Posted by: rcottrill | July 17, 2010

The “Total Message” of a Song

The message of a song is contained and expressed in more than the words. More, even, than the music. If we are determined to communicate God’s truth effectively with our hymns and gospel songs, we must give some thought to the total message of the song.

To begin with, we need to make an important distinction. That there is a vast difference between music in general, and a particular song. We can say that God created music–that He gave us the gift of music. But does that mean that God alone is responsible for every single song that’s been written? No, it doesn’t. But that’s an argument we sometimes hear. That all music is good, because it’s a gift of God.

Well, that’s a neat trick. But it won’t work–because when a song is written, God’s gift of music passes through the filter of a human personality. And it’s subjected to a multitude of decisions, based on the musician’s own purpose. So, yes, music is a gift of God. But it’s individual people who write the songs. And at that point, God’s gift can be abused.

It’s just like the gift of speech. Because God gave us the gift of speech, does that mean all we say is good and edifying? No, the Bible’s very clear about that. God’s gift can be misused, and abused. So, Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth.” And Colossians tells us, “Put off…filthy language out of your mouth” (Col. 3:8). The words we choose and use, can either honour the Lord, or dishonour Him. And so can the music we write, and use.

And to see how music conveys its message–whether good or bad, we need to look at the total message of the song. Because a number of things are working together in any musical presentation.

It’s similar to what the Bible says about the operation of the local church. God’s Word talks about “the effectual working in the measure of every part [in other words, the effective work done when every part of the body of Christ does its job]” (Eph. 4:16). That has to do with the cooperation of God’s people, in the work of the church. But the same principle applies to the message of our songs.

I suggest to you that there are at least five elements that work together, contributing to the whole presentation, when, let us say, a soloist ministers in music in our Sunday morning service. Here is a little equation relating to our church music:

THE TOTAL MESSAGE = the Words + the Music + the Presentation + the Musician’s Known Lifestyle + the Social Context of the Music

1. The Words of the Song
If we’re using a song in Christian ministry, the words should be our first consideration. We should begin be asking, are they biblical? Are they in harmony with the Word of God? Then, the next thing is, are they clear? Is there a good, solid, biblical message? And is it expressed in a clear and unmistakable way?

Paul says, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?” (I Cor. 14:8). In other words, if the bugler plays, and you can’t tell if it’s the signal to go to bed, or charge the enemy, then you’ve got a problem! And it’s the same with any inaccurate or vague lyrics to our Christian songs.

Here’s a song recorded a few years ago by a group that professes to be Christian. It’s meant to be a Christian song. But what do you think?

There inside my dream I heard the river roar;
I stumbled through the darkened mist
But I couldn’t find the shore.
Then a voice within the mist said,
“Tell me what you seek?”
I said, “I have a mighty thirst,
But I feel so tired and weak.”
[And] He said, “I am the river,
full of power and truth.
You’ve been looking outside yourself,
When it’s there inside of you.
And the river is love, the river is peace,
And the river will flow,
Through the hearts of those who believe.

Now maybe that’s supposed to be telling us about the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life. But it sounds more like New Age teaching to me. And it illustrates another of my pet peeves about some contemporary religious songs. Never once does it identify the Lord by name. It’s a “voice,” and it’s “he.” But who’s what? It could be Buddha, or Mohammed. Or the fellow’s girlfriend, or somebody else.

It says in Malachi, “‘Where is My honour?’…says the Lord of hosts, ‘to you priests who despise My name?'” (Mal. 1:6). And I get the feeling that some song writers, today, despise the name of the Lord. Or perhaps they choose to omit it and ignore it for commercial purposes. More people will buy their music if it’s not too specific!

The words of our sacred songs need to be biblical, and clear. And let me give you an example of some simple words, that present a profound message.

I am so glad that our Father in heaven
Tells of His love, in the Book He has given.
Wonderful things in the Bible I see,
And this is the dearest, that Jesus loves ME.

