“What would Jesus sing?”
Ever wondered? The answer is right in the “geographical” and emotional center of the Bible. It’s a hymnal. It’s a primer on prayer. It’s a collection of songs for personal devotion and confession, community worship, weddings and funerals, festivals, religious instruction, and more. Jesus’ earthly community was steeped in its music and poetry: Jesus sang the Psalms.
What tunes Jesus sang is a whole different discussion! No original melodies survive for the Psalms. We have a vocabulary: a “shiggaion of David,” “according to alamoth”; notations “maskil”, “miktam,” and the familiar “selah.” Scholars guess these are musical/liturgical instructions but lack data for accurate definitions. The words remain; the music is lost.
As musicians that should give us pause. We put a lot of effort into harmonies and instrumentation. We struggle, in our various congregational contexts, to balance cutting edge styles with the beloved “heart songs” of previous generations. We creatively arrange, re-arrange or write a bridge so we can add that great old hymn into a set while keeping the flow — all worthy pursuits. But chord progressions and beats and melodies don’t last forever; eventually, many contemporary choruses and centuries old hymns will be forgotten. Only the Word is eternal.
And yet music still has power.
For millennia, across cultures and eras, music has touched human emotions, engaged the brain, stimulated the body. Now brain imaging tools measure and quantify those responses. Valorie Salimpoor experienced nearly instantaneous freedom from depression by the power of a musical composition, compelling her to study music’s effects on the brain. Now a Rotman Research Institute neuroscientist, Salimpoor says that music activates the brain area “involved with the processing of emotion, as well as areas of the prefrontal cortex involved in abstract decision making. When we’re listening to music, the most advanced areas of the brain tie in to the most ancient.”*
Imagine that power paired with the eternal Word of God! The ancient Truth heard, expressed, experienced in the newest music, engaging the most ancient and most advanced areas of our brains. Body, mind, and spirit fully involved, worshipping in Spirit and in truth.
But we’re already doing that, right?
In many different worship settings over many years, I’ve rarely heard or seen the songs’ biblical references identified or even mentioned. What a wasted opportunity, particularly in an increasingly biblically illiterate culture. Hebrews 4:12 says, “The Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).
We’re singing it, but we can do so much more to spotlight the life-changing Word in our worship. We’re engaging emotions, but overlooking opportunities to help worshipers learn and internalize Bible truths. We’re throwing music and scripture up in the air to see what sprouts versus intentionally planting seeds.
Here are 3 ways to sow the power of the Word into contemporary corporate worship:
- Identify and highlight the scriptures we’re already singing.
Include song scripture references in lyric projection. At the top of the first “slide”, (or bottom of the last) put scripture references related to the song.*
Regularly mention scripture references you’re singing. Over time my congregation has become much more aware of scriptures they know from our songs.
Read a pertinent verse before a song set. Draw attention to the Word inside the music, (but don’t detract from the sermon by preaching one of your own!)
That said, one of the most effective combinations of Word and music happens when preaching pastor and worship pastor intentionally choose scriptures and songs to reinforce the message. Then simply saying, “Let’s sing the Word this morning”, or after the message, “Let’s sing the truth we’ve heard today”, laser-focuses worshipers on message, Word, and their response through worship.
Read the Word aloud together – a theme scripture for the service; a psalm you’ll be singing; scriptures reflecting the Easter season songs on sacrifice and resurrection, etc. The Word was always meant to be heard; it takes on new life and vibrancy when read aloud by a congregation.
- Make scriptural content a primary criterion for choosing songs.
Skillful contemporary worship leaders and teams are writing powerful lyrics, even modern hymns, with eternal truths. Then there are other writers that reflect prevailing culture’s me-centered attitudes. You can only teach a congregation a couple dozen new songs a year, so choose those with high-value lyrics.
- Write new songs based on scripture.
God gifts musicians in each generation to create songs, telling His story in ways their culture can hear. If this is you or your team, encourage and develop your God-given skills, sticking close to the Word.
Jesus knew the power of the Word set to music. Let’s intentionally make ways for worshipers to recognize and absorb and live the Word they’re singing.
Chéri Walters, worship leader, ordained minister, co-pastors with her husband in Los Angeles. Her book, Get a Giant Hat Rack: Advice to the Minister of Music was required for university ministry students and worship interns throughout the U.S. Her articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Worship Leader, and many others.
*(Time, “Why Your Brain Craves Music”, Michael D. Lemonick, https://science.time.com/2013/04/15/music/)
*Examples of scripture references for some of CCLI’s Top 100 songs:
THIS IS AMAZING GRACE (Romans 6:9,10; Col.1:13; 1 John 3:1,16;4:10; Psa 98)
IN CHRIST ALONE (Psalm 62:5-8; Rom. 3:25; 5:9)
LORD, I NEED YOU (Romans 5:20; 1 Cor.1:30; 2 Cor.3:17;12:9,10)