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.
Here are a few fun and related articles to keep you busy: Here We Are To Worship, God is Not the Object, Memo to Worship Bands.
[Note: The photo above is an ancient fresco in the Vatican of two choir directors arguing. Hilarious.]
10 thoughts on “Worship Lyrics and the Hidden Narcissism”
Manuel, thank you for a thoughtful commentary. I love the old hymns because of their wonderful (sometimes!) theology, and I love the contemporary choruses for the emotion they bring. Sometimes it is good to ‘sit’ on a chorus, a modern interp of chanting, perhaps?
But I believe you rightly challenge songwriters to look for excellence in their lyrics. There is so much sloppy poetry out there! However, there are some wonderful 21st century hymns that are making their way into the Sunday morning service, some by Stuart Townend come to mind. His songs bring accurate theology tied to deep passion and evoke a strong reaction from the musicians in the front as well as the congregation. The focus is on giving God glory, it’s what it’s all about! Under His Mercy, Suzanne
This is such an interesting topic that I believe is worth discussion. I strongly agree that songwriters have a responsibility to write songs with integrity both to scripture and to the theology behind it. I have heard it recommended that all writers of worship songs should have a pastor review the lyrics of the song they are composing and give their feedback as to the integrity of it’s meaning–this is advice I have heeded. You are right to say that much is at stake.
I do appreciate the songs that have taken the experience of knowing God from the ethereal to the personal level–songs that speak to Him because He is in the room, rather than sing about Him in a distant way. I relate more on the personal level of worship songs that say what my heart is feeling but didn’t have the words to convey. At the same time I realize that Jesus is not my Best Friend–Not in the sense that our culture would convey a best friend. He allows us to be tried, to go through trial and struggle. He is never late, but misses a lot of opportunities to be early. He is still Holy and still God. But I know something now of his faithfulness and mercy, I’ve tasted His grace. I have felt His presence in my joy as well as my darkest hours. I believe His promise that He will never leave me or forsake me. He is that friend that sticks closer than a brother. Because of who He has declared Himself to be I have a friend in Jesus.
So I will always worship on a that personal level of His intimacy with me, and I will also bow in His holiness and declare what He has already said of Himself.
I believe that worshiping in Spirit and truth has a lot to do with His truth, and my life and words aligning with that truth. Worshiping in Spirit involves my heart, soul, mind and strength.
Marty Nystrom encouraged songwriters some years ago to write songs that the underground church of China could sing. That thought guides my song selections as a worship leader. Does the song need a flashpot or 14 piece orchestra in order to make it good? If I were persecuted and whispering my worship in the dark, what would I want to say? Many choruses as well as hymns fall to the wayside in that setting while others become an anthem of hope and praise. May God help us to know the difference and may our worship be authentic according to His Truth.
As an older Christian, I have felt for some time that the contemporary music in our churches are either about me or about worship, but not actually worship. We have changed churches a number of times because we were tired of being entertained and not being ushered into God’s presence through music. Thank you for your insightful musings. I read a reference to this article in Today in the Word, published by Moody Bible Institute, in my devotional time this morning.
Thank you for a very thought provoking article. While there is some validity to you comments, I feel there are some things you are missing as well. It is true that some contemporary worship song focus on self, but don’t we do that in our preaching and teaching as well? Don’t we talk about Jesus as a “personal Savior?,” and say that if you were the only person on earth Jesus still would have come and died for your sins? Furthermore, there are just as many contemporary worship songs that do focus on God and praise him simply for who He is rather than what He has done for us. However, you main point is a good one, that we should be more thoughtful as song writers (and I will include preachers/teachers since that is my point of reference). Blessings
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, which I don’t disagree with at all. There are many contemporary songs that are objective and not subjective. However, I would want to point out that the role of the sermon is quite different than the role of musical worship. We don’t preach to God; however, we do sing to Him.
Interesting … While I do agree with many of your points, but not your implied conclusion, I do need to point out that not only do we sing TO God in worship, but we are also to sing ABOUT Him to each other (Ephesians 5:19). Not all “Christian” music is suitable or intended for use in a church setting, but often (in the vein of many old hymns) to encourage one another in our walk (by the way, walking is an experience).
Wow. I am afraid that people may be misreading the intent of my article. I don’t have anything against subjective worship lyrics, and I sing and write them myself. I am trying to point out that a steady diet of subjective lyrics in our corporate worship can be unhealthy, particularly as we live amongst the postmodern worldview which makes experience a necessary condition of Truth.
Worship is a dialogue of revelation and response. God reveals His nature, His mighty acts, His Word, and His presence to us. And we respond in worship, in repentance, in obedience, in joy. The Psalms are excellent examples of objective Truth mixed with subjective response to that Truth. This is what I hope we strive for in our corporate worship.
Thanks for clearing that up. I think there is room for both in the church. While I am a staunch Pentecostal I think Campbell got it right when he said “Where Scripture speaks we speak…” and Scripture definitely speaks on both sides of the issue. There is a time for corporate worship and a time for personal worship together. He is the God of both intellect and experience. I think one of my favorite songs says “we worship you for who you are!” Blessings
Mark, thanks for your comments. I’ve thought it might be suitable to have a big mirror in front of the church while singing “Draw ME close lord” so the singers can see the object of their worship.