Bob Kauflin: Every song is saying something. And so we’re looking for songs that say something specific. And I think a lot of good popular songs are… They’re songs you wanna sing, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular. But they’re not necessarily songs that you should sing. I’m thinking, “oh, I gotta sing these words because this fits so perfectly with what we want to sing right here.” David and I plan Sunday with two other guys every week. And we’re not thinking, “Hey, what’s a song that you know is really popular right now?” We’re thinking, “what does this song need to say right here?”
David Zimmer: Welcome to the Sound Plus Doctrine podcast. My name is David Zimmer.
BK: My name is Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And we have Devon Kauflin here with us.
Devon Kauflin: Great to be here.
BK: We’re, it’s good to have you here because we are gonna talk today about probably the question we get asked most frequently.
DZ: Yes. For the drum roll.
BK: Thank you very much. And here’s how it was phrased. Here’s how one person phrased it, Mr. Kauflin. That’s me.
DZ: That’s disrespectful.
BK: Not you Devon, mentioned that there would be a future episode on singing songs from sources we don’t agree with theologically. That’s the question. This is it.
DZ: This is it.
BK: This is the future episode.
DZ: You’ve made it.
DZ: Season six.
BK: It’s pretty exciting. So, Dev, I’m gonna turn it over to you because I’ve done a couple blog posts on this, on worshipmatters.com WW, [laughter] So I pretty much said everything I could say about this.
BK: And I would love…
DZ: What would like to add.
DK: And it still hasn’t answered the question.
BK: Apparently not.
DK: Which is the perfect segue into what I would wanna say.
DK: In response to that question.
BK: I did my best.
DK: I heard someone say once, and it wasn’t you, someone else, that there are, just to clarify that there are no good answers to bad questions. And I think one of the challenges with this topic, because it’s a topic that comes up again and again. Is it’s not the right question to start with, and it, because the premise is one of like a, can we sing these songs? And I think our disposition should be more, should we sing these songs?
DK: So not can I sing songs from questionable sources? It’s should I sing songs from questionable sources? And even more fundamentally than that, what songs should we be singing?
DK: I think for, and I’m speaking, primarily to people who are choosing songs or responsible for leading, leading gathered worship. I think we need to start, when it comes to songs and what songs we sing, we need to start by recognizing that, that we are limited in the number of songs that we can sing.
BK: This is a big point.
DZ: Yes. Absolutely.
DK: And I think oftentimes we do have this, mindset that it’s like we can sing any song. And, so I mean, and there’s also this idea that we should be current in the songs that we’re singing.
BK: And we have access to more songs than any time in history.
BK: Instant access.
DK: Ir-ridiculously so, yeah. And so, let’s all use my congregation. Each Sunday we sing about, normally on average, I would say five songs, maybe six, but five songs often. And so 52 Sundays in a year, that’s 260 songs or so that we’re singing in a year. Now we repeat a lot of songs.
DK: And there’s a lot that goes into that. But I would say for most churches, they repeat songs. This is completely, anecdotal and unscientific, but I would venture to guess…
BK: Worst metric.
DK: That most churches probably sing somewhere between 80 and 140 songs in a given year.
DK: Different unique songs. As a congregation, we’re on the lower end of that spectrum, and that’s intentional on my part. And I’ll just explain why briefly. I see the songs that we sing as an opportunity to help the word of Christ dwell in us richly as Colossians 3:16 says. And so I want to be really intentional about what songs are dwelling in people richly.
DK: I also want to, I recognize, I think that the power of truth married to melody, and the reality is that this truth is gonna be because of its being married, melodically married to a melody, it’s gonna go with people out from our time of corporate worship.
DK: Far more than any sermon I ever preach will.
DK: And so it’s gonna be…
BK: This is always a depressing thought for preachers.
