In a Word…Theology!

For many the word theology is an intimidating term. It conjures thoughts of highly trained professors (in suede jackets) pouring over Hebrew and Greek text, unearthing the mysteries of God’s word which lay hidden to the lay person’s reading. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) does not form such an intimidating picture when it defines theology as, “religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed” (Soanes & Stevenson, p. 1495). Theology is what we do. Essentially, every Christian is a theologian. The challenge is whether, as Bob Kauflin (2008) states, “am I a good theologian or a bad one?” (p. 28). Before theology – that which is practiced; is doctrine – that which is taught.

There are two widely practiced approaches to the study of Christian doctrine, systematic and biblical (Bryant, 1982, pp. 616–617). Simply, biblical theology commences its study of scripture objectively allowing scripture to reveal its themes. Systematic theology approaches Scripture subjectively extracting text in order to define a theme. It’s from these two principles that we might draw some insight into the differing approaches when selecting material (songs) for Sunday’s corporate gatherings. For some believers it’s a matter of the means needing to justifying the ends. I.e. the lyrical content (doctrine) should determine the manner in which we worship. For others the end point validates the means. I.e. the worship expression (theology) and experience form the foundation on which to structure the choice of songs; both lyric and melody.

Paul Zahl (2004) in his apologetic for Liturgical worship further defines the two different approaches in his thoughts on the construction of liturgy for corporate gatherings,

The Latin phrase that covers the philosophy of worship I am presenting here is this: lex credendi lex orandi. That means: What we believe determines how we pray. Quite a few liturgical scholars and theologians today want to reverse the order and write: lex orandi lex credendi, or how we pray (i.e. worship) determines what we believe [emphasis in original]. (p. 25)

Kauflin (2008) makes the statement, “Songs are de facto theology…‘We are what we sing’” (p. 92). Many would agree with Kauflin’s statement (Basden, 1999; Carson, 2002; Dawn, 1995; Peterson, 1992; Wiersbe, 2000). Warren Wiersbe in his book Real Worship: Playground, Battle ground or Holy ground? (2000) takes the thought a step further warning, “Naïve congregations can sing their way into heresy before they even realize what is going on” (p. 136). In observing the vast array of worship styles I find Wiersbe’s warning to be a sober reminder that what goes in generally comes out. At this point I must stress that this discussion does not centre on the prejudicial war waged between those who preference hymns over modern choruses or vice versa. It goes much deeper than an individual’s partiality to one musical style over another.

So how does this affect the garden variety Contemporary Worship Singer? The first question to be asked is do you think about the lyrics that you sing? Secondly have you considered that by virtue of your being on stage you inadvertently support the doctrine and resulting theology of what is being sung? Singers love to give voice to flowing melodies, but is a beautiful melody enough qualification for the use of a song in the corporate gathering? I agree with Marva Dawn (1995) when she writes “It is crucial, then, that leaders of the Church study carefully our underlying theology of worship and the specific worship practices that result, for they do, indeed, determine who we are” (p. 106). Here I reveal my own view. The means must justify the ends. Like Wiersbe (2000) “I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear” (p. 136). However (and on this point I close), this does not mean that we can focus so heavily on the lyrical content that we forget to develop melodies and arrangements thereof that best deliver the doctrine. It must be sing-able! Sadly, too many ‘great lyrics’ have been set to ‘sub standard’ music – surely we can have both. I think that if we were to apply this rule to the repertoire list of most churches it would result in a significant cull of songs, but what would be left would be rich in doctrine and produce good, in a word – Theology!


Basden, P. (1999). The worship maze: Finding a style to fit your church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Bryant, T. A. (Ed.) (1982) Today’s dictionary of the bible. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.

Carson, D. A. (Ed.). (2002). Worship by the book. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Dawn, M. J. (1995). Reaching out without dumbing down: A theology for worship for this urgent time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kauflin, B. (2008). Worship matters: Leading others to encounter the greatness of God. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.

