I still remember (with terror) the first time I led worship anywhere.
I was 19 and I had just moved across the country to do an internship at a church. We were headed to a nearby college campus to do a student’s meeting when suddenly the worship leader for the meeting said he couldn’t make it. I halfheartedly volunteered to lead worship since I played guitar and piano and played on my worship team back home. To my surprise someone handed me a guitar case and a stack of songs and chord charts. And before I knew it, I was in the backseat of the college pastor’s car trying to figure out what songs to put into my setlist.
I had played worship music for years. I knew chords and tabs. I understood the basics of how to arrange a band. But I realized then that I needed more than a series of chords and lyrics strung together.
Even at 19, I loved reading theology and studying my Bible. I was passionate to see people hold on to sound theology. But I realized, suddenly, that I hadn’t paid nearly enough attention to how singing and sound theology come together. How should the theology in my backpack affect the stack of songs on my desk? It’s a question that shapes us far more than we know.
When I was growing up our church sang these lyrics: They rush on the city / They run on the wall / Great is the army that carries out his word.
As a kid I loved the song because I loved pretty much any song that talked about marching and armies. But years later I discovered that the Scriptural reference to those lyrics was Joel 2 which describes Judah being invaded. God’s people weren’t marching on walls to conquer, they were being conquered. Inadvertently our church had been singing about the destruction of Jerusalem with great joy.
What we sing reveals our theology. In that case it perhaps revealed that our church, born from the Jesus Movement in the early 80s, needed more solid Scriptural understanding. We needed a better Old Testament theology to help us understand how New Testament Christians relate to things like the invasion of Israel. We needed a better theology of the cross to help us see that Christians do indeed conquer, but they do so through the cross.
But lest we chuckle too loudly, let’s examine our own songs. What do they reveal about us? And I’m not thinking here of outright heresy (though that’s out there!), but something more subtle: What’s always emphasized? What’s never sung about? Sometimes we can be rigorous in our theological textbooks but lax in our worship playlists—which often reveals that we are, perhaps, not quite as rigorous as we think.
One of the most important tests is whether our worship songs are fundamentally pointed upward or inward. When I first began playing on our church worship team years ago, one of our worship leaders was a veteran of those early Jesus Movement days named Danny. Danny gave me a simple rule of thumb: these songs should not most fundamentally be about us, but about the Lord.
Psalm 115:1 sums this up well: “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” The Psalms are full of David pouring out his heart and circumstances before the Lord, but on the most fundamental level, the Psalms are about God. They are not just about how wonderful it is that David is rescued, or that he will be vindicated before his enemies, or that his heart is happy. They are about the God who rescues (Ps 136), God who brings justice (Ps 35:27), and God who delights our hearts (Psalm 42:1). The emphasis makes all the difference.
Danny gave me a rule of thumb I still use: Do the lyrics contain more “I”s than “He”s? That is, Am I singing more about myself, my circumstances, and my feelings? Or am I singing more about the Lord and his character and actions? The better lyrics will point me to God’s character and actions as the basis of my hope and help and joy.
So, if you were to flip through your church’s songbook what theology would you find? If you opened your favorite worship playlist what theology would you hear? What do your songs say about your theology?
But the reverse is also true: our theology is often formed and shaped by the songs we sing.
As I talk to Christians today and ask for their favorite worship music, they often describe music they love because of “the feels.” Some prefer soaring stadium rock, others a touch of gospel and soul, others an uplifting pop hook, still others the nostalgic sound of an old hymn they grew up singing. But too often, we fail to see that we can't separate “the feels” from the lyrics. Music moves us emotionally in a powerful and profound way. Why else would Saul have wanted David to play music to soothe his mind and heart (1 Sam 16:23)? The question though, is where the music is moving us.
Often, I remember worship song lyrics more easily than Scripture. This sometimes surprises me because I work at memorizing Scripture. I never try to memorize a worship song—I just find that suddenly it’s in my mind. I hum it as I make my coffee. So, when the songs we listen to carry solid theology, they are a beautiful gift to our souls. But when they carry unsound or even anemic theology, we’re fooling ourselves if we think they won’t pull our spiritual life in that direction.
