interior top image

“Good” Theology?

Congregational Song, Center for Congregational Song, Brian Hehn, Theology

Author – Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.




Words Words Words

We get so caught up in what a song or hymn says through its lyrics/verses. I’ve watched debates rage on about what a text means and whether it has “good theology.” There are books written on analyzing texts, and pastors often analyze a song or hymn’s appropriateness for their congregation based on the words alone. We are fixated on words and the words are the primary and often only metric we use to determine theological content. But this overemphasis on words (or neglect of other aspects of congregational singing) misses the point. Let me give two scenarios to consider:


Scenario 1

Imagine, if you will, a congregation standing up to sing the opening hymn for their Sunday morning service. They wait for the instrumental introduction as usual and then begin singing. Their singing could be described in the following ways: partial interest, partial participation, mezzo piano dynamic, lazy and at times indiscernible diction, slumped shoulders, heads down, no bodily movement, a few smiles but mostly neutral facial expressions.


As they sing, the instrumental accompaniment goes like this:

Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise God in his sanctuary; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him in his mighty firmament! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him for his mighty deeds; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him according to his surpassing greatness! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with trumpet sound; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with lute and harp! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with tambourine and dance; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with strings and pipe! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise him with clanging cymbals; [Generic organ registration preset 1]

praise him with loud clashing cymbals! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1]

Praise the Lord! [Generic organ registration preset 1 with added crescendo pedal and long last chord]


The theology of the words is hard to critique since they’re straight out of scripture. So I’m assuming the majority of you who are reading this would not attempt to argue the theology of the words. This song has “good theology,” right?


Scenario 2

I recently attended a “Circle Songs” retreat at the Omega Institute in New York State. The leaders were Bobby McFerrin and his colleagues that make up the group “Give Me Five.” In what they call “circle singing,” a group standing in a circle is led in multiple improvised repetitive parts usually using an improvised (made up) language by the leader, very similar to scat in jazz singing. Here’s an example of a circle song in that style:

Now imagine a worship service emphasizing the creativeness of God and God’s creation that includes a song like this. There are no “words” per se, but rather the song contains made-up syllables that provide the mechanism for the improvised melodies to interlock with each other. The singing is embodied and joyful. The singers make eye contact with each other and everyone is engaged in the music making. The textures of the sound change constantly as new layers are being added or subtracted or as the leader improvises a melody over the top.

Using the typical conversations I’ve seen to determine whether this song has “good theology,” it would quickly become apparent that this song not only doesn’t have good theology, it has no theology.

By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.

Expanding Our Metrics

I’d argue that both scenarios help us see how the current conversations surrounding whether a song has “good theology” are woefully unsubstantial. By hyperfocusing on a hymn or song’s words without considering who is singing it or when/where they’re singing it (both historically and liturgically) is missing out on a whole lot of theological content that goes beyond the written word.

Scenario 1 contains words that have what most of you would consider “good theology.” But if the hymn is led and sung in the way described above, I would argue that the song has terrible theology. By singing in that way, we’re telling God, “I’ll praise you a little bit…but not with ALL my being…that would be ridiculous.” We’re telling God, “I’ll praise you with 40% of my being…that’s all I can muster right now.” We’re telling each other, “I love God, but not as much as I love watching the game and eating wings.” This, my friends, is bad theology. I don’t care what the words say.

Scenario 2 most certainly contains theology, but none of it can be ascertained by listening to the words. In fact, I’d argue that scenario 2 contains better theology than scenario 1. While the words don’t contain any explicit theological content, the embodiment of the singing and the spirit with which it is sung contains strong theological content. Furthermore, by placing a joyful improvised piece of music within the context of a service centered around the idea of God’s creativeness and the creativeness of God’s creation, we are telling God, “We are thankful for and enjoy the gift you gave us that is creativity.” We are telling God, “We will praise you in every way we can think of and in constantly new ways.” We are telling each other, “You are a part of God’s creation and we are in this together. I’m listening to you and want to be in community with you.” These are theologically rich statements, all made without uttering a single word of an established language.

The challenge for many of us is to listen.

The Challenge

The challenge for many of us is to listen. Before determining for ourselves or especially for others whether a song has “good” or “bad” theology, there must be a process of listening.

Listen to the experience of others. How are they experiencing a song?

Listen to the experience of our elders. How have they experienced a song in the past?

Listen to the community’s voice as it sings. Is it sounding? Is it silent? Is it anemic? Is it joyful?

Listen to the context. What surrounds the song culturally? What surrounds the song liturgically?

Listen to your own voice. Does the song resonate with your own faith journey? Does the song challenge your faith journey?

Listen to the words. Yes, of course words are important! They form our minds and shape our hearts. Are the words borne from scriptural waters? Are the words pastoral or prophetic? Do the words support or challenge God’s people on their journey? Do the words speak Truth?



7 thoughts on ““Good” Theology?”

  1. Duane Toole says:

    Thank you for a fine article that points to several weaknesses in congregational song practice.

    I lead music in a congregation with a wide theological range, so the singing includes texts with a similar wide range. We draw lines with songs that have obvious textual theological issues, like “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goal Posts of Life,” and “There Ain’t No Flies on Jesus.”
    But the way we teach people to sing new songs influences their participation much more than any variances in theology. Happily, most people love to sing; we just need to enable them.