Peterson, D. (1992). Engaging with God: A biblical theology of worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (Eds.). (2008) Concise oxford english dictionary (11th, Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Zahl, P. F. M. (2004). Formal-liturgical worship. In P. A. Basden (Ed.), Exploring the worship spectrum: 6 views (pp. 21–36). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


About Dr Daniel K. Robinson

Daniel is a freelance artist and educator. In 2011 Daniel completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University. He has served as the Australian Voice Association (AVA) National President (2018–20), National Vice President (2009–11) and National Secretary for the Australian National Association of Teachers of Singing (2006–11) and was awarded the ANATS National Certificate of Recognition for service to the profession in 2012. Daniel is the principal Singing Voice Specialist for Djarts ( and presents workshops and seminars to church singers across Australia and abroad. He and his wife Jodie have three children and live in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Posted on March 25, 2010, in Lyrics, Religion, Singing, Songs, Worship, Worship - Definition, Worship Culture, Worship Wars and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Hey Dan

    I like and agree with most of your blog post here. Not sure that people learn more theology from the songs than the preaching (maybe when I preach this is definitely true?) but certainly that quote is getting at something very true: people ARE shaped and influenced by the songs we sing – and thus our choices of songs reflect either helpful or unhelpful leadership.

    One thing I thought might help is to know that theology covers both doctrine AND practice (it literally means ‘thinking about God’). We think about God when we formulate doctrine and we think about God when we sing, pray, listen to preaching together as a congregation. Hopefully we’re thinking about God throughout the week too (and especially).

    Your brother

    • Daniel K. Robinson

      Hi Dave,

      Once again, thanks for your comments! It’s great to have people interacting with the blog – iron sharpens iron.

      Yes, the thought that “people learn more theology from the songs than the preaching” is a challenging one. It’s not how it used to be, but for many people now their focus seems to be squarely on the songs and therefore they draw much of their ’sustenance’ (knowingly or not) from the music and lyric. I recently finished my interviews for my doctoral research and it was suprising to me how many of the interviewees stated that the music/worship/congregational singing was of high importance to them when considering theology. One interviewee stated that she felt like she could go home after the singing because she felt fulfilled at that point – to her the sermon was not entirely necessary at all!

      Add to this that many Christians are humming and singing their favourite worship songs throughout the week. They certainly aren’t reciting last weeks sermon – though admittedly a few are listening to podcasts of sermons.

      All in all, agree or not, music/worship/congregational singing has become such a significant part of peoples corporate gathering experience – which for many equates to their entire experience of Christianity.

      Further thoughts are not only welcome – they are invited 😉

  2. People learn about God in all sorts of ways. Psalm writers seemed to learn through watching the moon and the stars. Peter’s theology was greatly reshaped through his encounter with Cornelious. Preaching and music are just two among many ways of learning. This does not remove the need for special revelation (scripture). However there is often a tendency to almost equate preaching with revelation when it usually just draws from revelation. While it is claimed that theology and doctrine is what results when we systematise Biblical teaching, that is probably not really true. The teaching of the Bible is far more extensive than any theological system. E.g.Check out what theological texts say about sin. it is often very theoretical and abstract and extrapolates logic based upon a few biblical verses to arrive at conclusions that often are not explicitly taught in scripture. On the other hand the Bible has a lot to say about sins in the form of behaviour that God says is wrong. E.g. violence, dishonesty, immorality, greed, sins of omission etc etc. This sort of biblical material is rarely embraced within the theology of sin, but it is the sin that we experience (and commit) and that God so often condemns in the Bible. Theology and doctrine often become the means through which Christians edit the Bible and reduce its message to something we are comfortable with. So to me the question is not one of music or preaching, or even doctrine or theology. The issue is how authenticly biblical is our preaching, doctrine, theology or music? This is not just a question of being biblical in content but also in process. Are we grappling with the Word of God to discover the mind of God or merely using the Bible as a source to support our point of view or our faviourite doctrines?

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