Worship Leadership: Poetic Lyrics and Reckless Theology

Should worship songwriters take creative license with God’s Word?

As a child growing up in church, one of my earliest memories is sitting in children’s church on a Sunday morning singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” I grew up in the St. Louis area and I vividly remember singing the song and then the children’s worker teaching us that God loves each of us, “no matter what we look like on the outside.” One of my earliest memories in life is a theologically sound representation of God’s love being taught to me through song lyrics. 

As I grew older, I began to listen to all sorts of Christian bands, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I was heavily influenced by the message in the music. One of my favorites was Petra, and I can still remember the impact of these lyrics on my 13-year-old heart: “Red is the color of the blood that flowed down the face of someone who loved us so. He’s the perfect man, He’s the Lord’s own son. He’s the lamb of God, He’s the only one, that can give us life, that can make us grow, that can make the love between us flow.” The clear message of the gospel in these lyrics didn’t need any explaining to understand what the author intended theologically. It was clear, and it was sound.

I also vividly remember sitting next to my grandpa and turning in the hymnal to the hymns of Charles Wesley and marveling at his poetic genius in writing the sound Word of God through song. I mean listen to this,

Jesus! the name that charms our fears,
  That bids our sorrows cease;
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears,
  ’Tis life, and health, and peace.

His love my heart has captive made,
  His captive would I be,
For He was bound, and scourged and died,
  My captive soul to free.

He breaks the power of canceled sin,
  He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean;
  His blood availed for me
.

What a master he was at interpreting the Word of God soundly and then poetically weaving it together with melody. Nothing there requires Wesley’s disclaimer, just a clear interpretation of the gospel masterfully delivered through poetic lyrics.

Now, to where there is a clear point of tension in the modern Church in this regard. There is without question a present frustration in worship music with the “same old cookie cutter worship songs” being released with “cliché lyrics” and a “lack of depth.” I have heard this frustration stated over and over again for years.

Let me say that I share the frustration, but it can lead to a clear and present danger of pushing the envelope past the theologically sound poetic bar set by Wesley and into a realm of reckless theology if we’re not careful. When we as writers have to write lengthy explanations to help make sense of the edgy words or phrases in our lyrics, then it’s time to step back and evaluate the theology in our songs. The consequences are so enormous in singing sound theology that they are literally eternal.

So, here are some thoughts for all of us the next time we sit down at our instrument.

Tread lightly with the Word of God and artistic license.

 For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3 

A good definition of artistic license is, “an artist … afforded leeway in his or her interpretation of something and … not held strictly accountable for accuracy.” It’s safe to say that this cannot apply to the Word of God. Be assured, we will be held accountable with how we handle God’s Word. I have heard harsh arguments from Christians who refuse to hear sound doctrine because it invalidates their point. I have likewise heard harsh arguments from Christians who refuse to hear sound doctrine because it invalidates their song lyric. Instead they will quote the Word of God and stretch and even reinterpret the meaning of words to make their idea appear valid. We are certainly living in a culture in which there is a tendency to redefine terms in order to validate a point. We cannot however fall into this trap when proclaiming truths about Almighty God through song. Artistic license can easily become the tool of itching ears not putting up with sound doctrine if we’re not careful. If we don’t tread lightly in this area we can be, at the very least, singing confusion about who He is and, at the extreme, singing reckless theology.

Be married to no idea.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15

We must be willing to put our lyrics to the test theologically before we press record. This means we cannot be married to any lyrical idea no matter how much it breaks the cookie cutter cliché frustration. As a writer I have had tons of creative ideas lyrically that sounded artistically amazing but were simply not theologically sound. At this point there is only one thing to do and that is go another direction. It may sound awesome, but is it sound theologically? Partner in your songwriting with trained sound theologians, put your lyrics to the test, have thick skin, and be willing to make the change.

Be accountable to one another as musical and poetic interpreters of the Word.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom. Colossians 3:16

We must be willing to hear truth, and we must be willing to speak truth to one another in love. I mentioned above seeking out and partnering with trained theologians and having thick skin when putting your lyrics to the test. We must also lovingly hold our friends accountable when it comes to biblical accuracy in our writing. When a red flag is raised about a friend’s lyric it should not be taken personally but prayerfully so that not one of us falls into heresy. Again, the consequences are eternal, and we simply cannot be too careful with God’s Word. 

It is a great time to be a worship leader. It’s also a great time to be a worship songwriter. I believe that some of the greatest writers in the history of the Church are alive and writing right now, and some of the greatest hymns ever written are modern. But in the frustration to continue to hit the Wesley bar, may we be more careful than ever with the poetic and musical presentation of God’s Word and the principles within. If we get it wrong, the consequences are eternal, but eternal also are the consequences if we get it right.