BEHIND THE WORSHIP THROUGH SONG PROJECT
The journey of founder Ben Ditzel
It isn’t hard, especially in the United States, to flip on the radio and find a radio station playing today’s Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) pop. And most mainline streaming platforms have a category streaming these same hits. A very high percentage of church services, mostly in Protestant derived groups, play, perform, and sing a steady stream of music from artists in today’s evangelical scene such as Elevation Worship, Lauren Daigle, Bethel, Passion, Kari Jobe, Hillsong, and multiple others. Many years ago, I owned a low power Christian radio station and, without question, aired any song with a ‘Christian’ label or theme. But there is a particular sequence of events that, since then, caused me to take a second look at most of what is found in the Christian pop, CCM, and church music circles today.
Before my story, I want to clarify that this is not an attack on music written after a certain date, arranged in a specific musical format, or containing certain instruments. Nor is it a blanketed exposition concerning every artist producing music heard in the CCM genre. I love numerous songs written over multiple centuries & generations including ancient, traditional, & modern hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. But this sequence of events was a culmination of questions, Biblical study, & answers that kindled and subsequently burst into flame an acute realization of a desperate need for lyrical discernment not only in churches today but in my own life! It started one afternoon when my wife and I heard a song playing on a nationally syndicated Christian radio station in our car.
As it was topping the Christian music charts at the time, it was hard to avoid hearing this particular track several times a day on any CCM station. But this time the lyrics of Jesus Culture’s popular anthem caught our attention with renewed awareness. ‘Holy Spirit, You are welcome here’, Francesca Battistelli sang, with strong emotion driven chords. The Bethel Church artist went on to call upon the Holy Spirit to ‘flood this place and fill the atmosphere’ and then quickly moved into a repetitive chorus calling for participants to experience the Holy Spirit’s presence, multiple times.
It was as if I had awoken from a passive slumber. Suddenly, I was alert. I’d heard this song countless times before but had never really considered earnestly the legitimacy of the lyrics. Passively taking in the music on popular Christian radio for years, I had simply considered it to be a reasonably safe ‘Christian music’ zone. Yes, I had raised my eyebrows over certain questionable lyrics in the past, but surely there was no real need to exercise heightened discernment here. After all, Christian radio speaks about Jesus Christ & God. And Christians believe there is only one God, right?
But my awareness of the attributes of the Holy Spirit had recently increased thanks to an expositional series at our small church in northern Los Angeles. We’d just learned, in depth, about His defining qualities and we’d also learned from Scripture exactly what the Holy Spirit is not. I began comparing the lyrics of this popular CCM mantra with Scripture. As we know from the Bible, the Holy Spirit is just that, spirit. He is immaterial. Perhaps the KJV’s Holy Ghost gave us the impression He wafts around like Casper, The Friendly Ghost. I don’t know. But that concept could not be further from the truth. The Holy Spirit is not a mist or a gas that can be breathed in. The Holy Spirit is, in fact, the sovereign God of the cosmos; He is the Triune God. And the Holy Spirit unlocks our minds to Scriptural truths, gives us understanding, and (directly contrary to this song’s concept of Him), the Holy Spirit already abides in us, completely and fully, if we are in Christ! As children of God, He dwells within us; there is no more of Him, there is no less of Him that we are able to call down at any given moment; He is either dwelling within us completely or He is not at all! Finally, the Holy Spirit requires absolutely no invitation from us, for if He did, (think about it) that would give us the power to allow or disallow God to do something thus making us more powerful than God!
I was shocked. I began to study more about this song and others. I asked myself, ‘What exactly have I been taking in and singing out, no questions asked?’ Had I been passively taking in untruths about our God without searching His Word to see if these things were, in fact, so? To be what is termed by many as a Berean (Acts 17:11) is to search diligently to see if the things you are hearing, reading, or being taught are indeed in accordance with Scripture.
It was becoming clear that I had not been a Berean in my music choices.
I began to be more aware as I listened to Christian radio on my commutes. ‘You didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus, You brought heaven down,’ Hillsong Worship sang. Wait, what did I just hear? This was very clearly & totally inaccurate information about God. Nowhere does the Bible state that some type of unsatisfying solitude in heaven was even one of God’s reasons for redeeming His people! Rather, the theme that resounds throughout Scripture is God’s desire to glorify Himself by redeeming sinners. In fact, Romans 3:21–26 explicitly describes Christ’s atonement as the display of God’s righteousness, not a display of loneliness! Undoubtedly, the cross was also the demonstration of God’s great love for sinners (John 3:16), but that doesn’t mean He was incomplete without us. There is just no Biblical justification for this false teaching through song lyrics and singing these words simply gives listeners a false conception of our God. It also is furthering the false belief that we are a requirement for God’s completion or happiness which, in turn, elevates us, not our Creator! I concluded that this was not just a misleading & mindlessly emotive verse but also one that cannot be backed up by Scripture or any of God’s attributes therefore making it extra Biblical, deceitful, and materially harmful to the true Gospel.
