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Two different incidents are swirling around in my head right now. The first involves a killer whale and Josh Groban. The second involves a discussion in my home group, where we are reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. The discussion centered around this quote concerning worship through corporate singing:

All devotion, all attention should be concentrated upon the Word in the hymn . . . the music is completely the servant of the Word {Scripture}. It elucidates the Word in its mystery.

We asked each other, is this true of church music today? Can we say of modern worship songs that the music serves the words of Scripture? Or do the words of our worship songs serve the music? Can we say that we, the worshipers, love the words more than the melodies? How can we tell?

Which brings me to that killer whale incident. I’m going to confess something completely humiliating here: I absolutely love “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban. On a trip to Sea World a few years back, we watched a Shamu Show choreographed to that song. Every time Josh hit the chorus, Shamu would erupt out of the water, launching his trainer 30 feet into the air off the tip of his snout. Raising him up. To more than he could be.

Tears. Streaming. Down. My. Face.

So, let’s just take a look at those gorgeous lyrics:

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;

You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;

I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;

You raise me up . . . To more than I can be.

I mean, just revel in that. That’s some powerful stuff—powerfully cheesy. But between the soaring instrumentation and the velvet voice (and the orca) I sort of lost track of that. Do you think I’m pathetic? Try it yourself—just Google the lyrics to your favorite song. Try reading them without melody and instrumentation. Do they move you? Are they memorable? Do they even make sense?

With a pop song, who cares? There’s not a lot at stake if a music-less read-through of the lyrics reveals that the message is a little ridiculous. But with worship music, the stakes are higher. I believe this is what Bonhoeffer wants us to understand. Himself a musician, he would have known what every musician, every writer of movie scores, every marketer, every Shamu choreographer can tell you: Music has the power to move us in and of itself.

Powerful Pull of Music

Imagine the Harry Potter movies with no themed score running behind the scenes. The musical score alone, independent from words or images, would stir our emotions. Combined with them, the effect magnifies. Even a movie as well-written as Harry Potter would feel dull and flat without a soundtrack.

Bonhoeffer’s point is simple: When the words serve the music, we gratify self. When the music serves the words, we glorify God. In a culture that consumes music on an unprecedented scale, the church faces an uphill battle to maintain the high ground that the music must serve the words. Ten years ago, contemporary worship songs were plagued with the “I-Me-My-Mines,” every line filled with the knowledge of man. We have come some distance since then, praise God, with a shift back toward lyrics that extol the character of God. But we have further still to go.

If I supplied you with a copy of the lyrics to the 6,500 hymns of Charles Wesley, two things would happen to you as you read it. First, you would be deeply moved by the truths the lyrics contained, whether you knew the melodies associated with them or not. Second, you would know your Bible better. Could the same be said if you read through the lyrics of our modern worship offerings?

Wesley composed his hymns during a time in church history when the music served the words, or more precisely, the Word. We live in a time when music, church or otherwise, serves our personal taste, and where lyrics are often an afterthought. Combine this with rampant Bible illiteracy, and we find congregational Shamu shows so glutted on the wealth in their melodies that they ignore the poverty in their lyrics. A worship song is “anointed” if it moves us deeply, whether the words communicate anything coherent or not. Don’t make me give you a sloppy wet example.

Preparing Heart and Head

Bonhoeffer and Wesley would say to us that church music must do more than move the emotions: it must feed the understanding. In doing so, it accomplishes its purpose of preparing our hearts and minds for the pinnacle of the worship service, the proclamation of the Word. We wrongly believe that the worship set should fill our hearts and the sermon should fill our heads. Corporate worship should enliven both heart and head, preparing us for a sermon which does both as well.

So, to my fellow worshipers, let’s consider together whether our adoration is given to music or through music. And to those worship leaders composing church music today, God bless you—you endure enormous pressure to create “worship experiences.” Consider Bonhoeffer’s message: whether your gifting runs toward hymnody or poetry, write lyrics that teach so much truth they can stand on their own. And then set them to music that magnifies their beauty. We, your congregants are slaves to our personal tastes. Teach us to crave corporately the better thing—the Word rendered luminous by song, confessed by a thousand tongues.

