Just about everywhere I go, I am asked for my thoughts and opinions about using songs produced by Sovereign Grace Ministries, Stuart Townend, and/or Keith and Kristyn Getty. (Songs written by these writers are often closely associated, in large part because Sovereign Grace Ministries has an influential music publishing arm that also promotes Townend/Getty songs. From this point on I will use the abbreviation “SG/G songs” to include songs written by all of these folks.)1
The most popular of these songs used by fundamentalists include the following:
- In Christ Alone (Townend/Getty)
- Before the Throne of God Above (Cook)
- How Deep the Father’s Love For Us (Townend)
- The Power of the Cross (Getty)
- O Great God (Kauflin)
- The Gospel Song (Kauflin)
- Speak, O Lord (Getty)
I have really hesitated on making any comments on this question for several reasons, not the least of which being that I really don’t have an incredibly strong opinion one way or another about the songs. My intent with this essay is not to convince people one way or another. It is simply to offer information and observations. If you are an avid promoter of the songs, this essay may give you some things to think through. If you are a vehement opponent of using the songs, this essay may reveal that your arguments are weak or that you are inconsistent. Either way, I hope that it will be helpful.
I should first address the fact that the question is even being asked before I tackle the question itself. My guess is that some, when they read the title to this essay, are already scoffing that such a question would even be asked. I do understand why such a question would seem silly to many, but I would suggest that asking careful questions like this is a wise characteristic of biblical conservatism. Paul commanded believers to “test everything,” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and for many, this question is part of that careful testing process. If you have chosen to use these songs, perhaps you have already taken careful time to “test” them. I am not really writing this essay to convince you to stop using them. I am writing this essay to give those who are still in a “testing” process the information they need to make a wise decision. If you still insist that even asking the question is silly, I would yet urge you to be sensitive to those asking the question.
I should also say that I am writing this for those who agree with me that pop/rock forms can never and should never be wedded to biblical truth. There may be some disagreement over what is and is not appropriate, but this fundamental assumption must be exist for any of this essay to make sense. If you have no problem with the mixture of God’s Word and pop music, this essay is not for you.
Final caveat: This is a somewhat difficult question for me to quickly and directly address for at least two reasons:
- My personal decisions depend upon very specific theological and philosophical presuppositions that I have, which the questioner may or may not share with me.
- My personal decisions are made within the context of a specific repertory of congregational hymnody that I use with my congregation, which the questioner may or may not share with me.
In other words, my personal decisions with regard to these songs make sense only because of the presuppositions that I have and the hymn repertory that I regularly use. If the questioner has different presuppositions or does not already regularly use a similar body of hymnody as I do, we likely do not share enough common ground for my answer to make sense for his situation.
Therefore, the only way I know of that I can be of help in this decision is by at least raising what I consider to be the important issues. There are at least three levels of issues to consider when deciding whether or not to use songs produced by Sovereign Grace Ministries:
The first issue to consider is the associations with these songs. These associations take two forms:
- The theological convictions of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
- The musical forms used on Sovereign Grace Music and Getty albums.
Theological Convictions of SGM
The first association issue to consider is the theological convictions of Sovereign Grace Ministries.2 Sovereign Grace Ministries is a movement of evangelical churches committed to the following theological convictions:
- Reformed Theology (both Calvinism and Covenant Theology)3
- Continuationism (Third Wave Pentacostalism)4
If you are Reformed and charismatic, then you have nothing to worry about.5 However, if you are not one of those, and if associating yourself with a movement with which you disagree theologically concerns you, you will want to consider the theology of Sovereign Grace Ministries even if you find songs with which you have no specific lyrical or musical disagreement.
I must note at this juncture, however, that fundamentalists have been using songs written by both Reformed writers and charismatic writers for years with no problem. I am not arguing for or against this practice at this point, but I am urging for consistency. For example, if your church sings “As a Deer,” “There is a Redeemer,” or even songs by John Rutter or Craig Courtney, then I do not see how you can reject SG/G songs on the grounds of theological associations alone.6
Sovereign Grace/Getty songs produced on their own albums are arranged and performed in distinct pop/rock styles. If you have convictions against using these styles in worship, then you will at least want to consider this point. Of course, you can use these songs in a “cleaned-up” style,7 but it is the issue of association with this kind of style that I am raising at this point.
Pastors should at least consider that if they use these songs in their churches, most of the recordings of these songs are in pop/rock styles. If associating yourself with that kind of style concerns you, then you will want to consider that.
Again, I must note, however, that fundamentalists have been “cleaning up” songs written, produced, and recorded in pop/rock styles for years. They also frequently sing and promote songs written by composers who write both in a “conservative” style and in a “contemporary” style. Again, I am not arguing for or against this practice, but I am arguing for consistency. For example, if your church sings “cleaned up” versions of Cindy Berry or Lloyd Larson songs, then I do not see how you can reject SG/G songs on the grounds of musical associations alone.