Still, I wanted to give some leeway about the majority of music I was hearing in the CCM genre. ‘After all,’ I thought, ‘where else can you find music that speaks of God in today’s broken and lost world, especially on the radio? The rest of the songs seem OK, right?’
I moved on but thoughts in the back of my mind still nagged me persistently. To be honest, the notion had started to grow back when I had begun to form a Biblical worldview and the subsequent stance on Biblically antithetical movements in recent years, in particular, the sexual revolution. It had to do with what the Bible defines and teaches about love versus what the world defines and teaches about love. Slowly it began to dawn on me what was wrong with so many of these Christian pop songs and their conception of who God is, how followers of Him should behave, and so much more about the fundamentals of the movements producing so many of these CCM anthems. I began to realize that, just like the world, these churches and their praise bands are seeming to confuse the term love by defining the love we are to have for God as philia, eros, or some other form of love which is completely inappropriate for God and the love reserved for Him alone: agape. Getting this attribute of our Savior so completely wrong materially changes every aspect of who they feel God is. And this distorted Christology is showing up blatantly in the songs written and sung across the board in thousands of churches and on CCM radio stations today. It affects effectively every aspect of the music and through this, the teachings found in the majority CCM music massively contradict Scripture.
Right about this time, Los Angeles’ first metro wide Christian music radio station signed on the air. Those who know me know I am very keen on new businesses, branding, and media: especially Christian ones! And so, in my excitement, I put these concerns on the back burner, hoping I might be wrong about much of the music I was finding to be in serious error. But I quickly became disappointed and saddened as I ran into yet more inescapable kill-joys. One memorable moment was the morning I heard the band Rend Collective belt out the phrase, ‘We are the hope on earth!’ I was instantly re-awoken from my somewhat forced state of excitement for this new station. ‘No, we aren’t!’ I shouted back, ‘Jesus is the hope on earth! He is our only hope!’ Looking back, I can only hope that’s what they meant by these otherwise inwardly focused lyrics.
Unsure where to turn or how to respond, I kept listening in the hopes that somehow the Christian music industry would catch these Biblically antithetical songs and introduce music which spoke truths from God’s Word. But I already felt defeated in my hopes. I began noticing that out of an hour of songs, there would only be one, sometimes two songs that weren’t seriously flawed in their lyrical teachings. Sometimes every single song on my hour commute was either rampantly self-focused, devoid of any mention of God, or was speaking untruths about my Savior at a rate that I just could not excuse any longer.
With a deteriorated excitement, I got into my car each morning trying to tell myself how great it was that at least some Christian music was now being heard all over Los Angeles and I tried to focus on some of the lyrically sound music I heard on occasion by artists like Casting Crowns, Laura Story, or Chris Tomlin. But I was disturbed and couldn’t rest. I listened to the words of each song intently. After all, if we are intaking any type of media, we should never be consuming it without question, simultaneously shutting off our Biblically charged conscience for the duration. And through my analysis, I found that, in fact, a large percentage of the music on Christian radio isn’t speaking to or even of God. Most of what is aired on Christian radio and found in the CCM top charts today contains vague & ambiguous language evoking a focus of self with an occasional clichéd phrase from the evangelical world or a brief reference to God in the midst of our personal struggles. And for those songs that spoke to and of God, I discovered them to be almost solely taken from the worship anthems and choruses usually penned or performed by groups like the Australian band Hillsong Worship, Bethel Church’s Jesus Culture, UNITED, Elevation Worship, Gateway Worship, and countless others. These songs claim to talk about the one true God but the concept of Him portrayed through song is fundamentally flawed. So many of Christian radio’s favorites such as Kim Walker-Smith, Kari Jobe, Lauren Daigle, Joel Houston, Cory Asbury, & Josh Baldwin are in these destructive movements and are therefore churning out music with damaging theology. I began to realize that, not only are these lyrics simply not defining Christ by His proper attributes but, reflecting teachings of the movements these writers stem from, these songs are describing God to be what He is not!