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20 thoughts on “On Whales and Worship Lyrics”

  1. “Don’t make me give you a sloppy wet example.” Ha! Great post. And indeed, much appreciation is due to today’s church music composers. It requires much courage. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Mark Blessing says:

    Throughout history, the opposite argument was used to criticize the music used to carry ‘sacred’ lyrics. People like Fanny Crosby and William Booth were criticized for using ‘secular’ music to support their ‘sacred’ lyrics. Romans 14:4 is a good place for everyone to arrive.

  3. jlbiuchs says:

    The sloppy wet example is unfair in this article. When the lyric is changed to unforeseen, the lyrics speak volumes and is Biblically sound:

    The song speaks of how God’s glory can overshadow any problem we face and how His love for us takes us by surprise in a way that makes us wonder how we ever lived without him. It is an example of how we should give ourselves fully to God.

    1. Matt Boswell says:

      What “How He Loves” does is fail to show HOW god has loved us in the most perfect way: through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The lyric change Crowder imposed still fails to fix the problem. Historic hymnody explains ideas rather than alludes to them. It’s not that the song is untrue, but fails to explain how God has loved us. Because of this, we sing a half truth, but not the perfect truth.

  4. absolutely loved this! thanks for your thoughts :)

  5. I have a few comments.

    First, I agree that in congregational singing, the music should serve the words. However, I think there’s more of a complementary role that music plays that is expressed in this particular article :) (which may simply be a function of limited space!)

    Good music can make bad words seem profound; bad music can make good words seem lifeless. Those are the two statements one will typically hear, but I’d take it further than that – the music can actually adjust the meaning and impact of the words for bad or ill. Take, for example, words that are serious and somber, such as “Alas! and did my Savior bleed?” Sung to a somewhat “bouncy” tune (which I have heard), it lightens the impact of the message and makes it seem … less serious. Sung to a somber, heavy tune would make it seem rather heavy and foreboding (which may be appropriate). A somber but more meditative rather than heavy tune makes me think more about expressing the words from myself. Did MY Savior and Sovereign die for ME?

    Just a simple example of how … big of a role the music can play (haha… pun not intended). Yes, ultimately, the “point” is the content; but the music is a rather important vehicle in our culture (and has been for the last few hundred years).

    “Try reading them without melody and instrumentation. Do they move you? Are they memorable? Do they even make sense?”
    I agree with this *so* much. :) In fact, I’d even go further; have someone *unfamiliar* with the song read it. We tend to read between the lines and give leniency to songs we like/songs we’re familiar with, songs that have nostalgic value with us. This is true not only with pop songs, but old songs as well. The article mentions Wesley; Wesley had significantly different theology from me in certain areas. Knowing this informs how I read his lyrics. If you really read Wesley’s hymns, even the ones that are popular today, you should pick up on some of those theological differences (e.g., perfectionism and arminianism… whether or not you agree with those theological concepts, they *are* present in his songs!).

    In my experience, after reading many old and new hymns… while the list of old ones has been culled through more than the new ones, many popular songs in both “categories” of age are … well, let’s just say that after reading carefully, I am impressed with much fewer songs and have come to the conclusion that, regardless of age, style, or author, each song *has* to be read through carefully before we lead the bride of Christ in worship of God with it. Not just “think about the words,” but … “do I understand and actually *mean* what I am singing?”

    If I’m not careful, my comment will be as long as the article, so just one last one.

    I like how the article ends. I’ve read many debates and articles about old and new music, and they often end with a bit of an extreme … those who favor the old have no encouraging words to writing new songs; those who favor the new have no encouraging words to seeking and using old ones.

