In the early days of church planting, one of the most revisited topics of conversation was the music ministry. Church planting gave us a tabula rasa. But what to do with it? How many hymns and how many contemporary songs? What kind of arrangements do we do? How loud? And, the underlying question beneath them all: what could we be implicitly teaching people through choices on arrangements, volume, and the like?
Much of the uneasiness we felt stemmed from a perceived tension between doctrine and emotions—between truth and beauty. If we engaged the emotions too much, we feared we would be diminishing the importance of doctrinal truth in the lyrics. But we couldn’t escape the counter-question: if all that mattered was the words themselves, then why sing them at all? Why not just read them?
To be sure, there is no shortage of worship music that is emotionally manipulative. And we must always be mindful whether we are singing a song merely because it is beautiful. Many a heresy has snuck into the church through the trojan horse of beautiful music. It is prudent, therefore, to be wary. But we mustn’t let that wariness lead us to create a false dichotomy between truth and beauty.
Integration of Truth and Beauty
We must never do what the Bible never does: pit the head and heart against each other. Biblical anthropology and a biblical view of worship give us a vision of the head and the heart being integrated, not at odds with one another. Deep, rich theological truth does not have to come at the expense of experiential beauty, nor does sincere emotional engagement require us to set aside depth and substance. You don’t have to rob truth to pay beauty—or vice versa.
Deep, rich theological truth does not have to come at the expense of experiential beauty, nor does sincere emotional engagement require us to set aside depth and substance.
In fact, when you go to the Bible’s own songbook, the Psalms, you get a picture of how truth and emotion are meant to coexist. No one could accuse the psalmists of being doctrinally light, and yet not only are their words meant to be set to music, they are often filled with explicit commands to raise or clap one’s hands (Ps. 47:1, Ps. 134:2), and to not just sing but to sing loudly (Ps. 95:1).
God commands these things because he created us as embodied beings. We’re not a string of ones and zeroes needing mere doctrinal data. Yes, truth matters. It matters so much, in fact, that God tells us to engage with it not just intellectually but holistically—not just with our minds, but with our hearts and bodies, as well.
Harmony of Hearts and Minds
Worshiping through song should be more than an experience, to be sure, but it is meant to be experiential. The aesthetic beauty of music is an integral part of corporate worship, not a liability. It is meant to connect the truth to both our heads and our hearts. So as we consider how to lead our people in gathered worship, we must ask of the songs that we sing two questions.
First, is the song doctrinally sound? Are the words sourced from Scripture? Would you preach what they are teaching in a sermon with confidence? If the people believed every word of the song, would you be encouraged or would you be hoping for the opportunity to add an asterisk to one or two of the lines? Again, singing a song that is doctrinally compromised is not “worth it” just because it’s aesthetically beautiful and can create an emotional response. Emotions are meant to be used to strengthen our grasp of truth, and they are only beneficial insofar as they do so.
In our singing, let’s be unwaveringly committed to doctrinal truth and unapologetically welcoming of experiential beauty.
Second, is this song able to be engaged with holistically? Meaning, is it easy to follow? If I encourage my people to sing loudly, will they even be able to do so? Are we able to present this song in a way that is beautiful? Granted, these questions are more subjective than the questions about doctrinal content, but they are nonetheless important to consider. We should never operate as if how a song sounds doesn’t matter so long as what it says passes muster. Songs that are aesthetically beautiful and still communicate truth should excite us, not scare us.
Martin Luther said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.” That is precisely what happens when we come together to sing corporately—we bring together the gift of language (truth) and the gift of song (beauty). In our singing, let’s be unwaveringly committed to doctrinal truth and unapologetically welcoming of experiential beauty.