An overwhelmingly high percentage of music that is found on Christian radio simply does not describe or worship the same God who is found in and authored the Bible!
But What Now?
I shut off the radio & adjusted my streaming service favorites, heartbroken but firm in my resolve to seek out those who had come to this realization as well and find where they had turned for true theologically sound, Christ exalting, & Biblical music.
About this time, I began to discover (in some cases rediscover) a few songwriters in what is known as in the modern hymn movement. These few determined to make a stand for Biblically grounded music with a clear & direct focus on Christ-exalting lyrics. Hymn-writers and composers like Keith & Kristyn Getty, Sovereign Grace Music, Matt Boswell, Shane & Shane, Matt Papa, Stuart Townend, and others were now producing music that is not only professional and beautiful, but far more importantly, the lyrics are filled with solid Gospel truth. Writing & recording both new and traditional hymns & songs, these few continue to release music that immerses us in Scripture, teaches us sound theology, and reminds of the attributes of God as we go about each day. I have been blessed with a car that plays audio from streaming sources and now, after a trying day at work, my soul is refreshed with rich and restoring Scriptural truths set to music.
‘Who is like the Lord our God?
Strong to save, faithful in love
My debt is paid, and the victory won
The Lord is my salvation!’
The Lord is My Salvation
(Keith & Kristyn Getty) - 2016
Poignant lyrics of truth challenged me when my mind was weak:
‘When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin!’
Before the Throne of God Above
(Sovereign Grace Music) - 2003
These words set to music encouraged and uplifted my heart in perspective reorienting ways. Far different from fleeting emotional highs during music sequences, these new lyrics of truth would playback in my mind when difficulty, sorrow, praise, and encouragement of daily life arises!
‘Lord, from sorrows deep I call
When my hope is shaken
Torn and ruined from the fall
Hear my desperation
For so long I’ve pled and prayed
God, come to my rescue
Even so the thorn remains
Still my heart will praise You’
Lord, From Sorrows Deep I Call
(Matt Boswell & Matt Papa) - 2018
The emotive & deficient mantras on CCM radio and echoing in many churches now ring hollow. Their skewed concepts come back empty and shallow like junk food. The repetitive, extra-Biblical, self-centered lyrics in the highly commercialized mainstream contemporary Christian music industry hold no meaning for me anymore. Occasionally, I am still subject to songs that are emerging in CCM industry. An all-new Christian Worship station brand on the radio in our area actually describes itself as ‘feel good worship music’ as it broadcasts emotion-driven anthems such as one by CCM singer, songwriter, & church worship leader Kari Jobe. Note the ambiguous wording, slang, and, at times, almost sensual terms the artist uses to define the attributes of God.
‘I wanna sit at your feet,
Drink from the cup in your hand.
Lay back against you and breathe
Feel your heart beat
This love is so deep
It’s more than I can stand.
I melt in your peace,
The More I Seek You
(Kari Jobe) - 2006
This type of experiential (even sensual) composition simply holds no value, does not edify, build up, teach truths, or expound on (or even talk about) the same God of whom I read about in the Bible.
Soon, my newfound advocacy for deep, Biblically driven music found opposition as the theologically rich stanzas countered and subsequently hollowed out easy-to-listen-to choruses driven by the vague analogies and charismatic conceptions of Christian sounding sentiments found in CCM pop.
And still, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t enacting the proverbial phrase by throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps not all songs by some of these popular groups contain the types of gross inaccuracies or unbiblical teachings that awoke us from our slumber into a heightened sense of lyrical discernment. And so, to check our motives and reasons, we asked ourselves if there was anything that could be truly redeeming, challenging, or edifying in our walk with Christ in these popular songs topping the CCM charts? Could any of the mega-hits by Hillsong, Bethel’s Jesus Culture, or others be seen as informative; offering anything we could pick and glean from in the lyrics? Maybe we could adjust them for our church services so they wouldn’t be as inaccurate or misguided? Perhaps.
But if we try to hold on to, edit, or salvage these fundamentally flawed songs written by Biblically deficient movements, we are simply destined to come away with one or two broken or endlessly repetitive choruses riddled with gaps and still devoid of any truths not found in the original artist’s work to begin with.