    “We, your congregants are slaves to our personal tastes. Teach us to crave corporately the better thing—the Word rendered luminous by song, confessed by a thousand tongues.”
    Indeed; I have thought of it this way – in my discussions and teaching about church music, what am I really teaching as important? What will the younger generation learn as important. Is the important thing to maintain Tradition? Traditional music? Contemporary music? Specific song forms?

    No… the issue is not any of those, nor whether or not a Big Name wrote it (Wesley, Watts, etc.), how old it is, how popular it is, whether it’s in a hymnal or not… the issue that I want to pass on as being “important” is what the song actually says. And it’s not as simple as “oh, well, this contains 50 theological statements whereas yours only contains 15.” The Psalms show us that much; there are remarkably simple and single-noted (ha. pun not intended, again) Psalms and there are very profound, deep, and broadly theological Psalms as well. There are very short Psalms and very long Psalms. There are repetitive Psalms and there are rather non-repetitive Psalms. But all of them were from David’s heart, ones full of truths that he could sing and mean to God and encourage/admonish Israel with. I think it ought to be similar today, except with the church, not Israel. :)

  6. Olivia says:

    There’s a Scriptural exemplar for worship that is full of “I-me-mines”: the Psalms. I agree that some new songs of the past generation are too focused on personal feelings and that songs sung in church should point us to Jesus. But the dichotomy between person-focused songs and God-focused songs is a wrong one. These songs are an opportunity for us to align ourselves with God. In a culture that idolizes our emotions, these songs serve to discipline our emotions and seek a godly orientation through submission of our feelings to God.

    Songs aren’t meant to be words only or judged simply on lyrical content. I can think of hymns with great lyrics set to music that, to me, impairs a singer’s ability to really absorb the poetry. The fact that Wesley’s hymns are wonderful poetry in the English language is only part of the equation. They weren’t meant to be read. They were meant to be sung corporately. In many settings, they’re terrific. All songs (both words AND music) should be judged on whether they lead people to worship in Spirit and in truth in the context of a worship service and in their particular cultural context.

  7. Honestly, I think – as opposed to 10 to 15 years ago – worship music has really progressed positively these past few years. Through the influence of Sovereign Grace Music, Sojourn, Mars Hill/Village Churches, & the modern hymn movement – a theologically solid songwriters like Matt Redman & the Gettys, modern worship lyrics have grown increasingly theological & deep, while retaining what makes them… well… RETAINABLE: a memorable hook. This hook, of course, is why people remember most of Wesley’s hymns – most old hymns were set to popular music of the day, either classical pieces or even bar songs, so those lyrics would more easily be sung, and carried around in your head & heart later. As a worship leader & an artist with a passion for God’s truth, music, & the corporate worship of the Body of Christ gathered, I’ve found little to complain about in finding solid, theologically-sound, and CATCHY modern worship songs – lyrics set to music that is memorable, & therefore singable, but many of those singing to Jesus today, just like those who set Wesley’s lyrics to music before us.

    1. Matt Boswell says:

      Shannon, you are right. We do have much to be thankful for.

  8. Frankie says:

    Jen, thank you so much for writing this! May God be pleased to use it to bring us back to a God-centeredness in our worship of Him.

  9. Joshua Shaw says:

    Love it, Jen! The more and more I dive into worship music that is currently being produced I am encouraged by its theologically rich content. Even those artists and churches who were producing, shall I say “shallow” music, are now turning around to write deep and thought provoking lyrics, too. Great stuff!

    – Joshua Shaw

  10. Jim says:

    This was a very helpful post. Thank you. It articulates what many believers think and feel about the poverty of much worship music. So much of the contemporary church music prior to the early 2000’s fell into this category, some of which pervade. At the church in which I serve (not as a pastor), we have a traditional service and a contemporary service. Surprisingly, it is in the traditional service where we hear the worst music, songs like “He walks with me and He talks with me” and other carnival-sounding early to mid-20th century hymns with bad lyrics. What is a good way in which I might bring this up to my pastor without sounding like I’m complaining for personal reasons?

  11. Ben E. Brady says:

    Hi Jen,
    Great article.

