• Glenn Packiam

What Makes A Worship Song Uniquely Christian?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few posts ago, I started the conversation about what our worship songs communicate about God and why that matters. Then, earlier this week, I was asked to write down some thoughts on songwriting for a booklet that will be distributed at a certain conference coming up in Australia. While I can’t be certain what bits of what I sent will make it and what won’t (it was rather lengthy!), here is an excerpt that I thought might be a nice follow-up to my earlier post of what is at stake in our worship lyrics.]

What do our songs and prayers say about God? If we were to construct our church’s theology solely based on the lyrics we sang, what kind of “God” would that be? And more to the point, could our lyrics be applied to a generic deity or is there anything uniquely Christian about the God they depict?

It is not enough to simply say “God” in our songs. Which “God”? The one Oprah describes, the one Deepak Chopra worships? People in America are filling in the blanks in their own minds of the “God” we’re talking about and the picture of God is often disfigured as a result. I can’t speak for what the view of “God” is in other countries and cultures, but one would think that in countries where many distinct religions abound—like in Malaysia, the country I grew up in—it only becomes more important that we are saying and singing things that are uniquely Christian.

So, what makes a song uniquely Christian?

1.    Christo-centric This is a fancy way of saying our songs should focus on Jesus the Messiah. We need to sing about His pre-eminence, how He co-created the world with the Father, how He left His throne in heaven and became a man, how He suffered death and was buried, how he rose again conquering sin and defeating the evil that has infected the cosmos, how He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, how He will return in glory to judge the world and set it right and make all things new. (There. I have summarized what the creeds have said about Jesus!)

And in saying all these things we should name Him. We can do better than a generic “You.” His name is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the rightful King of the World.

2.    Trinitarian The Trinity is not a concept to be understood; they are Persons to be worshipped. But we are not helping that cause by not naming Them in our worship. And we make things worse when we get muddle “Who is doing what.” The early apostles went to great lengths to help us assign the right roles and functions to the right Persons of the Trinity (The Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, the Spirit as Life-Giver, etc). We would do well to pay attention to that in our writing.

This mysterious belief in God as three Persons is uniquely Christian. We are not praying to, singing to, or following an amorphous, monolithic Hero-God. We are drawn up into the Divine dance, the communion of the Tri-Personal God. If we’re looking for help in understanding the distinct roles, we can, once again, turn to the Nicene Creed—the only statement of Christian faith accepted by every stream of the Body of Christ, both Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant (and rejected by Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cults and religions that would like to be called “Christian”).

As I wrestle with this, I am not yet convinced that every song needs to be overtly Trinitarian by acknowledging all three Persons. A song could be aimed at one Person of the Trinity. (Think of a song about Yahweh as Creator-God, the Almighty Father, or about Jesus the Redeemer and King, or about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or God’s “empowering presence” with us.) But even in doing this we are acknowledging the God we worship as three-in-one.

If you were to comb through the catalog of my songs (you might first need a powerful search engine to find them!), you would discover that many of my songs simply address “God” or “You”.  Many of them are not Christo-centric or Trinitarian, and some, worse yet, are not even uniquely Christian. Much of that I regret. This journey for me is only a year or so old. But I want to write songs that are uniquely Christian and that help people live our truly Christian lives as a result. Would you join me on the journey and embrace the challenge?

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