Songs that are written just to teach a moral lesson or some theological principle are not very good songs. Written just for the head, such songs are more like a sermon or a lecture.
Because our culture is no longer a thinking culture, we don’t have too many didactic songs turning up in our worship sets. Our culture is a feeling culture; many of our songs are written for the heart. At their worst, they are meant to manufacture worshipful feelings, and little else–this is sentimental worship.Sentimental worship is no better than intellectual worship because it engages only a part of the worshiper.Click To Tweet
Human beings are complex creatures. According to Jesus, we are heart, soul, mind, and body (Mark 12:30). But these aspects are not distinct. They are involved in everything we do in life–in the meals we eat with family, in conversations with friends over coffee, when we visit a museum or attend a concert.
Each of these aspects can be evoked in our imagination. I can imagine being thirsty. I can imagine frustration. I can imagine temptation. Poetry can evoke these in our imagination as it engages our hearts and our souls and our minds and our bodies.
Our experiences are richer if they involve our emotions and spirit and intellect and body. The most meaningful worship of the Lord our God, will be the worship of the whole engaged worshiper.
Holistic worship should be the ideal for which we aim. It is not enough to say that the singing will be emotional, the sacraments and offering will be physical, and the sermon will be intellectual. For the most meaningful worship, each element will seek to engage more of the aspects of the worshiper, more significantly.
Bad poetry does not deliver the experience. If it is didactic when it delivers only an idea. When it goes directly for the emotion, it is sentimental.
Sentimentality is indulging in emotion for emotion’s sake. It seeks to stimulate the emotions directly, rather than through experience.
A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it. — Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde talks about the cost of emotions–emotions are paid for through an experience. We feel grateful when given a gift. We feel sad when someone we love is sick. In these instances, a price is paid for the emotion.
I chose the picture at the top of this post because it is a beautiful example of sentimentalism. Anyone who has experienced actual love, knows its cost. The whole hand-heart thing can create a flutter in the chest (when it doesn’t evoke nausea). I understand this hand gesture to mean, “Here, have some of my love,” or “Loving this!” But it’s cheap. It cost nothing to give it. It costs nothing to receive it.We obviously want to avoid singing praise and worship songs that are the equivalent of the hand-heart gesture. Click To Tweet
The poet/songwriter seeks to communicate experience through their words. With physical, intellectual and emotional dimensions, experiences are holistic. While we sing, the emotion will be a by-product of this experience. A sentimental song will seek to evoke the emotion, by-passing the experience.
With some praise and worship songs, the emotion, not the experience, is the goal. The music builds, the instruments blend with soaring voices, the lyrics repeat and the melody rises in a perfectly orchestrated conquest of our emotions.
How can we avoid such sentimentalism? By offering worshipers a holistic experience. Our songs will certainly engage the emotions, but they ought not to leave the mind, spirit, and body in the foyer.Emotions should not be the object of sentimental worship. Emotions should be a by-product of holistic worship. Click To Tweet
7 Ways to Avoid Sentimentalism in (the Singing Part) of Worship
- Be very selective when it comes to lyrics. Words are important. They can bring the heart, soul, mind, and body into worship through significant experience in the imagination.
- Make sure the song is unified around a specific purpose. When it is, our heart, mind, and body are directed to a particular experience. Without unity, we begin to ask questions, not the kind that leads to deeper worship, but the kind that draws one out of worship.
- Fill out music sets with songs that are more concrete. This is where the body comes in. Experience is made up of physical interactions, therefore, songs with physicality will engage the imagination.
- Use metaphor effectively. Effectively used metaphors can engage our spirits as we can catch glimpses of higher things.
- Use symbolism. In symbols, the spiritual indwells the material. It is here where we might encounter the transcendent.
- We must avoid Cliché — a cliché is a phrase we’ve heard so often that it no longer has meaning. We don’t want meaningless lyrics. Only a few of the big-name writers are letting clichés slip into their lyrics, but many amateur writers have a real problem here.
- We must avoid nonsensical phrases. I recently came across the phrase, “release the chains.” Instead of experiencing gratitude for the unearned freedom I had in Christ, I was thinking of the plight of oppressed chains. Engaged minds experiencing the words that we sing. These words must make sense. If they don’t, we are thinking, “That doesn’t make sense.”
The Modern church was guilty of attending too much to the desires of the mind. In an attempt to right this imbalance, churches (indeed our whole culture) are now creating a space for feelings in the songs we sing. However, the pendulum has swung too far. Balance can only be achieved if we appreciate holistic worship.
It doesn’t do for us to fragment the worship, any more than it does to fragment the worshiper. Holistic worship does not consist of intellectual parts, the sermon; emotional parts, the singing; and physical parts, the offering and sacraments. Consider all parts of the worship service holistically. A preacher thinks his sermon a failure when it touches only the head of the hearer. So too the worship leader dispairs when the singing falls only on the hearts of the singers.
I hope that this series helps songwriters write more powerful lyrics and helps those who select the songs for singing in church services to choose the good ones. By signing only good songs, more good songs will be produced.
My ultimate hope is that the body of Christ would be edified as we bring the best of our flock, the sacrifice of our praise, to the altar before our Saviour and Lord.
Posts in this series: