In Random Neural Firings, Thoughts on Writing

Generally speaking, music appeals first to our emotions. What is it about a beautiful melody, or evocative harmonies that appeals to the heart?  And if it has a great beat, music reaches some primal drive in us. Music can also appeal to the intellect, but that mostly happens to music nerds.

And I am confident when I say there are no nerds quite like us music nerds. Can I get an “Amen?”

Lyrics, on the other hand, can readily appeal to both the emotions or the intellect, depending on the song and its purpose. Some lyrics are powerful enough to make us feel and think. For the last century, the words to most popular secular music have appealed to our emotions, with “romance” being the chief target. (Nothing wrong with that.) Even the most serious protest songs of the 1960s, reached us with metaphor and emotion more than facts and philosophies. And since Contemporary Church Music has largely followed trends set in the secular world (for good or for ill), much of it has also relied on its emotional appeal, more than its theological substance.

Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?  It depends, I suppose, on the song’s purpose.

Full confession: The majority of the Christian songs I’ve written in my 40+ years of songwriting were aimed first at the emotions. That is not to say I didn’t work to make those songs theologically sound. I did. And I hope some of them caused listeners to think, as well. But the first appeal of the lyrics was to the heart. That said, virtually all those songs were written for solo artists or choirs to perform, and not for congregations to sing in corporate worship.

And there is a difference.

A song performed for a listener needs to reach the listener quickly and leave her with something memorable to ponder. The challenge for the Christian songwriter is to artfully put Biblical truth in the song that will seep in to the listener’s mind, set to music that will touch the listener’s heart.  Further, a song performed by an artist (or even a choir) often intends to make a personal connection: “This is my experience. Perhaps it is yours, as well.”  There is a long tradition of the effective use of such songs, as performances, in worship services.

However, corporate worship is not a performance. (To be clear, even those songs that are performed by soloists and choirs during a worship service, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, are part of something more important than a performance.) The songs we sing together in worship are burdened with intellectual and theological responsibilities: To profess a Holy God, affirm the faith, and to teach or reinforce Biblical Truth.

(Corporate worship music is also burdened with the musical responsibility to be singable by a large group. But that is another issue for another blog.)

In my opinion, which is worth exactly what you paid for it, corporate worship is not the place so much for songs that dwell on “how I feel about Jesus.” Rather, songs sung in corporate worship should to speak to our intellect (by virtue of what the Scripture teaches) more than to our emotions.

 Consider these opening hymn lines: Immortal, invisible, God only wise/In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. In two short phrases we sing four powerful attributes of an unchanging God. These are things we know about God, not how we feel about Him. The hymn text is literally teaching the singer sound theology.

Similarly, consider the theology tucked away in these examples:

I hear the Savior say, “Thy strength indeed is small./Child of weakness, watch and pray. Find in me thine all in all.

 Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth./Ye who sang creation’s story, now proclaim Messiah’s birth.

 A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.

 What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss/To bear the dreadful curse for my soul?

All of these lyrics are infused with theological truth, phrased in genuine poetic beauty.

By comparison, many (Not all.) modern worship songs are long on “I feel” and short on “I know.” They are filled with references to “I” and “me” rather than to the Triune God and “we.” They are more therapeutic in nature, than they are illuminating or educating.

So here’s an observation that is sure to upset some folks:

A great many contemporary worship songs are really performance-oriented artist songs being foisted on congregations as corporate worship music.

  1. Their intent is to make the worshiper feel rather than to think.
  2. Musically, they are best suited for individuals (or very small groups), rather than large groups.
  3. They contain very little substantive theology.
  4. They exhibit a primarily personal experience point-of-view.

There is nothing wrong per se with any of those things, so long as we are talking about artist-oriented songs for performance. But if we are talking about corporate singing in worship, all of those things are largely wrong.

But maybe that’s just how I feel about it. What about you?


Showing 53 comments
  • Barbara Billingsley

    Yep. Hit the nail on the head once again.

  • Kathi Basel

    Totally agree!!! Well put!

  • Greg Gathright

    We go to great lengths and gyrations to avoid the “P” word. It is IMHO a holy performance, using the God-given gifts and talents to honor and proclaim the Maker. To ascribe a demeaning definition to what we do misses the point. Everything we do should be done in a spirit of worship.

    • Robert Sterling

      Thx for the insight, Greg. The ego being what it is, it really is difficult to deal with words like “performance” in a worship setting.

