World Wide Wolfmueller

Law and Gospel in Joyful Clarity

The Praise Song Cruncher

Contemporary worship is mysticism. There are exceptions, but that is the rule.

Mysticism is the religious system that seeks an unmediated unity between the divine nature and ourselves. You are the plug, God is the socket.

Come, now is the time to worship...

Worship is being plugged in. You know when you are plugged in because you feel it. This, then, is the essential goal of contemporary worship, to serve as a catalyst for the experience of the unmediated presence of God.

Here’s the trouble (at least one of them): mysticism is inherently anti-doctrine. Its not about the mind, but the heart. Mystics are not interested in knowing, but in feeling, or, to use the lingo, “experiencing” God. The mystic’s music is not to teach, but “move”, as in, “That song really moved me. I felt so moved by that worship experience. Etc.”

(Please note that I’m not against “moving” music, I am against music that has its chief goal to move you to experience the immediate presence of the divine, like mystical contemporary worship music.)

Now the nice Lutheran comes bopping along and a contemporary worship guru says, “You guys should sing this song,” and the Lutheran looks over the song searching for false doctrine and, finding none, says, “Fire up the amp.” They couldn’t find any false doctrine because there was no doctrine to begin with. Seeing there’s no false doctrine in the average praise-song is like saying there’s no false doctrine in the fire-hydrant. To be a false teacher you must first teach.

It should be evident that “Is there any false doctrine?” is not a sufficient tool to evaluate the usefulness of a praise song. What’s needed is a way to get our paws on the mystical content of a song, and the tool is this: The Criteria for Discerning the Usefulness of a Praise Song, a.k.a. The Praise-Song Cruncher. (Here’s the printable pdf version to bring with you to your next worship-experience: )

We’ve been using the Cruncher over at Table-Talk Radio for over a year now, and from the feed-back we get from our five listeners, it’s a favorite. (You can find a list of the songs we’ve crunched and the result here: ) Here are the five Cruncher questions:

1. Jesus

“Is Jesus mentioned?”

Yes | No       If yes, is it in name or concept?

2. Clarity

Is the song clear? Does it use sentences (with subject, verb, object) or sentence fragments?

Very clear  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1   Obscure

3. Mysticism (Subjectivity vs Objectivity)

Is the song about the things that God has done (objective), or about my own emotions and experiences (subjective)? Does the song repeat the same phrases over and over in an hypnotic mantra?

Objective  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1   Subjective

4. Law and Gospel

Does the song proclaim the law in its sternness and the Gospel in its sweetness? (The Gospel is the promise of the forgiveness of all sins won for us through Jesus’ death on the cross.) Are law and Gospel rightly divided (and not mixed up)? Is the law presented as something that we can do, or does it show us our sins? Is the Gospel conditional (based on my actions, decisions, acceptance)?

Yes      No      I can’t tell

5. Is there any explicit false teaching?

These five questions, and especially questions two and three help dig up the bones of mysticism.

Last time we fired up the Cruncher it made me nutty. I also unfolded my new technique for dealing with the mystics, based on Will Ferel’s Elf character. You can listen here: The New Wolfmueller Technique for Silencing all the Crazy Praise-Mystic Nonsense about “Seeing God”

Wolf the Mystic Hunter

What, though, is the big deal about mysticism? (This will be a theme on the World-Wide-Wolfmueller.) Here is the essential problem: Mysticism looks for God and His gifts where they are not: inside you. Mysticism looks for comfort and forgiveness where God has not placed them: inside you. And the result is delusion, either the delusion of pride or despair, “I’ve got God,” or “I’ve lost Him.” Both of these are bad.

Jesus has placed Himself and His love and mercy and forgiveness outside of you, in His Word, in Baptism and in His Meal. There is presence and His promises have comforting certainty, the certainty that the Lord wants us, His children, to have.


  1. I wish I knew some praise song folks so I could try this out. 🙂

  2. Great test, Bryan! A quick way to get the point for those who need a quicker tool than having committees work through the former Commission on Worship’s “Text and Context” booklet. (Which was quite good, btw)

    Will definitely keep this.

  3. Great article. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. I might be behind in TTR PodCasts, but am certainly keeping up with this. Thanks for the ever-expanding insight and tools for use in the Springs!

  5. I’m a fan. Yet I have three complaints with this article.

    “Its not about the mind, but the heart.”

    There’s nothing wrong with it being about the “heart” if the heart is the seat of faith. If its about “emotions” then we have a problem. I think this sentence would be misunderstood and dismissed by most of the people who need to hear it.