Though I forget Him, and wander away,
Still He doth love me, wherever I stray.
Back to His dear loving arms would I flee,
When I remember that Jesus loves me.

Oh, if there’s only one song I can sing,
When in His beauty I see the great King,
This shall my song in eternity be,
Oh, what a wonder, that Jesus loves me!

There’s no question there about what that song’s saying. There’s no vague, uncertain “he” or “him.” The words are perfectly clear. But that’s one of those old-fashioned hymns that some folks want us to discard.

2. The Music of the Song
The second element in the total message of a song is the music. And here’s a principle. When music is used to help communicate God’s truth, it functions like the frame of a picture. If you have a lovely work of art, you don’t want the frame to distract from the picture, or clash with the picture. It should enhance it. And draw our attention to the picture, helping us to appreciate it.

It’s the same with the wedding of words and music, when it comes to Christian songs. If the words and the music aren’t compatible, the result will be confusion. Both should be heading the same way. The music should help us understand the words. The comments of Bernard of Clairvaux (circa 1090 to 1153) on sacred music are of interest because they show this thinking nearly a thousand years ago:

“Let [the music] be sweet, but without levity, and while it pleases the ear, let it move the heart….It should not contradict the sense of the words, but rather enhance it.”

Now, let me meddle for a moment. That principle shows us precisely why it’s so difficult to take music with a pounding rock beat–music that, according to many secular musicians, preaches rebellion, and sexuality, and put a Christian lyric with it, and expect to have clear communication. It doesn’t work that way. Because the music and the words are saying something quite different.

In Deuteronomy, God warns the Israelites not to say, “How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” No, God says, “You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods” (Deut. 12:30-31). And as the Lord Jesus says later, “What is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15).

So, when we try to put those two together–worldly music and Christian lyrics, the frame doesn’t suit the picture very well. But even using the wrong hymn tune can do the same thing–even if it’s a perfectly good hymn tune. Let me give you an example.

Try singing the hymn Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed? to the tune used for the gospel song Faith Is the Victory (omitting the refrain of the latter). Then, try singing Faith is the Victory to the tune used for Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed? (a tune called Martyrdom).

The galloping rhythms of Ira Sankey’s tune suit the advancing army pictured in the text of Faith Is the Victory, but the tune Martyrdom would put the cavalry to sleep! Nor is Sankey’s rousing tune fitted to a prayerful meditation on the cross. The tune should provide an appropriate frame for the words.

3. The Presentation of the Song
In our services, much of the music is sung by the congregation. But at this point I want to consider particularly the music that’s presented from the platform. How it’s presented will have a definite influence on the message that comes across.

Some singers seem intent on drawing attention to themselves, and how good looking they are. In my own experience, having preached in many different churches, dress can be a problem, especially with respect to the current styles for women. Some can be decidedly immodest! Or perhaps the singer wants to call our attention to what a great voice he or she has, rather than focusing on the clear communication of God’s truth.

If we’re not careful, the congregation can get so enthralled with (or repelled by!)  the presentation that they lose sight of the message. We musicians need to meditate on the words of John the Baptist: “He [Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).

That is one reason I am against applauding after a ministry in music. Say what you like, the main message sent when we clap is, “Good job! Well done! You sure are talented!” But if folks are giving that much attention to the performance, then the one up front has failed. He has stopped being a minister of the Lord and has become an entertainer.

4. The Musician’s Known Lifestyle
Think again of a ministry in music from the platform. What do you know about the presenter? And I refer to his or her known lifestyle for this reason. It’s what we know about the person that’ll affect the integrity of the presentation. I’m not saying secret sins aren’t important to God. Of course they are. But I don’t know about them. So they don’t affect me the same way, when I listen.

For instance, I can listen to a recording of John Doe singing a hymn. And if he does it well, I can appreciate the message of the song. But I cringe when I hear some Hollywood type singing about the Lord. Some fellow that I know has a filthy mouth, or a bad moral reputation.

