The Importance of the Songs We Sing and the Stories We Tell

The songs we sing and the stories we tell are important. They have consequences. They can turn hearts toward or away from God. And Scripture teaches that we humans are all-too prone to getting our songs wrong.

The story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 16-18 recently reminded me of this truth.

Right Instinct, Wrong Tune

The narrative finds Israel on the cusp of a new season of opportunity and abundance. They’ve endured decades of ups and downs with various Judges, and most recently with their first king, Saul, none of whom ultimately ushered in lasting prosperity.

Samuel has just anointed David. And then, David— small, young, and filled with God’s Spirit—defeats the Philistine giant, Goliath. The people who lived during this time understood that something remarkable was happening. They understood it was a moment to celebrate. 

They got that much right, but the tune of their song of celebration was off.

The author writes, “As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, “‘Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands'” (1 Sam.18:6-7).

Instead of turning the people’s hearts towards God, the focus of the celebration is on Saul and David. They’re praising the wrong person. And the consequences are tragic.

Saul rightly understands that the song is making David the hero. In a very human move, Saul becomes jealous. Rather than keeping his eye on the God of Israel, “Saul eyed David from that day on” (1 Sam. 18:9).

While God’s purposes weren’t thwarted—David did go on to replace Saul as king and to bring a season of prosperity for God’s people—the misdirected song they sang helped usher in a period of widespread pain and suffering. The author tells us: “The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul” (1 Sam. 18:10a). 

Thousands would die in unnecessary battles under Saul’s reign, including, ultimately, Saul and his sons. David would be forced to live in the wilderness for many years. This fracture can be traced back to a song and a story.

Safeguarding Our Stories and Songs

It matters which stories we tell and which songs we sing. I wonder how different our churches and youth ministries would be if instead of focusing giving people glory, we focused on walking in faithfulness to God, for his glory.

In my roll as a fundraiser for a non-profit organization, I’ve seen how easy it can be to get our songs wrong. It’s easy to let the numbers and important people set the tune rather than giving glory to God.

As a youth minister, you likely face a similar temptation to focus on human victories. As you teach students, here are five questions to ask in effort to sing the right songs and tell the right stories:

Whom are we asking students to worship?

If the song is to be truly beautiful, then it must be God who receives the worship. Yes, we want teenagers to love and respect the churches we represent, but our primary goal is for them worship God because of the ways he is at work in our midst and in the world.

Who or what is the hero of the story?

It’s deceptively easy to make ourselves, our people, our churches, or our programs the heroes of the stories we tell. Technically speaking, young David did slay Goliath. In a very true sense, he was the hero of the day. The song the women sung wasn’t wrong when seen through a human perspective.

But it failed to grasp the wider picture; the heavenly story unfolding in their midst. The people failed to see God as the true heroes of any good story for the ways in which he works in the world through Word and Spirit. Let’s draw out for others the ways and means by which God is at work in the stories we choose to tell.

Does this message encourage God’s people?

Gospel ministry should leave people with hope. The good news that Jesus came into the world to save sinners is a message worth telling. The gospel should move people’s hearts to worship God and to join in the story that God is writing. So let’s sing songs that stir our imaginations to see the beauty and credibility of the gospel. Let’s focus on stories that display Jesus as alive and at work in the world

Is this a message we can uniquely share?

This question is primarily about keeping what we’re saying sharp in order to guard our hearts against platitudes or plagiarism.

Back when I was learning to preach, I would get discouraged and jealous because I couldn’t measure up to the people I listened to in podcasts. I found myself tempted to parrot what I heard from them rather than do the work of actively discerning what the Lord would have me say. 

My mentor saw this in me and said something to the effect of: “Mark, if God wanted Tim Keller to preach at this church, then God would have brought him here. But God didn’t. He brought you. So, he must have something for you in particular to say to us.” His words still echo in my mind whenever I’m given the opportunity to speak or write.

Does this story bring people into deeper unity with Jesus and one another?

It’s no secret that there are significant and growing divisions in the world and within the Church. But over the years, I’ve seen how a common cause can bring together people who otherwise would have little to do with one another. 

I believe this is particularly true for the Church. The apostle Paul’s favorite way of talking about a Christians is saying they are “in Christ.” Amazingly, as each of us grows deeper into the reality of union with Christ, we are also more closely bound up in deeper unity with one another. 

As people who want to gather students around a common mission in Jesus’ name, we can be powerful unifiers, crossing denomination, race, and socio-economic lines. We point teenagers to Jesus, in whom we are all united.

Certainly the students in our ministries can reject our message, just like people rejected Jesus. But this rejection shouldn’t come because we’ve pushed them away. Ours is an invitation to worship, wonder, and hope because we trust in Jesus.

If we are to be bards of the story God is writing for this world, we don’t want the songs we sing to encourage idolatry, nor lead to hero-worship. Our message must not discourage, bore, nor divide.

Rather, my prayer is that our stories would leave teenagers with a new song in their heart: a song of worship to the God who is the author and hero of every truly good story, a song they are keen to share with others.

Interested in more resources on Bible teaching? Check out our youth ministry curriculum on Rooted Reservoir.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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