Embedding theology in the musical vernacular of your congregation
By Vicky Beeching
So you went to Church on Sunday. The following Tuesday, as you were out running errands you found yourself humming a song. It’s one of the songs from the worship set you heard last Sunday. This is a common occurrence—we remember the songs sung at Church, throughout the week. It’s much rarer for us to suddenly recall the five points of the Pastor’s sermon, as we bustle through the mall on a busy week day. Music has a way of sticking in our heads like glue. Is it a powerful medium, and has been recognized by great men like Luther, Wesley, and Zinzendorf as a catalyst for conveying deep theology.
In 1524 Luther wrote to his friend Spalatin, saying “[Our] plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, and to compose psalms for the people [in the] vernacular, that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music.” Luther knew that theology and ‘pop songs’ were a great combo. He used the popular music of his day, knowing that people would instantly be able to relate to it. Then he dropped bombs of intense theology into that musical format.
It reminds me of the song from Mary Poppins “A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Many young people groan at the thought of wading through a Systematic Theology book, or blowing the dust off a work by Augustine or even someone as recent as Tozer. So without wishing to sound at all patronizing—rather, just having a heart for young people to truly know good doctrine—I’d like to suggest that perhaps great music can be the “spoonful of sugar” that helps great theology get into the next generation’s minds and hearts.
This creates great responsibility for those of us who write congregational worship songs. Having access to young people’s ears through iPods and laptops, with far more frequency than pastors or authors, we are the everyday preachers. We need a “Lyrical Reformation.” We need to be skilled into knowing God and His Word, then act as excellent translators of these things to the people in our churches. Eugene Peterson in his Introduction to The Message says this has been his life’s work—translating God’s word into verbiage that his hearers could really relate to. And our mandate is the same.
So how do we actually do this? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Go deeper into God’s Word
Do you read the Bible regularly? The more His Truth is going in, the more it will come out in lyrics. Assess your ‘Bible diet’ and see how much you are feeding on Scripture. What you sow, you reap!
2. Theological Training
There is always so much more of God to discover. I thought I knew loads about theology before I went to Oxford. Then I spent my degree course realizing that I’d known almost nothing! Consider doing a short term course somewhere with a good reputation. There are a plethora of online courses, which makes it even easier to fit into a busy lifestyle.
3. Study How Others Did It
Study Luther, Wesley, Zinzendorf and others who had a passion for theology in songs.
4. Assess Your Core Songs
Take the 20 songs you’ve used most in your worship sets this past year. Ask yourself what truths they are teaching people, and make sure you are reflecting a healthy balance of themes and doctrine in your sets. Imagine a non-Christian walked into church and learned everything he/she knew about God from your worship set lyrics. What would their image of God look like? Would it be accurate and biblical?
5. Write Truth
Take a Bible verse or passage, or a theological theme like redemption or the incarnation, and write a song based on it. Imagine that you are teaching people about that passage or doctrine through your lyrics.
6. Watch Your Language
Keep your words to everyday language and avoid religious jargon.
Let’s be singing theologians, leaving behind a legacy of truth in song.