  2. Robert Farlee says:

    This seems to me to be a grand confusion of categories. We are presented with the category of words, of music without words, of attitudes when singing (or making wordless music), of accompanying singing, and all of them mixed up with some vague idea of theology.
    I am a Lutheran pastor and church musician. Martin Luther valued the Word most highly, and music right up near it. But he would be appalled at the idea that to pay close attention to the meaning of words we ask people to sing in worship is “overemphasis” that “misses the point.” Rather, that’s where we must begin, by making sure the words we sing are worthy of God and God’s people.
    The primary definition of song is words set to music. I’m all in favor of creativity, musical and otherwise. I enjoy teaching people to sing songs (with theologically solid texts) in fresh ways, including standing in a circle. I also enjoy leading song creatively from organ or piano. (And, by the way, I would never lead a psalm as in Scenario 1 and change organ registration with each phrase. That would be drawing attention to my “creativity,” not being a faithful servant of the people’s song.) Free-form creativity may have a place in worship, though I’m not convinced of that. If so, why limit it to wordless singing? Put out a lump of clay and let everyone joyfully make eye contact with one another as they manipulate it, and call it worship. Or do free-form gymnastics. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with that, but again, speaking as a Lutheran, I would argue that content matters at least as much as form.
    Further, I would argue that Scenario 1 is not as bad as the writer makes it sound, nor is Scenario 2 as good as that. Scenario 1 puts a (presumably taught and known) song out there in a way that lets people enter into it as they are able on that day. And yes, on some days a given person may only be able to give 40%, and I’m sure God would be pleased by that. Scenario 2 paints an unrealistic picture of everyone present just leaping to their feet and diving unreservedly into improvisational music making—a utopia of song. Forgive my skepticism.
    I love Bobby McFerrin’s improvisational style, and it may well have a place, occasionally, in church. But to suggest that it constitutes better theology than a well-considered, well-taught, well-led word-based congregational song? I’m not buying it.

  3. Barry Luedloff says:

    With apologies to him, I am afraid (Lutheran) Pastor Robert Farlee has missed the point. This is about the bad theology of apathetic congregational singing (praise) to God. The point of this article, it seems me, is to point this out clearly, and then to begin to re-train our congregations to “make a joyful noise” (stylistically learn to sing without reservations) so that the singers, the people offering that praise, that joyful noise, are TRULY JOYFUL in their offering of song; after this re-training, THEN we begin to re-knit the congregation’s song into that single, wonderful sound of appropriate texts that are the hymn, the song. Almost 50 years of being a Lutheran (and now other denominations as well) church music leader (organist and Music Director) has shown me that our congregations are “killing” the songs . . . and not in the current terminology where “killing it” is a good, great thing. We literally are killing, taking away the joy of praise in singing. Time to re-train! I applaud this article.

  4. Marilyn Haskel says:

    Perhaps this comparison goes only so far. Holding up scenario 1 over against scenario 2 seems to me to be somewhat shortsighted. In her book “ Why Sing?” Miriam Therese Winter discusses the roles of the Song, the Singer, and the Singing. These components are all part of WHY we sing and they equally contribute to WHAT we do as we worship. And even this is only part of the whole.

  5. Jackson Henry says:

    What I interpret here (and also encourage) are both/and conversations. Mediocrity can be found in any form, in any genre. But so can engaging creativity. It would do the church and the world well to work toward the latter in every context.

  6. Brian Hehn says:

    I’m so glad that this post is generating comments and opinions on the matter. It seems to me that the majority of the pushback is coming from a very white protestant perspective. I’d encourage us all to look deeply into how we understand “theology.” My experience talking about this topic with those who come from non-western or non-anglo perspectives has led me to understand that to isolate a song’s words from the people singing them (or another way to put it would be to disembody the song) is disingenuous to the act of singing together as the church. To understand the hymn or song as something written on a page is just not something many people in the world recognize as a valid thing. The hymn/song is what happens in the embodied moment of music-making…so the theology of a hymn/song cannot be isolated away from the embodied experience.

  7. Joseph Burgio says:

    Although my background and the bulk of my professional experience is Roman Catholic, a good part of my graduate school experience took place in Colgate-Crozier Divinity School, at a time when Bexley Hall (Episcopal) and St. Bernard’s Institute (Roman Catholic) shared the campus, and worship experiences. As an itinerant organist I now get to experience and be a part of some very different worship experiences on a regular basis. Theology is what we do to express what we believe. For me personally, if the text of a song does not express good theology, I would not use that song during a worship service. Roman Catholic practice is to make 3 judgments about what music is used in the liturgy: musical, liturgical, and pastoral. In many cases, the focus is on the pastoral (what music is appropriate for this particular congregation in this particular place and point in time) This is often done with no concern for the musical, or liturgical (which necessarily includes the theological). A moot point for,me, because I no longer have the responsibility of choosing music for worship. I am the regular substitute musician for 2 integrated congregations that worship in very different ways, with different styles of music. The Music Directors in both places as well aware of what works to allow the folks to praise God with enthusiasm. So, the point about listening is important. Both of these directors have listened to their congregations. The music done in both places is widely varied, and it is a pleasure to work in both settings.

Comments are closed.