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Music’s content more important than source, leaders say

C. Scott Shepherd, Worship and Music specialist with the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, conducts a breakout session during Cedarville University's recent Worship 4:24 conference. Photo from Scott Shepherd

NASHVILLE (BP) — Catchy songs stay in your head as well as your heart. False teachings can join them. Church leaders observed this as long ago as the fourth century.

At that time, a Christian priest named Arius induced controversy through his teaching that Jesus was finite and not equal with God the Father. His influence grew to the point that the idea spread from the church he served as a deacon in Alexandria, Egypt, across the Mediterranean and to other church leaders. The Council of Nicaea declared him a heretic in May 325.

Arianism, as the heresy was known, carried primarily across the region through songs popular with travelers and laborers. In the head, in the heart.

C. Scott Shepherd is familiar with the current-day discussions of similarly popular worship music. Since 2017 he has served as a worship and music specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, crisscrossing the state to stay connected to more than 3,000 churches. His days include fielding calls to assist in worship ministry staffing and stylistic transitions, planning worship conferences and overseeing statewide choral groups for men and women.

Questions regarding the suitability of worship music make their way to him.

“We’ll host worship roundtables around the state and chew on these topics together and think through them,” said Shepherd, who recently led in a worship music workshop at Cedarville University.

He added that songs deemed biblically based and theologically sound are obviously welcome in worship. The primary source of discussion, Shepherd said, is often the song’s source.

Is a song OK to sing if disagreements with the affiliated church’s theology are more than a secondary issue? What if the church or ministry has a troubling moral or legal history?

Hillsong Church, based in Australia, first left its mark musically in the 1990s with the worldwide popularity of “Shout to the Lord.” Numerous other hits followed like “What a Beautiful Name” and “King of Kings.” Many churches, including Southern Baptist congregations, sang those and others.

Criticisms at Hillsong Church, though, include elements of Pentecostalism and prosperity gospel teachings as well as demurring on issues such as sexuality. Brian Houston, who was a co-founding pastor alongside his wife, Bobbie, resigned last year due to inappropriate behavior with two women. Houston is currently on trial for allegedly concealing the confession given to him by his father, Frank, five years before the latter’s death in 2004 that as a pastor in the 1970s Frank Houston had abused a young boy.

Shepherd considers it “a non-negotiable that every song we sing should be theologically sound.” But are songs automatically tainted or polluted by the source?

Many know the background of “It is Well with My Soul.” Already having lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Horatio Spafford wrote the lyrics as his own ship neared the site where his four daughters had died during an Atlantic shipwreck in 1873. However, Spafford would later proclaim beliefs in line with Universalism.

He isn’t alone. The faith of Robert Robinson, author of “Come, Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” seemed prone to wander in his later years. Isaac Watts (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”) is questioned for his views on the Trinity.

“If churches only sing songs written by perfect Christians with flawless theology and impeccable ethics, we’d have no songs left to sing,” Shepherd said. “I lean toward the viewpoint of what a song proclaims, not the rabbit trail about the source.”

That said, he has “a deep respect for those who feel differently” about the worship song “Reckless Love,” produced by Bethel Music out of Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. However, Shepherd wrote recently why he could not recommend the song over its inaccurate portrayal of God’s love. 

“God knew (and knows) precisely the consequences of His actions,” Shepherd said. “He never acts rashly, carelessly or thoughtlessly.”

Kenny Lamm, worship consultant for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is writing a yet-to-be-released book on the subject. In an excerpt he provided to Baptist Press, Lamm spoke on the importance of worship music being theologically sound and aligning with a church’s doctrine.

“When the church talks about discipleship today, it seems so often the conversation goes to small groups, triads, one-on-one mentoring, or perhaps a discipleship class. The fact is that the greatest tool for discipleship in the church is worship.

“Think about it; if you look at all the people that attend your church and their involvement in the life of the church, I believe you will see that the vast majority do not attend any of the small groups, triads, mentoring, or classes. The majority focus on coming to worship. That indicates that the worship service may be the only time we can really speak into the lives of these church members to form them to be more like Christ. Indeed, we have seen throughout Christian history that the church has considered the worship service to be the primary means of discipleship. Unfortunately, it seems that many churches have lost sight of this and no longer plan worship with intentionality to disciple our people. Worship should bring spiritual formation to the forefront.”

“If we aren’t intentional and careful in selecting the music we put in the hearts of the people, we are dropping the ball on the calling God has placed on our lives as worship pastors,” he said in separate comments to BP. “Most people memorize many more songs than they do Bible verses, and that further shows us the critical nature of providing theologically sound texts to the music we have them sing each week.”

Lamm has written extensively on the subject, including “Should My Church Sing Songs from Bethel and Hillsong” and “Songs for Worship: How Do We Filter New Songs for our Setting?”

Jason “Bubba” Stewart, Worship and Music consultant for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, is thankful for the heavy theological component of the Master of Divinity in Church Music he earned from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1998. It served him well in churches in Kentucky, South Carolina and Indiana and does now as he works with more than 2,400 churches in his state.

“We have to be very careful about how we present God in our music,” he said.

The term “Worship Wars” refers to stylistic changes that came out of the Jesus Movement in the ‘70s and entered into church buildings across the country. A different discussion is going on today, Stewart said. And it’s not a negative one.

“I’m glad to have these conversations. It brings me joy for a pastor to call me and say, ‘Bubba, I’m having an issue with the lyrics of a song. Can you help me through this?’” Stewart said.

“I love that because it lets me know that you care.”

Like Shepherd and Lamm, he emphasizes the overlooked impact of discipleship that comes from worship.

“Most pastors don’t want to admit that people are gonna be more apt to remember a song versus a point of Scripture, or maybe even the Bible passage,” he said. “That’s what makes this discussion so important. If we believe what we sing, that is discipling us.”

Thus, the concept of God’s love as reckless can slip into the impression, if even subliminal, that there is an aspect of chaos as well.

God’s love is, indeed, “far beyond anything that we could ask or imagine,” Kirkwood Bullis, worship pastor at Valleydale Church in Birmingham, said in a recent interview with the nationally syndicated Rick & Bubba Show.

But it cannot be on equal footing with a person’s love.

“The problem is, the Bible also says that God is equal parts wrathful and vengeful and jealous for His glory,” he said. “So if you’re focusing too much on one side, you’re not giving the people … a balanced diet.”