DK: Well, I get to just remind ’em again next week, [laughter], but it’s gonna be resonating in their hearts. And so I want the songs that we sing, I want them to know and know well. And so I’m very on the, on the very selective end of what songs we sing, because there’s a lot of good songs out there. But I don’t wanna just sing good songs. I wanna sing great songs and songs that are really gonna serve our congregation. And so we do, we repeat songs often. There are many songs that we’ll sing. We have several songs that we’ll sing 10 times in a year. And that’s intentional on my part because I want people to know these songs. I want these songs to become a part of them because they, they shape how we think about God and how we think about God in relation to our lives and the world around us.
BK: Yeah. Devon, you mentioned you want to sing great songs. Can we bring a little definition to, we’re all making choices. Anyone who leads in the church are making choices about songs. And like you said, there are a lot of good songs, but what makes a song a great song? And why would you choose it to, ’cause we want this to be practical. Why would you choose to do this on a particular Sunday?
DK: So, I think for starters, you’re, the way you’ve talked about this or I’ve heard you talk about it, I think is really helpful. So first is this a song, that we can sing? So is it Singable? And so there could be a, and there are some, there are several hymns that would fall in this category. There are songs that contain wonderful truth, compelling truth, but might be married to a melody that’s very difficult to sing.
DK: Or might be in a, for my congregation in a vernacular that’s just less accessible. And, less understandable. And so can we sing them? So that’s one category. And with all of these, there’s, a particularity to it. So my congregation is gonna be different from your congregation.
DZ: Yeah, for sure. It’s context.
DK: And that’s gonna be different from a congregation in another part of the United States or another part of the world.
BK: Yes. So I was gonna say, the more multi-generational your church is, the more you need to be aware of. It’s not trying to please every age bracket, it’s trying to do songs that everybody can sing together. Which yeah.
DK: And, I have a very multi-generational congregation. And so I am very aware of the, I think melodic range of songs and the melodic simplicity of songs, accessibility of songs. So can we sing them? Should we sing them? And so does this…
BK: If I may?
DK: Yeah, you can. These are your categories. Yeah. Do we want to sing them? I hadn’t gotten there yet. That was gonna be the third one…
BK: Oh, do you wanna do the third one? Yeah, go ahead.
DZ: You’re doing great now.
BK: Hey, you do it the way you’re doing.
DZ: That’s great.
DK: Should we sing them? And so does this contain the truth that’s communicating in this song, is it biblical? And [laughter] is it true? And does it articulate? I think a category that’s helpful is just does it articulate something that we’re not already singing in another song.
DZ: Yeah. Cool.
DK: Or in a way that we’re not articulating in another song. In a previous episode we had talked about light and how this biblical worldview. Seeing the world through biblical eyes means that we think about symbols and metaphors. And that’s how the Bible’s always talking. And so there’s a lot of language that we can use to describe God and how He relates to us, and how He relates to our world. And so songs can do that, and they can help us have a broader view, a bigger view of who God is and his glory and who He is to us in His grace and in His mercy. And so does this song articulate something of that in a unique way? So should we sing them? And then last is, do we want to sing them [laughter]? And so does this melody just stink?
DK: Or is it compelling? Is the melodic marriage to truth, is it compelling to us? Does it stir our hearts?
DK: It should have an emotional effect. I love, it’s so helpful, I think Calvin’s writing on he did this in his intro to his Psalter, but how he talked about the, how we should think carefully about the power of melody. Married to truth.
DK: Because just as he talks about just as wine washes food down to the pit of our stomach, so melody can wash ideas, good or evil into the pit of our souls.
DK: And so we should think very carefully about the emotional effect that the truth we proclaim has and we wanna make sure it’s true.
DK: That’s what I think about great songs. Those are the things I’m thinking about.
BK: That’s helpful.
DK: I’m always looking at again, I think the particular nature of our church, and so what’s going on in life of our church not long ago our lead pastor died shockingly of a heart attack. And that really sets the tone…
BK: It does.
DK: For a congregation as they gather from corporate worship. And so I want songs that are either speaking to our circumstance in a God-centered way, or helping us articulate where we’re at.
DK: Recently CityAlight had released a song I think Psalm 42. I’ll Praise you, yet praise you again again. Why, O my soul are you downcast? It’s a very simple song.
