Words are important in a song. While people will differ as to which dimension of a song touches them more fully – words or music – there’s no denying the importance of lyrics. And when it comes to songs and hymns of and for the purpose of leading a congregation into worship, it’s undeniably the words that make a song sacred or Christian. I, for one, am deeply moved by the inherent instrumental beauty of many non-sacred works by Bach, Handel, Mozart – even Bernstein. And I would be led into a worshipful state of mind with their classical orchestrations as preludes. But removed from a church context, such wonderful music is not, in and of itself, sacred. (I am referring to Bach’s secular works here, and excluding Handel’s “Messiah”.)
When we hear an instrumental treatment of a well-known hymn, we instantly accept it, of course, as a worthy companion in a worship context. This is true not due to the notes, rather, to the words of the original piece. A horn solo playing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” comes to mind. Hearing those eight notes, I could think of nothing other than those words.
We are appropriately reminded in many ways during Advent and Christmas to: “remember the reason for the season.” And well we should be. Even (and perhaps especially) for those of us who lead church music programs, or are pastors or leaders of worship, this is the busiest time of the year – albeit the best. And that’s just helping lead music and worship events. Add to that the busy-ness of family time, other work-related holiday activity (I haven’t yet thought about shopping), and you have at best a distracting time, and at worst an overwhelming yoke of conflicting priorities. All these things take our eyes off Jesus, whose coming in humility to save humankind from their weakness (“sins”) is what we need to reflect upon and celebrate.
Singing and leading a contemporary worship ensemble every week, I began to reflect recently on how many – especially contemporary worship songs – don’t have the word “Jesus” in the lyric. I write a lot of lyrics also, so I know all about “oblique” references in songs. I passed it off as a trait of contemporary writers and congregations. It’s true of some of my own favorite newer worship songs: “Grace Flows Down,” “Above All,” “That’s Why We Praise Him,” “You’re Worthy of My Praise,” “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” [No negative reflection on the writers of these wonderful songs – unmistakably Christian, all. Just an observation.]
Then I scanned a hymnal for some of my favorite traditional hymns. Here are a few without “Jesus” in the words: “Amazing Grace,” “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” “Joy to the World,” “In the Garden,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” Surprised? I was. I’ll sing all these songs again – and joyfully worship therewith. But it sure is good to sing the name, “Jesus” in a song. By the way, Gloria and Bill Gaither used “Jesus” seven times in the sole verse of “There’s Something About That Name.” There really is. And the season and our reason for, and focus of worship should be and is, all about Jesus. All year long.
Tom LeFevre, Editor-in-Chief
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