Like many of you I have agonized over the poor or shallow theological content in Church music found in many worship services. I have been working on developing a rubric that can help worship leaders think theologically in the choice of worship music or in the writing of worship music. Below is an explanation of that rubric. I would welcome any feedback to help make this better.EVALUATION OF THEOLOGICAL CONTENT IN CHURCH SONG TEXTS
The key criterion in evaluating Church song texts is the extent to which they are biblically and theologically sound. If a song text leads people away from clear Christian teaching through its presentation of ideas or misappropriates biblical teaching for a particular end, then, no matter how creatively arranged and aesthetically pleasing, the song text should not be included in Christian worship. Below are some helpful guidelines in discerning the fidelity of musical texts to Christian teaching, guidelines that form a theological rubric for use by worship leaders in the evaluation of song texts.I. GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR EVAULATING CHURCH SONG TEXTS
In Christian teaching, there are some doctrines that are more important than others. Faithful adherence to certain doctrines is essential to being the Church, while belief in others is not. While there can be latitude of interpretation and application of some Christian doctrines, there cannot be with others. Likewise, in evaluating the fidelity of a song text to Christian teaching, this distinction must be kept in mind. Whether the song text strikes at the heart of Christianity or addresses a more peripheral issue will make a difference in how strictly a text is evaluated and will help determine the appropriateness of its use in Christian worship.
In Christian teaching levels of biblical and theological importance are made by distinguishing between (A) doctrinal essentials, which express biblical teachings that are most central and non-negotiable to Christianity, (B) doctrinal distinctives, which are important, yet debatable Christian interpretations of Scripture, beliefs with which there can be some latitude in understanding and (C) doctrinal opinion, which express ideas of little importance to the essence of Christianity. These levels are helpful in determining the suitability of song texts in Christian worship and form a general framework in which to begin an evaluation.A. Doctrinal Essentials
Doctrinal essentials include the non-negotiable teachings of Christianity, the fundamentals of Christianity, beliefs without which Christianity would cease to be. To surrender or compromise one of these beliefs would be to render the Christian faith in essence unchristian. Scripturally, these would include beliefs like the bodily resurrection of Christ, the incarnation, the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, the Trinity, and reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, as well as consensually agreed upon practices like love of neighbor, forgiveness, humility, service, and faithfulness. These are the theological truths all Christian bodies tend to hold ecumenically, as summarized in, but not limited to, the ApostleÂs Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Athanasian Creed.
Worship leaders must work to inculcate these essentials beliefs in Christians by selecting congregational song texts that help the worshipping community know and understand their meaning, assisting them in seeing their implications for corporate and individual discipleship and providing a framework in which to experience them as a means of grace. While all Church song texts cannot focus on doctrinal essentials alone, there should be a steady diet of them throughout the liturgical year.
While not every Church music text addresses doctrinal essentials, the first question that should be at the forefront in evaluation is whether the text is in accordance with the doctrinal teaching of the Church as expressed in the ApostlesÂ, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. Is the text faithful to biblical teaching as historically and ecumenically understood? If the text communicates ideas in contradiction to the essentials of biblical teaching or historic orthodoxy, then the text must not be included in Christian worship.B. Doctrinal Distinctives
While there are biblical and theological doctrines universally held by the Church, there are also biblical and theological ideas distinctive of particular Christian groups, beliefs arising from differences of interpretation of Scripture. Individual Christians and Christian bodies hold to particular Biblical teachings that distinguish them from other Christians and Christian groups. Their beliefs are biblically sound, impact people's lives and the Church, but with which there can be sincere disagreements. They are important; Christians might argue for them, contend for them, but they are not at the core of Christianity. These are theological ideas with which there can be varying degrees of latitude in belief. Examples might include doctrines about predestination, eternal security, conceptions of divine sovereignty, infant baptism, pacifism, as well as a host of other issues.
In evaluating Church song texts, distinctive beliefs belonging to particular churches and Christian groups should be noted. Some beliefs expressed in song texts may be directly opposed to the official teaching of certain Christian groups. Sometimes these doctrines may be embedded subtly in the text, while at other times they may be very explicit. These distinctives need to be taken into consideration when evaluating song texts for Christian worship. Be aware there are many song texts that may have sound biblical teaching, but are contrary to the particular beliefs of other Christians, churches and/or denominations. However, because these are not essential beliefs, some latitude may be given to them. Still, the problems they may pose should be noted.
