtful and provoking article. I Remember the first time I sung before the throne of god above. I loved it, the word, the tune, extremely well crafted. One thing worried me - am I singing a song which was in essence Calvinistic. Many of Stuart Townsends song leave me thinking the same thing - love the song, disagree with the theology, In Christ alone is a great example of that.

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Jeremy Legg
Jeremy Legg said...
August 30th, 2012 at 1:57PM • Reply

Good article, Sam! I think part of the problem is that at present there is a bit of a blurring going on between worship songs and what we clumsily refer to as Christian contemporary music.

Some lyrics work well when sung by one person as the heartfelt poetry and art that songwriting is meant to be, but becasue they are so uniquely personal or abstruse, they don't work for a congregation. Worship leaders need to be sensitive to that, but some seem to think,"That's a good song!" and assume it will work as well in church as when they are humming along to it on iTunes.

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