DK: A very simple melody in a different season in the life of our church, I wouldn’t think, “oh, we should do that song [laughter],” but in the season that our church was in.
DK: It was this, in a wonderfully simple way, articulates where we are. And what we should be expressing in these moments. And so that’s… I mean so you always… You wanna have your pulse on the congregation.
DK: And what’s going on, and sing songs that are gonna serve glorify God and serve those people in that time.
BK: That’s right.
DK: When I think about do I sing songs from questionable sources, or how should I think about it? It’s not even a question for me that I’m ever really asking, because it actually doesn’t fit into that framework as far as what song should we be singing at all. So that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever consider it, but I think it has to be considered after all those other things.
DK: And so then there’s very little, for me, [laughter] I’m thinking there’s maybe one or two songs in a year for me that I might think, “That song from that questionable source, in my opinion,” that might work really well here.
DK: Maybe we should sing that.
DK: And that actually happened recently. There was a song from a, let’s… I mean a questionable source, more or less.
DK: And Yeah. Theologically and but it was… It just… It fit well, and our church had sung it before and I knew it would serve people. And and serve the word that was just preached. That’s why we sang it.
DK: But that’s once in the last three years.
DK: We’ve sung a lot of songs but we want, we just wanna sing great songs.
DK: So that’s how I think about that question. That’s where I go.
BK: I think that’s really helpful. The only thing I’d add is you mentioned that your particularity of your church and what’s happening also the particularity of the gathering, that particular meeting we’re hopefully not picking songs just to pick great songs. Songs that feel good. Every song is saying something. And so we’re looking for songs that say something specific. And I think a lot of good popular songs are… They’re songs you wanna sing, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular. But they’re not necessarily songs that you should sing. I’m thinking, “oh, I gotta sing these words because this fits so perfectly with what we want to sing right here.” David and I plan Sunday with two other guys every week. And we’re not thinking, “Hey, what’s a song that you know is really popular right now?” We’re thinking, “what does this song need to say right here?” And that’s where it tends to weed out a lot of songs. Because those songs aren’t necessarily saying specifically what you want to say.
DZ: Yeah. Well, and Devon, you made a point of just, you don’t have a lot of time, you don’t have a lot of options when you realize how often you’re repeating songs. And to encourage leaders that are listening to this podcast, if it’s just a new song constantly or just it’s not a collection of songs that you’re choosing from, people will always be guessing, is this a song I’ve heard? I don’t know this song, [laughter], I’m not aware of this. I don’t know. Week by week when you create that repetition, I think, like you said, it allows the word to dwell richly. I can, because I’ve heard this, and it’s become a part of my life in the culture of this church, it’s so enriching to be singing those same songs over and over and over again. You don’t think, you don’t know that’s happening, but it’s happening over time. And so to encourage worship leaders try to pair that down, because over time it will be easier for your people.
DK: Yeah. And it’s interesting. I had mentioned our lead pastor dying recently. The songs that we sang after his death, it was remarkable. The weight that was behind the words that we were singing in the congregation. And just especially that first Sunday, just everyone is hanging on every word and feeling deeply every word, never experienced anything like that. And…
BK: Because he died on a Saturday.
DK: He died on a Saturday afternoon. We gathered together on a Sunday morning. And what was a real gift in that moment is that we had songs to sing. And it was because, and we have this functional category for the songs that we sing that are, we wanna sing songs that help us to suffer well and die well. Because we are all gonna face suffering and we are all gonna die. And so that’s like, I want the songs to do that. The reality is those songs that confront us with the reality of death are those songs like that are on the radio?
DZ: Yeah. Rarely.
DK: Not normally.
BK: Yeah. Yeah.
DK: They’re not the ones that are popular either to rise into the top of the charts or whatever because they talk about things that are hard for us to talk about. They talk about things that our culture wants to ignore and kind of suppress, but because we have this diet of think songs that help us to have hope in the midst of suffering and death, we had songs to sing. And so it was this truth that was coming in people’s minds and informing people’s hearts and it becomes a part of us when we face really challenging circumstances.