  • Larry Collins

    Perfectly stated. You write blogs as well as you write lyrics.
    The bane of many Millennials is their focus on themselves and it shows up even in their worship. “How do I feel?” Worship should be about Him, not us. Feel-good Faith is shallow. I’m reminded of the difference between joy and happiness. Happy is from the same root word as happenstance. Happiness is temporary, fleeting, and determined by circumstances. Joy is abiding, and rooted in permanence.
    I once knew a worship leader whose title was “Pastor of Magnification.” It sounds grandiose but his job was to lead the congregation to magnify the Lord. O magnify the Lord with me and let us exhalt His name together.
    Preach on!

    • Robert Sterling

      Excellent points, LC. I think we are all capable of getting lost in our own feelings. But we are truly short-sighted if we don’t realize that our feelings can mislead us.

    • Jonathan

      Coming from a baby boomer, the most self-absorbed generation in modern history, and the generation that continues to push pop worship on us, I’d find a better way of beginning your comment.

    • Robert Sterling

      Jonathan – Are you questioning Larry’s opening comment that I’m a great blogger and songwriter? 🙂 Or that he took on Millennials? I’m gonna go with the Millennials approach. Look, I’m a Boomer and I know we are a spoiled lot. But I hate it when we start ripping one another over any sort of categorical term, whether it be generational or denominational. We should be better than that. (And that goes for Larry, too.)

      Enjoy your blog, btw. It’s always thought-provoking. And I’ve gained a greater appreciation and understanding for the liturgical approach to worship from your perspective.

  • Joan Cumming

    My Eyernal King and Amazing Grace comes to mi d. No More Night and of all the pieces written, ‘Savior’ resonates in my heart every time we had the privilege of singing it. I am in complete agreement about your various thoughts on music. When nothing else can touch our heart and soul it does. I have had no -Christians come up and say how moved they were by a song with words from the Bible and how deeply it touched them. .

    • Robert Sterling

      No doubt, music has the power to reach just about everybody. And I know there is music that reaches some people and not others. The fact that non-Believers can be affected by the songs we sing is all the more reason to be sure the songs we sing are well-crafted.

  • Patricia Mock

    In entering a new season of life and searching for a new church home, perhaps this is why we FEEL such a lack in our worship experience and totally echo your sentiments.. very sad.

    • Robert Sterling

      You and i are at a place, admittedly and inevitably perhaps, where and we don’t necessarily like the changes. And I try to not let every song that is sung in church that i don’t like to get to me. But it’s tough – being the natural-born curmudgeon that I am. 🙂

  • Mike Vickers

    Thank you for these wise words. Just as I wish I could play baseball like Freddie Freeman, I wish I could write as well as you. Thank you for the gift of your music and your blog writing.

    Our men are about to sing your arrangement of “We Followed the Man” for Father’s Day. At the end of the song I want the congregation to feel like they could run through a wall (for Jesus, of course).

    • Robert Sterling

      Thx for the kind words! And please give my best to your men! I love that song and Claire Cloninger’s words were where the song began.

  • Jenifer Cook

    Heartily agree with our music should be God-centered and not self-centered (meaning: how I feel)
    A lack of theological text in our day 🙁
    Thanks for sharing your heart 🙂

    • Robert Sterling

      I’m not opposed to “I feel” moments in worship. I think it’s one of the ways we share in each other’s joys and difficulties – and relate better to one another as Believers and fellow human beings. But a steady diet of “I feel” – particularly in corporate singing – wears thin.

  • Vikki Schwarz


  • Todd Wilson
    • Robert Sterling

      Yes, the connection of music to memory is fascinating. I wonder if melody plays an important role in that connection?

  • Donny Monk

    As usual, very well stated! I couldn’t agree more. To be able to discern between solo/performance songs and those suitable for congregational singing is a must for the worship leader. It’s actually not strictly a new challenge. There have been songs best left to the soloist for quite some time. I’m thinking some oldies like “The Holy City”, “The Lord is My Light”, most of the songs from “The Messiah”, etc.

    Today, the danger is thinking that just because it shows up in the CCLI Top 100, everybody’s going to love it and sing along.

    • Robert Sterling

      You may have hit on something: What makes a Top 100 List of songs done by recording artists an indicator of what might be an effective song in corporate singing? Maybe we humans just wanna know what everybody else thinks is cool???

  • Denise Tidwell

    I cannot agree more! So much fluff, not enough substance.

    • Robert Sterling

      There is some new music with substance – and our hymnals are filled with songs that were once new. There will be some culling and separating wheat over time. I think sometimes that P&W music is a victim of its own success. Now EVERYBODY wants to write their own songs – and so a zillion new songs (most of which are not really very good) are written every year – and who has the time to sift through all that?