    “…its chief goal to move you to experience the immediate presence of the divine…”

    Nowhere in your article do you say that these are just feelings and not an actual experience of divine presence. You make it sound (to the ear of a non-demom worshiper) that feeling God move is undesirable. They don’t know that what they are feeling isn’t God.

    “To be a false teacher you must first teach.”

    If I had been presented with this argument, I would have wondered where scripture says that worship music is for teaching. I always used to thik the chief purpose of worship music was to join us together in worship, praise and glorifying God. In other words, we were expressing the awe and gratitude that is bottled up in our hearts (emotions) corporately. We were giving due praise. We were adoring God. This doesn’t negate your plug/outlet illustration because I certainly thought I was plugging into God to get His attention, gain His approval and to get a spiritual boost… or some such nonsense. I think you need to present why songs are supposed to teach.

    Keep on crunching!

    • I clearly did not read this line closely, JB:

      This doesn’t negate your plug/outlet illustration because I certainly thought I was plugging into God to get His attention, gain His approval and to get a spiritual boost… or some such nonsense.

      That should have tipped me off that you were playing “devil’s advocate” and not a fan of Wolfmueller who was somewhere on the journey from Geneva to Wittemberg.

      Anyway, I’m think this discussion will shape how Bryan illustrates this point in the future – right, pastor? 🙂

    • JB,

      Thanks for the input. Here are a few thoughts:

      First, regarding the mind verses the heart, this is a great point. The Bible talks about heart in a much different way that we do today. Nowadays the heart is the seat of emotions; in the Bible the heart is the seat of faith. Someone should write about this. I’ll be more careful, instead of just following my heart!

      Second, regarding the distinction between feeling the divine presence and actually being in the divine presence, this is another great point. If the praise-mystics actually achieved what they say they did (i.e. the immediate presence of God, “I’ve seen the Lord…” “I’ve touched God…” etc.) then instead of a praise band there would be a hole in the ground and smoke wafting off the ends of scorched amp cords.

      Third, regarding the necessity of church music to teach, you are right that I never made the argument, and right also to say that the argument should be made, but I don’t think it is a detriment to the point. I was trying to explain how it is that Lutherans let mystical music sneak through, even though they’re on the lookout for false teaching. It’s like smuggling illegal lizards through the metal detector. We need a more thorough security scan for our praise bands. Lutherans have strong immune systems when it comes to works-righteousness, but weak when it comes to mystical-righteousness.

      Thanks for the input.

      • I don’t think I’ve heard a single praise song that says we’ve “seen God”. I literally can’t think of a single example. I know of ones that WANT to see him, or ASK Him to show Himself, but none that said “I HAVE seen God”. Definitely not in any Lutheran contemporary services I’ve ever attended.

        You may know of an example I’m not familiar with, but I don’t think it’s the norm. Otherwise you might need a different, more common example to make your point more clear.

  6. JB,

    I gather you aren’t Lutheran. Glad you are enjoying the teaching here. As someone outside our tradition, you are missing a presupposition that Pastor Wolfmueller assumes here: that the Word of God should dwell in us richly when we sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (i.e. the Canticles). (Eph 5, Col 3)

    Certainly we do offer the art of music as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, but even there God is most highly praised through his Word, when we “sing the story of God’s love.” (Ps. 89:1) If we sing the story of God’s love, it follows then that even in our praises there is teaching. Teaching the story of our salvation in Christ Jesus.

    So, another way to get the point would be to say, “To sing the story, you must sing a story.” Then we can weigh whether or not one is singing truthfully about our Lord, and thereby offering right praises.

    Much “praise” music does not “tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord” (Ps. 78) It merely extols God for His attributes. This is certainly fine in and of itself, but if that is all a song does, it is something a Buddhist or Muslim could sing and so therefore really isn’t sufficient for Christian worship.

    While the understanding of music as primarily a handmaiden of the Gospel is by and large a Lutheran one, other Christians embrace the second point I made (about the content of Christian praise, or “the new song” – see Psalm 41). For example, my Baptist cousin was brought up before his church to be dismissed because he refused to allow a lot of “praise music” and was opposed to having a “praise band”. Instead, he insisted on singing the traditional Baptist hymns “about the blood”. Thanks be to God, the deacons (all but one) stood up before the congregation and said that they were standing with Brother Rick and would leave with him if he were dismissed, “because he preaches what’s in that Bible.” And “what’s in that Bible” is what they wanted to sing about.

