BIBLICAL LITERACY: Music contributes to biblical literacy


THE WRITTEN WORD: Though still a bestseller, Bible knowledge declining

Bible becoming more common as public classroom subject

Music contributes to biblical literacy

Education ministers have a hard row to hoe

While a congregation’s biblical literacy is clearly affected by teaching, other church ministries can also contribute to theological understanding. Historically, biblical literacy has often been achieved through worship music, and the same can be true today.

In speaking with the TEXAN, Don Wyrtzen, professor of music at The College at Southwestern Seminary, stated that hymns by writers such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Newton had a deep impact on the early Americans who heard and sang them. And it was the education of these hymn writers that allowed them to write songs that “were very biblical, very theologically rich,” he noted.

“These men were eminently trained in orthodox Christianity,” Wyrtzen said. Therefore, “people in colonial America were singing profound, deep, theological songs.” In turn, he added, these “theologically meaty” songs educated the congregation about the great truths of the Bible. “So when people were singing, [theology] was ‘caught’ rather than taught,” he said.

David Nelson, senior associate dean and associate professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, believes that worship songs of all types can have the same element of teaching today. But he feels that many church leaders undervalue this “didactic element of worship.” Nelson, who teaches both theology and worship leadership classes at the seminary, stresses that doctrine and worship should go together?and do go together in the Bible.

Nelson noted that children quickly learn important truths from the Scriptures by singing songs about them. But, he added, adults often forget that the same is true for themselves. Worship music, he said, “can actually teach them, and, yes, admonish them, because it speaks the truth of God in a form that can be easy to remember.”

Both Wyrtzen and Nelson argue that today’s worship music is often produced without the theological underpinnings of past times. Wyrtzen contrasts the deep education of many early hymn writers to the modern worship leader who may have little or no formal education. Now, he stated, it seems that anyone with basic guitar skills can be found producing worship songs. As a result, Wyrtzen continued, “praise music [of today] is more like fireworks, while [hymns] are like stars that shine in the firmament forever.”

Nelson, likewise, believes that “we have a lot of what I would consider ‘disposable’ music being written.” While some music can serve a purpose for a time, he said, much of the impact of today’s worship music does not last as long as that of centuries-old hymns.

Charlie Hall, prominent worship leader and modern songwriter with Passion Conferences, has recognized the value of older works, as well. In an interview with the TEXAN in 2004, Hall recalled “dumping” all traditional music in his worship leadership for a time, believing such tradition to be a hindrance to seeking the Lord. But later he realized that “the songs that have come down the pike–including some of the things I’ve written–haven’t had much theology.”

On the other hand, Hall said, “The majority of [hymnody is] rich in theology. It’s a great way to teach people. It [gives] people legs to walk.” This belief–shared by others involved with Passion–led them to release a CD of several well-known hymns, set to “updated” music, two years ago.

Though older hymns have recently captured the imagination of a new generation of worshippers, both Wyrtzen and Nelson also recognized that not every “old” song is theologically rich, while many newer works do have deep biblical connections. Ultimately, they believe, each song and each writer should be judged on his own merits. Wyrtzen noted both African-American spirituals and Southern Gospel songs as examples of older works with little actual theological “weight.” “Basically, both Southern Gospel and black spirituals were more like ‘heart music,’ rather than instruments of theological training.”

When looking at worship songs of the past, Nelson explained, “It’s a mixed bag, just like music is today.”

“Early on,” he said, “the church recognized the connection between doctrine and worship. Through the ages, there have been those in the church who have recognized this connection.” But, he added, “there have been many who haven’t. Everyone can manage to write some bad stuff.”

While many today many not realize it, there were many other, less valuable hymns written at the same time as those well-known songs of the faith still sung in churches today. For example, Nelson said, not all the songs written during the time of the Reformation continued to be used by the church. “There’s a reason for that,” he added. “When somebody talks about the superiority of 18th century music, well, maybe [it was superior], but maybe not.”

And today’s music can be quite biblical, Wyrtzen noted. Particularly, he said, a great resurgence in “Scripture songs” in modern songwriting has taken place. “The biggest ‘plus’ to ‘Praise-and-Worship’ music is that the content is almost all Scripture,” Wyrtzen said. And, he explained, singing words straight from the Bible “adds a lot; instead of just saying it, you’re actually singing it.”

Ken Lasater, church ministry associate with SBTC, recognizes another challenge facing worship leaders. Before even worrying about whether songs are “meaty” or “light” in their presentation of doctrine, he said, “the bigger issue is, ‘Is it theologically sound?’” He noted even recent examples of long-used hymns that needed to be removed from Southern Baptist usage because of basic doctrinal errors represented in their lyrics.

“There will be songs all over the map as far as depth of study, depth of teaching, and depth of maturity,” Lasater said. “But as far as doctrinal soundness, we would want to hold a pretty hard line.”

So what steps can be taken to encourage songwriters’ theological soundness and, then, their works’ biblical depth? For his part, Lasater has worked to urge students of music to view their craft through the lens of Scripture—and in reference to the local church—by organizing Sumer Worship University. SWU trains high school and college students to better use their musical talents in ministry, and the training places a high emphasis on making sure all parts of a worship service reflect solid theology.

Nelson, meanwhile, feels that worship leaders and those writing songs today do not always attend to the needs of listeners as much as they could. He encouraged them to “Think of the audience here. Not only are you speaking to God, but while you’re speaking to God, you’re speaking to others.”

“I just think we underestimate the significance of our worship music connecting people to doctrine,” Nelson added. “And by doctrine, I just mean the truth of the Scriptures. It’s just another way of discipling the congregation. This is a matter of discipleship.”

Secondly, Nelson believe that songwriters must more deeply concern themselves with the Word of God. “Know the Scriptures,” he admonished. “Meditate on them day and night, and I think you’ll be off to a good start.” That way, he said, a writer can “learn the grammar of faith that comes out of the Scriptures. God has given us a way of speaking to him and about hi” that can be used in producing songs, whether or not those works specifically quote Bible verses.

Wyrtzen agrees that “there’s no substitute for soaking yourself in Scripture” and has even produced a book to facilitate this development, “A Musician Looks at the Psalms: 365 Daily Meditations.” He recalls a conversation with modern recording artist and songwriter Twila Paris that illustrates this kind of attention to the Bible when composing. “She told me herself that she had devotionals right at her piano,” he remembered.

Wrytzen also noted powerful resources for helping to ground songwriters biblically. Particularly, he lauded Worship Leader magazine and Passion Conferences, led by Louie Giglio and incorporating powerful biblical preachers such as John Piper of Minneapolis. He encourages worship leaders to make use of the teaching provided by these means.

“We need to remember that the Scripture is our ultimate authority,” Wyrtzen said, “and we need to evaluate our songs…by does it measure up to the ‘gold standard’ of the Word of God? I think that’s something that John Piper does. I think that’s something that Louie Giglio does. I think that’s something that [professor of church music and worship] Bruce Leafblad and my other colleagues at seminary do.”

“I think kids today are really passionately interested in worshipping the Lord, and I think they’re doing it in really new, creative ways,” Wyrtzen said. “I hope this next generation produces some substance, alongside all the ‘fluffy’ stuff that’s out there.”


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