Can you teach me to sing the Song of Songs?
Sorry, we don’t sing them.
But you are the ‘church’.
Yes, but we don’t sing them. We sing ‘praise and worship’ songs.
Oh ok, what are praise and worship songs?
They are songs of praise, adoration or prayer to God.
What else do you sing?
We don’t sing anything else.
Ok, can we sing those ‘praise and worship’ songs this evening? I will bring my friends along.
No, we sing them only on Sunday at church. You can join us on Sunday, we also have an amazingly talented ‘worship leader’.
Oh, who is a ‘worship leader’?
A talented singer or musician who leads the worship time.
Thank you. I thought you could teach me some good songs that I can sing every day even outside the church. I should look for them somewhere else.
Church, do you see the world longing for honest, meaningful songs that they can sing in the journey of their lives? Do you have a song for them? The conversation above is fictional, but it tells us that we as humans long for songs and stories that relate to our whole existence. Songs are not just happy things that we possess in our minds. They are so powerful that they can even shape the possessor. They can lead and guide us with hope. Guide us to our longings or back to home. Makoto Fujimura an amazing artist who did the below work Song of Songs once said, “We, today, have a language to celebrate waywardness, but we do not have a cultural language to bring people back home.”
Do you have a song for our children or young teenagers in their pursuit of identity, love, career? For a young couple in romance and marriage. For engineers, businessmen, janitors, teachers, in their work and business. For mothers, fathers, grandparents in their fears and joys of raising children and building families. For the homeless, jobless, sick, poor and brokenhearted for their difficult times. Good songs can help us make sense of our lives in times of joy or sadness or even loss. They unite us, inspire us, lighten us and even restore us.
Songs can unite us, inspire us, lighten us and even restore us.
But why has contemporary Christianity shied away from common songs? Why has it restricted singing only to a religious or devotional purpose? Why don’t we sing the Song of Songs today? I don’t mean Song of Songs in its strict sense, but yes, do we sing songs about love, marriage, sexuality, friendship, justice, beauty, hope, prosperity, creativity, along with our neighbors? All of life matters to God, not just our religion. We don’t worship a God who is in a temple or church building somewhere. We worship God who comes to us and lives in us by making our bodies his temple. (John 14:23) Imagine, God has moved in permanently to stay with you. Therefore, all my being matters to God, not just what I do at church or during evangelism.
Unfortunately, church over many centuries bought into a theology that said that there is something called sacred and secular. Whatever you do for the church or evangelism is made sacred, and the rest of life is secular. (I have written about this error earlier here.) Since according to this theology ‘secular life’ has no eternal value. Business, economics, science, art, politics, etc were not considered important and often discouraged.
Therefore the church did not write songs about the so-called secular life. Devotional or evangelistic songs are important, don’t get me wrong (Ephesians 5:19). Bhakti and Sufi traditions that influenced the church in India celebrated devotional songs. But these devotional songs are usually sung within a religious tradition, not with everyone. To be honest, which songs do you sing with your neighbors who are not Christians? I know there are some patriotic or Bollywood songs you may sing. But why didn’t you (church) write songs that all could sing? If you understand true love, freedom, courage, hope, why not write songs about it. Thank God for Bono, Johnny Cash and the likes who gave the world some beautiful songs that our non-Christian neighbors too can sing with us.
I am not a music connoisseur but I listen to a few artists like Johnny Cash, Sissel Kyrkjebo, etc. There is one song by Sissel Kyrkjebo and Neil Sedaka titled “Breaking up is hard to do” I don’t know how much we as a church talk about sacrificial love in marriage (probably very little) but this is a song couples should be singing together often.
I think such popular songs are more spiritual than many contemporary ‘worship songs’. Probably because they are honest. Unfortunately, many of our contemporary Christian songs is about sounding nice and pleasant. Bono and Eugene Peterson discusses it in this video on Psalms.
I think a song that honestly connects to your story and echos your longings has the power to guide you. Our world desperately needs such songs that guide us to love and beauty not hate and despair like most of our contemporary songs.
We are called to make disciples. Teach everything that God taught us. (Matthew 28:19–20) Don’t you think writing beautiful songs for your neighbors to sing along with you is being faithful to that great commission? Songwriters and musicians, think about it. By over-consuming contemporary ‘worship songs’ have we lost sight of our neighbor whom we are also called to love?
Writing beautiful songs for your neighbors to sing along with you is also being faithful to that great commission.
That doesn’t mean we accommodate the world and sing along with the world its songs of despair, hate and sensuality. Instead, we ought to bring hope and joy of the kingdom of God amid the darkness. Maybe even confront the narrative of the dark world. Remember, you are the light.
It is time we discard false understandings and excuses here. “Serving God as a songwriter or musician mean making only religious or evangelistic music.” If that is true, God would have also asked the farmers to produce evangelistic mangoes. That is nonsense. Sadly church had made its artists think that biblically themed art is the only legitimate form of art. That is not true.
I heard many say “Rock music is evil.” Music intrinsically is not evil, it is a gift from God. Some forms of music may have an evil history or intent, but we are called to redeem it to its original beauty and purpose.
Some may say, “secular themes are a waste of time, evangelism is the priority.” They expect people have to accept Jesus after listening to a song. Songs stir our emotions, but using songs to manipulate emotions is not evangelism. Being faithful to what God has called you for is priority. Doing your job well as a pilot or a janitor is of the same importance as evangelism. (Matthew 5:15,16) (Philippians 4:8)
Many musicians may say “People won’t sing our songs, they sing Bollywood songs or other popular songs.” That may be true. But that is not an excuse. God has called us to be faithful, not popular. Your songs may not be popular across India at first. Connect with the community you belong to, make songs with them and for them. Participate in common events to sing with them. There are no shortcuts for excellence. Keep making and singing. One day you will produce a few great songs that India loves to sing.
A Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher once said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Songs shape a nation, not just its laws. Are we not called to disciple nations? By teaching the songs of love, justice, beauty, faithfulness, hope, healing that you can sing along with your neighbor or even with your enemies you have already begun disciplining them. So what are we waiting for?
My friend Prince Mulla is a wonderful musician and a songwriter. A few years back he was in Kashmir teaching children music in an area where militants were very active — here death, gunfire, bullet holes are common things. His testimony and genuine commitment to gift his music to the local community built trust. Parents felt safer to send their children to learn music from Prince than to keep them at home. One of the songs that he wrote with the children has become the school song in that area. A song that helped these kids see beauty and hope amidst hate and fear.