Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. [Col. 3:16 ESV]
Paul's warning is clear: teach the truths of God's Word through what you sing.
I am not trying to minimize the importance of sermons, but rather state the obvious: the songs we use in worship have the advantage of repetition over a more extended period than sermons, which are heard only once. Songs often connect truth with our thoughts and feelings, especially during times of crisis.
Recently, I found myself listening to the Getty's song, "He Will Hold Me Fast" over and over because of things in life going on around me. Like David's playing the harp for Saul, the words and music spoke to me and helped me refocus on the fact that God is in control, that He loves me, that He has a plan, and that I can trust Him. Research has shown that thoughts and ideas linked to an emotion are stored in a different part of the brain, which is why even senior adults who have dementia can still sing songs they knew in church as a youth.
Earworms are melodies that get "stuck in our heads," sometimes all day. We can find ourselves repeating the earworm repeatedly, which can be very annoying, or not so much if it is a song we like. If the lyrics to the earworm are not trustworthy in their biblical message, then we reinforce wrong understandings of who God is and how He works.
As example, some songs invite God to come to those gathered so that they might worship Him, ignoring the fact that it is God who initiates worship and that His Holy Spirit permanently dwells in the believer. Such texts instill false notions that somehow God is outside our place of worship and won't join us unless invited, or worse yet, that God is not present until we "feel" His presence.
Social media and the internet have provided avenues of input for multitudes of new songs for worship, which has the potential for great good. However, many of those composing the songs have very little theological training and lack the filters to realize the implications of what they have written. No one is questioning their sincerity or honest desire to share their musical offerings for worship; the issue is truth, not sincerity. A child could make some cookies for his or her parents, but not notice that some dirt accidentally got into the mix. Regardless of the love and sincerity of the child, the cookies still would not be healthy. More than ever, the disciples of Christ must deepen their understanding of Scripture so that they can recognize questionable biblical teaching in what is being offered as worship.
We need to consider one more aspect of using songs to teach biblical truth: repetition. No, not the songs of seven words repeated eleven times, but the repetition over time in which the words and music become part of a “canon” known by heart. Songs like "Amazing Grace" can be sung from memory because it has become part of the canon of our praise. One of the dangers of singing only new songs every week in worship is that we will fail to develop a canon that we can remember in times of need.
In addition to developing a theological filter, we need to be diligent in developing our "sung canon" for worship. We need to ask ourselves: What could we sing if all we have is what we remember or if technology is not available? What songs of God's nature, Christ's work, the work of the Holy Spirit, the church's mission, or even God's Word would we know?
We need to work to fulfill the mandate to Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Dr. Ed Steele is Professor of Music in Leavell College with many years of ministry experience at home and abroad.