Why I Sing What I Sing (and Why I Hope You’ll Join Me)

I found an archived article in Christian Standard a few years ago. I wish I had marked down where it was so I could go back and find it, but I think was from 1896. The article dealt with the issue of youth and their changing musical tastes, and how it clashed with the church’s traditions. In case you missed it, that was 1896.

We’ve had a hard time finding songs to sing together since 1896.

Music has a way of expressing what’s in my soul like nothing else can. For this reason I find musical worship to be an important part of my spiritual life. This could mean writing to express my heart, singing songs in private, with a group of five, or five hundred. Music is absolutely not the only form of worship, but as a writer/composer, and a general fan of music, this form of adoration, praise, and prayer to God takes on an immensely important role in my spiritual life.

I can find these worshipful musical experiences in contemporary Christian music, in long-established (traditional) hymns, and in secular music from the past and from today. I think each has an important place in any music anthology of spiritual yearning and Christ-following.

Of course, “contemporary Christian music” encompasses such a variety of meanings and reactions.   For instance, a song that sounds corny to me might be incredibly inspiring and edifying to somebody else. Then, there are other songs that I find inspiring that others think are “shallow.” I have to keep this in mind when I’m choosing songs for our community to sing in worship, namely, that there’s no song that every single person agrees on.

There are a number of reasons I may choose a song for community worship. For instance, it might be as simple as the way a song makes me feel and how the melody strikes me. On a deeper level, a song might speak to my soul through its syncopated rhythms, its particular arrangement, or how it’s designed to be accompanied by modern instruments.

Without exception, however, any song I bring to community worship will be one I’ve connected with lyrically. When I sense that a writer has composed words with an honest desire to worship, I am happy to share the song as a space in  which people can connect with God.

Sometimes the messages I connect with are simple. “Our God” by Chris Tomlin says,

Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other
Our God is healer, awesome in power
Our God, our God.

For me, this kind of simplicity is crucial in worship. This song calls us to believe that God is and absolutely does all of these things. We don’t always understand how and why and when God chooses do what God does, but when this song is coupled with the words of Jesus and other Biblical study, we begin to see a picture of a God who has a divine plan and can’t be beaten. We can’t possibly understand all of God’s ways, but we can still express that God’s ways are right.

Yet sometimes we also need complexity in worship that reflects the complexity of our faith journey. For instance, “My All In Thee”by Young Oceans invites us to sing:

When gracious Lord, when shall it be, that earth will find her all in thee
The fullness of thy promise prove, seal me with thy eternal love.

This song expresses a deep yearning for spiritual fulfillment through God. The message is complex and takes a lot of thought right from the outset. It forces us to wrestle with themes of God’s promises, the world’s lack of care, and where we will go from here. With a chorus that petitions God, “Show me your way, my love my Lord/Draw me to grace, so strong and sure/I run to your mercy where I am free/Let me find my all in thee,” we invite God into the journey and make a plea for spiritual fruitfulness.

And then there are hymns; to be more specific, there are long-established songs rooted in centuries of worshipful expression. I treat these songs in the same way I treat newer music. If I choose to do a song, I want to be sure I’ve spent time with it, and I’ve connected with the message of the lyrics. And when the connection is there, there is something that sets these songs apart from more contemporary music.

When we sing traditional hymns, we are joining in a song that has been sung or read for, in some cases, hundreds of years. That connection to the past is inspiring in itself. Coupled with lyrics that enlighten our spiritual journey and melodies that that equally inspire, long-established hymns take a rightful place in worship that no other songs can replace. Think about the impact of singing these words by St. Francis written in 1225 (yes that’s the year!):

Let all things their creator bless, and worship Him in humbleness
O praise Him, Alleluia
(from “All Creatures of Our God and King).

Finally, I believe “secular” music has an important place in our worship. I’ve heard “top 40” radio songs in my car that shed a light on my spiritual journey. For example, there are songs, for me, that reimagine the way God loves us, like “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz or “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry. A friend brought the Katy Perry song to my attention, saying God’s love came alive for him as he listened to the words over and over again. The lyrics of the song are simple and powerful:

I will love you unconditionally…
Open up your heart and just let it begin.
When love is fickle and hard to come by, we all need this message about God’s love. And then on the other hand, I’ve heard songs that challenge my response to God’s love. In “Clocks” by Coldplay, I have to ask myself, “Am I part of the cure, or am I part of the disease?” Ultimately I find inspiration and challenge for my Christian journey from popular artists like Jason Mraz, Katy Perry, Coldplay and so many others.
So, with all this said, how do we find a way to sing together?
What we have in common is that we’re all humans, oftentimes trying to make sense of life, love, and our places in the world. With worship, we’re trying to find and celebrate God in the all of that. And that’s exactly what can makes worship hard…if we’re waiting for worship to find us.
What I tried to say above is that I’m always searching for worship in song. I’m always looking for a song that puts all this in the context of God. For me, that’s how we sing together: We search together. And we search by singing.
We’re always going to struggle to agree on style. (You can be sure we were doing it even before 1896.) The first song we sing in worship may not be your preferred song. And the second song we sing may not be my preferred song. But if we search together by singing together, the music we sing and the music we listen to can inspire us, help us grow, and be an impeccable aid in each of our spiritual journeys.
It can be worship even when it’s not our favorite song, for the very reason that we’re helping each other to find and celebrate God in all of this. So…
“Open up your heart and just let it begin.”




A couple months ago I churned out some feelings about why we sing as a form of worship. I revisited this file on my computer this week, and in light of our conversation in The Current about the Spirit and how our gifts come alive, I wanted to share these thoughts. -Justin

4 thoughts on “Why I Sing What I Sing (and Why I Hope You’ll Join Me)

  1. Great post Justin. It’s insightful to me to see the thought and feelings that you put into our music.

  2. Amen!
    When I first started attending The Current, the music was the hardest part to get used to. It didn’t take long for me to start looking forward to that part of the service as much as the message. Thank you for sharing your gifts!

  3. Singing twice a day at work camp this wk. With a couple hundred other Christians from different traditions. Worshipping with brothers and sisters I don’t “know” is always an exciting reminder to me that Christ’s church is global and so much more than I can conceive. Singing the songs we have in common for me deepens that sense for me. Some songs are new to me. Hearing others sing them with intimate familiarity, I experience a new dimension of our shared faith. What phrases are important to these other believers? How do they understand and experience our Jesus? I learn some of that from conversation, but singing their songs with them, slowly making them my songs too, gives something to me in a different way. A different blessing. Thanks for the post Justin.

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