  • Travis Boyd

    Your comment about some modern worship songs being really artist songs is very true. The nature of an appropriate corporate worship song, reading, or congregational prayer is one that is simple in nature and easy to learn. However, with enough repetition most congregations can pick up on somewhat syncopated rhythms and unusual phasing, if they are presented clearly and consistently.

    Regardless of the genre of song, the question we must ask is, “Will this song serve as a vehicle to offer praise to God, exhort the saints, and/or enrich our spiritual growth with its message? Just because a song speaks to us personally does not guarantee it will enhance a corporate worship setting. Strip away the musical trappings and then determine if it can make a real impact on the person hearing or singing it. There is a reason songs like “Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art” are known the world over. I suspect that there are some modern worship songs that will stand the test of time as well. (As long as worship leaders continue to use them.)

    • Robert Sterling

      Excellent observation, Travis. And though I am no fan of most new P&W music, my goal was not to slam it as a genre, but point out how very much of it fails to really instruct or enrich. A little bit of “I feel” goes a long way. And you are absolutely correct that time alone will tell the fate of this music. And time could well prove me wrong.

  • Jane Townsend

    Totally agree. Thank you for expressing your feeling about music for worship. God centered.

  • Patti

    Well stated, Rob. As I sit through our home church music I see (on the screens) and hear so much of the “I feel” and hear fewer and fewer “powerful” anthems that raise the hair on your arms and stir your heart. I, too, want to be open to the acceptance of newer music but am not moved by much of the de-caffeinated pieces I hear at home and in certain reading sessions of late. Le sigh…

    • Robert Sterling

      “De-caffienated” — I may have to steal that. I’m with you. I want to like new music. I really do. I’ve made my livelihood with new music. But I cannot turn off my songwriter brain, even when I’m singing in church. And if there is no “there” there, it’s difficult for me not to notice. As for it slipping into the choral world – that’s a whole other discussion…

  • Marty Funderburk

    Sadly, the “worship” portion of my church’s service leans more toward “artist performance”…for many reasons (keys, volume, set, personalities, etc), so I guess those songs are appropriate for the setting.

  • Dave Foley

    You said, “Can I get an amen?” Well, here it is:

  • Kathy Priestley

    Thank you for reminding us that worship calls us to claim what we “know” about God. This article is so succinct as to evaluating music for worship. Well said.

  • Dave McKay

    Nailed it, Robert.

  • Paul C Smith

    Well, you know I could expound on this topic a lot longer then I have room here for LOL …however, I teach in an environment where students main focus is to become worship leaders in their church or even overseas so my perspective is a bit different I suppose. I agree that most modern worship music is “de-caffeinnated”, I do see moments where the “I feel” and the ” I know” are refreshingly beginning to come closer together. And interestingly enough, most of the students there are ready for something different on both levels. I sense that they are weary of wading through the “sub-culture” that modern worship music has created and is somewhat demanded of them in the environment they are required to participate in. With that being said, i do not allow them in their vocal studies to prepare worship songs that they sing on Sunday morning, simply because there is very little vocal challenge to those songs…there, I said it!… they are also pushed out of the box in songwriting and theory classes, because that is where they grow and become more creative…and the one thing I stress upon them is to learn everything they can, because if 40 years of experience in Christian music has taught me is that someday it’s going to change, and the more you know, the more you will be prepared when it does….I could go on, but….

    • Robert Sterling

      Awesome insights, Paul. From one who has been there…Thx! And it is heartening to hear that your students are trying to meld the “I feel” and “I know.” You know, I think it should be a weightier concern to write congregational music than performance-artist songs.

  • Michael Cork

    Robert, as usual, thanks for your thoughts and insights. As one who has led/directed/ planned church music for around 45 years now I am sometimes encouraged by what I see in worship music now and other times shake my head. Some of the responses on this blog have been directed at millennials and rightly so. But they aren the only ones that have written songs based on feelings. I call the time of church music in the early 1900’s the “romantic period” of hymnody. Writers went overboard trying to convince us that “every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before” or “Freedom from vain and worldly ambition” “I’m rejoicing night and day as I walk the narrow way” “long ago I gave them up and Instantly….” . Even songs from the 70’s had lyrics like “All fear is Gone” Needless to say, we older folks grew up singing a lot of gospel songs about an unattainable walk with Christ free from despair or pain. As I was reminded in a management class on 4 or 5 different generations in the work force at the same time , that we can’t be too upset with the new “ME” generation because the original “ME” generation (boomers) raised them. If we are struggling with the young church we have to realize…. we raised them. The whole “Seeker centered” church that our generation sold the younger generation has developed into a church more interested in being liked by the lost rather than loving the lost and praying for their salvation. Man, I sound old.