    There are some interesting issues that are touched on here.
    First, let me say that my wife and I have had experience with leading worship in some small churches here in Texas. We’ve had some interesting observations as a result.

    In our last position, the church where we were called to serve, simply didn’t understand what corporate worship meant. They WANTED to have their ears tickled by good music and entertainment. It never seemed to occur to them to actually worship and revere God. No matter what we did to bring a change about to the ‘worship’ portion of the service, they simply remained ‘stuck’ in their own habits that had formed in the community of the church for the past 30 years… and it was a shame, because God could have blessed the church so much had they simply understood there is a HUGE difference between being entertained and actually worshipping God in reverence and humility.

    As a Christian songwriter, it’s hard to balance the scriptural integrity of a worship song with the desire to write something that will make people WANT to sing the song.

    Unfortunately, people today have been influenced so completely by secular music that they hear day in and day out, worship music has to compete with that influence.

    I’ll give you some examples… Back in, I believe it was 1958, a songwriter named Bob Ferguson wrote a song that was ultimately recorded by Ferlin Husky in 1960 and it became the very first million selling gospel song. It was HUGELY popular and I’d hazard to say that you’ve probably heard the song at least a hundred times. It was later featured in the Oscar-winning film, Tender Mercies with Robert Duvall and Tess Harper. The song is On The Wings of a Dove. Here are the lyrics:

    On The Wings Of A Dove
    Artist: Ferlin Husky
    Written by: Bob Ferguson

    On the wings of a snow white dove
    he sends his pure sweet love
    A sign from above on the wings of a dove

    Verse 1
    When troubles surround us when evils come
    The body grows weak the spirit grows numb
    When these things beset us he doesn’t forget us
    He sends down his love on the wings of a dove


    Verse 2
    When Noah has drifted on the flood many days
    The searchers for land in various ways
    Troubles he had some but wasn’t forgotten
    He sent him his love on the wings of a dove


    Verse 3
    When Jesus went down to the river that day
    He was baptized in the usual way
    And when it was done God blessed his son
    He sent him his love on the wings of a dove

    Now, the first question becomes is this song worthy of being used as a song in corporate worship. (I’ve seen it used that way).
    Is it biblically accurate? To a degree… Does it give the corporate worshipper a sense of awe of the Almighty Creator?

    Let me relate an experience I had with regard to this song…

    A member of the church asked me if I knew the song. I’d heard it hundreds of times, and although I really liked it, I had never taken the time to actually learn it. He asked if I could learn it and sing it during worship. I told him I would. Now, was this request motivated by a desire to actually worship or was it simply as a result of wanting his ears tickled with something ‘familiar’?

    I suspect the latter, and here’s why. I learned the song and a couple of weeks later I sang it during worship. People seemed to enjoy it and they complimented me afterward. But those compliments really made me feel very uncomfortable.

    The next morning, when I awoke, the song was the very first thing in my mind. As I lay there in bed I started reflecting upon each verse of the song and the message it conveyed to the listener. The first verse informs us that God can encourage and strengthen us. The second verse informs us that God has been taking care of us for a very long time, through the story we heard as children about Noah. And the third verse tells us that God was pleased with Jesus when he was baptized, but what does that verse actually convey to the listener other than that?

    I realized that although Mr. Ferguson may have written a good song, it simply didn’t rise to the level that it COULD have, in conveying to the listener the full Gospel message that God loves us and Jesus Christ was sacrificed in an atonement for our sin. As a result, I was compelled to write a fourth verse to the song as follows:

    Up Calvary’s mountain then Jesus did go
    He suffered and died ’cause he loves us so
    He sends us his spirit, listen closely you’ll hear it
    He sends us his love on the wings of a dove.

    (you can hear the song in it’s entirety at the following link: )

    Now the song informs the listener of the full gospel message. It takes a popular, ‘secular’ Christian themed song and brings it forward into a song that is more biblically sound.

