Since the advent of the praise chorus, there has been debate over the lyrical content of Christian worship songs. The initial (and sometimes continuing) issues have centered on the depth of content. Worship choruses were lyrically simple, hooky, and repetitive by design. And in the early development of the praise chorus, I think that was the point—to create songs that were easy to sing and more emotionally evocative, not necessarily weighty in theology. So in contrast to hymns, worship choruses—infusing contemporary folk and rock sensibilities—were composed that were sincere, singable, and hopefully meaningful.
Thankfully, the hymn-versus-chorus debate is largely a thing of the past these days. In many churches, hymns and choruses peacefully co-exist in the expression of corporate worship. In a real sense, the traditional vs. contemporary worship wars were as much a cultural issue as they were a style issue. And culture evolves. Of course, the culture wars continue, but they look very different these days.
As we have developed over time, many hymns are taking on a more contemporary flavor, adopting a more modern sound and aesthetic. Choruses have become more sophisticated musically, and really aren’t even “choruses” anymore, as most songs have multiple verses and sometimes multiple bridges. And from the standpoint of style, contemporary worship has included rock, pop, gospel, country, and other modern genres. So the palette of our corporate sophistication has widened, both in musical style and lyrical integrity and artistry.
In recent years, there was some debate regarding the corporate versus personal nature of worship, what I call the “Pronoun Debate.” People on both sides of the spectrum argued whether songs should be sung from an “I” perspective versus a “we” perspective. Is the corporate expression of worship—that which happens on a Sunday morning— a gathering of individual worship experiences, or is it a transaction between God and His bride, the body of Christ? I think the answer is, “Yes.” And so we moved on from that issue, with some of us worship leaders preferring to lean a little more into the “You” songs, i.e., songs which center more on God and less on “I” or “we.” But generally, we as a worship community have come to peace with the pronouns in our worship.
I was at a national worship conference recently and had the opportunity to be led in worship by what can be considered the most recent worship choruses being released. Each song was played and led with great skill and talent, and the songs were well-written and emotionally engaging. They rocked hard and sounded great. But there was something in the back of my mind that began to gnaw at me, as one new song after another was unveiled.
I struggled with this gnawing the entire first day of the conference. And then it began to hit me. All of the songs were subjective, not objective. And that is not necessarily a bad thing by itself (as I have stated above). But in light of the increasing Christian consumerism that continues to pervade the western Church, this subjectivity can feed a self-centered faith. Because each song seemed to define God according to our experience of Him.
Let me give you an example. Consider the line, “You are worthy of my praise,” which has shown up in a variety of songs in some form. Now carefully reconsider the lyric. I did some checking. The Bible does refer to God often in this way: “…The Lord, who is worthy of praise,” (2 Samuel 22:4, 1 Chronicles 16:25, Psalm 18:3, 48:1, 96:4, etc.), which defines God rightly as the Center of our praise. But in my searching, I couldn’t find any Scripture that says “worthy of my praise.” Do you see it? Hidden in that lyric is an unspoken self-centeredness, almost an audacity, which places us at the center of the worship experience instead of God. It implies, “I have experienced God, and I have found Him worthy.” And while I believe the narcissism is unintended, it is there just the same.
Consider another example: “Jesus You died just to set me free.” Is this a true statement? It is certainly true that Jesus lived, died, and rose again, and His perfect sacrifice (Savior) as well as our surrender to Him of our lives (Lord) gives us the promise of eternal freedom and security. But the word “just” in this context means “only.” To say that Jesus died just to set me free implies that I am at the center of my faith, at the center of my worship of God.
And one other thing about this example. As a songwriter, I know that the word “just” is most probably a throwaway word, a syllable tossed in to make the melody work. But tossing it in creates an entirely unintended meaning to the lyric. It points not only to a disregard of the larger theological and doctrinal issues, but also to sloppy songwriting.
Here is the thing. These kinds of lyrics define God according to our experience of God, instead of define God according to His revelation to us in the Bible and through His mighty acts throughout time and in His created universe. When we define God strictly according to our experience of God, we appropriate the post-modern worldview and attach it to our faith. When we make experience a necessary condition of Truth, we limit God and make Him smaller than He is.
Christian songwriters must not underestimate the weightiness of their role in the body of Christ. As it has been for centuries, personal theologies are formed as much by the lyrics we sing as the Bible we read. Words matter. Because words convey ideas. And a steady diet of these subjective songs—songs which define God according to our experience of God—feeds an egocentric view of the Christian faith. Are we as songwriters and worship leaders asking our congregations to sing lyrics that are ultimately unhealthy to their souls?
This is certainly a much bigger subject than I have blogged here. And I do admit that this blog is as much a debate I’m having with myself as a foray into the larger debate. So I know I don’t have all the answers.
[Note: The photo above is an ancient fresco in the Vatican of two choir directors arguing. Hilarious.]