If the gospel isn’t in it, should we be singing it?


So there’s a completely accurate report rumor going around that I’m pretty persnickety about music. Like, to the point that I have trouble singing most Sundays. This isn’t because there’s anything terrible with the music at our church—far from it, our church has a pretty robust music ministry (but thankfully no lasers or smoke machines)—it’s just I find myself thinking about the words we’re singing more often than not.

The reasons for this vary: sometimes it’s considering how those words line up with my own life at that moment. Other times, it’s contemplating whether or not the words are actually undeniably Christian, or if they’re just kind of feel-good gobbledygook.

Thankfully I am not alone in this.

A while back while reading Mack Stiles’ great book, Evangelism (reviewed here), I came upon this helpful bit of commentary:

My daughter-in-law, Stephanie, told me that she sang a song at her graduation that’s often sung in church services—”God of This City.” Half of her classmates were Muslims, and they had no trouble singing the song with gusto. If people from other faith backgrounds can sing a song with gusto at a secular high school graduation, we can be pretty sure there’s no gospel in the song. (85)

This is worth considering. But first, notice what Stiles doesn’t say:

  • He doesn’t equate a song’s simplicity with a lack of depth. Simple is good, provided what it communicates is faithful and true.
  • He doesn’t say “songs with first person pronouns are bad.” We should be able to sing in the first person as appropriate, certainly.
  • He doesn’t treat the song as if it’s evil in and of itself—he actually says later it’s a better song than most of the stuff on the top 40 (which is true).

But what he does say—and I emphatically agree with—is it is devoid of the gospel.

And again, this should make us think: what do the songs we sing on Sundays communicate about Jesus? Some communicate wonderful truths about God and the gospel, but far too many focus on us in the negative sense—what I’m doing, what I’m feeling, what I want, and, at best, treat God as a cosmic problem solver.

“Greater things are still to be done,” and all that.

While it may be unpopular to say, if a non-Christian isn’t deeply uncomfortable with the songs we sing because of their emphasis on Jesus, we might be doing it wrong. And if the gospel isn’t in it—should we really be singing it?

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  • Sandy Anderson

    This is one area I fully agree and have issues with.. I was taught very early in my Christian walk that music is to lead you to the foot of the cross, and if it does not lead you to the cross than it is man made and not so pleasing. Several years ago, I was asked to leave a church because I disagreed with the music and challenged the worship leader. The church had the lasers, and often times felt like things would fly off the screen at warped speed. Some of the lyrics were “it’s not safe, its not safe but I give it away anyway” or another song “pick me up daddy and spin me around so that I play with you” When I challenged would you really sing pick me up daddy and spin me around so that I can play with you to the God whose blood set you free? Would you really sing this song in the throne room of the Almighty? I was told 2 specific things: One that this debate is the same debate as the praise and worship chorus songs of the 80s that went against the grain of the traditional hymns. 2ndly and more scary I was told that we have to reach the younger generation at all costs. I get that the younger generation has to be won. But at what cost? Since leaving that church I have found a church that while we may sing occasional songs with out the name of Jesus the worship is ALWAYS to the cross. I also personally do not see that todays songs are anything close to the praise and worship chorus songs of the 80s. I have also learned that with some songs I will add the name of Jesus. The beat of the music is what people are listening to not the words. Any tribal leader will tell you that the music beat is the key to knowing whether they are going to fight or party. Scripture does tell us that the rocks, and trees will praise Him if we don’t. We need to be aware of the lyrics… Lasers, and smoke and mirrors are often a distraction that I believe satan will use.

  • Andrew Bernhardt

    Much of today’s music is about our “worship experience” (a phrase I really don’t like), rather than about God (Father, Son or Holy Spirit). It’s “We worship you”, “We love you”, etc. The subject is us. I really don’t want to sing about myself.

    When the words do mention God, it’s usually in generalities. God loves me, He is holy, and so on, but no further. These are true statements, but mere facts don’t lead me to worship. It is the contemplation of who God is and what He has done (primarily to save us) that leads me to worship. Music should expound on these things so worship comes from the inside out instead of trying to be worked from the outside in.

    Of course, there are some good modern Christian songs, and there are some not-so-good old hymns. But the hymns that have stood the test of time have God as the subject, and go into detail as to why He is to be worshiped.


  • Michelle Dacus Lesley

    I’ve been a church musician in one form or another for almost 40 years, I’m married to a minister of music, and I could not agree with this post more :0)

  • Marco

    I’m not sure about this standard. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of unbelievers who would feel no discomfort at all, and would sing Psalm 23 (and many other psalms) with gusto. I think that if some standard disqualifies the Psalms from being sung, the standard is bad.