I’ve been in the mall, at Christmas time, and heard music over the PA. Maybe a Christmas hymn I love, and I’ve felt sick in the pit of my stomach. “Christ by highest heaven adored, / Christ the everlasting Lord…” And I know, in his life, the singer’s openly profaning that very name, by how he behaves.

The Word of God says that “for every word men speak they will give account in the day of judgment.” (Matt. 12:36). But my point here is that it’s what I know about the lifestyle of the musician that particularly affects the message of the song to me. I wonder how many needy people were turned off from the gospel, and from all preachers, and from all churches, when the wicked lifestyles of a couple of TV preachers were revealed, back in the 1980’s? It matters!

No, nobody’s perfect. But we need to take care of our walk with the Lord if we are going to minister to others. (Compare the many references to behaviour when the Bible describes those qualified to take leadership in the church, I Tim. 3:1-16; Tit. 1:5-9.) How we live will say as much as (or more than) the words that come out of our mouths. I could say more about this, but I want to move now to the fifth element.

5. The Social Context of the Music
And what I mean by that is this: We need to consider carefully just how the music, or music like it, is being used in other places. What is it associated with in people’s minds?

This is really a version of the “meat offered to idols” problem that Paul deals with in Corinthians (I Cor. 8:1-13). Meat previously offered to idols was often taken down to the market, and sold. (After all, why not? The idol wasn’t going to eat it!) And it was often excellent meat. So some Christians said, “Well, an idol isn’t a real god. So why can’t we buy the meat?” But other folks–maybe those who used to worship those very idols–felt terrible about it. They wanted no part of it.

And something similar can happen with music. If we insist that all music is neutral, and we’re going to use any music we like in church, we may be in danger of offending some, and causing them to stumble. I was in a church one time, and a fellow came to me afterward, quite upset. He said, “What are they doing playing that kind of music in here? That’s what I used to listen to in the bars. I came here to get away from it!”

As Martin Luther put it, our sacred music should “wean [people] away from…carnal songs, and teach them something of value in their place.” And I love what English essayist Robert Bridges had to say. He wrote:

If we consider and ask ourselves what sort of music we should wish to hear on entering a church, we should surely, in describing our ideal, say first of all that it must be something different from what is heard elsewhere. It should be a sacred music, devoted to its purpose, a music whose peace should still passion, whose dignity should strengthen our faith, whose unquestioned beauty should find a home in our hearts.

That’s pretty good. But it’s quite contrary to the prevailing attitude. The current thought is that we should give people the kind of music they listen to on the radio all week (with some appropriately christianized words), so that they’ll enjoy coming to church.

Listen to the perceptive words of Archibald Brown, a contemporary of Charles Spurgeon’s. (This sounds very up to date, even though it was written a century or so ago!)

It is only in the past few years that amusement has become the recognized instrument of our warfare and developed into a mission….The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church of Christ that part of her mission is to provide entertainment for people, with a view to winning them into the ranks. The human nature that lies in every heart has risen to the bait. Here now is an opportunity of gratifying the flesh and yet retaining a comfortable conscience. We can now please ourselves in order to do good to others.

Ouch! But that is what is being done. And as a result, instead of the church advancing into the world with a fiery gospel, the world has more and more encroached upon the church. We need a sacred music that is different from what is heard elsewhere, a music dedicated to the glory of God, not associated in people’s minds with the godless world.

I invite you to consider carefully the Total Message of our songs, as we seek to minister to the people of God in the house of God. Each of the elements is a factor contributing to the message we receive, and its clarity and effectiveness.


  1. […] Hymns – The “Total Message” of a Song- THE TOTAL MESSAGE = the Words + the Music + the Presentation + the Musician’s Known Lifestyle + […]

    • Thanks for linking to my article Scott. It’s a kind of distillation of a section of a Bible college course I taught called “Music in the Christian Life.” Hope folks find it profitable. God bless.

