On Whales and Worship Lyrics

Two different incidents are swirling around in my head right now. The first involves a killer whale and Josh Groban. The second involves a discussion in my home group, where we are reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The discussion centered around this quote concerning worship through corporate singing:

All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn . . . the music is completely the servant of the Word {Scripture}. It elucidates the Word in its mystery.

We asked each other, is this true of church music today? Can we say of modern worship songs that the music serves the words of Scripture? Or do the words of our worship songs serve the music? Can we say that we, the worshipers, love the words more than the melodies? How can we tell?

Which brings me to that killer whale incident. I’m going to confess something completely humiliating here: I absolutely love “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. On a trip to Sea World a few years back, we watched a Shamu Show choreographed to that song. Every time Josh hit the chorus, Shamu would erupt out of the water, launching his trainer 30 feet into the air off the tip of his snout. Raising him up. To more than he could be.

Tears. Streaming. Down. My. Face.

So, let’s just take a look at those gorgeous lyrics:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;

You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;

I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;

You raise me up . . . To more than I can be.

I mean, just revel in that. That’s some powerful stuff—powerfully cheesy. But between the soaring instrumentation and the velvet voice (and the orca) I sort of lost track of that. Do you think I’m pathetic? Try it yourself—just Google the lyrics to your favorite song. Try reading them without melody and instrumentation. Do they move you? Are they memorable? Do they even make sense?

With a pop song, who cares? There’s not a lot at stake if a music-less read-through of the lyrics reveals that the message is a little ridiculous. But with worship music, the stakes are higher. I believe this is what Bonhoeffer wants us to understand. Himself a musician, he would have known what every musician, every writer of movie scores, every marketer, every Shamu choreographer can tell you: Music has the power to move us in and of itself.

Powerful Pull of Music

Imagine the Harry Potter movies with no themed score running behind the scenes. The musical score alone, independent from words or images, would stir our emotions. Combined with them, the effect magnifies. Even a movie as well-written as Harry Potter would feel dull and flat without a soundtrack.

Bonhoeffer’s point is simple: When the words serve the music, we gratify self. When the music serves the words, we glorify God. In a culture that consumes music on an unprecedented scale, the church faces an uphill battle to maintain the high ground that the music must serve the words. Ten years ago, contemporary worship songs were plagued with the “I-Me-My-Mines,” every line filled with the knowledge of man. We have come some distance since then, praise God, with a shift back toward lyrics that extol the character of God. But we have further still to go.

If I supplied you with a copy of the lyrics to the 6,500 hymns of Charles Wesley, two things would happen to you as you read it. First, you would be deeply moved by the truths the lyrics contained, whether you knew the melodies associated with them or not. Second, you would know your Bible better. Could the same be said if you read through the lyrics of our modern worship offerings?

Wesley composed his hymns during a time in church history when the music served the words, or more precisely, the Word. We live in a time when music, church or otherwise, serves our personal taste, and where lyrics are often an afterthought. Combine this with rampant Bible illiteracy, and we find congregational Shamu shows so glutted on the wealth in their melodies that they ignore the poverty in their lyrics. A worship song is “anointed” if it moves us deeply, whether the words communicate anything coherent or not. Don’t make me give you a sloppy wet example.

Preparing Heart and Head

Bonhoeffer and Wesley would say to us that church music must do more than move the emotions: it must feed the understanding. In doing so, it accomplishes its purpose of preparing our hearts and minds for the pinnacle of the worship service, the proclamation of the Word. We wrongly believe that the worship set should fill our hearts and the sermon should fill our heads. Corporate worship should enliven both heart and head, preparing us for a sermon which does both as well.

So, to my fellow worshipers, let’s consider together whether our adoration is given to music or through music. And to those worship leaders composing church music today, God bless you—you endure enormous pressure to create “worship experiences.” Consider Bonhoeffer’s message: whether your gifting runs toward hymnody or poetry, write lyrics that teach so much truth they can stand on their own. And then set them to music that magnifies their beauty. We, your congregants are slaves to our personal tastes. Teach us to crave corporately the better thing—the Word rendered luminous by song, confessed by a thousand tongues.

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