    • Robert Sterling

      First – thanks for your insight from 4+ decades trenches. You re right – this isn’t a generational issue. The Greatest generation raised the Boomers, and the Boomers raised the Millennials. So we need to be careful where we point fingers. 🙂 And just as we shouldn’t judge any group of people based on some perceived age-related connection, we shouldn’t judge an entire category of songs based on a classification designed to help sell those songs. That said, there are definite tendencies and trends that happen in just about every form of popular music. And right now, I’m seeing a trend of “I feel” at the expense of “I think”, or even “I know because it’s scriptural.” But it’s been heartening to read from other comments that there might be a shift coming.

      And btw, if you’re old, I guess i am, too, then. We should keep that news a secret.

  • Chris Machen

    I get the feeling that the feeling you are feeling is the feeling that a lot of us who feel are feeling the same way. Do you feel me?

  • Larry White

    Seems to me that the principle job of Praise and Worship teams is to prepare the “atmosphere” for the pastor’s delivery of the Word. In that context, seems like much of the contemporary “feel good” music draws young people to something that sounds familiar to them and then leaves the pastor to deliver Biblical truth on some kind of level that his/her congregation can understand and apply in their lives outside the walls of the church. Great blog Robert.

    • Robert Sterling

      Thx for commenting , Larry. All those things are happening – yes. I’m no expert on liturgical worship, but I think the music sung in worship should serve a greater purpose than merely preparing for the sermon. (And I love a good sermon.) You may have hit on a separate issue altogether: Are we putting too much emphasis on the importance of the sermon? (I don’t know.) The music, like Communion, the taking of an offering, prayer time – all of it – is part of worship.

      We are clearly hitting on a topic that a lot of us are thinking about. And the thoughtful comments here are evidence of that.

  • Bruce Maples

    Too much to say to leave in a single comment, so I’ll just throw in some bullets.

    — I agree with your basic premise, that many choruses are not built for group singing, and the mumbling attempts by the congregation demonstrate that.
    — I have found much contemporary worship to be shallow and feeling-focused, as you say. Apparently, we wanted to leave the (supposedly) dead world of hymns, so instead we went to emotion-only music. (Big generality, but I’m going to leave it.)
    — Having planned and led pretty much all styles of worship, I continue to come back to the Isaiah 6 pattern:
    1. Praise and awe
    2. Awareness of sin and confession
    3. Assurance of pardon
    4. Call and response
    — It seems to me that in any of these sections, songs about personal emotions can fit in, as well as teaching songs, conceptual songs, and so forth. The main requirement, I think, is a worship experience that is reflective of both God and human experience, and not just a venue for performing.
    — The problem with some contemporary worship services is that they skip all four of those elements and go right to “God is good, I’m good, you’re good, bring out the fatted calf.”

    All right, enough. At this point I’m edging close to “get off my lawn.” 🙂

    • Robert Sterling

      Some great points, Bruce. Thanks for commenting. (And your closing bit of humor. :))

  • Susan Whitacre

    I fear that what you’re putting a finger on is just a symptom of a greater theological problem that permeates American Evangelical Christianity as a whole. Our consumer culture has mixed with errors in interpretation of scripture to create some really unorthodox views of the purpose of worship in MANY evangelical churches these days. The focus in general (not just in music) is often “how it makes me feel” rather than “am I giving the glory to God?”, and “am I submitting myself to what God has instituted?”. I see it fleshed out in music for sure, but I believe that it is an outworking of the deeper beliefs of a movement in the church away from the timeless truth of scripture and towards the immediate, yet fleeting grip of emotions. Matthew 15:18 – For what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart. Self-focus in life and faith equals self-focus in worship. Much of the P&W music that I take issue with comes from just a handful of groups that are directly born out of some really theologically sketchy movements (Word of Faith, New Apostolic Reformation, etc) that are very self-focused, emotion driven. Some very interesting things to think about in lyric writing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Robert Sterling

      You’re welcome, Susan. And thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  • Craig Adams

    Robert, you are an initiator of important dialogue and critical thought! Like the music you write, every thought and phrase has been carefully crafted. Thank you for sharing!

    My 2 cents-

    Every generation has been marked by a creative thumbprint. From the dawn of the arts, the pulp of expression has been squeezed out of the vice of cultural context. Many of the songs mentioned throughout this thread were born out of a strange cultural and theological “Prego”: war, persecution, reformation, revival, debate, victory, longing, slavery, disappointment, healing, loss, faith, salvation, pride…” it’s all in there.”