  2. […] THE “TOTAL MESSAGE” OF A SONG. Have you thought about what goes to make up the total message of a song? When we sing hymns and gospel songs, especially when they are presented to the people of God as a ministry in music, we need to consider how the message is communicated. Click on the title above to read about five important elements in the “total message.” […]

  3. […] response: God doesn’t need the “Total Message” I recently stumbled on this blog post.  I don’t normally respond to blog posts–let […]

    • I received this lengthy blog post challenging the validity of points made in this article. I certainly appreciate the time taken to comment on what I’ve written. But it seems to me that the writer (or writers, “Moses” and “Molly”) have sometimes misunderstood what I’m saying, and that their basic argument is flawed. I’ll quote from their post, and do my best to respond to them. (For brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to the writers as “MM.”)

      MM: He [meaning me] argues that the words of the song alone are not enough. All good music must also have a fitting style (which he views mostly as hymns), a God-honoring presentation (not man focused), a good moral character for the performer (he attacks the Christmas pop CDs that have secular artists singing Christmas hymns), and a social context (which is basically an argument that Christian music must be different than secular music).

      Several points there.

      1) Are the words ever enough? Yes, in certain limited circumstances. “The word of God is living and powerful” (Heb. 4:12). And sometimes sinners are convicted and converted by the Holy Spirit, through reading the Word of God, without any direct human agency. That is why the Gideons organization puts Bibles in hotel rooms and hospitals. God can, and does, work through His powerful Word. However, when a human messenger is introduced, whether he is preaching or singing the message of Scripture, that immediately introduces other pertinent factors. (More of this in a moment.)

      2) As to viewing all good music as hymns, or thinking hymns are the only good music, this is nonsense. I personally listen to, and enjoy, a wide spectrum of music, sacred and secular. But this particular blog is about hymns–which is why it is called Wordwise Hymns. My stated purpose is “to discuss the music we use in our churches–particularly our traditional hymns and gospel songs.” For the most part, I’m talking about what is found in the hymn book.

      3) “Attacking” Christmas pop CD’s is a little strong. But it does bother me when someone I’ve heard profaning the Lord’s name tries to sing His praises. As James puts it, “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (Jas. 3:10). What is known of the performer can affect the credibility of the message, for good or ill.

      MM: It accidentally puts our wonderful and all-powerful God in a “man’s reputation of God” (aka, man’s “testimony”) sized box.

      Well, there was nothing “accidental” about my article. Behind it are many hours of study, and years of interaction both with those who agree and those who disagree with me. As to putting God in “a man’s reputation of God…sized box,” if I understand this correctly, it is the main issue taken with my presentation.

      MM: God doesn’t need the “Total Message”….God is not dependent on the vehicle He chooses to convey His truth. He is bigger than the broken instruments He uses to proclaim His praises. When any man or woman, moral in the eyes of man or not, stands before a congregation to sing, he or she is a broken vessel to communicate God’s truth….In the Old Testament God even used a donkey (an unrepentant animal I am sure) to give Baalam truth! God can even use pop musicians with sinful lifestyles to teach His truth. He is that big.

      This seems to be the central core of the writers’ disagreement with me. But there is a vast difference between saying that an all-powerful God can make use of unrepentant and unregenerate instruments (and even donkeys), and saying that the spiritual condition of the messenger doesn’t matter. God made use of wicked Pharaoh (Rom. 9:17), but He also punished and destroyed him. Just because God is powerful enough to use the wrath men to bring praise to Himself (Ps. 76:10), does not mean that He winks at their rebellion. It is also true that “the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jas. 1:20).

      As to God not being dependent on man, there is an important sense in which that assertion is incorrect. A sovereign God has chosen to work through human instruments. “For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching” (I Cor. 1:21, NET Bible). “How shall they [the unsaved] call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14).

      MM: While he [Paul] was sitting in prison, some people were going out and preaching the Gospel “from envy and rivalry” (Phil. 1:15, ESV). These men were not preaching the truth out of love–they were trying to afflict Paul! And yet, despite the poor motivation, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:18 that that didn’t matter. Instead he rejoiced that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that [Paul] rejoice[s].”