While there has been a strong movement away from doctrinal distinctives by many local churches and denominations, there is a need to perpetuate particular perspectives. If Christian groups are concerned about inculcating their doctrinal distinctives, incorporating song texts into worship that communicate these teachings is necessary, helping church members connect distinctive biblical interpretations to life and providing a framework in which they can be experienced. While not every Church song text should focus on doctrinal distinctives, being secondary to doctrinal essentials, there should be a regular expression of them in worship.C. Doctrinal Opinion
Doctrinal opinion addresses biblical/ theological interpretations and practices that are neither essential for Christian discipleship, nor important enough to qualify as doctrinal distinctives. Christians generally do not "lose any sleep" over disagreements in these areas. They might include debates over appropriate dress, dancing, ecclesiastical organization, the appropriateness of smoking and drinking, understandings of obscure passages of scripture, etc. They also include opinions in which Christians, local churches and denominations let their fellow believers and members Âthink and let think.Â
In evaluating Church song texts, there are some texts that have little biblical or theological grounding or have little theological significance. Because they address only peripheral concerns, great latitude may be given to them. However, while they may have some place in worship, because they address only ancillary concerns, they should not be a staple in worship.II. SPECIFIC GUIDELINES FOR EVALUATING PARTICULAR TYPES OF CHURCH SONG TEXTS
With the preceding considerations in mind, forming a larger context in which to examine song texts, specific guidelines can be addressed. To begin, a determination must be made as to what type of text a song is. Generally, song texts in Christian worship function in one or more of the following ways: (A) Proclamation, where the purpose is to provide sound biblical and theological instruction to the congregation, (B) Prayer, where the focus is to articulate the emotions, sentiments, aspirations, and intercessions of the congregation or individual to God, (C) Praise, where the intention of the congregation is to exalt God appropriately for His grandeur and glory in His nature, character and action, and (D) Invitation or Call to Action, where the goal is to give opportunity for the congregation to respond to GodÂs grace made available through proclamation of the Word of God and/or the administration of the sacraments. While song texts for worship may be classified with greater specificity in each category and some texts may not fit easily into any one category, these are the four basic functions of song texts in worship.
After a determination has been made of what type of text a song is, an evaluation can begin. Below are some guidelines for evaluating particular types of Church song texts, creating a diagnostic rubric for worship leaders. Each rubric provides a forty point spectrum in which to evaluate a particular song text, with zero (0) being the worst possible text score, meaning a text teaches an idea contrary to Christian doctrinal essentials and must not be used in Christian worship, and forty (40) being the highest text score, meaning a text is the most biblically/theologically helpful of its type for worship.A. Proclamation
In proclamation, song texts function as a preacher of the Word of God. Generally, proclamation texts pick one or more biblical/theological themes (revelation, the nature and attributes of God, the Trinity, creation, providence, sin, salvation, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Church, death and resurrection, etc.) to illuminate through music. Therefore, the clarity and effectiveness with which a text accomplishes this task forms the basis of evaluation.
To begin, at the lowest end of the spectrum, are song texts that are contrary to doctrinal essentials or call a central teaching of Christianity into question. These are texts that undermine and distort the basic Gospel message. No song text like this should be incorporated into Christian worship. As such, it receives zero (0) points.
Next, are song texts that inappropriately use one or more biblical/theological ideas, but are not contrary to or address a doctrinal essential. Often these are texts that appear to be biblically and theological sound, but really are not on closer examination. For example, the chorus ÂHeÂs All I Need, Jesus Is All I Need,Â may initially appear to be biblical, but Scripture makes clear in Genesis 2, where Adam is alone in the Garden before the creation of Eve, that Adam and humanity are made for more than a relationship with God. Biblically, humanity needs more than a right relationship with God; they need to be in relationships with other human beings as well. However, because the chorus does not compromise a doctrinal essential, some latitude can be given. Song texts like this are given ten (10) points.
Also, there are song texts whose central idea, or an integral secondary one, explicitly deny or contradict a local churchÂs biblically/theologically grounded doctrinal distinctive. For example local churches and Christian traditions strongly adhering to the doctrine of eternal security would not appreciate a song text teaching a contrary position. For worship leaders with a concern for doctrinal distinctives, a song text like this, expressing teaching contrary to a major doctrinal distinctive, is given ten (10) points as well.
Navigating toward the middle of the spectrum, becoming more acceptable for use in worship, are song texts that appropriately use one or more biblical/theological ideas (or a doctrinal distinctive), but do not go beyond a superficial treatment. Basic Christian concepts and vocabulary are identified and rudimentary understandings are provided, but they are not developed. While what is taught is correct, the song text provides little instructional insight to the congregation. A song text like this receives twenty (20) points.