    So whether it’s the Lutheran “singing faith into people’s hearts” by proclaiming the Word of God or the more general singing about our salvation by “singing the story”, it all flows out of the model we see in Col. 3 and Eph 5. I really don’t know why those who are being saved would want to sing anything else.

    Regarding emotions, the original post did not say it was wrong to have them, only pointed out that the purpose of the music and the basis for its evaluation should not be primarily the psychomotor response. Lutherans are big on this also in our preaching and elsewhere in our lives. (So our preachers tend to be less dramatic and our prayers less flamboyant.) Because we look at our salvation as purely God’s action, we downplay emotions. As the founder of our synod, C.F.W. Walther, once said: “When I die, it is likely I won’t be in a very good mood.” Our confidence and joy therefore is in the Lord, not in mystical worship “experiences”. Even as I cry every All Saints’ Day when we sing “Jerusalem, My Happy Home”, and even as I am exhilirated at Christmas when we sing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”, and positively giddy on Easter morning singing “Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain”, those emotions come from me and are not a good foundation to build upon. They are simply secondary responses to the Gospel we share together as the body of Christ.

    Perhaps the best way to explain this is to say that we look at music as a helpmeet for the Second Person of the Trinity (that the Word can “dwell in us richly”) rather than the Third. We don’t look at music as a means of grace, like the “contemporary music” movement does. (They may not use that language, but that is what they mean when they talk and teach endlessly about music as a way of “experiencing God”.)

    God is experienced through His Word. Music can magnify that Word, it can teach that Word. But it can’t replace it. Such empty praises may do a good work, such as soothing a mad Saul, but without the Gospel music cannot sing faith into people’s hearts.

  7. Phillip,

    Did you even read what I wrote? I mean, really read it to understand it? You should gather that I am a Lutheran convert who spent many years in evangelical mysticism. I was noting a few points that were weakly-made and easy-to-misunderstand while offering insight to the mind of an evangelical. I was trying to help Pr. W write a more clear and convincing treatise for hymnody.

  8. Hi JB,

    Yes, I did read what you wrote. And I just read it. Nowhere does it say “Lutheran convert”. I am new to this blog, so perhaps that is a presuppostion that *I* missed. (LOL) If you re-read your post, I think you will see that it not unreasonable to conclude that you are a “non-denom worshipper” (your words in the post, though I see now you were not referring to yourself.)

    But let’s get back to the point then, since you are a convert offering advice (to a fellow convert, with third-party advice now coming in from me, a third, different convert). Do you think it would be better to say: “To tell the story, you must tell a story” rather than “to be a false teacher, you must teach”?

  9. Some of what I wrote.. the past tense stuff… was from the perspective of my pre-Luthearn self.

    I think either one of those is good. I don’t think evangelicals realize why there must be a story in our worship. For them it’s all about the key-change induced emotional high and (supposedly) plugging into God. But if you ask, they’ll say they’re glorifying God for who He is. While we glorify God for what He has done (and is still doing) AS WELL AS for who He is.

    I once heard it explained that CW is a sponge and that the singer will fill in the holes with whatever they perceive is missing. They do… but they fill it in with abstractions, feelings and mysticism.

    I shared the praise song cruncher with a friend on facebook and she said I was too critical of what was flowing from her heart to God’s. She had no concept of corporate confession (of faith) or that songs teach whether you like it or not. They either teach you the right things, or they reinforce the stuff you stuck in the sponge holes. eek!

    • My last comment to you & pastor somehow wound up above in this in the thread. So please check back a couple of posts.

      Anyway, “Eek!” is right! Amazing how the Bapticostal looks at his/her receiving of a psychomotor musical response as something “flowing from her heart to God’s.”

      I know what flows from my heart. That’s why I pray God create in me a pure one. Too bad so many Christians don’t understand that the Lord’s song is not a flow from our heart to God’s, but an outpouring of God’s heart into ours.

      My pastor, Timothy Rossow, likes to say it this way, “It’s not ‘His Love – Our Response’, it’s ‘His Love – His Love’!”

  10. Woah, our comments got all out of post-order. That’s weird.

    Pastor W, I’m glad my input is well received. I was a charismatic for 18 years before (seemingly) abruptly converting to Lutheranism. The scales are off and it took all 18 years for them to come off. I used to hate liturgy and I thought emotional worship was where it was at… and nobody dared try to convince me otherwise. Now when I talk to old friends, they think I’m crazy. They think it’s a matter of taste or preference. Hey, if it was about preference, I’d love me some Lenny Kravits style worship. I’m still learning to defend hymnody and since your the master at praise crunching, I want you to see inside of the mind of who you are dealing with. I know you were addressing Lutherans in my third point, but I wanted you to address charismatics too. 🙂

    I’d like to see you write sometime about the music serving the text rather than the music dominating the piece. That concept isn’t even on the radar of an evangelical. It’s all worshiptainment these days.