DK: And it’s because we’ve thought about, no, we want these songs to be a part of us because we want this truth to be a part of us, and that’s just such a gift, such a gift to experience.
BK: Well, it is. That’s the way God designs songs to work.
BK: They’re to enable the gospel, the word of Christ, to dwell in us richly so that it affects our perspective. It forms our theology. It shapes our theology. It reinforces what biblical theology and singing does that in a way that just hearing doesn’t, it’s a different way. It helps us feel the truth, because that’s what music is. It’s an emotional language, and it’s such a gift that the Lord would give us that.
BK: But if we’re not thinking about that closely about what we’re singing, that’s not gonna happen. People are gonna be, they’re not gonna have enough content to draw, to latch on to, and it’s gonna be the music, it’s gonna be the feel. And we’re training people over time. So if we’re just doing songs that are popular and songs that we’re not really concerned about theology that specifically, over time people are going to believe that it just really doesn’t matter how precise our songs are or how clear our songs are, or they feel good, and they’re about Jesus. And this is great. We can do it together.
BK: And I heard a guy say one time, saying that you don’t wanna sing heresy as a low bar for your songs. We really want to teach theology with our songs. And we’ve talked on the podcast about the difference between a song that’s theologically aware and a song that’s theologically driven. A song that’s theologically aware we will use Bible verses, will use Bible concepts, will use Bible phrases, but not necessarily be driven by a theology, which is what we want to do. We want our songs to take such root in people’s hearts that they reinforce what we’re being taught what scripture actually says. And so it’s perspectives, it’s proportionalities, it’s what are we excited about, what are we not excited about and why.
BK: That’s what good songs do. They tell us why, they don’t just give us expression of joy or celebration or whatever, they tell us why. And that’s the doctrinal fuel for your emotional fire that you’re putting them together so that you’re actually teaching theology. You’re reinforcing theology as we sing. And there are a lot of good songs that I really like that I don’t, I wouldn’t lead because there’s either vague lines or because they’re, I was trying to think of what they don’t say enough…
DK: Or we have other songs that say the same thing but in a more clear, compelling, fine way.
BK: That’s compelling…
DZ: And that could even happen between two great songs.
DK: Yeah. Absolutely.
DZ: You can take two great songs that don’t have any questionable sources and you can say, “This actually says this clearer.”
DK: And there’s also, again, the particularity of the congregation. For me to say we sing 90 songs in a year, it doesn’t mean there are only 90 great songs that are out there.
BK: Yeah. Right.
DK: There are a lot more than that.
DK: But I can’t sing them all. And so, there are times where I’ll choose to sing a song that we’ve sung before instead of that new song that says a similar thing because that’s a part of us.
DK: And so we’re gonna sing that song. And that’s okay. And if the Lord wants to sing that song at another time.
DK: I’m sure that opportunity will come up. I think that that also speaks to, I think how we can, I know we’ve received a question before about like, how do you keep up with all that’s coming out? Because there are so many songs that come out. And my approach is more, you know what? I’ll find out about it when I should find out about.
BK: That’s right. That’s right. You’re not missing the spirit if you’re not doing that song within one week of the time it comes out.
DK: And if a song comes my way. Great. And it’s a good song, great. There was… I was telling my congregation this the other day, so my good friend Matt Boswell, we were out of town together. And…
BK: Hey, he’s our good friend too.
DK: Yeah. Our good friend Matt Boswell. And, he was… He sat down at a piano and he was playing this song, this is several years ago now, playing this song, and he’s like, tell me what you think about this. And so he starts playing this song, “Praise the Lord. His Mercy is more.” And he plays it through. And he was like, what do you think? I said, I’m gonna do that this Sunday. He was like, really? I haven’t done it yet. I was like, no, I’m doing it this Sunday. Can you send me, like, put together a chart, send it to me? So that Sunday we sang that song and he texted me afterwards, he’s like, how’d it go? I was like, it was great, [laughter] And so I told my team that leads the singing with me. I said, yeah, we were the first church to ever do the song I think.
