Singing Theology So That We’ll Eventually Believe It

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought8 Comments

The band and I recently rocked the faces off a few hundred kids several weeks ago as we led music for our church’s Vacation Bible School (VBS). It’s a fun time where we musicians are able to get a little flamboyant and wacky, where our inner rock star (rightly suppressed on Sunday mornings) can come out.  We had a blast, and the kids really loved it.  Since VBS, my family has been bumping that music in our car as we tootle around town in Denver.  I recently looked in the rear view mirror on one such drive to find all my kids singing along to great lyrics—scriptural quotations, actually.  Couple this with my preparations for my lecturing in Hawaii on Worship and Spiritual Formation (which happened a few weeks ago), and suddenly I realized that I was witnessing the ancient truth of lex orandi, lex credendi in action.

The phrase can be translated, “the law of prayer is the law of belief.”  In other words, our worship both shapes and reveals what we believe about God and His world.  In yet other words, doxology is theology.  I’ve heard it often said, “Show me a man’s checkbook, and I’ll tell you where his heart is.”  Similarly we might say, “Show me how you worship, and I’ll tell you your theology.”

It may not be intuitive to us as pastors, worship planners, and worshipers, but what we sing does more than articulate our theology.  Our song shapes our theology.  Here’s a sad example.  Think of the church whose songs are only happy all the time.  This church celebrates, and celebrates, and celebrates.  God is the consummate joy-giver.  No sins are corporately confessed, and no lamentations are sung.  It is only shiny, happy Jesus music.  The flock, while being a joyful people, is persistently being shaped to view God in one way–as One who solves all their problems and only gives Christians good, happy, prosperous lives.  Lex orandi, lex credendi.  But then that day comes when Joe Churchgoer has a crisis–loss of job, cancer, death of a family member.  Joe stops coming to church, becomes reclusive, starts doubting his faith, and eventually starts doubting whether God even exists.  Why has this happened?  Ultimately, it is because Joe’s church’s songs have so shaped his views of God that he has no categories for suffering.  And when that happens, he starts to doubt that his other theological categories (God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s justice) are even true.

Having your theology shaped by song is a slow, steady process.  Think of it like eating.  If your body is out of shape, you don’t see any “re-formation” after your first healthy meal.  It is only the faithful, perpetual consumption of healthy food that yields your body’s new shape.  So it is with sung theology.  We’re often eating of it long before we really believe it and are shaped by it.  Chew, swallow.  Chew, swallow.

Going back to my kids, right now we’re in the middle of slowly memorizing portions of the Westminster Shorter Catechism put to music by Cardiphonia.  (I’m actually bribing them at $0.50 per song.)  Now it would be foolish to expect that my seven-year-old son, who chants back that “God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all their creatures and all their actions,” actually knows (much less believes) what he’s singing.  But, because I’m a believer in lex orandi, lex credendi, I’m very comfortable bribing him to shove big forkfulls of theological leafy dark greens down his throat because I really do believe that it will one day show up in the figure of his soul.

So it is with us, children of God.  We sing in order that we may one day believe.  I can sing Newton’s great line “He has hushed the law’s loud thunder / He has quenched Mount Sinai’s flame,” but I know that there’s a part of me that doesn’t really believe the fullness of what that means.  Nevertheless, I sing it.  I shove that fork in my mouth, so that one day I might look at myself in the mirror and say, “Goodness, that looks more like Jesus than I remember from a year ago.”

Some final orandi-credendi takeaways:

  • Worship leaders: 
    • If you’re not at a place where you are conversant in the major tenets of Christian theology, you need to work on it.  Ask your pastor or a trusted mentor for some starting places for study.
    • If you want to get more serious about seeing what your church’s diet is like, compile the song lyrics from the last three years of worship, sit down with a team, and chart out what your people have been eating.
    • If you don’t care about either of the above, please find another job.  
  • Pastors:
    • Be invested in your worship planning.  Too much spiritual formation takes place to neglect that.
    • If you’re hiring a worship leader, don’t just look for some young, pretty face who has a “commanding presence” and good musical skill.  Look for someone who thinks theologically and leads pastorally (or who has a teachable spirit to be trained to do so).  Again, too much is at stake to blow this.
  • Worshipers:
    • What have you been singing?  Who is the God of your song?
    • Where do you still want to grow in your faith?  Perhaps alongside that great Bible study, book, or small group curriculum, you can find some songs to sing.  Ask your pastor/worship leader for some suggestions here.


8 Comments on “Singing Theology So That We’ll Eventually Believe It”

  1. Some excellent points, especially the connection between ones worship and ones theology. I think this concept is a powerful argument for Psalm-singing. It's hard to go wrong theologically when you are singing God's songs.

    Additionally, the medium of the music including instrumentation, tempo, genre etc. both reflects and impacts the theology of the church. Reformed doctrine and Arminian, man-focused music will not long last together. One will change the other over time. Usually it's the Reformed doctrine that goes.

  2. Zac, appreciate the blog! I've been encouraged lately as I've been reading S.T. Kimbrough's "The Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley". He's talking a lot about how the Psalms were 'world-making' for the Jews. This blog is echoing the good stuff Kimbrough discusses in there. Peace, matthew

  3. I like the idea of modeling worship with our kids and how we can do that with songs that are theologically rich. I also think that if you show excitement and interest when we worship that our children will reflect that in their own worship. Funny how I wrote on a similar topic today on my site.

  4. Riley: Thanks for the encouragement. I get what you're saying about musical style and I've heard you say it before, brother. I find a lot of non sequitur reasoning in that line of argumentation, so it looks like, yet again, we'll have to agree to disagree on that issue. I've tried to critique some of that position in my review of T. David Gordon's book.

    M. Clark: Great find! I've never heard of Kimbrough's work, but it looks like I'll have to put that on the ol' reading list. "World-making" is a great term. Sounds similar to James K. A. Smith's concepts explored in Desiring the Kingdom.

    M. Linder: I totally agree. My kids react and model my own enthusiasm or lack thereof. It's so unbelievably formative. I got to poke around a bit on your site. Love what you're doing there! Keep it up.

  5. Zac,
    Thanks for your frankness. Too many young worship leaders would rather be cool and hip than be formative with their music. But I love when the rich texts of our past intersect with the relevant music of today. That's how I found you after all! A great old hymn that I have been working on a rewrite is William Cowper's last hymn, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way." It stands as a stark contrast to that celebration only philosophy. The lyrics evoke strong images about God's providence in our lives, even though it may seem harsh.

    God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm.

    Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sovereign will.

    Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.

    Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.

    His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flower.

    Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan His work in vain;
    God is His own interpreter,
    And He will make it plain.

  6. Thanks Zac for the words of encouragement! I have been really enjoy your work with Cardiphonia and I had no idea about your "Without Our Aid" album. I will have to check it out.

  7. Wonderful Post! Thank you ever so much for sharing. What we sing indeed is what we believe. If we understand that, we'll take what we sing more seriously.

    God Bless you brother!

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