    Although I don’t “get” the praise and worship vernacular my 18-year-old plays and sings daily, I do realize that feeling the move of the Holy Spirit is supremely important to young people today. As I have watched closely and tried to learn from younger folks, it has occurred to me that these “millennials” have never known a world void of toppling skyscrapers, burning villages, blood-soaked schools, disrespected leadership, broken vows, inundating opinion (like the one I’m sharing now-Ha!), global division, war, theological cage matches, social media… In the digital age, we are blitzed daily by so much information that it can be difficult to know what to think, whom one can trust… and even what to feel.

    The young people in my sphere of influence are (by-in-large) desperately seeking the fruits of the Spirit. It is a sad commentary upon the heads of those of us who’ve blazed a trail before them- all too often, the construct of a worship song is one of the only places young hearts and minds can find solace… shelter… escape from the swirling cacophony of Godlessness around them.

    Bear in mind that this conversation has been ongoing for centuries. Zadok, along with the appalled parents of Martin Luther, Joseph Hayden, Charles Wesley, and Bill Gaither, threatened to lock his descendants in their rooms on prom night because of the “abhorrent rhythms and rhymes of beelzebub” that were emerging from Levitical campfire “tarry” sessions. 😉

    One day, we will all sing the same song.

    • Robert Sterling

      Thx for the input, Craig. As the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

  • David Basel

    Of course you know I agree. Problem is the “American Church” is moving in the wrong direction musically. Mostly because we have it too good. We measure God’s goodness by our stuff rather than who He is.

    I had a profound experience picking up my iced tea at Dunkin Donuts on the way to work this morning. Most of the employees are Haitians, very new to this country. I’ve been to Haiti and there is a very different approach to music and worship in their churches (many of which are more sticks for walls and tin or palms for roofs. At first I was annoyed to hear a lady singing as she prepared the food for the long lines of hungry folks until I realized that she we singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in Creole. She didn’t even need a band and lighting to worship a God who is blessing her. I took a moment when she gave me my veggie egg white wrap to show appreciation for her singing. She smiled and started in on the fifth verse.

  • Scott Millsap

    Being a Boomer myself, I have to basically agree with your post. I can’t tell you the number of times I have been listening to the radio (contemporary praise/worship) and thought to myself, “This sounds like the anthem of a really new Christian who is just overjoyed with his newfound relationship with Jesus.” I know that’s an over-simplification, but that’s what I think when I hear some songs. While this is all great and good, and we should ALL be so joyous of our relationship with Jesus, my point is something more than that.

    I can understand how you get the whole “feel” mentality, and I mostly agree with that. And if I were to sit down and have a conversation with the song writers, I would probably come away with my basic premise, which is the joy of a new Christian. This joy, of course, is based on their feelings at the time they wrote the song. So, I totally understand. But, I don’t care for it in corporate worship.

    I grew up singing hymns, as many of us did, back in the day. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times the great theology contained in MOST hymns has come to mind during difficult situations. Not only that, but it deepens my walk with Jesus. Hymns are my heart-songs for many reasons, this being the main one.

    So, I totally get what you are saying in your post, and I agree with it. I have difficulties singing songs that I call 7-11 songs in worship services. Seven words repeated 11 times. I have been in worship services and heard contemporary songs and thought “What did we just sing???”

    All this to say, I agree that we need to be focused on our relationship with Jesus during our corporate worship, not just a “feeling” we had at some point. We do far too much feeling and not enough thinking in our worship today, if you ask me.

  • John Meyer

    I appreciate your blog, and I “feel” your pain! Your remarks made me think of many of David’s psalms which begin with David singing about how he is feeling, often times in despair. However, he doesn’t stop the song just expressing his feelings. He always ends with what he knows about the Lord God; how he can trust in Him. He magnifies His God and praises His attributes, knowing He is at work and will bring deliverance from the present distress. Keep thinking and writing: music and blogs!

  • Nancy Middlemas

    I have not found in the New Testament a definite ‘to do list’ for worship. In my humble opinion, after having led worship for years, we are focused too much on exact forms of liturgy that follow a denomination . Richard Foster talks about creating a “Holy Expectancy” like the time in the motel I was singing softly an upbeat well known spiritual and the clerk behind the desk suddenly joined me caught up in the same spirit! Eventually we should be so aware of the presence of the Awe-Inspiring God that we “feel” a part of Him and seek to find Him everywhere. That may include finding inspiration in a band-led song of praise. For me, I like hymns and anthems that enlighten another aspect of God’s presence in our Lives. That involves good lyric writing, and let’s face it, an inspiring melody or chord sequence. I learned a good bit of scripture from well written anthem and hymns. Totally agree with Robert.

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