At the higher end of the spectrum are song texts that competently address one or more biblical/theological ideas, clearly developing an idea and providing excellent instruction to the congregation. The song text provides insight into the biblical/theological teaching, moving beyond an elementary level of instruction. A song text like this is assigned thirty (30) points.
The best song text, the text receiving the highest score of forty (40) points, goes beyond excellent teaching, by enabling the congregation to grasp/wrestle with the deeper significance of an idea for their lives and with the implications for Christian discipleship. A song text at this level will contribute to the application and integration of biblical/theological instruction into the individual and communal life of the congregation.B. Prayer
In prayer, Church song texts function as a formal or an informal address to God by a congregation or individual. Generally, these song texts express one or more types of prayer (invocation, illumination, lament, thanksgiving, intercession, confession etc.). Because prayer in this context is primarily an address to God, the way in which God is addressed forms the basis for evaluation.
To begin, at the lowest end of the spectrum, are prayer texts that violate a doctrinal essential or communicate incorrectly a key Christian tenet about God. For example, God should never be addressed in a way that denies GodÂs triune nature, or confuses GodÂs nature with the created order, or confesses God as another religious deity. A prayer text that does this receives zero (0) points and must not be incorporated into Christian worship.
Next, there are song texts that inappropriately address God or contain ideas contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible or historic Christian doctrine, without violating a biblical/theological essential. For example, some song texts may flippantly address God as ÂDude,Â Âthe Man upstairs,Â Âthe Guy in charge,Â or the Âawesome Surfer of the waves in the sky.Â While these may by culturally sensitive, express what people feel about their relationship with God and not address a doctrinal essential, they fall short of appropriate God language in worship. Because they do not violate a doctrinal essential, but are biblically and theologically questionable, a text like this is given ten (10) points.
Navigating toward the middle of the spectrum, becoming more acceptable for use in worship, are prayer texts that are biblically and theologically sound, but never go beyond a generic address of God. The text uses biblical/theological names (God, Lord, the Almighty, Creator, etc.) or metaphors (Shepherd, Rock of Israel, King, Ruler, etc.) to address God, but misses the opportunity to appropriately recognize and address the Triune nature of God by naming one or more of the divine persons Â Father, Son and Holy Spirit by name, title or work. A generic, but biblically sound prayer text like this is given a score of twenty (20) points.
Because at the very heart of Christianity is the revelation of God as Trinity, one God in Three Persons, at the higher end of the spectrum are prayer texts that address explicitly or implicitly the triune nature of God by naming one or more of the divine persons; where Father, Son and Spirit are addressed or acknowledged by name, title or work. For example, a prayer text may address only the Father, but implicit in the name ÂFatherÂ is relationship to a Son. Likewise, to call Jesus Christ the ÂSonÂ in prayer implies that Christ is related to another who is Father. Similarly, to speak of the Holy Spirit in a text is to imply one who is distinct from the Father and the Son. More explicitly, GodÂs triune nature is brought to greatest clarity when all three Persons are addressed in prayer. Such a text is assigned thirty (30) points.
A prayer text that receives the highest score is one that competently addresses one or more of the divine persons Â Father, Son and Holy Spirit Â by name, title or work and appropriately relates ideas to the respective economies of the divine Persons. For example, a prayer text will primarily, but not exclusively relate ideas about creation and providence to the Father, salvation and redemption to the Son, and illumination and sanctification to the Holy Spirit. While no divine Person works in isolation from the other Persons, sound Christian teaching relates divine action to particular Persons. A prayer song text that perceptively and accurately does this is given the highest score of forty (40) points.C. Praise
In praise song texts, the worshipping Church exalts God for being God and lauds God for all He has done, is doing, and will do. Praise of GodÂs nature, character and actions is the focus of the song text. Therefore, the degree to which these are described with fidelity to Christian teaching becomes the basis for evaluation. While there are differences, praise texts are related to prayer texts. As such, there is substantial overlap with the prayer rubric. However, additional criteria, unique to the praise text type, must be considered.
To begin, at the lowest end of the spectrum, are praise texts that deny a doctrinal essential or communicate incorrectly a core Christian teaching. For example, in a praise text GodÂs nature and character should never be described in a way that denies essential Christian teaching on GodÂs triune nature or GodÂs essential attributes Â immensity, eternality, transcendence, aseity, etc. Furthermore, a praise text should not diminish or deny essential actions of God, such as creation ex nihilo, GodÂs redemptive work in ChristÂs incarnation, death and resurrection, and divine providence. A praise text that does this receives zero (0) points and must not be incorporated into Christian worship.