In summary, if associating yourself with movements with which you disagree theologically or musically concerns you, then you should consider the theological and musical convictions of Sovereign Grace Ministries as you decide whether you will use their songs. But if you choose to reject their songs on the basis of associations alone, then be sure to be consistent with other writers and movements.
My personal opinion concerning associations is that associations are not the most important factor when evaluating hymnody, but we must at least be aware of them and consider them carefully for the sake of weaker brothers. Evidently the Apostle Paul thought that associations mattered, even with something as morally neutral as meat (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). In other words, if a pastor chooses to reject SG/G songs on the basis of their theological and/or musical associations out of a desire to protect his people from what he considers error, and if he is consistent in that practice, I do not believe that anyone can or should questions such a decision. I think we also need to recognize that whether or not it is a good or bad development (and I’m not arguing either way in this essay), many fundamentalists who are promoting SG/G songs have changed their traditional position on whether negative associations render a given song unusable.
The first of the theological convictions of Sovereign Grace Ministries (Reformed Theology) affects the lyrics of SG/G songs, at least in some instances. For instance, songs about the gospel are going to be from a Calvinistic perspective,8 and songs about the Church or the Kingdom may reflect the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology.((See “Hear the Call of the Kingdom” by Getty and Townend, for example.)) Of course, these influences may or may not be readily apparent depending on the particular lyric, but in at least a few cases, these theological convictions are evident. So, if you are not Reformed, you will want to at least examine the lyrics carefully to make sure that you agree with them. If you are Reformed, you will likely find full agreement with the lyrics. Even if you are not fully Reformed,9 you may find agreement with at least some of the songs.
Assuming basic theological agreement, the lyrics of SG/G songs are distinctly God-centered, gospel-focussed, and Christ-exalting. For the most part, they are poetically rich, although colloquialisms and clichès slip in from time to time, weakening the durability of the texts in some cases.
Now, in my opinion, the doctrinal content and poetic beauty of these lyrics are quite a bit better than much of what many fundamental churches have been singing for years and some of what fundamentalists have written, produced, and recorded. This seems to be at least one of the primary reasons many fundamental pastors are beginning to use and promote these songs, and I certainly understand this kind of motivation. “In Christ Alone” is a breath of fresh air if you’ve been used to singing “In the Garden” and “Beulah Land.” Further, more and more fundamentalists are becoming Reformed, and so the lyrics of these songs fit better with their theology than perhaps many gospel songs do.10 It makes sense for someone who is Reformed to prefer Reformed hymn lyrics over more Arminian or Revivalist lyrics. So setting aside any concerns of association, someone who wants theologically rich hymn lyrics will be very happy with SG/G songs.
Having said that, I do believe that there is a great body of hymnody (both ancient and modern) that is quite a bit better lyrically than SG/G songs. While SG/G texts have their strengths and are perhaps stronger than many gospel songs, they do not match up to the design, poetic beauty, and durability of Watts, Wesley, Cowper, Gerhardt, Boice, Clarkson, or Alexander. Once again, this is not necessarily an argument against their use; it is simply an observation for consideration.
The second of the theological convictions of Sovereign Grace Ministries (continuationism), in my opinion, affects the musical forms they use on their recordings, and perhaps even the bare tunes themselves to some degree. The scope of this essay does not allow me to enter a full discussion of this claim,11 but I do believe that a charismatic theology of worship leads to a preference for musical forms that create a more sensational atmosphere. So, if you are not a continuationist, you will want to at least consider whether the musical forms used on SG/G recordings or even the tunes themselves reflect a charismatic theology of worship.
With the bare tunes of these songs I see a difference between what Getty is doing and what Kauflin and other Sovereign Grace writers are doing. At the heart of Getty songs is a clearly apparent Irish/folk base written to be sung by congregations and constructed to fit in either conservative or contemporary services. Strictly Sovereign Grace tunes are generally pop in their construction, written for recordings, and targeted for a contemporary audience.12
What makes these songs so attractive to some fundamentalists is that many of them (especially Getty songs) are written to be sung by average congregations, and in that sense, they are much more accessible than many songs that fundamentalists have been trying to sing in their churches. Again, I certainly understand and even applaud this kind of motivation.
Having said that, even Getty songs have a pop “edge” to them, mostly because Getty uses a lot of chordal parallelism, syncopation, and other pop techniques that do not follow the normal rules of counterpoint in the crafting of his tunes and especially in the harmonic arrangements of the tunes. Again, the scope of this essay does not allow me to go into depth on this point, but from a strictly musical analysis, most of these tunes and especially harmonic arrangements are often awkward, repetitious in their use of common pop “clichès,” structurally weak, and therefore not very durable.13 Further, some of these songs really aren’t as “congregational” or “singable” as some claim them to be. They’re relatively accessible, to be sure. But they’re really no more accessible than classic hymn tunes, and their singability may have more to do with the similarity of their musical vocabulary to current pop tunes than to their inherent lyrical or musical strength.
A relatively few of these tunes are actually pretty good. The problem is that once fundamentalist leadership began highlighting the relatively few really good ones, that opened the floodgates for people who began using practically everything coming out of Sovereign Grace, most of which is not very good musically. What’s worse, while the fundamentalist leaders rightly encourage singing quality classic hymnody alongside these new songs, many of the young people who are attracted to the new songs actually disparage the use of classic hymnody. This raises questions in my mind about what, exactly, these young people are really attracted to.
Several fundamentalist composers are seeking to remedy this kind of poor composition by rearranging the harmonic structures of these songs, and even sometimes the tunes themselves.14 So if poor musical construction is the only basis for rejection, perhaps these alternatives provide a solution.
Even recognizing the relative strengths of some of SG/G tunes, I do believe that there is a great body of hymn tunes (both ancient and modern) that is quite a bit better musically than SG/G songs. SG/G tunes, although somewhat folk-sounding and relatively singable, do not compare to the compositional quality, legitimate “folkishness,” durability, and true accessibility of Cruger, tunes from the Genevan Psalter, Neander, Forrest, Pinkston, or Jones.
My personal choice has been to not use Sovereign Grace/Getty songs as I choose hymns and plan worship services in my church. Actually, it’s not really that I have chosen to not use them; these songs really aren’t even on my radar. I haven’t even had to consider using them for the following reasons:
- I have more than enough hymn texts to choose from (both ancient and modern) that are better than Sovereign Grace lyrics and do not carry any of the potential baggage.
- I have more than enough hymn tunes to choose from (both ancient and modern) that are better than Sovereign Grace tunes and do not carry any of the potential baggage.
- While associations are not a primary factor in my decision, I am at least aware of the potential of causing a weaker brother to stumble into what I consider error (either by being attracted to the Sovereign Grace pop/rock styles or a charismatic theology of worship) if I were to use these songs.
- I do not sing any similar songs, so I am consistent with my decisions.
I can only use approximately 150 hymns a year with my congregation, and I have more than enough excellent hymns (both ancient and modern) to choose from. It is really not prudent for me to use them. Perhaps if I had nothing else, I might consider using them. But I don’t need to even consider the question.
The reason I have a hard time answering more succinctly when someone asks me about these songs is that my guess is that if someone is struggling about whether or not to use them, they are probably already singing songs that are either very similar or actually inferior to SG/G songs in association or form. In other words, they think they might need these songs. My opinion is that if they were consistently applying their reasons for concern (usually the concern has to do with associations) to their current hymn repertory, they wouldn’t even be asking the question.
However, for sake of argument, I offer the following concluding considerations:
If you choose to reject SG/G songs on the basis of associations alone, then I see wisdom in your decision, yet I urge you to be consistent in your other choices. I am personally bothered by fundamentalists who publicly decry the use of SG/G when at the same time they promote and sing songs that are really no different in association or sound, and perhaps actually not even as good doctrinally.
If you choose to reject SG/G songs because there are better hymns, in my opinion, that is the best reason to not use them.
If you choose to sing SG/G songs with your congregation, I would encourage you to examine your reasons. It does seem that many pastors are choosing to use some of these songs after careful deliberation and for good reasons. Many others, however (usually young people) like the songs simply because they’re “cool.” Further, many don’t only like the “cleaned up” versions for their theological richness; they are attracted to the songs because of the original pop/rock versions themselves. This is usually evidenced by the fact that that while they say they like SG/G songs because of their doctrinal depth, they don’t like classic hymns with the same or better texts.
Thus, my hunch is that these songs have entered the repertory of fundamental Baptist churches, not because leaders recognized their strengths and happily found that their young people enjoyed singing them, but rather something more like the following:
- Young people (high school and college age) in fundamental Baptist churches were attracted to the Sovereign Grace/Getty recordings themselves, not just the hymns.
- As fundamentalist leaders were exposed to the songs, they recognized the relative strengths of the texts and bare tunes compared to a lot of CCM and gospel songs.
- The fundamentalist leaders began promoting the songs because they were encouraged that their young people were attracted to such relatively strong hymns (I mean, they could be listening to much worse, right?).
- This gave the young people justification to continue listening to the Sovereign Grace/Getty recordings, go to their concerts, etc., and defend it based on the strengths of the hymns and the promotion by their leaders.
In other words, of those young people who enjoy SG/G songs, I would offer an educated guess that 90% of them enjoy the pop/rock versions of the songs, and would choose those versions over any “cleaned-up” renditions.
