Evaluating Christian music, especially that which is used during the Divine Service, is important but difficult. It tends to devolve into a battle over “taste”, which no one can win. Musicians can explain until they’re blue in the face how the argument of “variety in worship” doesn’t really support the use of Christian pop/rock, which tends to be the same four or five guitar chords repeated ad infinitum or ad nauseum. The lyrics are usually more about us and what we are doing than any mention of who God is or why (Incarnation, blood atonement, Gospel) we are worshiping, loving, etceteraing Him. This, by the way, would also be an argument against using songs without clear doctrinal content for “seeker services”. What do you want the seekers to know? In most praise songs, they hear repeatedly about an attributeless (save vague descriptors like powerful and awesome) God or Jesus whom we love and adore for no apparent reason. It reminds us of the episode of The Simpsons where a CCM musician bemoans the loss of her band to regular rock music. The transition was simple; all they had to do was change “Jesus” to “baby”. For those who enjoy CCM, these are unsatisfactory arguments against its use, because, well, they like it. And shouldn’t the church play and sing what they like?
First of all, if you really like CCM or Lutheran chorales or Slovak folksongs or themes from Star Trek or any other kind of music, no one is stopping you from singing to your heart’s content in the shower, in your car, in your home, or with your friends. The issue is what is appropriate for public worship. This does not apply just to today’s Christian popular music. It applies to historic Christian music too. Older does not mean better.
With that in mind, we propose an evaluation tool for judging the doctrinal content of your suggested worship song. Take a modern or historic Christian song and swap out the words for God (God, Lord, Jesus—only replace general words which are standing alone, do not replace Trinitarian formulas; if your song has one, it’s already better than most) with the name of a false god found in the Bible. It helps if the name of the false god has the same number of syllables and similar emphasis to the name of God it is replacing. For “God” or “Lord”, we suggest “Baal”. For “Jesus”, we used “Chemosh”. Now, sing your song with the new lyrics. If the song is so void of doctrinal content that it can also work as a praise song to Baal, Chemosh, Ashtoreth, Artemis, or any other idol, your song is not appropriate for public worship but may still be sung in the shower or in traffic (with the permission of your carpool).
Here are some examples where making the substitution makes no difference. These songs could be sung to any god of anyone’s choosing, and because of that, are not appropriate for public worship in a Lutheran church.
I love You Baal (Lord), and I lift my voice
To worship You, O my soul rejoice!
Take joy, my King, in what You hear;
May it be a sweet, sweet sound in Your ear.
Chemosh (Jesus), Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass come from thee;
Chemosh (Jesus), Savior, pilot me.
Open the eyes of my heart, Baal (Lord), open the eyes of my heart;
I want to see You, I want to see You.
To see You high and lifted up, shining in the light of Your glory.
Pour out Your power and love as we sing, Holy, holy, holy. I want to see You.
What a friend we have in Chemosh (Jesus),
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh, what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry
Everything to god (God) in prayer!
Here are some examples of songs where the substitution does not work. The text here is too rich to allow for idolatrous rewritings. The words are so full of Biblical doctrine that a name change alone will not make them praise songs for the deity of your choice. These are appropriate for public worship in a Lutheran church.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in his hand
Christ, our God, to earth descending,
Comes our homage to command.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human likeness,
In the body and the blood
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
All mankind fell in Adam’s fall;
One common sin infects us all.
From one to all the curse descends,
And over all God’s wrath impends.
But Christ, the second Adam, came
To bear our sin and woe and shame.
To be our life, our light, our way.
Our only hope, our only stay.
Before anyone complains that these are all “old”:
The infant Priest was holy born
For us unholy and forlorn;
From fleshly temple forth came He,
Anointed from eternity.
The body of God’s Lamb we eat,
A priestly food and priestly meat;
On sin-parched lips the chalice pours
His quenching blood that life restores.
O sing of Christ, whose birth made known
The kindness of the Lord,
Eternal Word made flesh and bone
So we could be restored.
Upon our frail humanity
God’s finger chose to trace
The fullness of His deity,
The icon of His grace.
What Adam lost, none could reclaim,
And Paradise was barred
Until the second Adam came
To mend what sin had marred.
For when the time was full and right
God sent His only Son;
He came to us as life and light
And our redemption won.
N.B. This post is about lyrics/text only. We hope to deal with instrumental accompaniment and musical style sometime in the future. So, don’t comment on it here.