The band All Star United has released some good and fun songs over the years. Unfortunately I’ve sometimes found them to toe the line a little bit with their humor. On the whole, though, they write some memorable songs and songs that tend to speak to some of the trends in the Christian world. They have an album coming out in a few weeks and one of the songs is called “Song of the Year.” Written by Ian Eskelin, who does most of all of the band’s writing, it pokes fun at the trend of handing out awards for the best worship music. Here is a portion of the lyrics:
This is the song of the year
Let the message be clear
I don’t need you to adore me
Cause it’s all about God’s glory
Something’s gone really wrong
If we’re chasing the song of the year
I’ll never be the same
Holy holy worthy worthy
something something something something
That rhymes with Jesus’ name
It’s the song of the year
But God’s still unimpressed
With our radio success
This is the song of the year
Let the message be clear
I don’t need you to adore me
Cause it’s all about God’s glory
Angel choirs sing along
If it’s really the song of the year.
I think he’s onto something there. I’ve often wondered at how difficult it must be to write worship music. After all, there must be some extent to which the songwriter is always trying to write something that will be loved even more than his last big hit. When I hear the latest and greatest Chris Tomlin hit (which currently seems to be “How Great is Our God”) I wonder what he’ll write next and if it will prove to be such a popular song. I wonder if he wonders the same.
Eskelin pretty well nails a lot of what passes for worship music with his short summary: “Testimony Testimony / Testimony Testimony / I’ll never be the same / Holy holy worthy worthy / something something something something / That rhymes with Jesus’ name.” Now there is plenty of music being released these days that glories in the cross and brings honor to God. But much of it does seem to follow a formulaic, me-centered pattern. Much of it is just not worthy of the God it seeks to praise. At a recent conference John MacArthur commented on the hymns we were singing and said something to the effect that “we keep singing those old songs because no one is writing anything better.” Of course the hymns we do sing represent just a fraction of the countless thousands that were written, for only the best of them have stood the test of time. The same will prove true of the worship music being written in our day. Very few will be sung even a few years after first blowing onto the scene. Has your church sung “The Heart of Worship” lately? Didn’t think so. There are lots of good songs being written today. It’s just that we have the task of separating the small amount of wheat from the mountains of chaff. When we look to the past we find that others have already done this work for us.
I was struck by the final words of “Song of the Year”: “Angel choirs sing along / If it’s really the song of the year.” I have often wondered, during a time of worship, whether the songs we sing will find their way to heaven. Sometimes a time of worship is so intense and so beautiful that I simply can’t imagine anything could be more holy and more pure. And yet I assume that what we know and experience as worship here is only a dim reflection of what is to come. But still, if you have sat through a really good performance of Handel’s “Messiah” and the Hallelujah chorus in particular, you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that worship could hardly be more beautiful than that.
I’m going to use that as a segue to a related topic. The Ligonier Conference closed this year (as it does every year, as I understand it) with a performance of the Hallelujah chorus. This performance was based on only a few minutes of practice so it wasn’t the kind of performance that is of the highest quality. But even as the choir sang their rendition I thought to myself that pop or rock or guitar-based music just can’t capture the grandeur of this classical or baroque music. I love rock music as much as the next guy, but have to admit that it somehow just can’t quite compare to the power of a choir, an orchestra, or even a really good pipe organ. Rock music tends to rely on volume rather than grandeur. Even a not-so-great performance of the Hallelujah chorus was beautiful, at least to my ears. It is just an amazing, powerful piece of music.
All of this got me thinking today about how to discern good songs from bad. And then I thought back to a book I read a while back called Perimeters of Light, written by Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer, both of whom are Southern Baptists. In this book they propose a seven-part music test that will help filter out songs that are unworthy of worship or inappropriate to use in worship. It goes something like this:
An Eight-Part 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?
I wanted to examine a few songs through this seven-part test (which I have expanded to eight parts) using some real-world examples. We’ll put each of three songs through this filter and see what comes out the other side. Do note that your answers and mine may vary a little bit.
“Amazing Grace” Meets “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”
When I was younger, I attended a church where the worship leader sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” This was, of course, the version of the song make popular by The Tokens in 1961 and not the original which became popular as early as 1939 and which was subsequently recorded several times by a variety of artists.
- The Message Test – Pass. You can’t do much better than “Amazing Grace.”
- The Purpose Test – Pass. The music is joyful and fun, much like grace.
- The Association Test – Fail. People will associate this song with anything but worship.
- The Memory Test – Fail (though this test is somewhat subjective). But memories of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” will likely not be God-honoring
- The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. The emotions stirred by the music will be good.
- The Understanding Test – Pass. Words are easy to understand and the tune is easy to understand.
- The Music Test – Pass. The song is plenty singable.
- The Excellence Test – Pass. “Amazing Grace” is an excellent song. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is silly, but is musically sound.
So there we have it. Singing “Amazing Grace” to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a mix of passes and fails. I would suggest that it is inappropriate for use in worship.
Psalm 23 Travels to Geneva
I struggled a little bit to think of a song that seemed to have problems opposite to the last one. A church I used to attend sang The Apostles Creed to a tune that was quite reminiscent of the old “Davy Crockett” tune, but that didn’t quite do it. But I think I found one. Psalm 23 in the Genevan Psalter is a wonderful lyric set to an awful tune.
- The Message Test – Pass. The words are drawn almost directly from Scripture.
- The Purpose Test – Pass. The song was written to honor God.
- The Association Test – Pass. I don’t people will associate the music to much of anything.
- The Memory Test – Pass. See above.
- The Proper Emotions Test – Fail. Psalm 23 is a beautiful and joyous Psalm, yet this tune is in minor chords.
- The Understanding Test – Fail. People have likely never sung Genevan tunes, and especially the more difficult ones.
- The Music Test – Fail. It is difficult to sing this music (which has not been popular for at least half a millennium).
- The Excellence Test – Fail. The lyric passes, the music fails.
In this case we have quite a mixed result. The words are consistently strong, but the music is irrelevant and very difficult to sing. And it is such a shame that one of the greatest Psalms is presented in a format that is nearly impossible to enjoy. No wonder the people in these churches do not sing it very often. I still remember the first time I sang this Psalm set to a different tune (one of the two that goes with the lyric “The Lord’s my shepherd / I’ll not want / He makes me down to lie / In pastures green / He leadeth me / The quiet waters by”). I was suddenly amazed at the beauty of the twenty-third Psalm.
“Gonna Be” Rewritten
Allow me to present a third example. In this case we’ll look at a situation I heard of recently where “Gonna Be” by The Proclaimers (“I would walk 500 miles / And I would walk 500 more / Just to be the man who walks 1000 miles / And falls down at your door”) was rewritten and sung in the worship service. There were minor lyrical changes (ie “door” was changed to “throne”), the “Da da la da” during the chorus was changed to “You are my Lord,” etc. And of course the verses about drunkeness (“When I get drunk / Yeah I know I’m gonna be / I’m gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you”) and “havering” were removed.
- The Message Test – Fail. There were parts that expressed theology, but in the end it’s a love song converted to a God song.
- The Purpose Test – Fail. The song was written, at least partially, to laugh at and celebrate drunkeness (and has recently appeared in a beer commercial here in Canada).
- The Association Test – Fail. The song will certainly not be associated with God.
- The Memory Test – Fail. I doubt many people have God-honoring memories associated with this song.
- The Proper Emotions Test – Pass. It’s a fun, upbeat song that could be appropriate to joyful lyrics.
- The Understanding Test – Pass. It’s generally easy to understand.
- The Music Test – Pass. The lyrics and tune are quite easy to sing.
- The Excellence Test – Fail. The music is fun and good, but a quick re-write of lyrics does not generally produce excellence.
This example speaks to something that is increasingly popular in contemporary churches, which is re-writing popular songs to make them “church-worthy.” I would suggest, as in the above example, that this usually fails, either because of association or because the end result is just a bad song.
So now I’ve gone from “Song of the Year” to a test that I’ve found useful in evaluating songs. It turns out that “Song of the Year” wouldn’t be appropriate for use in a worship setting!