DK: And they were like, no way. It’s like, yeah. But…
DZ: Did you do the right melody on the verse?
DK: Well, I did my own melody. Yeah. I said, Matt, this is how I sang it. And Boswell was like, well, Matt Papa sings it this way. I was like, I don’t care. [laughter], we’re gonna sing it this way.
DK: But in that instance, it was like, no, this is a great song, and like, this will serve my church. And let’s sing this song. And that was just, I mean, the… Something the Lord orchestrated and brought across my path in that moment.
DZ: That’s great.
DK: But I didn’t have to go out and find it. And then there are other songs that’ll be new to my congregation, and I’ll look at the copyright date, and it was like 2008. I’m like, oh, wow. Like, where have I been?
BK: I have had my head in the sand.
DK: But that’s fine.
DK: It is.
BK: I was thinking of Act 17:21, where Luke describes the Athenians and it says, now all the Athenians and the foreigners who live there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new. And that can describe us when we’re looking for songs. Yeah. You know, it’s not so much, is this really the best song for my church? Is this really the best song for my context? It’s just isn’t new.
DK: Right. We can have those itching ears.
DZ: Very good.
BK: Yes. So we don’t wanna be like that. I think all this is kind of circling around the… What I think is the most important category for talking about singing songs from groups we don’t agree with theologically. And that would be edification. You know, it’s a really important category. When we gather in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul talks about the church gathering, he uses some form of the word “building up” eight times. He’s just talking about how when we gather, we are meant to build up each other, edify one another. So that’s our aim. So if you’re doing a song that’s not building up your church, then you probably shouldn’t do it. And that could include if half your church is being distracted by doing this song, or your senior pastor that’s happened in my case sometimes.
BK: Where it’s just, yeah. That I can’t sing that song without thinking about this. Okay. You might say to someone, well, you’re only one of two people in the church who’s thinking that, so you’ll have to press through that. But if a good portion of your church is, or the leaders of the church are then, yeah. Don’t do it, it’s not worth it. You know, sing songs where people can engage fully with the words without being distracted by, well, this is that song. Now, sometimes over time, a song can enter into the common vocabulary of the church in such a way that it’s not even, you don’t feel that association anymore. And it’s the right song for a particular Sunday, I think you were saying something like this.
BK: You think this is a good song to do this Sunday, let’s do it. And that makes a statement, again, it’s pointing people to the fact that what this song says is more important to us than the fact that it was connected by to this group or whatever, because it is exactly what we need to be saying right now, but we’re not doing it because this group did it. And we’re not saying we’ll never do that because this group did it. There’s just nuances to it that we would not want to have anybody think, we’re saying, you can’t do this, you mustn’t do this. And there have been conversations about this topic where it’s why we never do. Yeah. We just wanna, I think, avoid being the song police. We do want to encourage biblically rooted thinking.
BK: We do want to encourage pastoral care and we do wanna encourage facing our limitations. Which is, I think you started with Dev just in talking about how many songs we can really do in a year. Let’s seek to serve our churches well with the songs we’re singing, let’s teach them to value content over a brand name. You know, you have churches identified by the…
BK: Songs they sing. Well, we sort of sing songs by this group, this, this and this…
BK: Let’s teach them that we are not even groups that say, yeah, we only sing songs by Sovereign Grace or CityAlight, or the Getty’s or whoever. It’s just like, yeah. Okay, great. I know what you’re trying to say by that, but don’t think that way. Think, these other ways.
DK: It attaches what we sing to our identity. And as Christians, our identity is only in Christ.
DK: It’s not in anything else.
DK: It’s not the kind of room we meet in, not the kind of lighting or sound we have, not the kind of songs we’re singing. Not what we wear. I mean, whatever. Our identity is not any of those things. It’s in Jesus Christ. And this whole, as you were talking about edification and the priority of edification, I think we can talk… Think about building up and edifying as something that all right, like now we’ve gotta do, but it’s not something that we do. We do because it’s something that God does.