      This is the passage some quote to make the argument that it doesn’t matter what the messenger is like, as long as the message is biblical. But we need to examine Paul’s comments carefully, and consider what else he has to say on the subject.

      The NIV’s paraphrase of Paul’s words in vs. 18 is most unfortunate. Paul didn’t simply shrug at the carnality of these preachers and say, “But what does it matter?” The NKJV is better with a more literal, “What then?” meaning, what is the result? The result was that Christ was preached. And in that fact, Paul could rejoice. Though he was gracious and forgiving regarding attempts to hurt him personally, the apostle would hardly say that it didn’t matter that those in Christian ministry were acting in “envy and strife” (vs. 15)! How do we know this?

      1) He condemned those in the Corinthian church who were exhibiting these very qualities (I Cor. 3:1-3).

      2) He is concerned that conduct unbecoming the gospel will cause the teachings of Scripture, and the person of God Himself, to be blasphemed (Rom. 2:21-24; I Tim. 6:1; Tit. 2:4-5).

      3) He tells the Thessalonian Christians that “this is the will of God, your sanctification…that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel [body] in sanctification and honour, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God….For God did not call us to uncleanness, but in holiness” (I Thess. 4:3-5, 7).

      4) He states that those in Christian ministry should be “blameless,” and “of good behaviour,” having “a good testimony,” “reverent, not double tongued [not sending mixed messages],” “holding the mystery of the faith with a good conscience,” and so on (I Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9).

      5) He exhorts Timothy to “be an example to the believers in word, [and] in conduct” (I Tim. 4:12), and to “keep yourself pure” (I Tim. 5:22). He urges Timothy, as a “man of God,” to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness,” and serve “without spot, blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ’s appearing” (I Tim. 6:11, 14). He wants him to be “a vessel for honour, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared [ready] for every good work” (II Tim. 2:21).

      6) He likewise admonishes Titus, “Speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine….in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you” (Tit. 2:1, 7-8).

      7) And this emphasis was not new. As a Hebrew scholar, Paul would know that these admonitions were in harmony with what the Old Testament demanded of the Levitical priests (Exod. 19:22; Lev. 21:6; Isa. 52:11; Mal. 2:4-9; 3:3). See also the article on my website, Wordwise Bible Studies, called Sacred Music. It concerns the preparation of the Levitical priests for a music ministry.

      For your interest, here is John Calvin’s comment on Paul’s words in Philippians chapter 1:

      We ought, therefore, to rejoice if God accomplishes anything that is good by means of wicked persons; but they ought not on that account to be either placed by us in the ministry, or looked upon as Christ’s lawful ministers.

      Years ago, I worked in a commercial advertising firm with a man who, in my parents’ day, had been a popular evangelist. But he frankly told me that he didn’t believe a word of what he was preaching back then. That it was all a show. So, were any saved through his ministry? Yes, I know a man who was, who later became a pastor. But that does not make the evangelist’s hypocrisy either unimportant or benign. As to church music, the factors I discuss in the article do affect the message that is delivered. And if we insist that it is okay to send mixed signals because God is sovereign and powerful and He’ll overrule, we are violating Scripture, dishonouring the Lord, and weakening our ministry.

  4. […] together: Words + Music + Performance + Musician’s known lifestyle + Social context = the Total Message of a Song (cf. Ps. 139:15-16; I Cor. 12:12; Eph. […]

  5. […] I realize some will dismiss my critique with the argument that “this is just the fashion these days.” But aren’t Christians to live differently from worldly fashion (cf. II Cor. 6:14–7:1). This may be the kind of music the world enjoys, but should we not be calling them to something different? Something higher? Too often, “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Lk. 16:15). Others will tell me these things are “just a matter of taste,” but I strongly disagree. There are key biblical principles involved. I discuss this in more detail in the article, The Total Message of a Song. […]


%d bloggers like this: