Mr. Storms and Mr. Taylor, I Respectfully Disagree

The most recent issue of Christianity Today features a short article by Chuck Colson entitled “Soothing Ourselves to Death” which, if you are so inclined, you could read by clicking here. Colson contends that “much of the music being written for the church today reflects an unfortunate trend–slipping across the line from worship to entertainment. Evangelicals are in danger of amusing ourselves to death, to borrow the title of the classic Neil Postman book.” Colson singles out a particular song, “Draw Me Close to You,” which he was forced to sing repeatedly at a recent church service. This song, he says, “has zero theological content and could just as easily be sung in any nightclub.”

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Here are the lyrics of the song in question:

Draw me close to you, never let me go.
I lay it all down again, to hear you say that I’m your friend.
You are my desire, no one else will do.
No one else can take your place, to feel the warmth of your embrace.
Help me find the way, bring me back to you.
You’re all I want. You’re all I’ve ever needed.
You’re all I want. Help me know you are near.

Sam Storms of Enjoying God Ministries, respectfully disagrees with Colson (click here for the article). Storms writes:

I happen to love “Draw Me Close to You”! Colson calls it a “meaningless ditty” with “zero theological content.” That’s a pretty serious charge, even if he’s using hyperbole to make a point (which I doubt that he is). Personally, I’d be thrilled if it were sung in ‘nightclubs.’ Maybe then the inebriated and self-indulgent patrons would see an unashamed and extravagant passion for Jesus that would lead them to ask, ‘Who is it that inspires such love and devotion? Clearly people courageous and committed enough to sing in a nightclub of their personal yearning for this God and their intimate relationship with him have discovered something I have yet to find.’

While Storms affirms his love for hymns, he contends that “many of them, for lack of a better way of putting it, enable the soul to ‘keep God at arm’s length.’ One can sing ‘about’ God with theological precision and yet never engage the heart.” “Singing descriptively is all well and good, even essential, but it isn’t the same as singing ‘to’ God in personal confession. In the latter we express our desire for him, our yearning for him, our thirst and longing and love and delight and joy in all that he is for us in Jesus.” He feels that the appeal of contemporary music is that it allows the Christian not only to stimulate the mind, but also to awaken the spirit, stir the affections, and intensify the expression of our hunger for God.

About the song, Storms suggests that “there isn’t a sentiment or syllable in the song that isn’t found somewhere in the Psalms as an expression of legitimate, biblical, heartfelt worship.” “The song is intentionally written to be an intercessory cry for the awareness of God’s presence, a plea that his loving embrace (spiritually speaking, of course) and the security of his affection never end. It is an expression of personal consecration and commitment. It is a declaration of the all-satisfying love of God and the soul’s delight in it.”

Justin Taylor, who drew my attention to this disagreement with his short article, agrees with Storms.

A couple of years ago I spent some time reflecting on the question of “What is Christian music?” What is it that makes one song Christian and another mainstream? What makes an artist Christian while another is mainstream? What makes one song suitable as an expression of love to God and another unsuitable? This seems to be the point of disagreement between Storms and Colson. Colson feels that “Draw Me Close To You” is inappropriate for worship while Storms disagrees.

At the time I first began to reflect on this issue the American Music Awards had just been handed out. This organization distributes awards based on genres. They give out awards for rap music, jazz, pop, heavy metal and other categories. Each of these forms its own musical genre. Though the lines dividing the genres may not be perfectly clear, there is usually little doubt as to what constitutes a jazz album versus what constitutes a blues album. But then there is the award for Christian music (or, as they call it, Contemporary Inspirational Music). This one is not awarded based on a style of music, but on lyrical content, or further, on the beliefs of the artist. Is it not strange that Christian music forms the sole exception to the rule? Is it not strange that in a system divided by genre, a hard rock Christian album can be considered in the same category as an adult contemporary album?

I have no answers except to suggest that according to the American Music Awards, a Christian album is probably one that has been distributed by a Christian label. How those labels define a Christian album or song is anyone’s guess, though I’m sure it varies greatly from company to company. I know the Gospel Music Association holds to the following definition. A Christian song is one:

  • substantially based upon historically orthodox Christian truth contained in or derived from the Holy Bible
  • and/or apparently prompted and informed by a Christian world view.

I began to think of songs in the mainstream that could pass as Christian songs. One of the songs that I thought of was that once-famous Bryan Adams song, “Everything I Do.” I noticed that it does not have any words in it explicit enough to tell the listener for whom it was written. The only object he refers to is “you,” with no reference to the usual “baby,” “girl,” or “lover.” Therefore, it could be a song sung from a woman to a man or a man to a woman. Fair enough. I’m sure we can all think of examples of songs that are written in such a vague fashion. As I listened to it I began to wonder what would happen if we were to sing that song in our church. Couldn’t we just direct the song towards God? Listen to these words:

Look into my heart – you will find
There’s nothin’ there to hide
Take me as I am – take my life
I would give it all – I would sacrifice
Don’t tell me it’s not worth fightin’ for
I can’t help it – there’s nothin’ I want more
You know it’s true
Everything I do – I do it for you
There’s no love – like your love
And no other – could give more love
There’s nowhere – unless you’re there
All the time – all the way

There are songs we sing in church that are little different than that. Consider Sonicflood’s “I Want To Know You,” a song you may well have sung during a worship service.

In the secret, in the quiet place
In the stillness You are there
In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait only for You
Cause, I want to know You more
I want to know You more
I want to hear Your voice
I want to know You more
I want to touch You
I want to see Your face
I want to know You more

Surely if heard outside a Christian context no one would guess that “I Want To Know You” is directed to God. Similarly, inside a Christian context I doubt if anyone would guess that “Everything I Do” is just another mainstream love song. Evidently this further complicates the matter. So again I ask, what constitutes a Christian song? Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some options. Perhaps a Christian song is:

  • A song written by a Christian. This speaks of the songs’s authorship.
  • A song written to be a Christian song. This speaks of the motive of the song’s author.
  • A song sung as a Christian song. This speaks of the motives of the individuals singing the song.
  • A song with explicitly or obviously Christian lyrics. This speaks of the song’s content.

Does any one of these, taken alone, provide a definition of Christian music? I don’t think so, as each of them seems to have an obvious flaw. What we find is that no song can truly be said to be Christian. The term Christian speaks of people, not of songs or t-shirts or bumper stickers. So there is a sense in which “Amazing Grace” is no more or less Christian than “Everything I Do.”

What we need to determine, then, is not whether a particular song is Christian or pagan, but whether a particular song is suitable for worshipping our God, especially in a corporate setting. A tool I have found useful in this was provided by Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer in their book Perimeters of Light. They propose a seven-part test which will “focus on biblical principles that we should apply to our music to determine if it is Christian.” To that list I append an eighth test.

The Message Test – Does this song express the word of God? Is there a strong message and one that appeals to the new man or to the old man?

The Purpose Test – What is the purpose of this music? Was it written to lift you up or to bring you down? To make you joyful or to make you sad? Different types of song may be appropriate at different times. Obviously the very nature of music dictates that certain patterns in music have the ability to stir emotion independent of the song’s lyrical content.

The Association Test – Does the song unnecessarily identify with things, actions or people that are contrary to Scripture? An otherwise good song may have to be rejected simply because people will make inappropriate associations with it in their minds. The authors provide the example of singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Rising Sun” which is a song about drinking and gambling. As people were singing worship to the Lord they would also be thinking of the song’s original words, leading their minds to think of things that are inappropriate for a worship setting.

The Memory Test – Does the song bring back things from your past that you have left? The purpose of this test is not to guard against music that people may dislike, but to guard against music that may cause them to sin, heeding the biblical warning about not offending one’s brother. So it has less to do with taste and more to do with leading people to sin.

The Proper Emotions Test – Does the music stir our negative or lustful feelings? Amazingly enough, music does have the power, once again independently of lyric, to stir emotions to sin. If you don’t believe this, watch a room full of young people during a hard, driving rap beat, even before the words begin.

The Understanding Test – Will the listeners have a hard time understanding the message or finding the melody. Different people know and understand different types of music. People will have an easier time worshiping to a type of music that they understand. Those new believers in Papua New Guinea may have a difficult time worshiping to contemporary Christian music as they would simply not understand it. The same principle holds true with the lyrics, though I would suggest to a lesser extent, because unlike music, words are objectively true or false. If a song is strong in its theology, the people should eventually understand it, even if they do not now. With music this is not the case. Those natives will be no farther ahead if they learn to appreciate church-rock (and many would suggest, perhaps correctly, that they would actually be farther behind!).

The Music Test – This test asks if there is really “a song within the song”? Is the song singable? Does it flow from verse to verse? Does it stir the listener’s heart to join in the song? A song with beautiful words may quickly disappear from the hymn books simply because it is not singable.

So there are the seven tests suggested by the authors. Conspicuous by its absence is one I would like to add, which is:

The Excellence Test – Does the song provide God with the best music and lyrics? We should strive for excellence in all we give to God. If our giving to Him should not be half-hearted, how much less our worship?

In a previous article, which you can read here, I ran several popular songs through this test. Let’s briefly run “Draw Me Close To You” through this test. Do realize that the test is somewhat subjective. There will be differences in regards to understanding, excellence and other factors.

  1. The Message Test – Fail. Colson would clearly fail this song on the basis of the message and so would I. Storms and Taylor would pass it. It seems to me that the song is trite, void of meaningful content and too man-focused.
  2. The Purpose Test – Pass. The song was written to honor God.
  3. The Association Test – Pass. I don’t know that people would associate this song with much of anything.
  4. The Memory Test – Pass. See above.
  5. The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. The music is consistent with the lyric.
  6. The Understanding Test – Fail. The song is schmaltzy in its lyric and many people, especially men, will object to the romantic overtones.
  7. The Music Test – Pass. While it is not inspired music (see the next point), it is singable.
  8. The Excellence Test – Fail. Neither the music, nor the lyric is an expression of excellence.

I would encourage you to test the song against those criteria and decide if you feel it is appropriate for a worship service. Feel free to post a comment with your assessment.

As I wrap this up, I would like to make one further comment. Even if a song is not inappropriate, this does not necessarily mean that we ought to sing it. Most worship services (for good or for ill) allow time for only five or six songs. Should we not seek to sing excellent songs rather than marginal ones? With the massive body of musical works available to us, could we not find songs that are better than this one and sing them instead? If we focused on songs which were excellent in their music and lyrics, I would suggest that many of these discussions would never need to arise.