The value of interdependence is largely forgotten in our times. People live in close proximity and have small lawns but all seem think they need their own lawnmowers. Thousands of people hit the highways each day, generally one per car, all going to roughly the same places. Inside each vehicle, the experience is highly customized—temperature, lighting and music are all adjusted to the liking of the solo passenger.
Marketers love this, but we’re losing touch with something along the way. We’ve come to think of ourselves as a collection of self-contained units, with limitless custom options we should feel free to demand. Live this way all week and you’re bound to bring the same expectations into your weekly worship gathering. If everything else we consume is bite-sized, individually packaged and tailored to our needs, why not our worship experience as well?
The Worship “Environment”
We demand personal, individualized expression. And wherever there’s demand, supply is sure to follow. On offer from the worship music industry is an endless variety of songs whose adverbial bias is tilted strongly toward the individual and personal. When I studied the repertoire of my own congregation, the trend was obvious.
The text of the most prominent songs we sing revealed a 6:1 ratio of individual personal adverbs used over words that indicate corporate expression like “we,” “we’ll,” “we’re” and “our.” Even when we do stand corporately, we sing as individuals because, for the most part, that’s how we go about our lives as the body of Christ.
This is not to say there is anything wrong with individual expressions of gratitude and worship; that has its place. But is that place standing with several hundred others engaging in the same individualized activity?
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the words we put into people’s mouths when we lead in song. Consider the fact that people are more likely to leave a worship service with the words of a song, rather than a sermon, stuck in their heads. The sermon does matter greatly, but in the short-term the mind clings to what’s easiest to remember.
I do hope we’d rather lodge in people’s minds a clearly worded song like “In Christ Alone” than the ambiguously worded “Draw Me Close.” Lyrics like “You’re all I want / You’re all I’ve ever needed / You’re all I want / Help me know you are near” could easily be mistaken for a romantic ballad by someone who hears them in the wrong context.
This of course is not inherently sinful; after all, the Bible does use male/female “romantic” language at times to characterize God’s relationship with his people. But as Keith Drury puts it in his chapter of the excellent book The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise and Worship: “None of us alone can be the bride of Christ; only together collectively are we His bride.”
Our worship songs could use more lyrics expressing the love relationship between Jesus and the collective Church, replacing “I, my and mine” with “we, our and ours.” In this group context, the romantic aspect—even the marriage metaphor—can be wholesome, biblical and proper. Begin to use this “romantic” language in the context of individualized expression, on the other hand, and things start to get a little weird. The lack of clarity may not be intentional, but it does have consequences.
Songs of individual expression have dominated in recent years. This is a result of both what the worship music industry supplies, and the choices of song leaders. We should avoid overcorrecting by banning the words “I” and “me” from our repertoire, but certainly there are songs written as individual expression that can be modified slightly to reflect a more corporate and congregational tone. We should desire more body coordination and less isolated, individual movement.
Changing our song lyrics to reflect that desire won’t cure the problem, but surely it’s a suitable token of our intentions. We sing, “it’s all about you, Jesus,” but we say it in a way that makes it rather obvious that it’s about us, too – and sometimes ONLY about us. And it is about us, because worship—if it is true worship—will cause us to be transformed more to the likeness of Christ, both as individuals and as His Body.