DK: And so that’s what God’s about. I was thinking about Ephesians 2 and when we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him, you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
DK: This is God’s work. And so he’s the one building up. And so what we get to take part in is that building up. And so that’s why edification matters so much. Because God’s doing it. Because it, that’s, it’s God’s work. And we get to participate in that. Be a part of it. What a gift that is.
BK: What a gift. And if you’re in a church where you’re concerned about the songs that are being sung, we’ve been speaking primarily to leaders.
DK: Can I say one more thing to song leaders or people choosing songs is just, I would encourage you to think like a curator. So in that consider for centuries, prior to the advent of projection…
DK: The projection screen, people used hymnals.
DK: And those hymnals came out every 10 or 20 years…
DK: In a given denomination, or maybe even longer at times, those intervals. And you could only sing what was in that hymnal…
BK: [chuckle] Yeah. Yeah.
DK: And there was a selection process. And once a song was selected for that hymnal, there’s a lot of time that passes between the selection of that song…
DK: And the actual implementation of that hymn. Think like that…
DK: And it’s okay…
DK: If there is that selectivity that you…
DZ: That’s great.
DK: Give yourself to, as you seek to curate the songs that you sing as a congregation. You may be listening to this and be thinking, “Oh man, yeah… We should change the songs we sing.”
DK: Don’t go out and change them all. It’s the kind of thing where think, take… Have the long view in mind. And it’s…
DK: I would encourage anyone who’s at a local church to think like this is where God’s called me to for the long haul. And so, build that way. And so over time, introduce songs that are songs that we can and should and want to sing.
BK: Yes. Yes.
DK: Sing songs that are going to build up the body of Christ, and make those a part of who you are, and help them be the heartbeat of your church. But it’s gonna take a long, long time. And that’s okay. And be completely content with that.
DZ: Yeah. And Dev, when you’re saying curating, I also think about, even having categories, songs that maybe are not brand new, but or are brand new, but that you can put in categories. I wanna… These are great songs that I wanna talk about the transcendence of God, and these are some great songs…
BK: Yeah, or confession…
DZ: Or confession and… We’ve talked about that.
DK: Thanksgiving, and…
DZ: Yeah, but you’re curating those and holding those places, and when a better song comes in, you can slot that in…
DZ: [chuckle] And move things around, but… So that there’s a steady diet that people can have.
BK: That’s good.
DK: And there’s something of God reflected in this, where we navigate a world that’s just constantly changing and unsettling and disappointing. But we come to a God, who doesn’t change. He is a rock.
DK: And he is faithful. And so, there is a sense in which, for our particular congregations, we get to convey something of that, even in how we choose the songs that we sing. And so we might sing a song that, wow, this church has been singing for 60 years, or 20 years or whatever it is, and even though there’s that song that came out last year that says similar things and may be better, and you wanna do, we sing that old one, because it’s a reflection of the fact that no, God has been building something here for the last 20 years or 60 years…
DZ: That’s cool. Well said.
DK: And we get to be a part of that story of what God is doing.
DK: And so, it’s not just the actual songs that we sing, but it’s what those songs have represented in our particular local congregations that I think we need to be aware of as well.
BK: And you could extend that to what those songs mean, in terms of the history of the church.
BK: Which is why, a couple weeks ago we sang, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
BK: Well, that’s just testifying to the faithfulness of God.
BK: 500 years ago, Martin Luther is writing these words, translated in English now, and we get to sing them. And just say, Oh. It reminds us, yeah, God is faithful. We’re not the first people to think about this. So what I was trying to say was, if you do have problems with the songs that are being sung in your church on Sunday, we did another podcast, I think the previous season, What if I have problems with the songs we sing on Sundays? Which, I think, would be helpful to that end. And we haven’t covered everything in this, but I think we’ve gotten far enough into it.
BK: And we hope it’s been helpful.
BK: Are you gonna close this out, or you want me to do that?
DZ: Sure. Yeah. Devon, thank you so much for being with us.
DK: Yeah, great thoughts. Great thoughts.
BK: Great thoughts, Dev.
DZ: And it was great to have you listening or watching, however you engage in this podcast. And we’ll see you around.