Still, I personally wanted to really research this. This didn’t feel good nor was it fun to differ from friends and relatives on something I had agreed enthusiastically on in the past. As I cut to the core, some of my favorite artists over the past 10-15 years were falling headlong into the Biblically deficient music category. And so, as I whittled my music library down, I wondered if possibly some of the other songs on the radio and elsewhere might be less harmful or at least more neutral. After all, weren’t some of these songs just talking about how strong we are or how “I am free; got my own identity”? Some were simply singing about how we are “gonna see a victory” because “I believe, oh I believe”. But, stepping back from the rising and falling crescendos of the melody and the repetitious & catchy power-phrases, I had to be honest with myself. What lasting positives & truths are they actually offering in this type of motivational music? Is there any depth to the meaning of these ‘other songs’? Then too, what kind of picture of Christ would this song be painting to an unbeliever? How can we claim an identity found solely in Jesus Christ if we’re singing about getting our ‘own identity’?
To be honest, when considering the consistent study of God’s Word & hearing it faithfully taught & discussed throughout each week, most of this music just sounded like a B-grade movie, or worse. And then, song after song, my wife & I would again hear those lyrics that just fall so far short of the whole truth. To tell God that He is ‘close’ 24 times in one song brings absolutely nothing to true worship of the Lord. ‘I hear You whisper, ’cause You’re close, close, close’. Dear Christian, just saying this repeatedly doesn’t make it true and if we are feeling distant from God, we should be on our knees beseeching Him to draw near to us and reveal any sins in our lives that are causing this rift! As a side note, the closeness or proximity of God does not affect our ability to hear Him ‘whisper’. Our God is not confined by space, time, or location. These are, at best, very careless lyrics that fall under the same severe warning that we must all give account to when our Lord returns (Matthew 12:36).
A former pastor of mine speaks of music stating that when researching what songs to sing for Sunday morning, why should we just pick an OK song to sing which may or may not briefly touch on the sermon’s subject matter? He declares passionately that he wants to find the absolute best song they can possibly sing in preparation for Sunday morning’s message; absolutely the best song to shepherd the church! And in the same spirit, we must ask ourselves, why should our worship through song during the week be any different from our worship through song on Sunday? Is Christ deserving of less wholesome and attributive praise on Monday through Saturday in the name of being more peppy or emotive? And so, my wife & I concluded that the CCM industry’s music is falling far short in producing any content that is truly nourishing to our souls or edifying in our worship of God! Largely absent are the songs which truly convict the heart or declare that Christ is the one and only way to eternal life. The industry is just that, an industry. And the music that makes it into the charts contains very little, if any, mention of our sinful state or the true nature of Jesus Christ and the true love He defines! For if it did, we began to realize, it would not be gaining popularity or traction in a world that has violently turned their back on Christ-like love and the one, true God of the Bible.
I must add that this music is in no way a substitution for the unquenchable need to immerse ourselves in the reading and study of the Word of God consistently and fervently. But this rich worship through song acts as a beautiful aid to such study. Its truths, set to music, enrich our thoughts with Biblically grounded truths. These are truths which I catch myself humming and being reminded of in all I do in every day. These words of truth deeply encourage and grow me like no music ever has before.
‘What riches of kindness he lavished on us
His blood was the payment, His life was the cost
We stood beneath a debt we could never afford
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more!’
His Mercy is More
(Matt Papa) - 2016
I don’t think I could ever go back to the junk food that is so universally accepted by Christians and considered to be ‘all there is’ today after having listened to, learned, and sung so many of the Gospel focused hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs praising our Savior for His mercies & His attributes.
The songs found in the modern hymn movement and others are ones that exalt Christ above all things. This worship through song puts truth to music; truth that returns to our minds throughout our lives as we commit to our hearts these words so rich in Scripture and theology. These musical arrangements speak to us of our sinful tendencies and helpless state. But these songs don’t leave us there; they remind us and encourage us in the knowledge of who Christ is and what He has done for us. While much of this is totally contrary to today’s self-esteem movement even in Christian circles, I discovered from the Bible that the lower opinion that I have of myself, the higher view I may have of our Savior.
‘How great, how sure; His love endures forevermore
Magnificent, marvelous, matchless love!
What grace, that You entered our brokenness;
You came in the fullness of time
How far we had fallen from righteousness,
But not from the mercies of Christ!’
Magnificent, Marvelous, Matchless Love
(Keith & Kristyn Getty) - 2018
As for me, I now see Christian music in an entirely new light. For true Christian music; music which is worthy of listening, learning, and singing, consists of engaged worship through song, preparing the heart for worship through prayer and worship through the Word.
What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.
(1 Corinthians 14:15)