Having said that, if you choose to sing SG/G songs because you want to sing songs that are more theologically rich and congregational, then I applaud your reasons. But I would at least ask you to explore other hymnody that is just as rich, if not more so, including those by the following modern writers and composers:
One final challenge to each side of the debate:
First, to those who choose to use SG/G songs. Each pastor is responsible for his own congregation, and each local church is autonomous. If after careful deliberation you choose to use these songs because you think they are best for your congregation, then you have that right. But please honor and respect the decisions of those who have chosen not to use the songs for whatever reason. It concerns me that those who use these songs seem to have an almost arrogant and condescending attitude toward those who don’t, as if those who don’t are somehow silly and foolish for their reasons. I have even been told by one individual, “You have a responsibility to be using these songs.” Please show grace to those who have chosen not to use them, and when gathered with believers from a variety of churches, why not choose from the vast body of hymnody that is gospel-centered and theologically rich while not as controversial out of respect for the decision these other brothers have made?
Finally, to those who have chosen not to use SG/G songs. As illustrated in this essay, there are many legitimate reasons to not use SG/G (or, as in my case, they may not even be on your radar). You don’t have to use them. But my observation is that for some fundamentalists, the reason they are afraid of SG/G is more because of the associated Calvinism than anything else. I may be wrong, but in my opinion there can really be no other reason why a pastor who is comfortable singing “As a Deer,” “Worthy of Worship,” and cleaned-up Cindy Berry songs would be afraid of using SG/G songs since they are very similar in sound and association (and actually better lyrically). If you do not want to use the songs because you are uncomfortable associating yourself with the Calvinism of these writers, then honestly state your reasons and be consistent. But please show grace to those who embrace Calvinism and choose to use these songs because they reflect their soteriological convictions.
At the end of the day, there is great need for discernment, wisdom, and grace in this discussion.
- I must at least note at this point that I do see a difference between songs written by Getty & Townend and songs written by Bob Kauflin and other Sovereign Grace writers. Even within the Sovereign Grace writers, those songs written by Steve and Vicki Cook are quite different than those written by Kauflin or others. My main points in this essay will apply to all of these, but I must recognize qualitative differences among these writers. In my opinion Getty songs are better than Sovereign Grace songs (see below). [↩]
- The Gettys are less directly connected to a particular theological movement, although since their songs are most prominently promoted by Sovereign Grace Ministries, most people see them all in the same grouping. [↩]
- See my article, “Are Calvinism and CCM Connected?” for a thorough explanation of these positions and an argument as to why holding to these positions has no direct bearing on one’s music philosophy. [↩]
- From the Sovereign Grace website: “We describe our doctrine as being essentially Reformed, yet including a commitment to continuationist practice as biblically defined” (http://sovereigngraceministries.org/About/FAQ.aspx#02). [↩]
- To my knowledge, there are no charismatic fundamentalists, but there are certainly many Reformed fundamentalists. [↩]
- I must note here that I do see a difference between associations that are current and associations with writers who have long been dead. I am not at this point arguing whether theological associations render a song unusable. I am simply pointing out that I believe that it is consistent to reject a song based on a current, potentially harmful association while at the same time accepting a song written by someone with theologically errant views who has been long dead. [↩]
- In fact, Getty and Townend proactively write their songs so that they can be sung accompanied by organ or band, in a “conservative” style or a “contemporary” style (cf. gettydirect.com/insight2.asp?id=85). [↩]
- “God of Grace” by the Gettys, for instance, reflects a Calvinistic understanding of election. [↩]
- There are many fundamentalists, for instance, who are Calvinistic but also Dispensational. [↩]
- Again, I am not arguing for or against Reformed Theology in this essay, but I would urge those who are not Reformed to at least recognize that such positions are well within biblical orthodoxy, they have always been held by at least some fundamentalists, and they have no direct bearing on a particular philosophy of music and worship. Cf. my article, “Are Calvinism and CCM Connected?” [↩]
- See my article, “Correcting Categories: the Bible, Music, and Emotion” for a more thorough explanation of the connection between a charismatic theology of worship and the use of pop musical forms in worship. [↩]
- By “pop,” I mean musical forms that are formulaic, full of musical clichès, harmonically shallow and often awkward, immediately stimulating, and emotionally sensational, all with a focus on the novel, which renders them transient. See Kenneth Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1989) for an explanation of the difference between pop culture and folk/high culture. [↩]
- Again, I will readily admit that there are many songs in standard hymnals that have some of these same weaknesses. But I don’t sing those songs either, so I’m being consistent in my analysis and applications. [↩]
- For instance, Dan Forrest’s arrangement of “Before the Throne of God Above” adds a richness to the song that was not in the original song or arrangement of the song. [↩]