  11. Pastor Wolfmueller, I am a Lutheran and I am not sure I agree with your last statement, “Jesus has placed Himself and His love and mercy and forgiveness outside of you, in His Word, in Baptism and in His Meal. There is presence and His promises have comforting certainty, the certainty that the Lord wants us, His children, to have. ” Romans: 7:9-11 goes on about the Christ and the Spirit “living in you”. All throughout Scripture, the Bible speaks of being filled with the Spirit, full of the Spirit, the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, etc. I understand the overall message of your writings, but I believe your last paragraph is very misleading for people who do not understand this. As a Lutheran, we believe in the Trinity, that God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit are one. So according to Scripture, Jesus and the Holy Spirit DO actually live in us, not “outside of” us.

  12. Can you please crunch the song Why by Nicole Nordeman? I’m pretty sure it is bad theology.

  13. Wolf, I’ve listened to some of your praise song crunching sessions and it seems to me you use a LOT of confirmation bias in your crunching, combined with quite a bit of subjectivity. Rather than objectively looking at songs, you tend to read your own views into the lyrics, often misreading lyrics or reading them out of context. I’ve also looked at a list of songs you have crunched and find it fascinating. Not only is it evident that you don’t know what songs are actually being used in churches, but you also just check off your list without really even considering each aspect in the song. Is there nothing to be said about the Holy Spirit and his active participation in our lives of worship?

    Obviously you have figured out that I disagree with this “cruncher” idea you’ve spread around, but I think the thing that bothers me most is your primary hypothesis (or so it seems): The goal of praise songs is to teach non-believers about God. If that was the goal, then yes, there should be Law and Gospel, correct doctrine, and, call me crazy, at least a mention of Jesus. However, if the goal was instead to PRAISE God (novel idea), then it seems that we don’t have to give God the full picture of the Gospel; He already knows it. Simply acknowledging He is God is our sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15)

    I do think that there are some pretty terrible songs out there with false doctrine, ambiguous references to God, and various other faults. However, it seems to me that Paul’s words to the Ephesians should serve as a pretty good guide (not necessarily the only guide) for our praise and worship: “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.”

  14. Great article. So, what contemporary music is out there for our young people (I have a 18 yr old college son who is also a musician)?? Some of the Christian music he listens to makes me cringe.

  15. I disagree.

    Besides the fact, that there ARE many contemporary worship songs that use full sentences and actually do make statements about god, I do not see the problem with “only” expressing oneself’s feelings towards “the divine”, or even causing and intensification of them. If you read some psalms they basically do the same things. As well the implicit claim christian mysticism would look for god only in oneself is – please pardon my words – utter bullshit. Just because i express my feelings towards God doesn’t mean i’d think he were to be only found “within myself”.(Eventhough in the holy spirit, he can be.) Heck there are even more repetitive forms of christian mysticism (Jesus Prayer and the Orthodox Hesychia, or the lutheran Christus-Rosenkranz (Christ Rosary), just to name two), and even they do not cause that.

    Finally: Is only teaching about god valid, but not trying to feel him? (If you say yes, then you should probably consider dropping you lutheran faith, and becoming a zwinglian-reformed pastor instead) Is only a rational approach towards god valid, but not a emotional one?

    Sorry, but that is wrong on so many levels. A little bit more of Schleiermacher, and a little bit less of ‘Luther’an-High-Orthodoxy would have helped this article a lot.

  16. “Mysticism looks for God and His gifts where they are not: inside you. Mysticism looks for comfort and forgiveness where God has not placed them: inside you. And the result is delusion, either the delusion of pride or despair, ‘I’ve got God,’ or ‘I’ve lost Him.’ Both of these are bad.”

    You say that the spirit is not in us?

    “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, he will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.” – Romans 8:11

    “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” – 1 Corn. 6:19

    You analyze things too much. Not that the Biblical teachings shouldn’t be pondered, but Jesus’s ministry was simple: love God and love your neighbors as yourself. If someone loves God with a guitar and repeating verses, then let them go for it. Jesus looks inside of us, where true worship takes place. No worship is perfect believe it or not. They all have faults, and if we start to love others and love God, then everything else will fall into place. Our hearts will be in the right place, and that’s all that truly matters.

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