Think of the way that the book of Psalms has functioned in the life of God’s people for centuries. Psalms would have been sung while walking to Jerusalem, in worship, in times of distress—and everything in between. Some Psalms remind the reader of God’s kingly rule and power (Ps 2). Other Psalms remind the reader of God’s character (Ps 23). Songs of ascent carry key truths about God and His people and the precious bond between them (Ps 122:9 for example).
Take Psalm 73 as an example. The Psalmist begins by acknowledging God’s goodness but moves quickly into confessing how he nearly slipped into unbelief. We walk with him as he struggles from seeing the wicked apparently prospering. But ultimately, he comes into God’s sanctuary (73:17) and gains new perspective. Then he rejoices in great joy:
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever
(Ps 73:25–26, ESV).
Notice how this Psalm encourages God’s people: it encourages them with sound theology, with truth about God. The Psalmist doesn’t feel better because the music moved him emotionally—that fades quickly. He feels better because he apprehended who God is, and that changes everything about how he views his circumstances.
My friend Jon, our Deacon for Worship, has another rule of thumb: He wants our church to sing songs that we can sing around a hospital bed in 50 years. That’s shorthand for saying that the lyrics of our songs should carry theology that will still be true in 50 years—and that our theology should be sturdy enough to lean on even in times of great trouble.
Years after Danny helped me learn the basics of church singing, he was diagnosed with cancer. He fought it for years, but in his 50s, we found ourselves at the hospital with him about to pass into glory. Jon sang worship songs around his bedside for hours with our worship team. As church members and his non-Christian coworkers came to say goodbye, they were overwhelmed by the songs. Without us even realizing it, the songs had given us the theology we most needed in that moment: that God was in control, that God was good, that eternity is a joy and not a terror for the Christian, that we can rejoice in the face of death because we follow a resurrected savior.
Are your songs sturdy enough to sing around a hospital bed in 50 years?
Lastly, theology should be doxology. Theology should result in praise.
The first Systematic Theology textbook I ever read was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. I loved its readability and clarity but kept finding something puzzling at the end of each chapter: a hymn. At first, I thought it was just one chapter only to discover that every single chapter had one. When I finally read the first chapter (I had somehow missed it before) I found this simple explanation:
The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately! We must love all that God is, all that he says and all that he does. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5). Our response to the study of the theology of Scripture should be that of the psalmist who said, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” (Ps. 139:17).
We might find ourselves fighting to tread water through the theological depths of Romans 9–11 and the mysteries of divine providence, but the theology there is not merely meant to be endured or survived. Instead, Paul emerges on the other side of the deep end of the theological pool singing aloud in praise.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36, ESV)
The theology of Romans 9–11 becomes doxologized: it gets turned into an outpouring of praise.
At our church, we sing a song of response after the preached Word. The response song often turns the truth of the text to praise. For example, when we preached on the judgment throne at the end of all things (Revelation 20), we asked the question, “Who can stand before this judgment?” We found the answer throughout Scripture, in Revelation 7:13, and in Romans 8:33: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (ESV). Then immediately after that we sang this:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea
A great High Priest whose name is love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is graven on His hands
My name is written on His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart
This is theology doxologized: the truth of who God is and what Jesus has done for us moved us to worship, and the lyrics and music helped us express those feelings. And through helping us express how the theology moved us, in turn, the music began to shape what we thought and felt.
Much to the great relief of my congregation, I no longer lead times of singing at church.
But I still think it is vitally important to understand what we sing and why. What we sing reveals what we believe, and what we believe should inspire us to sing. And that makes all the difference for both the songs we sing at church, the songs I sing before bed with my kids, and the songs I sing on walks around my neighborhood.
So go sing, fellow theologians.
Ricky Alcantar serves as the lead pastor at Cross of Grace Church in El Paso TX. Beyond his local context Ricky serves on the Sovereign Grace Churches Church Planting Group and has written for publications like Vox, Boundless, and the Rio Grande Review. He is also a graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso and Sovereign Grace Pastors College and is pursuing further seminary work at Phoenix Seminary. He loves his wife Jenn, his three sons, his city, and thinking about writing instead of actually writing.