    One of my own songs, Praise God! My Lord Still Lives! also makes the listener aware of the full gospel message as well as imparts hope…

    Praise God! My Lord Still Lives! (Ben E. Brady, 1978)

    Jesus came to die on the cross
    To seek and to save, that which was lost
    He gave his life to pay the cost
    Praise God! my Lord still lives!

    Praise God!, Praise God!, my Lord still lives!
    I know by the love His spirit gives
    We could ne’er repay what Jesus did
    Praise God!, my Lord still lives!

    He died for you and he died for me
    He shed his blood to set us free
    Our burdens he took to Calvary
    Praise God!, my Lord still lives!


    He’s coming again and the dead shall rise
    And we will meet him in the skies
    Then he’ll welcome home his heavenly bride
    Praise God!, my Lord still lives!

    Praise God!, Praise God!, my Lord still lives!
    I know by the love His spirit gives
    We could ne’er repay what Jesus did
    Praise God!, Praise God!
    Praise God!, my Lord still lives!

    A pastor at a small church in La Luz, New Mexico asked me to sing a song for an Easter sunrise service. I prayed for guidance to select a song that would be appropriate. God spoke to me with his spirit and told me he would give me a new song… it was as a result of about a month of praying directly to God for him to impart the words he wanted to say, not my words.

    My very first Christian song comes directly from scripture and it was as a result of a request of a former pastor who dicipled me as a very young Christian. From Matthew 6 verses 25 through 34.

    Don’t You Know You’re a Child of the King (Ben E. Brady, 1976)
    (Matthew 6:25-34)

    Do not worry for what you need
    The Lord will give you everything
    There’s no need to worry about anything
    Don’t you know, you’re a child of the King.

    Look at the birds and look at the trees
    The Lord supplies them with all their needs
    You cannot add a day to your life
    by worrying about all the sin and strife

    Oh you of little faith, do not start to fret
    For what you ask of God, is just what you will get
    There’s no need to worry on what you’ll eat or drink
    Don’t you know, God can do anything

    So seek ye first, the kingdom of God
    and he’ll provide you with what you want
    There’s no need to worry what tomorrow shall bring
    Don’t you know, you’re a child of the King.

    Don’t you know, don’t you know
    You’re a child of the King.

    This song was a way for me to apply that passage of scripture to my own life because I was overcome with worry. The pastor knew this and suggested I write a song specifically from this passage of scripture. Again, through much prayer, God was able to give me the song that He wanted to give me.

    Thanks again for your article. It’s definitely stirring some discussion among many Christians.

  12. paul says:

    Simple and genuine belongs alongside deep and worthy. Many old hymns have not lasted well. But accessible styles are crucial to making accessible churches. Inaccessible words and music hinder people from worship in spirit and truth. I know this runs against ‘reformed’ received wisdom. But how many lively, accessible, growing reformed churches are there? Maybe God’s blessings in these respects go to charismatic churches for a reason.

  13. Eva says:

    Gee Ben, you hijacked this blog. Why don’t you make your point succinctly here, and keep log-winded remarks on your own blog where you can tell us what a great songwriter you are.

  14. Martin says:


    We sang David Crowder’s “How He Loves” in church today. It was wonderful and truly worshipful. Do you think every song should define the story of salvation? I don’t. The big story IS that He loves us. You are being way too critical. “How He Loves” does not proclaim a half-truth. A “half-truth” is another term for a lie because it conceals contradictory facts.

    Perhaps you could accept “How He Loves” as a legitimate worship song by realizing that it is only one song in a body of songs being sung in a worship service. Together, all the songs proclaim truth that you would consider complete. Some songs are more poetic in nature and meant to be expository.

  15. Madhu says:

    My Favorite

    click here to see all kind of lyrics :-

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Jen Wilkin is a wife, mom to four great kids, and an advocate for women to love God with their minds through the faithful study of his Word. She writes, speaks, and teaches women the Bible. She lives in Flower Mound, Texas, and her family calls The Village Church home. You can find her at