Brad at Relevintage muses on the accessibility of worship song lyrics (i.e., when is it OK to use phrases in song lyrics that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to someone who’s never been to church before). The topic has some analogs to Bible reading in worship.
He writes about a song that uses the phrase “God of Jacob,” prompting a churchgoer to ask him what the phrase means.
Is it beneficial to sing songs with phrases that need that much explanation? Don’t we want songs to be more accessible?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, we want songs to be accessible. The idea of corporate worship is that a local body of Christ-followers can come and worship together. Most congregants aren’t musicians, so it is important that most songs (note most) are memorable, in good keys, don’t extend the vocal range too much, and are easy to learn on the first listen.
But no, if accessibility is the only criteria by which we choose worship material. Of course it depends on how you define accessibility….
So practically speaking, I think in the area of lyrical accessibility, it is important to have a balance of those songs that say one thing very simply, those that are deeper in nature (particularly theologically—which includes updated hymns), and then songs that marry both….
As for songs that have more depth, one of the benefits, as seen in my interchange with one of our congregants, was it challenged him to not just sing words he didn’t understand, but to seek more understanding after the worship service. And I know what your next thought is and no, I don’t think this he is the exception.
My impression is that our congregants (and seekers for that matter) are smarter and more sophisticated than we make them out to be. That is why I think we need to embrace the shift in lyrical accessibility to include deeper content.
So back to the follow-up question: is it beneficial to sing songs with phrases that need explanation? The answer is yes. If it is kept in balance, there is nothing wrong with singing the phrase “God of Jacob.”
In fact, it just might engage church-goers into a deeper worship experience.
We don’t want to push the analogy to Bible reading in church too far, but churches face similar issues when deciding which Bible version to read during worship services. Do you use language understood by churchgoers (“grace,” “propitiation”) or by non-churchgoers (“kindness,” “sacrifice”)? Either choice will require explanation: in this example, you will need to define “grace” or explain how “kindness” doesn’t capture the full meaning of the Greek word.
There’s not necessarily one right answer for all circumstances.