Next, there are praise texts that misrepresent GodÂs nature and character or ascribe actions to God not true of God, but what is said does not violate a biblical/theological essential. For example, a praise text may describe GodÂs love in a way that intentionally minimizes or obscures GodÂs holiness; it may attribute to God actions not properly belonging to God or state a doctrine poorly, such as portraying GodÂs sovereignty in a way that makes God the author of sin and evil. Although they are biblically and theologically questionable, because they do not violate a doctrinal essential, a praise text like this is given ten (10) points.
Navigating toward the middle of the spectrum are praise texts that are biblically and theologically sound, but never go beyond a generic description of GodÂs character, nature and action. For example, a praise text might mention attributes of God (goodness, holiness, love, etc) but does not develop them, never seeking to explore a deeper understanding of GodÂs character and nature. Furthermore, as with prayer texts, it misses the opportunity to appropriately praise the Triune nature of God by naming one or more of the divine persons Â Father, Son and Holy Spirit by name, title or work. A generic, but biblically sound praise text like this is given a score of twenty (20) points.
More significant praise texts for worship will go beyond a simple citation of biblical/theological concepts related to GodÂs character, nature and action by developing them. They will help the worshipping community go beyond superficial statements about GodÂs character and actions and assist them in plumbing their depths in praise of God. Again, as with prayer texts, at the higher end of the spectrum are praise texts that address explicitly or implicitly the triune nature of God by naming one or more of the divine persons - Father, Son and Spirit and praising their work. Such texts are assigned thirty (30) points.
A praise text that receives the highest score is one that competently extols one or more of the divine persons Â Father, Son and Holy Spirit Â by name or title, appropriately praises the work belonging to the respective economies of the divine persons, and plumbs their depths in praise. While no divine Person works in isolation from the other Persons, sound Christian teaching relates divine action to particular Persons. A praise song text that perceptively and accurately does this is given the highest score of forty (40) points.D. Invitation or Call to Action
In an invitation/call to action, song texts articulate for the worshipping community an appropriate response to the proclaimed Word of God and/or the celebration of sacraments. The response can be a declaration of faith, a dedication of personal or communal resources, a surrender of life to Christ or a number of other possible concrete actions. The degree to which this is done with biblical and theological fidelity is the basis of evaluation.
To begin, at the lowest end of the spectrum, are invitation/call to action texts that voice a response that violates a biblical/theological essential. For example, a song text should never encourage Christians to hate other human beings or inflict harm on others. A text like this receives zero (0) points and must not be included in Christian worship.
Next, there are invitation texts that call a person or a congregation to a biblically/ theologically questionable action. For example, a text calling for personal allegiance to country or love of political party might fall into this category. However, because this use does not violate a biblical/theological essential, a text like this is given ten (10) points.
Navigating toward the middle of the spectrum are song texts that invite a person or congregation to follow Christ or calls for some biblically appropriate response. The focus of the text is on an invitation or exhortation to action, not a declaration of what a person or congregation will do. For example, a text might invite people to become followers of Jesus Christ or encourage them to love their enemies, but it does not take the next step and have people declare that they will take these actions. Such a text receives twenty (20) points.
Texts that move beyond invitation to declaration are given thirty (30) points. In this song text a person or congregation declares the appropriate action they are taking or will take in obedience to GodÂs call. For example, a text might state that the Christian community will carry the Gospel message to every nation or have people confess that they will turn from their sins.
At the highest end of the spectrum are song texts that not only move beyond invitation by declaration, but implicitly or explicitly tie the fulfillment of what is declared to divine grace or divine assistance. Any appropriate response to GodÂs Word or celebration of the sacraments is made possible because God enables it through grace. A song text that declares what will be done and recognizes that divine grace makes the response possible receives forty (40) points.SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
In summary, as has been clearly stated, song texts that compromise or dismiss doctrinal essentials must not be included in Christian worship. While the rubric assigns ten (10) points to doctrinally questionable texts, this does not mean that they are acceptable for Christian worship. Song texts with this score must be used in worship only after careful consideration. If they are included, it should be done rarely. Only song texts with a score of twenty (20) points or more should be incorporated into Christian worship and song texts with thirty (30) or forty (40) points should have preference in song selection.
While the preceding rubric has limitations and is subject to interpretation, it provides a framework in which worship leaders can begin to evaluate church song texts by the most important criterion Â fidelity to Christian teaching. The rubric may take some extra effort in its initial use and may require some modification to fit a local churchÂs doctrinal distinctives. However, as worship leaders become better acquainted with it and modify it for their particular places of ministry, it should become a helpful tool in worship planning.Note: Because of the layout of the blog, I can't actually post the one-page rubric that this article explains.