I have written extensively on the role of the Holy Spirit in musical worship, specifically in the following posts:
- Pedals and Pandemic
- Be Thou My Breath
- Four Reasons Your Church Should have a Choir
- The Fruit of the Spirit in Worship
While the singing of Christians is innately spiritual, there seems to be a significant lack of songs dealing with the Holy Spirit. Either our songs fail to address and praise the Spirit as a person equal to Father and Son or they fail to consider the Spirit in any specific theological way. Again, this is ironic if the Spirit is, indeed, the motivator of faithful singing as scripture suggests.
“…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”Ephesians 5:18b-20, ESV
By now, you are probably protesting that we do have at least one song to the Spirit—it’s even titled “Holy Spirit”! While technically true, I would counter that a single song is hardly a fitting tribute to the very Giver of Song.
Beyond its singleness, this song is, frankly, not very well written either musically, lyrically, or theologically. Its melody is stilted, halting between each line like an amateur poet. Its lyrics are basic and occasionally cringe-worthy. (Something about rhyming “welcome here” with “atmosphere” is just…not good writing.) Theologically, it isn’t exactly wrong and I would not refuse to use it in worship, but it also does not teach us anything. It is not particularly informative or proclamatory. Instead, the overarching focus of this song tends to be on human beings welcoming the Spirit and desiring God’s glory in a vague way rather than actually making any concrete movement toward engaging the Spirit or ascribing specific glory to God. It feels more emotionally manipulative and human-oriented than theologically-driven and Trinitarian.
Again, while I will not refuse to play this song in worship, its repetitive chorus and poor poetics lead me to (internally) cry out, “Why?” Why do we as contemporary Christians have only one unmusical, lyrically lame song to the Inspirer of the Word we proclaim and the music we make?
I have very little influence right now as a worship leader, but I have begun using the Holy Spirit chapter of my hymnal to provide background music during communion. Contemporary Christian music, even while supposedly relying upon the Spirit, often overlooks this third person of the Trinity—but hymnals don’t. I counted fourteen theologically rich and musically fulfilling hymns to the Holy Spirit in the hymnal I used yesterday.
Yes, there are other contemporary songs to and about the Spirit, but they are rarely used. I perceive, too, that these also lack the specificity of language and creative composition employed by time-tested hymns of the Spirit. Accordingly, this post is intended as a three-part call to worship leaders:
1. Stop depending upon the song “Holy Spirit” as the only song specifically to and about the Spirit. Think critically about whether this song is informing and forming your congregations in a meaningful way. Is it teaching them about the Spirit? Is it training them to walk in the Spirit? Or is it a filler, an obligatory semi-spiritual song that mainly rouses emotions and checks a box for Trinitarians?
2. Include old hymns. Not every hymn is great, but many are. Revive the old songs of the Spirit, for the scriptural truths that they proclaim are living and active still. If your congregation struggles with their unfamiliar melodies and dense language, adjust accordingly without compromising. For example, the text from these hymns can often be set overtop of more familiar melodies, thus maintaining both lyrical and musical integrity without overwhelming worshippers.
3. Recognize the role of the Spirit in worship and write new songs. Always remember that the Spirit is central to creation and generation; embrace and express this, teaching your congregation and singing to, in, and about the Holy Spirit. Remember that the first men recorded as “filled with the Spirit” were artisans and refuse to limit the all-creative Spirit to poor, singular songs. Instead, lean into the Spirit that combines and conveys all goodness, truth, and beauty.