The Story Behind the Song
Faith formation is an important part of church ministry. This is the third article in a series on how to encourage faith nurture in your congregation’s worship.
Songs have a way of getting into our heads and not letting go of us. They have a way of allowing us to express or experience feelings that aren’t easily expressed in other ways. Singing helps us to share and express ideas that are bigger than our own faith and our own experience. Even hearing certain songs can bring to mind places and people in our past. These songs don’t just live in our minds—they work their way into our hearts, into our lives, and even into our theology.
Here’s an example. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached hundreds of sermons. His brother, Charles, wrote hymns. It’s probably safe to say that today few Christians can tell us much about John Wesley’s sermons. On the other hand, Charles’s hymns—including “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” and “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”—live in the hearts and memories of generations of Christians. Charles’s songs have had a longer life than John’s sermons. That’s because songs stick with us like almost nothing else.
This is nothing new, of course. Scripture tells about songs that were sung by God’s people on a number of occasions. Moses’ sister Miriam sings a song of praise when God leads the Israelites across the Red Sea. Hannah sings her prayer as she gives her son Samuel to the Lord for service in the tabernacle. Mary sings a song when she hears from the angel that she is to have a child. There are others too, such as Deborah and Simeon. And let’s not forget David, one of the great singers of the Bible. All of these men and women knew that at times of great joy or sadness they could sometimes express themselves most fully in a song.
Telling Our Stories
We can use these songs and the memories they bring to mind to nurture our faith as we worship together. Asking our brothers and sisters in Christ to talk about the songs that mean something special to them gives us a chance to see something of what shaped their faith, what helps them come closer to God, and what gives them comfort and hope.
Some songs find their way into our hearts because of a powerful message that stays with us. Debbie leads children’s worship in her church, where she taught kids the song “Be Still and Know.” It is one of the first songs she mentions when asked about what songs are special to her. It reminds her that when things aren’t going well, she needs to be still and recall that God is God and she is not, that whatever is going on, God has it under control. “Be Still and Know” helps Debbie remember that God is at the center of the universe.
Other songs have more personal meanings. Whenever Gwen hears the song “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” she thinks of her grandmother. It was her favorite song. When Gwen was a young girl, her grandmother wrote all the words to this song in an autograph book that Gwen still has today. That song is linked with her grandmother in Gwen’s memory even all these years later. As she thinks again about those words, which live in her heart as well as in that book, she remembers how important it was to her then, and still is now, that one of the names we have for Jesus is “friend.”
Some songs bring us back to special events. Bob remembers singing the song “Step by Step” at the funeral of a close friend who died unexpectedly. Singing the words at that time reminded him and the others gathered for the funeral that sometimes we can only see one step ahead of us. Even so, we need to take that step in faith and know that God is there with us.
Some of the stories associated with songs of faith are humorous. Marge remembers all the words to the song “Gracious Lord, Remember David” because she and her classmates always chose to sing that song when she was in school—more than seventy years ago. Why that song? It had six long stanzas, and singing it meant the kids could delay the start of their daily lessons. Although the reason for selecting the song may not have been theologically sound, the words to that song—all six stanzas—have remained in Marge’s head and heart for all these years.
Seeing the Spirit’s Work in Our Lives
Stories like these help us learn a bit more about our brothers and sisters in Christ. More than that, they help us see how the Spirit worked and continues to work in their hearts. We can see how their life’s journey has been shaped by the words of Scripture and the words of songs relaying the truths of Scripture. Sharing these stories helps us build authentic community and encourages us to be more thoughtful and articulate about our faith.
Sharing these stories in worship can add depth and new meaning to singing for a congregation. By asking questions like “What song has special meaning for you, and why?” the church can build a storehouse of wonderful stories that will add richness to its congregational singing. The pastor or music director or worship planner can gather these stories and include them in worship.
Imagine the power of singing “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew” if you had read in the bulletin that morning that Bethany, a young woman in the church, remembers that song well because her parents told her they’d requested it be sung when she was baptized and that she, in turn, requested it when she made profession of faith. Because that song has special meaning for her, she has often reflected on the profound truth that her desire to seek God was placed in her by God’s Spirit. This song shaped her theology.
Hearing stories like these in worship also encourages family members to share with each other songs that have shaped their family’s faith. We asked Gwen if she had ever told her children the story of her grandmother’s favorite song. She thought for a minute, smiled, and said, “You know what? I don’t think I have. I probably should.”
By simply asking our congregation to think about the stories behind the songs that have special meaning to them we are opening up the rich experiences of our brothers and sisters in Christ to the whole congregation so that we can grow in our faith and reflect anew on God’s work in our lives.
Proceed with Caution
Bob and Laura Keeley point out in their article that it is often the association between a song and a particular moment in time that gives it meaning. So, for example, for Debbie the song “Be Still and Know” holds meaning because of she and the kids in children’s worship sing it weekly. For Gwen “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” has meaning because of what her grandmother wrote. Each of us can probably tell our own song stories—which is precisely why we must proceed with caution when negatively critiquing a song.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I once dismissed a song as “schmaltzy”—a piece of romantic fluff with no musical or theological muscle. My statement was overheard by a mother who had chosen that song for her son’s funeral. Not a pastorally stellar moment. But what I still find amazing is this: through that embarrassing situation the song immediately gained significance and meaning. From that moment on I happily included it in worship services, knowing that for many it is a reminder of God’s grace during a difficult time. And there’s nothing schmaltzy or romantic about that.
Worship planners and leaders often learn similar lessons. Maybe your congregation always sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve or “Christ the Lord Has Risen Today” on Easter or . . . These traditions are the foundations of sealing in our hearts the songs that stay with us beyond the singing itself. Knowing that, we need to proceed with caution when introducing new songs to our congregations. Remember, the songs you sing may take on meaning and significance that go well beyond the words and music!